Beyond Mobutu: Kabila and the Congo
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Beyond Mobutu:
Kabila and the Congo

On 17 May 1997, the military forces of Laurent Kabila’s Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (AFDL) seized Kinshasa, ending dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s long sway over the land that he had renamed Zaire. It had taken the insurgents less than eight months to march from east to west across the vast country and sweep away the decaying carcass of the once-powerful Mobutist state. Although most Congolese rejoiced at the AFDL’s entrance into the capital of what would once again be called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), there remained a layer of wary reserve. As one citizen put it, “My country is rich, but after 32 years of Mobutu, our people are poor. We can only be happy about his departure, but the one thing we will all reject is another dictatorship that comes to replace him.” 1

Such caution is in order. Ex-premier Etienne Tshisekedi, long the leader of parliamentary opposition to Mobutu, was excluded from the new government, which then banned party and political activities. Kabila announced that a commission would write a new constitution by October 1998, with a referendum by December. Legislative and presidential voting would follow in April 1999. Alluding to Tshisekedi, he accused those calling for immediate elections of self-interest. “Let’s stop talking about democracy and elections,” he urged. “We are not going on with the preceding regime, but we are building a new state built on new values.” 2 While promising democracy to the DRC’s 42 million people, he named himself president, claiming broad executive, legislative, and judicial powers pending the adoption of the constitution.

The political situation in Congo remains fluid. No one, perhaps not even Kabila himself, has a clear idea of what he and his regime would [End Page 70] like to achieve. Some observers see in Kabila’s political history indicators of a return to a radical left-wing nationalism of the sort associated with the early postindependence premier Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961—in other words, Lumumbism without Lumumba. Yet Kabila is no Lumumba, and the foreign and domestic circumstances of the late 1990s are far removed from those of the early 1960s. The Cold War has ended; Congo is no longer a prize in the great game. External influences remain important, but local powers such as Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Angola—not the superpowers—were key in Kabila’s triumph. Popular now, he may run into trouble as Congolese frustrated by three decades of dictatorship and poverty increasingly demand regular avenues of political participation and an end to economic deprivation.

Many fear a return to a kind of Mobutuism without Mobutu, and there are disquieting signs of renascent authoritarianism in some of the Kabila regime’s early actions. After Tshisekedi addressed a group of university students, Kabila enforced the ban on politics by seizing him and his wife and detaining them overnight. There is also evidence that AFDL forces have massacred civilians, and Kabila’s cooperation with UN human rights investigators thus far has been hesitant and grudging. But again, both international and domestic political configurations have changed. Today’s DRC is as different from Mobutu’s Zaire of the 1970s and mid-1980s as it is from Lumumba’s Congo of the early 1960s. Authoritarianism is now far less likely to be tolerated. International financial institutions require both market-based economic liberalization and at least some sort of democratic opening. Congo’s disastrous economic situation, the growth of political parties, the vibrancy of urban associational life, and the emergence over the last decade of Mobutu’s rule of various rural and urban associations organized along confessional lines mean that people are much less likely to remain passive in the face of repression. The state is also now less capable of comprehensive repression than it once was.

Kabila’s vision for the future remains cloudy, and the unsettled nature of events on the ground means that his continued tenure in office cannot be assumed. The best one can do, given the fragmentary evidence available, is to offer a highly provisional...