The Changing Face of Power in Africa

With Laurent Kabila’s successful overthrow of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, American policy makers need to conduct a long-overdue reappraisal of the contours of African politics. Rather than unfolding as an isolated insurgency, Kabila’s rise to power signals the latest in a series of victories for a new breed of African leaders. While their political futures remain uncertain, they still constitute a distinctive, and important, political bloc.

Most of the continent’s old, post-colonial leaders were despots. Typically they, like Mobutu, had served as national army officers, went on to lead post-independence coups and consolidated their power with military force and internal political repression. The new ones like Kabila led insurgencies that defeated these despots and their armies in battle. Other guerrilla commanders include Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame in Central Africa, as well as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki on the African Horn. Uganda’s Museveni came to power in 1986. The rest did so only after the Cold War.

This recent vintage of these leaders means, among other things, that they are relatively free of the Cold War’s obsolete ideological baggage. While Kabila and company were all once influenced by Marxism, none espouses the Marxist faith anymore. Instead they have shed their ideology for pragmatism, with Eritrea’s Afwerki, for example, stating that corruption — rather than capitalism or colonialism — is the greatest threat to development. The new generation of African leaders has been looking for new development strategies that combine state-led economic growth with free-market reforms.

At the same time, none of these new soldier-statesmen could be easily called democratic: Each runs a de facto one-party state.

The Clinton administration, which has so far leaned little on these soldier-statesmen, now says that it will encourage the Congo’s Kabila to share power and ultimately hold elections. But all these other new leaders have yet to open their societies fully, making it unlikely that Kabila, whose own forces have already committed horrendous crimes, will be the first to open his.

This confusion is symptomatic of a wider policy drift in the Clinton administration. Clinton and his advisers have yet to develop an effective policy for Africa. As a point of departure, they should recognize that these new soldier-statesmen have begun to form a new, independent bloc.

It is a bloc, first of all, midwifed by a vigorous nationalism. Both Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s guerrillas fought first against Haile Selassie, backed by the United States, and later against Mengistu Haile-Mariam, backed by the Soviet Union. Similarly, Rwanda’s long-time dictator, Juvenel Habyarimana, was backed by France until the end, just as Zaire’s Mobutu had been.

During the Cold War, Mobutu was backed by both France and the United States, in particular the CIA. Now the political landscape is different. Russia abandoned Africa after the Cold War, while Kabila and others have been pushing France out. At the same time, the U.S. presence on the continent has grown.

Most of Africa now seeks closer ties with the United States. But these new soldier-statesmen are not the type to come forward with their palms extended. This year Eritrea suspended the operations of all non-governmental organizations, fearing both that foreign funding to human rights groups, for example, might spur too much independence within civil society, and that it would lead to a welfare-like dependency among its people.

Rwanda has even more cause to distrust the international community. The reasons, not surprisingly, lurk in the country’s recent history, which is intimately linked with the fall of Mobutu’s Zaire. In fact, Kabila was just an old guerrilla-leader-turned-mineral-thug until Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. In addition to flagging the decline of France, it continues to help change the region. It is against this background that Rwanda lent the most important foreign troops, foreign advisers and other resources to Kabila’s campaign.

Rwanda is a central player in the new politics of nationalist independence. And to address Rwanda’s stature effectively, policy makers must squarely acknowledge that all their previous responses to Rwanda’s bloody internal strife have not only failed, but worsened it. Before the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) began in 1994, France armed and trained the Hutu government led by President Juvenel Habyarimana, despite its then-escalating massacres against Tutsis. The United States and other outside powers merely watched. The French, meanwhile, created a safe haven not for Tutsi survivors but for Hutu refugees, including the Hutu militias — known as Interahamwe — which led the attacks.

After the attacks ended, the United Nations stepped in, providing aid to these Hutu refugees now in camps across Rwanda’s border in eastern Zaire. It continued to do so over the next two years, even though UN officials were well aware that many of these camps were controlled by the Interahamwe. The Hutu militias used the camps as sanctuaries from which to launch new raids back into Rwanda. Both sides were guilty of abuses, and hundreds more people were killed.

By late 1996 it became clear to many observers that the Interahamwe’s ongoing presence in the refugee camps had to be stopped. But while the United Nations agreed to send a peacekeeping force to eastern Zaire, it did not have the mandate to pursue and arrest the Interahamwe.

Enter Laurent Kabila. Last November as this UN force was preparing to deploy, Rwanda and Kabila decided to deal with them on their own. Kabila’s guerrillas defeated both Zairean army troops in eastern Zaire and put the Interahamwe on the run in just a few weeks. Then Kabila’s forces, feeding off of 32 years of popular discontent with Mobutu’s despotic rule, spread into Zaire, finally taking the country last week after a surprisingly short, seven-month campaign.

Kabila’s success in Zaire reminds us of another important trait that Africa’s new soldier-statesmen share in common: They all lead military forces that are, by any standard, highly competent and well trained. Nonetheless, after winning battles, Kabila’s troops systematically hunted down and killed unarmed Rwandan Hutus suspected of association with the Interahamwe, as well as Zaireans suspected of being ex-government soldiers.

This doesn’t bode well for the Congo’s future, and whether Kabila will become just another despot remains to be seen. He is the least impressive of all these new soldier-statesmen. Though he fought Mobutu on and off for more than 30 years, Kabila is better known for being a strongman among his country’s lucrative diamond and gold trades in Eastern Zaire. Kabila has limited experience and education; Africa’s other new soldier-statesmen are better prepared to lead their nations.

Politically, however, all these countries face an uphill task, and the always troubled question of ethnic conflict looms as one of the greatest potential sources of instability. Take the Congo, Kabila himself is a member of the Luba ethnic group, while most of his troops are Tutsi. Both are a minority, among the country’s more than 200 ethnic groups. Much the same pattern holds for the minority leaders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Tigrean-led regime of Ethiopia. (Eritrea, whose Tigrean leader, Afwerki, governs a Tigrean majority, is the only exception.) Though other individuals from other ethnic groups hold even top formal posts in all their governments, these new soldier-statesmen have yet to develop any real plans to provide for the peaceful transfer of power — a key feature of any fledgling democracy. Nevertheless they all represent regimes that are far more responsive, accountable and egalitarian than any of the respective despots they’ve overthrown.

If American policy makers want to see democracy take root in Africa, they will take advantage of the new opportunities that statesmen like Kabila offer them. Freed of the worst ideological and human-rights excesses of their predecessors, the new breed of African soldier-statesmen could harbinge a new continental order that is more open to the benefits of market economies and civil society. Yet to nudge this new bloc of African regimes toward egalitarian rule, the United States needs to understand that they are a bloc in the first place.