The job of holding Zaire together was made more difficult, no matter who is attempting it, by the riots and looting in the capital Kinshasa, the mining center Kolwezi and other towns that erupted late last month. Food and medicine were stolen, factories wrecked, health care centers dismantled. AIDS may even have been spread by the theft of hospital research center refrigerators containing blood samples.
Now that President Mobutu Sese Seko has appointed his sworn opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi, to be prime minister, only to threaten to fire him for trying to grab control of the military, confusion rather than either of these two politicians rules the country.
It would be nice to say that this period of mutiny, riot and upheaval was a protest against dictatorship and for democracy. It was no such thing. It was an eruption by troops, the agents of the dictator's rule, who had not been paid what they thought due. It is easy to say that the quick French and Belgian troop movements and the transport planes lent to France by the United States were the neo-imperial agents imposing their solutions. But they were far too puny for that. They were what they purported to be: efforts to save those countries' nationals from chaos and anarchy.
Zaire has remained too big, too undeveloped, too diverse, too poor to be civilly governable. Its 35 or 40 million people in some 250 ethnic groups inhabit an area half again bigger than Alaska, in poor communication with itself. Most people are dreadfully poor and uneducated. What defines the country is that the Belgian king assembled it as his personal colony at the end of the last century and no one has thought of a sensible and fair division that could be peacefully maintained.
From its early strife and with considerable U.S. support emerged the dictator, President Mobutu, who may or may not have funneled a huge share of its wealth to his personal offshore accounts and residences as charged. For his 26 years of rule he has to show only the country's survival. He nonetheless kept his bargain with the United States, Belgium and France. He is pro-Western. Alas, there is no Soviet threat left in Africa for him to valiantly oppose. There is no longer a U.S. policy of aiding rebellion in formerly Marxist Angola for him to abet. The end of the Cold War has undermined his usefulness, without reducing his embarrassment, to Washington.
President Mobutu's declining usefulness provoked greater human rights concerns and reductions of aid among his former protectors. This led to the financial crisis that provoked the army mutiny. The deterioration of transport, the partial collapse of copper production and the massive AIDS epidemic defy quick remedies. President Mobutu is part of the problem. His downfall, which may have begun, is not going to be, by itself, the solution.