More Chaos in Zaire

February 03, 1993

Zaire and Somalia have notable differences. Zaire has five times as many people and three times the land area. Zaire is much richer in resources, and therefore matters more to the outside world. Zaire's society is breaking down, while Somalia's has broken down. And what happens to Zaire is more Washington's responsibility than Somalia is.

Last weekend's mutiny of troops paid in new currency they consider worthless, the death of some 1,000 people in riots, the murder of the French ambassador and the rescue of Europeans in Kinshasa by French troops crossing the Congo River from the Republic of Congo are part of the death agony of President Mobutu Sese Seko's regime. For 28 years, he was propped up in dictatorial power, and was either looting the country or presiding over gross mismanagement, thanks to Washington's support. Compared to that, Somalia's former dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, owed Washington little and Moscow more.

The grossly unpopular Mr. Mobutu should have fallen during a rebellion in late 1991. He appointed his leading opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi, to head a transitional government but kept control of the treasury and the army. The World Bank, the United States, France and Belgium were pressing him to institute democracy. Now, opposition leaders suggest he is using unrest to install a military government in hopes of regaining personal control over the huge country.

In such turmoil, people go without food or medicine. The potential for tragedy is as great as in Somalia. After the chaos of Zaire's sudden independence in 1960, it was U.S. support for Colonel Mobutu that brought stability of sorts. He was seen as a barrier to encroaching Soviet influence in Africa. For that, Washington was willing to forgive much, perhaps too much. That value has ended. So the problem of Zaire is more of an American-made problem than that of Somalia.

This is one of President Clinton's problems that he has not had time to address. There is at least a strong possibility that President Mobutu is trying to sneak back into absolute power before Mr. Clinton can afford to pay attention. In the life of his administration, however, the U.S. president is going to have to deal politically with the Zaire problem. And it is only getting worse.

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