Turmoil in Zaire Invites an African Solution

Basil Davidson's most recent book on African history is "The Search for Africa" (Times Books)

Laurent Kabila first came into my consciousness, but faintly and far away, some 30 years ago. He was the one, however obscurely, who had somehow escaped death in those murderous years when Mobutu Sese Seko was seizing control of the old Belgian Congo and turning that vast country into the miseries of being Zaire. All the others who had aspired to leadership of the Congo, onward from Patrice Lumumba, were dead or soon to be so.

But Kabila somehow made it out, and now, in effect, leads the country. What I knew, all those grim years ago, was that he had vanished into the great forests of the province of Kivu and its confines along the Rift Valley and its lakes, but the few who went to look for him had little to tell. Now he is present again, and there are even pictures of him looking cheerful and none the worse for wear. Those rivals who might have stood against him are, by all the signs, eager to settle for any terms they can still get. They think of him as the only man now able to steer this vast country into peaceful waters.

Will he do this, and does it matter?

Kabila is good news for African self-respect, even very good news. This may seem a far-out view, but it is based on two strong probabilities. One is that no external major power has anything to gain, in this region, from another long bout of uproar and mayhem. The brutal frenzies of the Cold War are over and done with. The other probability is that this country called Zaire no longer exists as a safe source of plunder.


The many and various peoples of Zaire, in short, may at last be within sight of being able to govern themselves for their own benefit. The wasted years that began in these parts a century ago and more may be approaching their end.

Any such optimism has to meet the bruising realities of those wasted years. The biggest of these realities has been the ruthless extraction of local wealth by non-African mining and banking interests. What the post-Mobutu regime will find is a political and statistical void around an economy run by strictly local networks of interest. Zaire no longer possesses a coherent road system, or an effective education and health structure, or any other aspect of a national life and presence. As a functioning state, Zaire no longer exists.

But if it should turn out to be true, as I suspect, that a Kabila government will be found to have quite a team of competent and courageous helpers, most of them still under 30 years of age or so, then this new regime will command one great advantage: They will be able to start at the bottom, and build on the hopes of a people long bereft of any good news.

The central problem, as in most of Africa now, is essentially simple but also very difficult. To see this problem it helps to look back a little.

Invading and taking over this huge piece of middle Africa 100 years ago, the Belgian colonial power set about dispossessing the peoples they found not only of their land and its wealth, but also, above all and most damaging, of their self-esteem and self-responsibility. All powers of decision passed into European hands. This dispossession was called “bringing civilization to Africa.” In truth, it brought disaster.

The “decolonization” of 1960 was supposed to reverse this dispossession. What actually happened was that dictatorial habits and structures of government simply passed into the hands of local agents of foreign interests. From the standpoint of patriots like Kabila and his friends, mostly students then, this independence was a fake. They rejected this fake and found a name for it. That called it “neo-colonialism.”


My greatly admired Nigerian friend, the economist Claude Ake, described what this mean to Africans a little before his tragic death in an air crash some months back. “Development strategies in Africa, with minor exceptions,” he said, “have tended to be strategies by which the few use the many for their own purposes. They are uncompromisingly top-down. In this Africa, he continued, “there is not and has never been popular participation in political and economic decision-making.” And this had become true to the point that “development has turned into concerted aggression against the common people, producing a theater of alienation.” Such as been the theater upon whose creaking boards the wretched Mobutu has played his brutal role.

Yet, what we have begun to see over the past 10 years or so, quite widely in Africa, is the rise of a real opposition to this fake independence when others, not Africans, have manipulated the strings of power. This indicates a movement for genuine democracy, as distinct from electoral decoration and demagogy, that has as its essential characteristic a shift away from centralized government and bureaucracy in favor of local and direct forms of self-administration.

This is necessarily a movement beset with problems, above all, the problem of matching a necessary central control, a state control, with a still more necessary local control, people’s control. But this problem can be eased--as it has been, for instance, in Uganda over the past few years--by calling on the memory and resources of Africa’s long precolonial experience of self-government, always highly and successfully devolved in structure. Already, this movement toward local and, therefore, effective democracy has begun to show impressive results, as in Eritrea. We can look for more evidence of this kind if a Kabila government proves competent in Zaire.

The problem in Zaire may, in practice, prove less tough than it must seem. If so, it will be because the sheer incompetence and outrageous corruption of the Mobutu dictatorship have left long-abandoned populations to run their own affairs as best they can. Who, after all, has been running the affairs of the wide province of Kivu--unless local people themselves--during all the years when Kabila had his refuge there?