In the Kivu region of eastern Zaire, 1 million refugees are
fleeing war and rebellion. As one of the worst humanitarian
emergencies in modern history, it is certainly deserving of media
attention and of international efforts to help.
This is just one tragedy, though, in a much larger catastrophe
that engulfs the entire country of Zaire and its 45 million people.
Zaire, which borders nine other countries and is the vast
centerpiece of Africa, is falling apart.
The catastrophe of Zaire has been long in the making, beginning
in the era of colonial greed and ending after decades of the Cold
War, during which the United States used Zaire as a giant pawn. The
troubles on its eastern border with Rwanda and Burundi are but
symptoms of the greater malaise that has come to a head under the
dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
The performance of the Zairian army in Kivu is one such
symptom. Its soldiers, men in uniform with a mission to protect the
helpless, pillaged the offices and commandeered the vehicles of
international relief agencies. They fled before a force of rebels,
deserting the key town of Goma, whose airport served as a lifeline
for the refugees.
The reaction of Zaire's citizens to the fall of Goma is another
symptom. They looted the stores and the dictator's palace, throwing
worthless Zairian currency in the air like confetti and dousing
themselves with Mobutu's imported perfumes.
This behavior, of army and citizen, is a desperate response to
living with a broken economy, a crumbled infrastructure and a
corrupt government whose only efficiency is repression.
Salaries no longer exist or are rendered negligible because of
astronomical inflation. To make ends meet, civil servants sell
permits for buildings, teachers sell grades, physicians sell
medicines, nurses sell beds, police stage robberies.
Zaire's tortured history began in the late 15th century, when
the Portuguese sailed down Africa's west coast and found the Kongo
Kingdom. They forged an alliance of trade and the exchange of ideas
with the Africans. Then the Portuguese discovered that fortunes
could be made by selling their allies into slavery. Central Africa
became a major supplier of slaves, and its indigenous civilizations
Still, when independence came in 1960, it stirred hopes that
the country would become one of Africa's richest, a nation endowed
with minerals, forest, farmland and the immense hydroelectric
potential of the Congo River. However,
since grabbing power in 1965, Mobutu and a clique of insiders
syst ematically have plundered the domain. Mobutu himself has
amassed a fortune of at least $5 billion.
Mobutu has succeeded in maintaining his "kleptocracy," as
Zairians call their government, until now for two principal
reasons: his ruthlessness and U. …