Central Africa is at the brink Upheavals: Civil wars, insurrections, arms buildups raising tensions in the middle of the continent.

Sun Journal

August 22, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAIROBI, Kenya -- The U.S. airstrike against a chemical plant in Sudan, in the wake of the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies here and in Tanzania, has increased tensions in an area already in turmoil.

With civil war threatening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and insurrections of one kind or another in most of the nearby countries, including Sudan, Central Africa is on the brink of explosion.

A war in the Congo could quickly spill over its borders and involve its volatile neighbors, unless South African President Nelson Mandela can broker a last-minute peace agreement this weekend.

The central figure in this emerging drama is Laurent Kabila, the Congo's president, a leader who inspired hope when he seized power 15 months ago but delivered only disappointment.

When Kabila toppled the corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, there was an outburst of Afro-optimism and talk of an "African renaissance." Now that Kabila is under threat himself, Afro-pessimism reigns and the talk is of the possibility of a Central African meltdown.

Kabila was initially seen as the latest representative of a crop of new, enlightened leaders replacing a generation of post-colonial despots. Now, accused of political intolerance, incompetence, corruption and nepotism -- all the traits of old-style African autocrats -- he is widely regarded as a Mobutu without the leopard-skin hat.

And once again, Africa appears to play host to endemic instability, political upheaval, tribal warfare and human suffering. Less than six months after President Clinton visited six sub-Saharan countries to embrace the concept of an African renaissance and declare a new U.S. interest in African affairs, the place is beset by widespread turmoil.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Kabila faces a revolt by an unlikely alliance of the Ban-yamulenge Tutsis who helped bring him to power and former Mobutuist army officers who tried to keep him out of it.

In Sudan, north of the Congo, civil war has raged for more than a decade between the Muslim-led government of the north and southern rebels, who are mainly Christian and animist. A cease-fire is in operation to allow international aid agencies to feed hundreds of thousands of starving Sudanese, victims of war displacement and drought, but there is no sign of permanent peace. Just how the aftermath of the U.S. strike will affect the situation is not clear, but it can only complicate it.

Rwanda, the Congo's small and unstable eastern neighbor, is recovering from its own bout of civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, and attendant massacres. Kabila accuses it of backing the uprising against him. He has ordered its forces out of the Congo and threatened an invasion.

In Uganda, on the Congo's northeastern border, the 12-year-old one-party rule of President Yoweri Museveni is facing bloody resistance from a variety of armed groups, the most violent of which is the Lord's Resistance Army, reportedly backed by Sudan.

Museveni, held up as a free-market economic reformer and another exemplar of the "new" Africa, has been one of Kabila's principal supporters, but he appears to be growing disillusioned with the Congolese leader's inability to stabilize his country, thereby posing a threat to Uganda's own security.

In Ethiopia, a border dispute with Eritrea threatens to escalate into full-scale war. Eritrea seized the disputed territory in May, outraging Ethiopians and putting two leaders who were seen as "renaissance" role models -- Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki -- at each other's throats.

In Angola, to the Congo's southwest, a fragile 4-year-old peace between the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and the UNITA rebel forces of Jonas Savimbi is threatened by an escalation in tension and bloodshed and an arms buildup by both sides.

In Zimbabwe, the days of President Robert G. Mugabe appear to be running out in a welter of internal unrest, economic collapse and controversial land reforms.

Little more than a year ago, Africa was looking to the likes of Mandela of newly democratized South Africa, Uganda's Museveni and President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia to chart a course out of Africa's seemingly endless story of violent upheavals.

Mandela's deputy and heir apparent, Vice President Thabo Mbeki, an advocate of African renaissance, has tried to negotiate in Congo and other African trouble spots.

Last weekend, he called on Africans to rebel against tyrants and dictators. "Africa has no need for the criminals who would acquire political power by slaughtering the innocent," he said. "The time has come that we say enough and no more, and by acting to banish the shame we make ourselves the midwives of the African renaissance."

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