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Reform, Conflict, and Security in Zaire

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | June 1996

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Summary

To a great extent, the larger states in Sub-Saharan Africa will shape the region's future security environment. Among Africa's giants, none is more crucial than Zaire. Since Zaire has the potential either to lead regional development or drag the process down, helping stabilize that nation is a pressing task for all states and organizations interested in Africa.

For nearly 10 years, Zaire has experienced a sustained political and economic crisis. In April 1990, President Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled Zaire since the 1960s using a combination of corruption, patronage, and repression, announced the beginning of political reform and democratization. When it became clear that the reform process would destroy Mobutu's personal power, he attempted to derail it. The result has been five years of political stalemate, economic collapse, and violence. But in 1995, Mobutu and some of his opponents hammered out a compromise. Today, movement toward democracy is underway again, with national elections scheduled for 1997.

U.S. Policy.

Although Mobutu was the most important American ally in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Cold War, both the Bush and Clinton administrations recognized that his regime was a source of great danger for both Zaire itself and for Central Africa. The primary objective was preventing wide-scale violence that could spill over to neighboring states and spark a massive human disaster.

Recent U.S. policy toward Zaire has been to support reform and democratization. Washington's limited leverage prevented this from being effective. But today, the chances of real reform in Zaire are the best they have been for some time. The United States should thus undertake a major review of its policy toward Zaire. Such a review must answer a number of key questions:

What is the appropriate extent and form of U.S. involvement? The United States should play a major but not dominant role in a Zaire support coalition or contact group. Washington should work to broaden the support coalition as much as possible, with particular stress on the role of other African democracies. The support coalition should focus on helping Zaire build democratic institutions before and after the 1997 elections. The United States should publicly repudiate Mobutu during the campaign, but should not intervene in the election using covert means.

How should the United States respond if Mobutu wins the 1997 elections? Mobutu is likely to win the election. If he does, Washington should continue to keep him at arm's length. If he allows the consolidation of democratic institutions, relations should be cool but normal. If he does not, current restrictions on aid and travel to the United States by Mobutu should remain in place.

How should the United respond if the electoral process collapses? If this process fails, the United States, in concert with democratic African states, should engineer a complete economic and political quarantine of whoever seizes power.

How should the United States respond if Zaire disintegrates? The United States should not encourage the division of Zaire. But if Zaire dies of its own volition, the United States would have little choice than to accept any new states that emerge while encouraging them to eventually consider reunification. If the central government fails to reform and a break-away province clearly committed to democracy appears, the United States should accept and help the democratizers but make clear that it prefers eventual reunification in a single democratic state rather than permanent division.

The Army Role.

The U.S. Army's current role in Zaire is limited to providing analysis and recommendations for policymakers. If, however, the situation in Zaire either gets better or worse, the Army's involvement could escalate.

To prepare for a multinational peace support or humanitarian relief operation in Zaire, the Army should:

  • Identify potential coalition partners, encourage American policymakers to open channels of communications and begin consensus-building, and begin the writing and refinement of plans. EUCOM should, of course, take the lead on planning but the Army staff and USAREUR can provide vital support.
  • Strengthen cooperation with African militaries that might participate in a peace support or humanitarian relief operation. This should include the holding of regular staff exercises dealing with a potential peace support or humanitarian relief operation in Zaire.
  • Encourage an increase in the number of defense attaches in Africa and that liaison officers be assigned to key African militaries.
  • Explore the possibility of pre-positioning vital but difficult-to-transport equipment necessary for relief operations.

If democratization and reform in Zaire stays on course, the Army should:

  • Recommend the quick reopening of military-to-military ties.
  • Develop a plan for using such ties to cultivate greater professionalism and political neutrality in the Zairian officer corps.
  • Recommend that American policymakers press Zaire to move toward a reserve-based military and to undertake a wholesale reconstruction of its officer corps.

Conclusions.

The United States must approach Zaire in a strategic fashion and plan for the long term. Political and economic conditions in that nation are so dire that fundamental change will take decades. Ultimately, only Zairians can determine the fate of their nation. But Zaire is at a crucial point today where a well-designed American policy might be able to tip the scales in favor of reform. To do so would diminish the chances that the United States might be forced to participate in an expensive peace support or humanitarian relief operation if reform in Zaire fails. Preemption and preparation should thus be the focus of U.S. strategy as Zaire struggles to emerge from its time of crisis.