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8 May 1997 Edition

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West retains control of Zaire

By Dara Mac Neil

Right up to the last, President Mobutu Sese Seko maintained the fiction that he was in control. On Wednesday he left Zaire to attend a supposed summit in Gabon. The summit, remarkably, coincided with a rebel ultimatum stating that he had three days to depart, or be ``chased from power.''

It is unlikely he will return. It was his opportunity to escape with at least a fraction of his pride intact - not to mention a good portion of his huge, multi-billion dollar fortune. He will probably end his days - he has terminal cancer - in his favourite pink and white marble chateau on the exclusive French Riviera.

Mobutu's departure was occasioned by two principal factors. Firstly, his wholly corrupt regime proved incapable of fielding an army with the ability to do anything but retreat. Secondly, his chief sponsor in the West - the United States - saw the writing on the wall and abandoned their protégé of over 20 years. Initially, the US had expressed hostility to the rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL).

However, as the regime collapsed from within the US switched strategy. It was the US, and not Mobutu, that decided his regime's days were numbered.

Suddenly, they were reinvented in the guise of peacemakers: their specially dispatched envoy - Bill Richardson - anxious to achieve a smooth handover of power. Preparing a ``soft landing'' for Mr Kabila's ADFL forces was how Mr Richardson described it. He expressed an anxiety to avoid bloodshed.

Their actions in Zaire mirror past performances in Haiti, the Philippines and even South Africa. In each case, the US showed no obvious concern for bloodshed, backing those brutal regimes until it was proven they could rule no more. So they switched sides and presented themselves as the agents of radical, democratic transformation.

Were Zaire a small, impoverished and strategically insignificant country such US concern, let alone involvement, would not have been forthcoming. But as their 20 year backing for Mobutu shows, the US considers Zaire a country worth maintaining influence (control) over. In African terms, Zaire's sheer size makes it an invaluable strategic catch. Equally, the country's almost legendary reserves of precious stones and copper make its `acquisition' significant. For the 22 years that Mobutu ruled Zaire, Western firms were allowed a free run in exploiting the country's natural reserves. Thus, substantial investments risked being lost had the US administration not intervened to persuade Mobutu to exit power and `soften the rebels' landing' in Kinshasa.

On the face of it, the struggle for Zaire may be about toppling a corrupt and brutal regime. But behind the scenes many are working to ensure it is about maintaining influence, power and investment. Yet, despite these facts, it is remarkable that whenever conflict or strife erupt in Africa, the first reaction of those who should know better - including some in aid agencies - is to call for Western `intervention.' As if there wasn't enough of that already.

Some years ago, journalist John Pilger was asked if this selfsame Western intervention might not be what was needed to help the people of East Timor free themselves of Indonesian occupation. Recalling that it was the West who financed, approved, supported and armed the Indonesian occupation, Pilger pointed out that it was Western intervention that had created the problem in the first place. And helps maintain it to this day.

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