President Mobutu Sese Seko’s triumphal return in December to his capital Kinshasa, a place he had avoided for many years, proved only a nine days’ wonder. After just three weeks, and despite his parlous physical condition, he was off to Morocco and Egypt in search of military aid, and to France where he can liaise with his most faithful backers as well as benefit from the ministrations of his doctors. During subsequent brief stays in Zaire, he has preferred a remote palace in Equateur to the capital. The President’s belated and brief appearance allowed his subjects to see that he was so ravaged by illness as to be barely recognizable—his compatriots, supporters and adversaries alike, suddenly became aware that a page was being turned. Zaire’s problem now is to foil the efforts of the zombie President’s most crazed supporters—namely, the officials of the Quai D’Orsay and the dgse (the French intelligence service)—and to find a way to remove a man who has monopolized power for thirty-six years. Until the rebellion last November, Mobutu obscured the political horizon so thoroughly that, despite all evidence to the contrary, many members of the country’s political class, even oppositionists, and most foreign observers, saw him as politically indispensable, the sole guarantor of the country’s unity. The Western powers are even now prepared to believe that a man who has given his country decades of ever-deepening corruption, nepotism and pillage is capable of leading it into the era of democracy! The European Union and other members of the international community offered to spend $250 million to finance closely supervised elections in Zaire, pretending to believe—or perhaps really believing—that the dictator who had ruined the country still had a good chance of winning a free election.

When the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo Kinshasa (adfl) seized the main towns of Kivu province in the east of the country last November, this caused the utmost consternation in Western capitals. Acting with extraordinary speed, on 15 November a special session of the un Security Council authorized the despatch of an emergency military intervention force on a ‘humanitarian mission’ to save nearly one million Hutu refugees in camps in Eastern Zaire. Before this force could be assembled, the adfl rebels attacked elements of the former Hutu militia and Rwandan Army who controlled the camps. The latter fled and, released from the tutelage of their supposed protectors, some 600,000 Rwandan refugees were at last able to return home. This was an important development for the Rwandan regime in Kigali whichhad clearly favoured the rebellion in Zaire. It removed the threat of a Hutu militia counter-offensive mounted from Zaire, and it also meant that, with most Rwandan citizens back inside the country, the difficult task of indicting the perpetrators of the genocide could be undertaken more meaningfully. While the reintegration of the refugees is bound to be difficult, the initial signs suggest that progress towards reconciliation would be more easily made following the defeat of the Hutu extremists.

But the war in Kivu did not bring about the return of all refugees. Some tens of thousands dispersed into the Zairian bush, where they wandered the forest paths in hard conditions, hoping perhaps for the arrival of the promised international intervention. But this intervention—supposedly motivated by pure humanitarian considerations—was fatally compromised by French participation. At no point did anyone seriously believe that the real aim of Paris was to come to the aid of the unfortunate Rwandan civilians floundering in Zaire’s green inferno. France’s past involvement in the region, its commitment to the former Rwandan regime, its support (maintained well beyond a rational level) for President Mobutu, will long cast doubt on any French initiative in the region.

In fact, it is clear that France is largely responsible for the refugee problem in eastern Zaire, and for having allowed these camps to be set up under the baleful control of the Hutu militia. Operation Turquoise, mounted in July 1994, had not just at the last minute saved a few thousand Tutsis from murder; more importantly, it had made possible the exodus of a million or so Hutu refugees to Zaire where they settled under the threatening invigilation of remnants of the former regime who re-established the apparatus responsible for the Rwandan genocide. The refugees served as a human shield and a recruitment pool, and the aid resources intended for them were used to keep the genocidal apparatus functioning. While the international community and the big humanitarian agencies in the camps can certainly be accused of laxity, it is clear from reports published by Amnesty International and Africa Watch that France played the leading part in rearming the former Rwandan army, which hoped to resume hostilities and ‘finish the job’ in Rwanda.

Aside from its positive effect on the refugee situation, another result of the Kivu rebellion was the demolition of any remaining illusions about the Zairian state. The war has cruelly exposed the climate of exhaustion in the country; it has shown that the state is no more than an extortion racket, unable to justify its existence by providing basic public services—schooling, transport, health. The army—led by Mobutu—could not provide security for Zaire’s citizens or defend the country’s integrity. Indeed, this rapacious and lawless force is now so disorganized and demoralized that there is a possibility that it may not survive.

The capture of Uvira, Goma, Bukavu, and then Walikale and the mining town of Bunia—commanding access to the Kilo Moto gold mines where a us-Canadian company, Barrick Goldmines, has a concession of 80,000 square kilometres—did not involve the Alliance forces in any serious fighting. The mere rumour of their approach put the Zairian army todisorderly flight. The scene was identical in every case: the troops refused to stand firm but looted what they could, and then fled in vehicles stolen from the ngos, the religious missions and the handful of businesses still functioning. At Goma the unhcr, whose staff took flight during the first few hours of fighting, unintentionally provided logistical support for the army whose retreating troops stole no fewer than 230 four-wheel-drive vehicles for the journey to Kisangani.

As soon as the rebels take possession of terrain, they try to restore some sort of public order, calm the population and persuade local notables to cooperate. Some of the more prestigious local personalities have, however, chosen to abstain, particularly those who are intellectuals or members of the Catholic clergy—the latter have not forgiven the murder of the Bishop of Bukavu, Monsignor Munzihirwa. The rebels are anxious to welcome army deserters, whose enrolment is made easier, at least initially, by the payment of a wage in dollars. This normalization is limited in scope. To begin with everyone feared military reconquest, involving reprisals and numerous civilian deaths. Nevertheless, economic activities resumed and new political officials were appointed in the so-called liberated regions of Kivu. In many cases, the ‘new masters’, as they are sometimes called, showed pragmatism by recruiting former administrative officials, including agents of snip (Mobutu’s security service) who used to be the eyes and ears of the regime. Both Laurent-Desiré Kabila and the head of military operations, André Kisasse Ngandu, assured Zairians that a new order has been established and the era of looting, robbery and arbitrary violence was now over. But although the population could see that the situation had greatly improved, a sense of apprehension remained the norm as people wondered whether the current period of calm was not just another intermission between wars. Such fears were borne out in February when mercenaries made bombing raids on Bukavu and other rebel-held towns. The raids did not significantly affect the military situation but were a reminder of the regime’s attitude towards the population.