The Democratic Republic of Congo — Three Views

By Kenneth Satterberg, Eduardo Machado, and Robert Thompson

The arrival of a new government in Africa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, is an event of major significance. It is of special interest to me for two reasons: (1) the Covenant Church and the Free Church have been engaged in missionary activities there for years and, among those missionaries, from 1925 to 1932, were my parents, Lloyd and Esther Johnson; (2) my own family's personal connections and friends from Angola, which is one of the new Republic's immediate neighbors. In this issue we have three reports. One is from Kenneth Satterberg, a Covenant missionary (pictured below with his Congolese literacy colleagues, Ndepe Manga and Gbianu Amttnu). His is an "on the ground report" and he is currently watching developments while working in Cameroon. Another view is from an interview with Eduardo Machado, who is from neighboring Angola; a third is from Robert Thompson, of the United Nations peace mission in Angola. -PJ

A Missionary's View

by Kenneth Satterberg

May 31, 1997. Yes, Zaire is no more. Now we have the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Laurent Kabila was installed as president and has laid out a two-year plan to bring the country to democratic elections. From everything I hear, it seems that he will be a much needed change for a country that was stuck in a downward trend — more out of habit than intentional resolve. Since 1989, it has been clear that Mobutu was trying to manipulate his opposition and to placate international pressure with appearances, of and overtures about democratic reform. That year, he refused an international investigation into a massacre of students at the University of Lubumbashi. As a result, the Belgian government refused to sign their pending aid agreement. In response, Mobutu expelled all Belgians working for the "Belgian Corporation," their aid and development arm. This move (along with a lessening threat from Eastern communism) was a factor causing other Western nations to begin withdrawing aid and support from the Mobutu regime. President Mitterrand of France even refused to sit in the same row as Mobutu at an international conference in 1993.

Internally, Mobutu organized a huge national conference to work towards a transitional government. The Presidents of both the Zairian Free Church and the Covenant Church were called down to the capital for meetings, which lasted for months. In 1991, while these commissions were taking place, rampant looting broke out in the capital and elsewhere in the country, leading to the evacuation of the Covenant missionaries. The conference promised great changes and appeased critics for awhile, but brought little change.

Mobutu was not succeeding very well. Then the Rwandan crisis hit in 1994 and thousands of Hutu refugees appeared on his border. He accepted them willingly, anticipating vast amounts of foreign aid money that would surely come his way. Suddenly, he wasn't such a bad guy in the official eyes of the world, because he wanted to help the "poor Rwandan refugees" on his border.

The refugee situation dragged on for four years, and there were great acts of compassion coming from the West. Initially, this helped greatly, but the international solutions did not deal with the main problem — a significant group of the Hutu refugees were guilty of mass murder in their home country. This group refused to allow the rest to return across the border.

This past year, Laurent Kabila's forces displaced the border refugees, so that many chose to return to Rwanda. Then Kabila's forces continued to pursue their ultimate goal of displacing Mobutu. Unfortunately for the country, as Kabila's soldiers took control of an area, the Zairian soldiers (FAZ) looted and destroyed as they left.

The Covenant area of Zaire was one of the last areas to be "liberated" by Kabila's forces, so the looting and destruction took place just weeks before Mobutu's government was displaced. I have received e-mail reports via a Zairian pastor in Bangui, that Gemena was hit pretty hard. Both Zairian Free and Covenant Church headquarters were ransacked. According to reports, doors, plywood ceilings, and shutters were tom off; the houses of many missionaries, including me, were looted, as were the personal residences of many of our Zairian colleagues. Most likely, the FAZ began the looting and then retreated with what they could take, leaving the city open to civilian looting.

Kabila's troops, from most reports, have been very disciplined and have attempted to establish order upon arrival. According to the Gemena report, the troops have told the population that they can turn in stolen goods now without punishment, but that in the future, houses will be searched and there will be punishment if stolen goods are found. From the capital, Kinshasa, come numerous reports of Kabila's soldiers shooting looters on sight. They mean business.

The transition will not be easy, but I believe that there is great potential in the new government. Kabila's plans for democratic elections in two years seem quite realistic. The country is in no condition for elections at this time. Many advances in education and communication must be made. So far, "democracy" is just a word that happened to come along at the same time as hyperinflation. Paul Noren, one of our missionaries, said that he offered coffee from his thermos to a Zairian and apologized because there was no sugar in it (Paul drinks coffee black). The Zairian responded: "That's democracy for you!" Western democracy is a foreign concept in Africa, and it may not be applicable in a form that we know. But, a democratic change is taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire) and elsewhere in Africa.

Zaire was in shambles when Kabila began his takeover. Corruption was assumed, teachers were unpaid, and schools were falling apart. A national infrastructure including health services, communications, road systems, postal service, and so forth, was virtually nonexistent. People frequently referred to Mobutu as "unemployed" because he wasn't doing anything for the country except maintaining his position.

I believe that Kabila represents change for most Zairians. Change was impossible under Mobutu. There are claims of mass murders of the refugees who fled following Kabila's initial dispersion of the border camps last fall, and this may be his main problem with the international community. It cannot be denied; there are innocent civilians among the fleeing refugees. But among their ranks, forcing their cohesion, are many perpetrators of the Rwandan massacre, who would rather suffer the dangers of fleeing into the Congo forest than face the retribution of their country-men and women.

Kabila is dragging his feet, but it may not be to impede justice. To maintain control of the vast regions he now holds, he cannot allow investigations of his military men. If they are found culpable, they may turn against him, feeling that he has betrayed them to international pressures. I think it can be seen around the country that Kabila's forces are starting to demand their spoils of victory, and it is difficult to hold them back and retain their needed support.

The most disturbing revelation to the population of the Ubangi region (the Covenant mission area) is that Kabila's military heads are from Uganda and Rwanda, and are not former Zairians. Many of them, according to reports, do not speak either Lingala or French.

As missionaries, we have tried to stay rather apolitical and avoid any revolutionary tendencies in our teaching or in our personal contacts with nationals. The National Church, as well, has preached submission to governing authorities. As a result of this, and because Mobutu was originally from our Church area, so there are many family members in our Churches, there has been very little significant opposition to him or his government.

In some ways, I think, our area will have more difficulty accepting the changes. There are few warm feelings between our people and those in the East. For one thing, people in the East speak Swahili as their trade language and our people speak Lingala, which was the official language of the FAZ. Also, many of the fleeing FAZ fled "home" to our Church region. Many of the military were from the Northwest people groups, close to the ex President. Some of them are still armed and blame the U.S. government for causing their downfall. This may jeopardize our returning to this area as missionaries for quite a while.

As the Covenant, we will try in any way possible to maintain our relationship with the Zairian Covenant Church (CEUM). During this time of crisis, we will try to find ways of offering humanitarian aid and compassion.

An Angolan's View

A Pietisten Interview with Eduardo Machado

Angola obtained its independence from Portugal in 1975 after a 14-year guerrilla war and civil war. Following independence, the civil war continued, fueled by the Cold War interests. Russia and Cuba supported the Marxist government in Luandathe MPLA, led by Jose Eduardo dos Santos. The United States and South Africa supported UNITA, the anti-Marxist rebels led by Jonas Savimbe. UNITA has maintained control of' the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. As the Cold War faded, both Russia and the U.S. discontinued their support, but the Angolan civil war continued. Elections have been held, and dos Santos, whose headquarters have always been Luanda, is the elected leader. The United Nations currently has a mission in Angola to help with the transition to peace (see Bob Thompson's report that follows).

Eduardo Machado came to the US from Angola in 1990 to attend Macalester College, where he studied economics. He has since become a computer programming engineer. Prior to coming to this country, he studied in both Portugal and Sweden. — PJ.]

June 25, 1997

Pietisten: What are the people in Angola thinking about the new government in Congo? We can call it Congo again now, can't we?

Eduardo: The Republic of Congo. I guess public opinion about this new government in Congo is generally positive, if for no other reason than the situation in Zaire with Mobutu being so bad, so chaotic, that he virtually forced people out of Zaire to look for better situations elsewhere.

P: Have people from Zaire been coming into Angola?

EM: Correct. For a very long time there has been a migration into Angola and the other countries surrounding Zaire. The major advantage that most people will weigh in their minds is the degree of stability that the change may provide to the Central African situation. If Congo begins to offer a normal stable life in its territory, it will attract people to move back from exile and refugee situations. This will be a big improvement. In Angola, for instance, especially in the Northern cities and even in the capitol Luanda, it will decrease the density of the cities. There are too many people living in these cities. A city designed for 100,000 people may have a population today of 500,000.

P: Really?

EM: Right. Luanda, for example, which was designed to support 500,000 people, now has a population of 3 million in the city and surrounding area.

P: How many of those people do you think are from Zaire — or Congo?

EM: I would say about 60 to 65% are Angolan because of displacement due to our civil war situation.

P: People coming in from the Angolan countryside?

EM: Yes. The other 30 to 40% are from Congo or other countries like Zambia or Zimbabwe. Unfortunately the majority of the population in both countries (Angola and Congo) are not very educated politically and cannot extrapolate what the consequences will be in the long term. People are happy in Zaire because there will be a change in the daily routine, in the status quo. Zaire is shifting from a 32-year-old dictatorship to something else, and they are just happy to have the change. They don't even care if it is going to be or worse or better. They just want a change.

P: Meaning that they want to take a chance.

EM: Right. Which is very normal. Here in the United States, for example, we have elections every four years so that the people, the average voter, can create a change in the next election round.

P: Thirty-two years is a long time without any change.

EM: Right. It's a very long time and people are tired. People throughout Africa felt it because Zaire is a very big country. Its area is almost half that of the United States, so it covers a lot of territory in Central Africa and it has a lot of neighbors bordering it. The degree of stability in Congo impacts not only Angola, but also Uganda, Uranda, Burundi, Zambia, and all countries who share a border with what is now the Republic of Congo. Instability there replicated itself around all these countries and forced population movement across the borders. It was so bad in Zaire that people travelled to Angola to buy fuel.

P: And Angola wasn't in that great a shape either at the time.

EM: Correct. Perhaps the worst thing in Angola was the instability of the military situation. Actually UNITA developed, in part, because it was backed by Mobutu in the Northern region of the country. With the fall of Mobutu all these little rebel movements in countries like Angola lost support.

P: Is this development favorable to stability in Angola?

EM: Yes; I think that the removal of Mobutu is favorable not just for Angola but for all the countries in that region. His position was never clear, and it was detrimental. He seemed to be behind all major opposition governments that were willing to support his dictatorship. Take UNITA, for example. Jonas Savimbi, UNITA's leader, was a personal friend of Mobutu. When Kabila started moving toward Kinshasa, one of the reasons he had the difficulties he did was that Mobutu was able to gather some UNITA troops and some Rwandan Hutu troops and create a buffer zone around Kinshasa. This made it possible to hold Kabila's forces back for a while, until the legitimate Angolan government and the Rwandan and Tanzanian governments sent troops into Zaire to support Kabila's forces.

P: How is Kabila looking at this point in time? How do you evaluate his government's start?

EM: In Congo, he has serious problems right now because people do not trust him, which is not surprising. They had a dictator for 32 years, and they wouldn't just trust somebody anyway. But his main problem has been that the core of his troops are ethnic Tutsis living in the Eastern regions of Zaire. People in Kinshasa are saying: "OK, you took over the country and are in charge of the government right now, but please hand some of the government authority back to Zairians rather than keeping it with ethnic Tutsis. So, the composition of his government is a question mark. The other countries around — the heads of states — don't care about that because Kabila owes them for what they provided.

P: So, Eddie, has the situation in the Republic of Congo been positive for the peace process in Angola, or has it created problems?

EM: We can look at it in two ways. It has been positive for the government in Angola because it has a better chance to negotiate its peace process goals, now that UNITA lost one of its strongest supporters as well as a lot of territorial ground in the Northern area of Angola where most of their activity was concentrated. UNITA cannot retreat back into Zaire anymore.

P: Where is Savimbi's headquarters located?

EM: Savimbi has moved to a different spot, and has destroyed much of the infrastructure so it is difficult to get to him. Most of the easily accessible roads have been mined. He lives in the river area where his illicit diamond production is located. He gets most of his funding from the sale of these diamonds. The minute Mobutu was ousted, the Angolan government moved troops into the area to gain control of the diamond fields.

As a result of the elections, there are about 70 UNITA representatives in the parliament in Luanda already. But Savimbi's presence is needed to complete the peace process. He says that he can't move to Luanda because he fears for security, and his concern is probably legitimate. In any event, the change in Congo has weakened his position.

But, on the other hand, there is great danger. Military hostilities have already flared up. Forces are already fighting. The cease fire has been broken in the diamond area, which the government wants to control. The excuse they offer to the UN is that they are moving troops around the Northern area to prevent Rwandan Hutu militia men — who fought alongside Mobutu's troops and are now refugees — from moving down into Angola. But that is just an excuse. There will be some chaos. The situation is dangerous; it could slow the peace process in Angola, but I think things will be better without Mobutu.

In the old French Congo, the president has been ousted, and they just evacuated embassy personnel. So, you can see that what has happened in Congo has implications all over the place because of the significance and size of The Republic. Thirty-two years of corruption has had a great deal of impact.

P: Eddie, thank you for taking the time to talk with us about this. It has been very enjoyable, and I am confident that our readers will appeciate it.

EM: You' re very welcome; thank you.

A United Nations Administrator's View

by Robert Thompson

As the United Nations' peace mission in Angola has unfolded, Pietisten has received reports from Robert Thompson, who is part of the UN mission. His comments, below, give us yet another window on the impact of the new Democratic Republic of Congo. — PJ.

July 13, 1997.

A word of greetings from the cool climes of Angola where the sign of winter consists of condensation on the car roof and window at night.

Following a very successful high point in the negotiations which led to the formation of the government of unity and reconciliation, the Zaire crisis has opened a Pandora's box. Having disarmed and quartered some 65,000 UNITA rebels, we now learn that upwards to some 20,000 UNITA rebels had been fighting alongside Mobutu's forces and these gentlemen have begun to return home, armed. On top of that, the government forces, using the pretext of protecting its frontier with Zaire, had begun skirmishes with those UNITA forces in the diamond rich Eastern region. DeBeere estimates that UNITA makes about $400 million per year from the clandestine sale of diamonds!

We are sitting on a powder keg because, if UNITA is not in a position to win a war, it is in a position to block peace. Our requests notwithstanding, the major powers The U. S., Russia, France, and the UK — have not been able to provide aerial photos of troop concentration or arms stockpiles. We are also unable to get these powers to cough up statistics on arms they sold to UNITA in the past. This information would have helped us to better control the arms reduction process. The major powers are afraid of public disclosure.

Our [the UN's] credibility is rapidly being undermined in this process. It's a bad number, but we are hampered by limited alternatives. The Nordic countries are particularly on our backs because they are the major donors and they feel that their money might just be going to re-finance a war that they had stepped in to stop.

Much of the problem is the stunning lack of political will on both sides. On the Government's side, there are the old time, old school Marxist hardliners who resent the changes imposed on them by the U.S., among others. Though obstactles, these guys are honest and intelligent. Alongside are those who have adjusted to the new ways all too well. Corruption here has been raised to the level of a fine art, with much help from the multinational corporations that operate in these parts. I was invited to "inspect" the seaside residence of one of the ministers last weekend — a work-in-progress. He also has a mansion in the mountains and one in town. He's a young and up and coming chap, 40-ish, at best — and 60% of the population is under the poverty line....

Kenneth Satterberg is a Covenant missionary to Africa.

See all articles by Kenneth Satterberg

See all articles by Eduardo Machado

Robert Thompson is a retired United Nations Representative who lives in New York City.

See all articles by Robert Thompson