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21 July 2020updated 07 Aug 2020 10:46am

From the NS archive: King Leopold lives, and his name is Mugabe

8 January 1999: Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime at work in the Congo.

By Christina Lamb

In 1999 the Congo had become the site of Africa’s own “world war”. The country, devastated by corruption and factional strife, was nevertheless rich in minerals and natural resources. As such it attracted the interest of numerous other states, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola and Sudan among them. The most rapacious, however, was the 74-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mugabe saw the Congo as a means to enrich himself and his cronies while regaining a central role in African affairs he had lost to Nelson Mandela. Sending troops to a foreign country with no strategic importance to Zimbabwe was, however, expensive in both soldier’s lives and in financial costs. The effects were increasingly felt at home as the economy worsened and public anger grew. Christina Lamb’s report is an account of a corrupt regime at work. 

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Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, was one of a number of world leaders who stopped off in London recently to do some Christmas shopping. His new wife Grace, who at 34 is less than half his age, is a notorious shopaholic. But though the First Couple merrily filled suitcases with Harrods clothes and jewellery as their own country spiralled ever further into economic turmoil, their real sights are set on a far bigger prize.

“I want Congo!” screamed the actress portraying Grace Mugabe in a satire shown recently in Harare, causing the audience to erupt in laughter tinged with a distinct anger. For the Mugabes are loudest among the African leaders currently locked in battle over the former Zaire. This latter-day scramble for Africa is reminiscent of what took place at the end of last century – only this time it is African countries rather than European powers that are fighting over the spoils.

At first sight, you might wonder why anyone would want the Democratic Republic of Congo. A place of brooding equatorial decay captured in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the country was looted and pillaged by the former president, Mobutu Sese Seko, and became so corrupt that airlines would not allow their planes to stay at the airport overnight because they feared they would not be there in the morning. Now, with the nation embroiled in war, most do not fly there at all. A country which back in 1960 had more than 80,000 miles of roads now has only potholes, and behind its crumbling colonnaded facade, the capital faces constant food and power shortages.

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But the Congo, the second largest French-speaking nation in the world, has colossal riches, built on vast reefs of copper, cobalt, emeralds and diamonds with large forests of tropical wood. It is this wealth, rather than any African solidarity or shared ideology, that has drawn nine nations into the war in which Congolese rebels have been trying to topple the government of President Laurent Kabila since August.

The closest thing Africa has ever had to a world war, the fighting has drawn in Rwanda, the continent’s most feared army, and Uganda, both backing the rebels. Ironically these were the countries which had helped Kabila oust Mobutu in 1997, hoping the ex-Marxist who once ran a brothel in Dar-es-Salaam would crack down on the Hutu militias who sought refuge in Congo after carrying out genocide in Rwanda. When it became clear this would not happen they turned against him, finding a new figurehead in the shape of Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the rebels’ political leader. Kabila’s supporters, meanwhile, include Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad, Angola and Sudan. Libya is said to be financing the Chad forces.

Far more people are dying every day than in the recent fighting in Kosovo, or under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Yet, despite the spectre of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when Hutus massacred close to one million Tutsis, the west seems once again to be helpless. US State Department officials and Foreign Office mandarins argue that “this is a case of Africans sorting out their own problems”, but clearly they are not, and the violence threatens to spill over into neighbouring countries.

The Congo has become the battlefield on which are played out ethnic insurgencies long plaguing the governments of Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda. Already fighting has intensified in neighbouring Angola which is in its 23rd year of civil war.

Angolan forces are fighting on both sides of the conflict in the Congo – the government supports Kabila with troops and crucial airpower, while Jonas Savimbi’s Unita, which has long used the Congo for bases to receive arms flown in from eastern Europe, backs the rebels. Were the Congolese rebels to succeed in ousting Kabila, as many analysts believe is likely soon, Savimbi would be well-placed for a final assault on the Angolan capital Luanda. Then the battle would begin for the control of that country’s oil riches as well as those diamond mines not yet under Unita control.

Meanwhile the pleas of the Congolese people to be left alone fall on deaf ears. “We are being occupied by foreign forces whose help we never asked for,” said Mzungu, a Congolese mining engineer, frustrated at finding himself one of the poorest in Africa when he knows his country’s resources should have made him among the richest. “They are coming in here to rape our country yet no one does anything.”

In particular they blame Mugabe, or “King Robert” as opponents call him, in a thinly veiled reference to the Belgian King Leopold, who made the Congo his personal fiefdom at the beginning of the century. When Mugabe led the call for southern Africa to go to Kabila’s aid in mid-August, sending 4,000 Zimbabwean troops to stem the rebel advance and succeeding in turning them back from Kinshasa, he claimed it was “to defend a sovereign government”. But Zimbabwe is more than 1,000 miles away from the Congo, with no common borders or real political or economic interest. Critics say it was a quid pro quo for a vast array of business and mining deals for the president and his cronies.

It certainly seems more than coincidence that Zimbabwean businessmen connected to Mugabe have been awarded a raft of contracts in the Congo, not least, rights to one of the country’s most lucrative cobalt mines. The state-owned company ZDI (Zimbabwe Defence Industry) has the contracts for most supplies to the Congolese government and the transport company trucking these in is owned by Lt Zvi, the country’s army chief. Control of the Congolese state mining company, Gécamine, was handed over to a Zimbabwean businessman, Billy Rautenbach, a close friend of Mugabe.

Despite protests at home that Zimbabwean lives are being put at risk in an ill-fated adventure, as well as pleas from Nelson Mandela that the conflict should be resolved by negotiations rather than firepower, in November Mugabe stepped up his support for Kabila. Zimbabwe now has 6,000 troops in the Congo along with tanks, helicopters and Mig fighter planes, costing an estimated £1 million a day. The recently announced budget saw a 46 per cent increase in defence spending.

Zimbabwe can ill afford this. The last of Britain’s colonies in Africa to be made independent in 1980, Zimbabwe is now on the verge of financial ruin. The Zimbabwe dollar has collapsed to less than half its sterling value six months ago; interest rates are at 40 per cent a year and inflation at 30 per cent; the health service is stretched beyond limits by a situation where Aids is so prevalent that 750 people die a week and a report by the UN Children’s Fund warns the country will lose a fifth of its population in the next decade.

When the government put up fuel prices by more than 60 per cent last month, causing bus fares to rocket, people took to the streets in protest, arguing that if the government was not spending so much money on the Congo, the increases would not have been necessary. “Rambo fighting foreign wars while back home his family survives on a diet of bread and water is not a good script,” wrote Michael Quintana, a Harare-based defence analyst, in a recent article.

A Gallup poll commissioned by local civic rights groups found 70 per cent of Zimbabweans opposed to the country’s military involvement in the Congo. The pressure on Mugabe to withdraw from the conflict will mount as casualties rise. Harare has so far acknowledged only eight dead and 16 captured, though the rebels claim to have killed more than 100 Zimbabwean soldiers; tales abound of body bags being flown back in the middle of the night. The army has sealed its main hospital from the public and there have been no public funerals for its war dead.

Many of those fighting come from Seke township, south of Harare, a vast area of tin shacks where wives say they are told not to speak out or they will lose their pensions. One man in Seke who had just come back from the front was so terrified at being questioned that he insisted he was a security guard, even though neighbours confirmed that he was in the army.

Susan Katai, a mother of three, living in a two room shack on her army husband’s income of $250 per month, whispered: “I am very scared because we don’t know what’s happening. Often we go to bed hungry with no food in our bellies and lie awake wondering why we should be fighting in another country when we have so many problems here.”

“The government is trying to project the war in heroic terms,” explained Henri Dzinotyiweyi, chairman of Zimbabwe Integrated Programme, an independent think-tank. “The idea is to dampen pressure against the war by understating what the real losses are.”

Having staked his name on this issue, the belligerent Mugabe is unlikely to desist. As the former chairman of the Frontline States, the 74-year-old Zimbabwean president resents being ousted by Nelson Mandela as Africa’s pre-eminent elder statesman and is also furious at how South African companies have moved in on Mozambique, where Zimbabwe had supported the government throughout the 16-year civil war. Mugabe has been sending numerous government-sponsored delegations to the Congo to drum up business. “There’s a feeling that we missed out in Mozambique so we must get in Congo early,” says Farai Zizhou, chief economist at the Zimbabwe Confederation of Industry.

Aides say Mandela and Mugabe are not even on speaking terms. While Mandela wants a negotiated settlement in the Congo, Mugabe believes that military intervention will establish Zimbabwe as a regional sphere of influence and refuses to countenance talks with the rebels. But he is becoming increasingly isolated: Angolan planes have withdrawn to deal with fighting back home, and Namibia has refused to join in deploying troops and air power beyond western Congo. Meanwhile, matters are reaching a head as the two sides lock in battle over the copper-rich southern city of Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi, Congo’s biggest diamond-mining centre.

While the Mugabes were away in London doing their Christmas shopping, students at Harare University were planning anti-Vietnam style demonstrations for the new year. The comparison is lost on nobody. Jackie Potgieter, an analyst at the Johannesburg based Institute for Security Studies, warns “this could be Mugabe’s Dien Bien Phu”.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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