Restoration of order in Zaire earns rebels respect of countrymen Yet some are skeptical of leader Kabila's promises for future

April 15, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

KISANGANI, Zaire -- The three guerrillas looked menacing amid the market stalls. Two held shiny assault rifles. Their leader, a huge man with a bushy beard, wore a pistol at his side. Suddenly, they stopped and gruffly ordered Marie Lifaefi to fill a bottle with cooking oil from the vat at her feet.

When she finished, the leader slowly reached into his pocket and pulled out money. He smiled, paid for the palm oil, and the rebels wandered on.

Behind them, Lifaefi, 40, seemed stunned. "Before, soldiers took everything by force," she explained. "I was always afraid. It was impossible to resist."

For years, the lawless soldiers of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko took her oil, demanded protection money, robbed her at roadblocks and banged on her door at night to steal her savings. Such stories are common here.

"If you have money, you pay. Otherwise they kill you," she declared. "There is a difference with the rebels. They don't ask for our money. They don't disturb us. They respect people."

She added softly, "There is peace at night. We can sleep now in peace."

More than anything else, the end of official banditry and the restoration of order explain why an obscure guerrilla force that only emerged from the jungle in October appears on the verge of toppling Africa's longest-serving tyrant and seizing one of the continent's largest nations.

Led by Laurent Kabila, a one-time smuggler and aging revolutionary, the rebels have seized one-third of Zaire.

In town after town, they have been met by cheering women and by long lines of men and boys eager to enlist. Mobutu's long-feared army and murderous Serbian mercenaries have melted before the juggernaut, unwilling to die for a despot who is himself dying of prostate cancer. They have looted and run away without fighting, often fleeing on rumors that rebels were coming.

Indeed, the war that many initially feared would engulf Central Africa has seen little real combat. The rebels' chief obstacle has been Zaire's colossal size and rugged terrain and the challenge of creating civil administrations in a territory that grows by the day.

But now, as the rebels plan their final push toward the capital, Kinshasa, doubts are growing about Kabila's promises to deliver multiparty elections and to rebuild the economy for the destitute nation's 45 million people.

"What really does he want, and what does his group want?" asked a senior Western diplomat in Kinshasa. "It's a big unknown."

The evidence so far is mixed. Kabila has pledged to usher in democracy. But he has banned political activity in rebel areas until the war ends and insists that he won't share power with Mobutu's allies or other major political parties.

His troops have been disciplined toward fellow Zairians. But a United Nations human rights report says the rebels may have killed fleeing Rwandan Hutu refugees and buried them in mass graves. The rebels deny the charge.

And while Kabila has blasted Mobutu's patronage and nepotism, he has named a son as military commander of Kisangani and a cousin as foreign minister. The rebels also have rehired many of Mobutu's security police.

"People who are opposed to Kabila are afraid to express their ideas," said Pionus Katuala, a biol- ogy professor at the University of Kisangani. "We have other liberties now. But freedom of expression? I don't know."

Even Mwenze Kongola, Kabila's justice minister, concedes that many Zairians are skeptical of Kabila's long-term aims, even as they applaud his efforts to end the venality and repression of Mobutu's 32-year reign.

"The majority of the population is not in the movement," said Mwenze, who joined Kabila in January after spending six years issuing warrants in the district attorney's office in Philadelphia. "I think they want a choice. We say we'll give them a choice after we start the transition" to democracy.

Trained as a Marxist, Kabila led several failed revolts in the 1960s and 1970s. Che Guevara and 100 Cuban troops even came to help in 1964. But the Argentine guerrilla later bitterly criticized Kabila's jet-setting style, saying he avoided the front for chic hotels and bars.

Forced into exile in the 1980s, Kabila was forgotten until he launched a new revolt in eastern Zaire last fall. At first, he said his guerrillas were fighting to secure rights for persecuted Zairians of Tutsi descent. But as Mobutu's forces folded, Kabila announced that he would go all the way to Kinshasa.

Mwenze insists that Kabila has shed his Marxist past. "I think he's changed a lot," Mwenze said. "I haven't heard him speak of a socialist approach to any of the problems we have."

The rebel "capital" is Goma, which lies on the border with Rwanda. After taking the city in November, Kabila's forces seized gold, cars, coffee and other supplies. The confiscations quickly ceased, however, and the city bustles with trade and activity.

The rebels have set mandatory "re-education courses" for government workers. At a recent session, about 1,000 people packed into a steamy tin-roofed church for lectures on ideology, democracy and clean government. Then came questions.

No, the speaker said, rebel soldiers do not have the "right to stay in your house. They must stay in camps." Several people applauded. Any civilian who owns a gun must surrender it or face arrest, he said. He was stumped only when asked about people who build too close to the road. The alliance has yet to consider local zoning codes, he conceded, drawing laughter.

Stanislas Mwekassa Sumbu, 53, a pharmacist, said he and others in the class will volunteer to help administer rebel-held towns. "We will teach people their rights and their rights before the state," he said proudly.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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