Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

In 1992, for the first time, Zaire made real progress in the transition to democracy nominally begun in 1990, despite sustained attempts by President Mobutu Sese Seko to thwart this process. The year began with Mobutu's suspension of a National Conference called to discuss the nation's future. However, popular pressure forced him to allow it to reconvene, and on August 31 the first government in 27 years that had not been designated by Mobutu assumed office. An agreement between Mobutu and his opponents provides that Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi will preside over two years of transitional government, while Mobutu will remain as President until elections take place. Mobutu is still using his immense personal fortune to try – with some success – to buy off opposition leaders. He is also refusing to cooperate fully in the transition, and is encouraging ethnic violence to destabilize the transition, apparently so that he can present himself, as he did in the 19 60s, as the only national figure capable of holding Zaire together. By the end of November, relations between Tshisekedi and Mobutu had reached crisis point. On December 1, Mobutu issued decrees purporting to dissolve the transitional government, and troops surrounded ministry buildings.

On April 24, 1990, in the wake of changes in eastern Europe and South Africa, President Mobutu announced the end of the period he had designated Zaire's "Second Republic," and of Zaire's one-party state. However, there was initially little indication that fundamental change in the government's policies would occur. In May 1990, only two weeks after Mobutu's democracy speech, students on the campus of the University of Lubumbashi demonstrated against a further speech in which Mobutu had backtracked on his promises. They were attacked by security forces, and a still undetermined number was killed. Mounting internal opposition and internationalpressure provoked by this massacre eventually forced the convening of a "Sovereign National Conference" to discuss the future of the nation.

The Conference first met in August 1991, and effectively collapsed within a month. In September, soldiers in Kinshasa and elsewhere engaged in serious looting which brought much of the economy to a standstill. Following these disturbances, the Conference was recalled for early December, shortly after Mobutu's term of office as President officially expired. On December 12, the Conference elected as its president Catholic Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the respected chair of the Bishops' Conference, and prepared to begin its substantive work in the new year. However, on January 19, 1992, as it became clear that a real effort would be made to achieve a change of government, Prime Minister Nguz Karl-i-Bond suspended the Conference. Mobutu had appointed Nguz, a former opponent, in November 1991. Once again Mobutu seemed to have blocked an attempt to erode his power.

The suspension of the Conference galvanized the opposition. Numerous strikes paralyzed what remained of the economy. In an apparently related development, during the night of January 22, soldiers announced that they had taken over the Voix de Zaire radio station, and called for the resumption of the National Conference and the resignation of the Prime Minister and President. Many later believed that this "mutiny," described by the government as an attempted coup, was rather an attempt to discredit the opposition, since it was used as a pretext to round-up suspected opposition figures and to take control of radio and television broadcasts for the next several days. Eleven of the lowest-ranking soldiers involved were subjected to a show trial in March. While the military court sentenced nine of the eleven to prison terms, it found no evidence of an attempted coup. The remaining soldiers were reported by the government to have fled and were sentenced to death in absen tia. The Zairian Human Rights League expressed fears that they may already have been killed.

On February 16, as many as one million Zairian Christians marched through the streets of Kinshasa in a "March of Hope" to demand the resumption of the National Conference. Mobutu's security forces responded with lethal force, and at least 30 demonstrators died and hundreds were wounded. Injuries also occurred at protests in other cities. Organized by an ad hoc committee of priests and lay people outside the Catholic hierarchy, the march – probably the largest demonstration in Zairian history – together with the international response to its suppression, forced Mobutu to allow the Conference to reconvene in early April. On April 24, the second anniversary of Mobutu's formal ending of the one-party system, Bishop Monsengwo announced that the real work of the Conference would finally begin.

In the following months, frequently stormy negotiations between Mobutu's government and the Conference resulted in a compromise agreement, concluded on August 3. Under the agreement, Tshisekedi – a leading figure in the opposition coalition known as the "Sacred Union" – assumed the post of Prime Minister. However, heis required to "cohabit" with Mobutu, his long-time enemy, who remains President. A "Transitional Charter" set the terms of power-sharing, replacing Mobutu's constitution. Although the Prime Minister and his government supposedly have full control over the economy, Gendarmerie and Civil Guard, defense and foreign policy are areas of "collaboration" between the President, the government, and the "High Council of the Republic," which will replace the National Conference as a transitional parliament.

Despite this agreement, the power struggle between Mobutu and Tshisekedi for political control continued. One of the flash points of this struggle was the Conference's vote in August, repeated in September and October, to change the name of the country back to Congo, in symbolic rejection of Mobutu's rule and, in particular, the drive in the 1970s for "authenticity." Another dispute erupted in early October, when Tshisekedi attempted to fire the governor of the Central Bank, a Mobutu appointee at the center of illegal diamond deals that are blamed in part for the free-fall of Zaire's currency. His action provoked a crisis in relations between Mobutu and his opponents.

On October 4, troops loyal to Mobutu surrounded the bank and the nearby National Assembly building, where they remained for the following two weeks. On October 9, the governor of the bank announced that his suspension was illegal and that he was still in office. Mobutu attempted to reconvene the Assembly, which had been dissolved six weeks earlier for the period of the transition, to override restrictions on his power imposed by the National Conference. Lacking a quorum, the Assembly nevertheless held a session in which Mobutu's supporters claimed that the constitution of the Second Republic was still in force. In late October, the High Command of the Armed Forces announced that it was withdrawing from the Conference, following a decision – protested by the Zairian Human Rights League – to deprive the military of the right to vote.

In November, the Conference adopted a new draft constitution, to be approved by referendum in April 1993, which provides for a bicameral parliamentary system in which the president will have only a symbolic role. Mobutu rejected the right of the Conference to adopt such legislation, and demanded that the Conference conclude its proceedings by the end of the month. On December 1, Mobutu issued two decrees purporting to dissolve the government and require Tshisekedi to form a new government of national unity. The central bank, in defiance of the government's anti-inflation policy, simultaneously began distributing banknotes with a face value of five million zaires (worth less than three U.S. dollars). In a defiant address to the Conference, Tshisekedi rejected Mobutu's power to dissolve his government, but security forces responded by sealing off access to ministry buildings and throwing several officials out of their offices. Radio and television broadcasts of the Conferen ce proceedings, where committees established to report on corruption and rights abuse under Mobutu were reporting, were cut off.

Since April 1990, the most visible forms of state repression in Zaire have diminished, at least in the major cities, and long-term political detention has ceased. A vigorous press has also developed. However, suspicious deaths and disappearances are reported, and there have been attacks on opposition figures and on journalists. For example, in January 1992, Jean-Marie Katonga Kabuluku, an opposition supporter, disappeared in Kinshasa. In May and June, two Belgian expatriates were killed by uniformed soldiers. In August, hours after the resignation of Prime Minister Nguz, a rocket attack was launched on the residence of Frederic Kibassa, president of the Sacred Union.

Examples of harassment of the press in 1992 included the arrest and detention of publishers and journalists working for the opposition paper Elima, raids on newspaper offices by unidentified forces, the cancellation of the license for one paper in June 1992, and the arrest of the editor of another in July after he ignored an order to suspend publication. On the night of November 7, a printing press used by a number of publications was burned down by armed and uniformed men. However, none of these activities has apparently prevented the publication and distribution of newspapers. While government control over radio and television remained strict throughout the period of the National Conference – for example, the transmission of the resolution to change the name of Zaire to Congo was prevented – broadcasting has since become more open. However, in November, two journalists were forced into hiding, following the transmission of a news program alleging abduct ion and torture by members of the armed forces in Shaba province.

Even before the confrontation at the end of 1992 between the National Conference and Mobutu, supported by parts of the armed forces, soldiers frustrated at the non-payment of their wages had been at the center of the many cases of looting and disorder that have paralyzed the economy since the major disturbances of September 1991. Moreover, the "specialized security forces" created under Mobutu, each serving under the personal leadership of one of his close collaborators, continue to exist. Since 1991, there have also been credible reports of an unacknowledged strike force operating in Kinshasa, known as "Les Hiboux," or "The Owls." In September 1992, a South African newspaper reported that Mobutu was recruiting mercenaries in Johannesburg.

Of particular concern has been violence in the interior of the country, especially in Shaba province, formerly Katanga. The governor of Shaba, Kyungu wa Kumwanza, has repeatedly incited violence against non-Shabans, and the situation steadily worsened in 1992. In January, riots erupted in several towns in Shaba; in March, the governor sent supporters into Lubumbashi to destroy independent newspapers sold at newsstands; and in August, Kyungu ordered his supporters to oppose all demonstrations in support of the new Prime Minister, leading to the death of at least eight people in the disturbances that followed.

The situation in Shaba is being used by supporters of Mobutu to threaten the transition process. After he was obliged to resign as Prime Minister on August 17, Nguz Karl-i-Bond immediately returned to Shaba, his home province, where he stated that Shabawould not recognize the new premier or accept a replacement of Kyungu as governor. Zaire's exiled secessionist movement declared its support for Nguz in a statement from Angola, and Mobutu subsequently condoned Nguz's actions by appointing him "Minister of State," a specially created non-cabinet position. The violence continues: according to a September 18 government statement, 20 people were killed and 60 wounded in disturbances in Shaba during the previous week. Other reports stated that 60 died in the month of September, and that up to 30,000 took shelter from the violence in military bases and school compounds. A curfew was imposed in mid-October by governor Kyungu.

There has also been violence in the northeast province of Kivu, where soldiers of the 41st Brigade were sent on a "disciplinary promenade" in early 1992 to counter rebel activity. More than 30,000 refugees fled to neighboring Uganda, reporting the devastation of their villages. In October, soldiers again looted towns in that province, and the government announced that it would pull out its "commandos," stationed there since 1986. It also accused army leaders of distributing money to soldiers to carry out looting in Kisangani. Further looting was reported in Mbandaka, in the northern province of Equateur.

The Right to Monitor

Since April 1990 a number of significant human rights organizations have come into existence in Zaire, including La Voix des Sans Voix ("The Voice of the Voiceless," which previously operated underground), the Zairian Human Rights League, the Zairian Association for Human Rights (known by its French acronym, AZADHO), the Committee for Democracy, and Amos. These five organizations are affiliated through a coordinating body, Human Rights Now.

Although harassment of activists continued through 1991 and early 1992, it is no longer impossible to monitor of human right violations openly, as it was during the "Second Republic." For example, monitors from all of the major Zairian human rights groups were present at the February 16 March of Hope, and news of its suppression immediately reached the national and international press, perhaps the first time in the history of Zaire that this had been possible. Similarly, lawyers associated with the Zairian Human Rights League succeeded in becoming defense counsel for the soldiers accused of involvement in the "mutiny" at the Voix de Zaire. Buana Kabue, director of the League, was detained by police after the March of Hope, and his office and home were ransacked. He was again threatened with arrest in May, but no further harassment of monitors has been reported.

U.S. Policy

Zairians hold the United States most responsible among the Western states for President Mobutu's rise and continued hold on power. Mobutu received massive support from the U.S. throughout the period of the cold war, despite evidence of corruption, mismanagement and serious human rights abuse. Recent support for the work of the transition government is therefore all the more welcome.

Even following the Lubumbashi massacre of May 1990, the U.S. response was weak in comparison with the action taken by France and Belgium, Mobutu's other main supporters. While Congress reduced and eventually cut off aid to Zaire, the Bush administration consistently opposed this step, and as late as the budget proposal for fiscal year 1992 continued to urge military aid. In April 1991, President Bush delivered a letter to Mobutu, assuring him that "despite the restrictions imposed by Congress, Zaire remains one of the principal beneficiaries of U.S. aid in Africa."

The Bush administration began to harden its position toward President Mobutu after the outbreak of looting in September 1991. In testimony on November 6 before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen said: "Recent events have proved beyond any doubt that the present regime under President Mobutu has lost the legitimacy to govern Zaire during the transition to democracy." However, he maintained that Mobutu's continued presence in the country was necessary for the transition to succeed.

In January 1992, after Prime Minister Nguz suspended the National Conference, the U.S. joined Belgium and France for the first time in a joint statement opposing the suspension. The U.S. also promptly and strongly condemned the February 16 attack on the March of Hope. However, this protest was undercut a few days later, when Secretary Cohen stated that Mobutu "continued" to support democratic transition. In the last week of March, the U.S. Embassy delivered a letter from President Bush to President Mobutu. Although the contents of the letter were not made public, Mobutu announced the reconvening of the National Conference soon after, and many Zairians believe the letter was in part responsible.

In late June and early July, Archbishop Monsengwo toured several European states, Canada and the United States, looking for support for the work of the National Conference and the government that would succeed it. In Washington DC, he spoke with Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary Cohen, and National Security Council staff. Following this visit, the U.S. government stated that it supported the process of democratization, rather than any particular personality, and that the National Conference should lead the country to free and fair elections through the formation of a new and credible transition government.

Secretary Cohen was present again in Zaire on July 31 and August 1, and announced that he was "impatient to see the start of the transition in Zaire." Two days later, on August 3, an agreement on the transition was reached between the National Conference and President Mobutu.

On October 7, following the unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the governor of the Central Bank, the State Department issued a strong statement of support for Prime Minister Tshisekedi. In particular, it "call[ed] upon all Zaire's political forces to support a transition government with full authority to achieve political economic and social recovery, including control over public finances and key appointments."

On December 1, following Mobutu's order to Tshisekedi to dissolve his government, the U.S. joined Belgium and France in issuing a strong statement of support for Tshisekedi and the democratization process. The statement urged the transition government "to assume full control over the central bank, major public enterprises, and all other activities essential to Zaire's economic recovery." Ambassador Melissa Wells went to the prime minister's office in Kinshasa to offer her support.

The Work of Africa Watch

Africa Watch began to monitor Zaire in 1992. In April, an Africa Watch researcher traveled to Zaire to collect information, and in July, Africa Watch published its first report, entitled Zaire: Two years without transition.

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