What Next for Congo?

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One nation under a gun?

Traditionally, the assassination of an autocratic president brings the fear of a power vacuum. Less so in the Congo, for the simple reason that the capital has long since ceased to be the epicenter of power. And that may be the salient fact determining the future of a country that has known little else but the ravages of colonialism, despotism and war for more than a century now.

Kabila, Take II

The regime in Kinshasa has finally admitted that President Laurent Kabila is dead, and they've installed his son, Joseph, as head of state. But nobody believes there's much traction in that outcome, since the 31-year-old military commander is viewed as simply another inept family appointee of the slain strongman, with no greater support base than his widely reviled father. Rebel movements backed by Rwanda and Uganda control half of the country, and they're urging Kabila the younger to return to a peace agreement consistently sabotaged by his father. The U.S. and other Western powers are scrambling to restrain Uganda and Rwanda, as well as Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which fought on Kabila's side, from seeking military advantage in the uncertainty following this week's assassination. Eternal optimists are still talking about a mooted U.N. peacekeeping mission of 5,500 troops, although its deployment is about as likely as snowstorms in the Congo's lush rain forests. But whatever equilibrium currently exists in the Congo is a function of the balance of force between the armies of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and their local protégés, and the country's fate, as ever, will likely be settled beyond its borders.

Rebellion or invasion — what's in a name?

It's been some time since he who ruled the capital also ruled the provinces. That much the Rwandan military discovered in early 1997, when it rolled across the border, hoping to carve out a buffer zone to prevent Hutu militiamen using sanctuaries in the state then known as Zaire for their genocidal campaign against Rwandan Tutsis. As they moved westward, the Rwandans encountered no resistance — the army of the reviled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had no interest in defending the borders of a state that hadn't paid them for years. Mobutu's kleptocracy had finally reduced Zaire to an empty shell of a state. And that gave the Rwandans the idea of marching on the capital together with Uganda and Angola to oust Mobutu and install a government that would stop the cross-border insurgencies that menaced all three. Thus was born the presidency of Laurent Kabila, for it was to the rotund Maoist warlord that the Angolans, Rwandans and Ugandans looked when forced to quickly find an indigenous face on a "rebellion" that had been something closer to an invasion.

Kabila fails his sponsors

Kabila had no political base, of course, outside of his home region in the far-off southeast, and his autocratic ineptitude and shameless cronyism did little to endear him to the residents of the capital, who saw him as a Rwandan imposition on a country that might have had its own ideas on alternatives to Mobutu. Kabila's failure to stamp out the Hutu insurgency exasperated the Rwandans, and his leadership style fomented widespread resentment in the ranks of those who'd fought in the rebel armies of the east. When Kabila switched his support to the Hutu groups in 1997, the Rwandans and Ugandans resolved to overthrow him — and quickly. And they'd have succeeded, but for the intervention of Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia to shore up Kabila.

The regional powers fought each other to a standstill (and in the case of allies Rwanda and Uganda, occasionally fought each other, too, for control of the spoils in the regions they occupied), and African and foreign diplomats have been trying ever since to implement a peace agreement that would have them withdraw and restore some form of democratic rule in Congo. And although Kabila was most consistently blamed — even by his allies — for wrecking the peace process, it's far from clear that any of his interventionist neighbors will ultimately let go of their stake in a country where, despite the absence of the most basic economic infrastructure, rich mineral deposits mean there's money to be made.

King Leopold's ghost

Congo, of course, was the 19th-century invention of the venal King Leopold of Belgium, whose epic abuses of human rights in a colony he claimed as his personal property inspired history's first international human rights campaign, as well as Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." It's still there on the map, of course — a territorial behemoth the size of Western Europe, stretching from Sudan in Africa's northeast to Angola and Zambia in its southwest. It has a flag (although its bland blue banner spangled with an assortment of gold stars looks more like the neutral emblem of some forgotten international organization). And an anthem, too. Its government issues passports and postage stamps and national budgets, and maintains a standing army. But for most of its people, the government in Kinshasa has been an authority as distant as any colonial power. As a state in the modern sense, Congo may have long ago ceased to exist — if, indeed, it ever existed as a state in the modern sense.

Building a democratic state in the Congo would be a start-from-scratch idea, requiring extensive triage and years of benign nurturing by its neighbors near and far. Some of those neighbors, though, may be more inclined to maintain the hollow shell of Congo's sovereignty, while in effect carving it up into regional fiefdoms. A land whose plight once inspired Conrad has long learned the limits of optimism.