Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

ZAIRE: Action Now To Avert Regional Disintegration

LONDON, Mar 25 1997 (IPS) - The international community must move swiftly to create a regional political framework to tackle continuing civil strife in Zaire before it spreads a wider conflagration across the entire Great Lakes region, experts here say.

According to Jim Whitman, a fellow at Cambridge University’s Global Security Programme, the issue is no longer to save Zaire from itself, but to reach a speedy political settlement to the crisis to prevent it spilling over into neighbouring countries.

“There should be a bigger agenda here, and that is for the international community to help build a broad, regional political framework for the stabilisation of the whole Great Lakes region,” he said. “We’re not just talking about Zaire here.”

About 1,000 U.S., Belgian, British and French soldiers are now in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville ready to evacuate the remaining 3,000 western expatriates still in Zaire, most of them in Kinshasa, just across the Zaire river from Brazzaville.

On Wednesday a summit on Zaire is to be held by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Lome, Togo on Wednesday. Both government and rebels will be represented, but so far the rebels have declined to agree to negotiate.

And a joint Franco-U.S. initiative is being run by the two’s ambassadors in some 20 African countries to push for a ceasefire and talks between the weakened Kinshasa regime and rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila.

But most aid agencies say any agreement must followed up by funds and backing from the West for a long term regional solution — resources which the West, according to Ian Bray, an analyst with the Oxfam aid agency, may not be willing to provide.

“We need a long term regional political solution as soon as possible,” says Bray. “This should take into account all the players in the region and the international community to provide the necessary resources. But there is no real political willingness by the major Western nations to play their part.”

With high expectations of eventual victory for the rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, some observers believe the best solution would be to simply wait for the ousting of Zairean ‘President for life’ Mobutu Sese Seko.

But while Whitman accepts that the Zairean leader is “not widely revered,” he cautions against waiting out the crisis, and rejects another widely held view — that a political settlement in place of a outright rebel takeover, would automatically leave Mobutu in a position of political influence.

This is why he backs talks between both sides, whether through U.S.-French auspices or the United Nations. “A negotiated settlement doesn’t mean a 50/50 split,” Whitman said. “You can have a political settlement which does not mean Mobutu holding on to power.

“If he knows his position is untenable, he will negotiate for what he can get… This would be preferable to fighting. It is ordinary people, not professional soldiers, who are suffering now. The longer it goes on, the more it is likely to spread.”

His view is generally endorsed by London-based international relief organisations, many of whom have ferried their staff from around front line areas to safer towns like Goma and Bukavu, near the Rwanda border in the east, and Kinshasa, the capital, in the west, which is still under government control.

Upwards of 160,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees – some of whom played a direct part in the 1994 genocide of Rwandan Tutsis – split into two groups when they fled their base in Tingi Tingi as the rebels closed in.

One group, say reports, headed for Kinshasa, the other made for the hills and jungles in fear of the mainly ethnic Tutsi rebel alliance, supposedly bolstered by Rwandan Tutsi forces, who the refugees believe will exact brutal vengeance for the 1994 genocide.

The mass movements of refugees that could be expected to follow further rebel gains, could see a substantial proportion of the refugees cross into either neighbouring Congo or Angola, or both, leading to an exacerbation of the region’s refugee crisis.

Although Kabila has rubbished reports of human rights violations by his troops, human rights groups say that both fleeing Zairean soldiers and arriving rebels are committing abuses. They believe that abuses by both sides will not stop until there is an end to the conflict.

“If the fighting can be stopped somehow, then the atrocities can be stopped,” said Godfrey Byaruhanga, a spokesman for international human rights watchdog Amnesty International. “But, as you know, human rights abuses can continue to be committed even in a situation where there is no active fighting as such.”

Despite the international clamour for a speedy negotiated settlement, the omens bode ill. Kabila has Kinshasa in his reach and has stipulated that he will only agree to a ceasefire if Mobutu, just back in the country, offers to step down. He refuses to go to Wednesday’s Lome session.

“What is needed now is a huge international commitment to the Great Lakes on a scale never seen before,” said Whitman, “except perhaps in Bosnia — but one, sadly, which we are unlikely to see.”

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