Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: For related commentary, see Alexander Cockburn's column also in this edition.]

How the U.S. Helped Create the Disaster in Zaire

by Lucy Komisar

Zairians I met insist, "You put Mobutu there; you kept him there; you get him out"
(AR) NEW YORK -- When Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe at the United Nations in 1960, he was protesting American policy in the Congo that led to the murder of elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the consolidation of Joseph Desire Mobutu's military power. So long has Washington, using the CIA, American-supported troops and millions of dollars, been intimately involved in the fate of Zaire.

About the current fighting and misery -- which has created critical refugee crises in both Zaire and neighboring Rwanda -- Americans are wont to shake their heads and ask, "Why do those people do that to each other?" Americans tend toward historical amnesia about what the United States has wrought. Zairians I met in Kinshasa insist, "You put him there; you kept him there; you get him out."

Who, us?

A history lesson would be useful.

CIA bombers piloted by Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs strafed opposition targets, and U.S. transports carried Belgian paratroopers to end the threat to Mobutu's power
The CIA plotted with Mobutu to "eliminate" Lumumba, a nationalist whom Washington misread as pro-Soviet, giving Mobutu $1 million to buy the loyalty of his troops. The troops captured Lumumba and beat him to death.

In the early 1960s, a peasant uprising spread until two-thirds of the country was in rebel hands. CIA bombers piloted by Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs strafed opposition targets, and U.S. transports carried Belgian paratroopers to end the threat to Mobutu's power.

Then the United States endorsed Mobutu's 1965 coup. He ended civilian rule and began the 30-year rape of the country. Schools, hospitals, infrastructure and industry disintegrated under his neglect or theft. He enforced his rule with imprisonment, torture and murder.

In the early '70s, U.S. Ambassador Sheldon Vance got fat deals for Mobil Oil and Morrison Knudson, the giant construction company. Morrison Knudson contracted to build a $1.5-billion cross-country power line that U.S. embassy officials correctly predicted would be a disaster. Manufacturers Hanover, General Electric and Westinghouse also made millions from the deal, which had the U.S. government's Export-Import Bank guarantees and hastened Zaire's impoverishment.

In 1974, after the Portuguse withdrew from Angola, Zaire became a pin on Henry Kissinger's strategic map. The CIA used Kamina Air Base to ship arms first to Holden Roberto and then to Jonas Savimbi, who led rebels seeking to overthrow the Angolan government. Mobutu took his cut.

When congressmen wondered why the United States was funding a corrupt dictator, the State Department offered its recurring line, "Mobutu or chaos. He is the one man who can hold the country together." Officials periodically told Congress that Mobutu was making reforms. In 1977, Zairians who had fled to Angola in the '60s sought to retake their homeland in copper-rich Shaba. They marched along the railway telling villagers they had come to liberate them. Local troops melted away.

President Jimmy Carter's administration sent transports to ferry French and Moroccan forces to repulse the invaders. Zairian troops returned and murdered local people who'd had contact with rebels.

The next year, the exiles attacked again. Zairian troops ran away again. U.S. transports carried French and Belgian soldiers to save Mobutu's rule again. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued both times that the rebels were supported by Cuba. A State Department employee said she and her colleagues were ordered to "find the smoking Cubans," but they never did, because there weren't any.

Pressure from the Carter administration helped persuade Mobutu to allow some critics to run for parliament, but after Ronald Reagan was elected president, Mobutu jailed them.

Reagan's ambassadors didn't speak to oppositionists. That changed only after the fall of communism, when the Americans pressed oppositionists not to demand very radical changes and recognized Mobutu's hand-picked prime minister because he appeared committed to paying back international loans that had funded the power line and other white elephants. Besides, Mobutu promised elections. That was in 1990, and there haven't been any.

Richard Moose, Carter's assistant secretary of state for Africa, told me, "Mobutu would run circles around us. And, at the end of the day, the CIA was always there whispering in his ear, because he was always useful to them." After more than three decades of deception, anyone who claims to believe Mobutu's promises is a fool or a liar.

Today, in a country of 44 million people -- rich in diamonds, copper, forests and hydropower -- a quarter of the children die by age 5, police and troops routinely rob and rape civilians, most people get no medical care, most children get no schooling and many survive on one meal a day.

We put him there; we kept him there. Washington should insist that Mobutu abdicate and leave Zaire forever. Then, as in Haiti, it should broker a peace that disarms the security forces and uses United Nations authority and troops to establish the rule of law.

Lucy Komisar, a New York freelance journalist, visited Zaire to do research for a book she is writing about U.S. foreign policy and human rights in the 1970's and '80's. She is also the author of "The Last Cold Warriors" in our previous edition.

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Albion Monitor April 10, 1997 (

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