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  1. Long reads
8 October 2001updated 15 Jun 2021 12:56pm

What you get for backing a tyrant

War on Terror: Africa - By supporting President Mobutu in the Congo, the US fuelled the rise of terrorism there, reports Victoria Brittain.

By Victoria Brittain

I was in Kinshasa when I watched on television the World Trade Center twin towers crumble, as terrified people streamed on to the streets of Manhattan. As the surreal scenes unfolded, followed by images of grief across the United States and well beyond, it seemed that the epicentre of Africa’s unseen catastrophe was a fitting place to watch the emergence of a horribly uncertain new world.

The ruined Democratic Republic of Congo is, apart from Afghanistan, probably the country that best exemplifies the dramatic consequences of 40 years of US foreign policy in the third world. The creation of terrorists and the immiseration of billions of people are too closely linked for anyone to deny.

The DRC is one of the largest and richest countries in Africa, but today the vast majority of its 50 million people live on roughly 20 cents per person per day, and eat less than two-thirds of the calories needed daily to maintain health. The dusty, crowded market places of Kinshasa heave with people struggling to buy, sell or barter anything to get them through another day. The economy is moribund; the men are unemployed, or in one or the other army. At least two million people, mainly women and children, are displaced. For many, prostitution is the only survival mechanism, and HIV/Aids is epidemic.

This year, 42,000 women will die in childbirth. Children are puffy with kwashiorkor from a diet based on cassava and not much else when, just a few hundred kilometres away, food lies rotting because all road and river transport has collapsed. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 70 per cent of the Congolese population are in effect excluded by poverty from access to any formal healthcare.

No one knows whether the Red Cross estimate of 2.5 million deaths from war and related malnutrition and illness is the truth, because the greater part of the country cannot be reached by outsiders, as a result of either danger or the lack of infrastructure. “But even if it were out by one million it would be appalling beyond imagination,” says one UN official.

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Another official in the east of the country described the entire area from the border with Sudan to the north, along Lake Kivu, to the southern Zambian border as “a black hole” where half a dozen militias, including several thousand of the Interahamwe who carried out the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, live by preying on rural people. Long ago, under President Mobutu, this area – which is as far from Kinshasa as Portugal is from Poland – gave up any illusion of reliance on the state. It is a kind of Wild West where the strong make the rules. That used to be the army; today, it is the militias.

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Under Mobutu, who was brought to power by the CIA, the Congo (or Zaire, as it was then known) was the most important piece in the jigsaw of US cold-war strategy in Africa. Zaire’s prime usefulness – apart from its huge mineral wealth – was as the springboard for destabilising independent Angola, with its Cuban and Russian allies, memorably described by John Stockwell in his memoirs of his time as a CIA agent.

In the run-up to Angolan independence in 1975, Mobutu struck at the nationalist MPLA forces by sending troops into northern Angola; simultaneously, in a pincer movement, apartheid South Africa’s troops invaded from the south. The invaders failed to take the capital, Luanda, but for nearly 20 years thereafter, the CIA used Zairean military bases to support one of its clients, Jonas Savimbi of the rebel Unita faction. The CIA embraced Savimbi as warmly, and as unthinkingly, as it did Osama Bin Laden. Both were dependable anti-communists. Both became terrorists.

As director of the CIA in the 1970s, and then as vice-president, George Bush Sr was well aware of the baroque luxury and gross irresponsibility in which Mobutu lived. On a visit to the US a year after Ronald Reagan took office, Mobutu travelled with an entourage of 80, including 21 children – his own, their cousins and friends. They went first to Disney World in Florida and later to New York, where they took over the entire 35th floor of the Waldorf Astoria. Bush followed up with a visit to Kinshasa and began negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty.

At the time, Mobutu served significant US interests, just as Bin Laden did when the CIA helped him to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. No one in Washington considered what terrible consequences the patronage of these men might bring.

Until 11 September, the US had paid the price of such irresponsible patronage only where few outsiders could see it. Secular Algeria has been totally destabilised, and has lost tens of thousands of lives – 130,000 officially acknowledged in the decade of hidden war unleashed by Islamist fighters returning from confronting the Soviet Union alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan.

And Angola today is a wasteland of unseen death, just like the DRC. It is nearly ten years since Savimbi, who was for so long as welcome in the White House as was Mobutu, lost United Nations-monitored elections and vowed to “turn Angola into another Somalia”. He succeeded, and a forgotten guerrilla war grinds on, making half the country, or more, inaccessible. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced or have fled into exile. Unknown numbers of Angolans die of hunger, of mine accidents, or of grief, every day. Last month, Unita guerrillas blew up an electricity supply station on the outskirts of Luanda; in August, they blew up a train, killing 260 civilians.

This terrorism was born in the US, just like Bin Laden’s, and Washington owes Angolans an incalculable debt. The first step towards paying it would be to acknowledge it. The second would be to assist the Angolan army in finding Savimbi and putting him on trial for war crimes. It would not be quick, nor easy, but it would change the image of the US in Africa. So would acknowledging that the US has a historic responsibility to take a lead in committing to Congo the $350m a year that would, the WHO states, “halt mortality and definitively reverse health indicators”.

The astronomical sums, found so easily, for the aircraft carriers steaming towards Afghanistan, for the planes taking up positions halfway across the world, and for the armies in Europe and the US mobilising for an uncertain goal, merely confirm to Africans that they matter in the US world scheme only when their tyrants are useful.

Victoria Brittain is part of a United Nations team reporting on the impact of conflict on women, and is associate foreign editor of the Guardian. Her latest book is Death of Dignity, a study of Angola, published by Pluto (£11.99)