Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Witeck

Behind the “Invasion” of Zaire

Zaire: Crucial Stakes Involved

First Published: Modern Times, Vol. I, No. 4, December 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The spectacle of the People’s Republic of China giving military aid to the Zaire dictatorship of General Mobutu last spring and summer raised the eyebrows of many progressives throughout the world. The aid came in response io the invasion and insurrection led by the Congo National Liberation Front (FLNC) in the Shaba province of Zaire against Mobutu’s regime.

China went so far as to call Mobutu a “patriot” for defending his country against Soviet aggression.” A decade earlier, the Chinese denounced Mobutu as a “U.S. puppet” (Peking Review, 4/28/67). The Chinese government also saluted other countries such as France, Belgium, the Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, Uganda and Saudi Arabia for committing troops and aid to the Mobutu regime. (Even South Africa pledged aid to Mobutu.)

The Chinese policy and aid flowed from the current Chinese position that the Soviet Union is the most aggressive and gravest danger to Africa’s and the world’s peoples. This same line had led the Chinese to view the MPLA’s victory in Angola, won with substantial Soviet and Cuban aid, as a Soviet conquest and occupation of Angola. In the Chinese view, Angola had become a base for further Soviet aggression in Africa.

Some Marxist-Leninist “vanguard” groups in the U.S. and other countries adhered to the Chinese position. The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), for instance, claimed that in Angola, the Soviet Union now had “a potential base to attack and threaten other countries in Southern Africa.” They quickly denounced the Congolese rebels against Mobutu’s corrupt regime as “Soviet-led invaders and mercenaries,” putting forward a kind of “falling dominoes” theory on events in southern Africa. These views, it should be noted, harmonized nicely with Mobutu’s claims of a Soviet-Cuban-led invasion of Zaire. Reactionaries like Mobutu have always raised the “Red scare” to rally support for their repression of rebellions. Mobutu’s claims, though never substantiated and denied by the rebels, the USSR and Cuba, laid the basis for millions of dollars of U.S. “non-lethal” aid being shipped to Mobutu’s forces in Zaire.

The Congo: Africa’s Heartland

Before leaping to the “Soviet-led invasion” theory, it would be wise to look at the background. Zaire was formerly the Belgian Congo. The Congo occupies a vast territory five times the size of France, 80 times the size of Belgium. It is covered with fertile land, big mountains and gigantic forests, and possesses tremendous wealth, especially in minerals. It is the biggest producer of cobalt and diamonds in the world, and one of the largest producers of uranium, copper, tin, and lithium, while also yielding many other rare minerals. It is rich agriculturally, with cocoa, coffee, rubber, copal, cotton, bananas, peanuts, palm oil, and many fruits and vegetables. It has huge water resources, including the Congo River, 6th largest in the world and 2nd only to the Amazon in volume of flow, able to produce vast amounts of hydro-electric power (13% of the world capacity).

With its huge diversified resources, the Congo has been a prized object of imperialism for generations. Conversely, with a people’s victory in the Congo, this country has the potential of being a reliable, strong base area for anti-imperialism and revolution. That is why the question of who controls the Congo is of worldwide significance. (Data cited from Kibwe Tcha-Malenge’s “Who Will Win in Congo-Kinshasa?” Norman Bethune Institute, Canada, 1976).

Under imperialist control, the Congo has had an important counterrevolutionary role. Many coups in central Africa have been staged from the Congo, with funds provided by the foreign monopolies working with Mobutu and his cohorts. In 1970, for instance, counter-revolutionary commandos were sent into the People’s Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) from Kinshasa (Zaire) to try to overthrow the leftist people’s government there. This unsuccessful attempt came after the monopolies failed in their maneuvers to set up a United States of Central Africa under Mobutu’s leadership. (Reported by Kibwe Tcha-Malenge, pp. 9-10). Five years later Zaire troops invaded Angola, in a joint action with South Africa, to try to install a neo-colonialist regime under two puppet liberation fronts, the FNLA and UNITA. Mobutu has clearly served as the arch-agent of U.S. imperialism in southern and central Africa and as the key leader in its neo-colonialist designs.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Mermen William confirmed the Congo’s importance to imperialism, writing in Africa Report (August, 1965):

The first and possibly the most important basic fact about the Congo is that this country is the geographic as well as the strategic heart of Africa. What happens in the Congo has the greatest impact on the rest of Africa and all its neighbors. For this reason, added to the Congo’s tremendous wealth, control over this country has been and remains sought for by many as a base area. The U.S. is interested in everything that happens in the Congo. They cannot tolerate communist control over this country.

How Mobutu Came to Power

The Congo was seized as a Belgian colony in 1908, after years of bloody wars of conquest and the decimating effects of the slave trade of earlier centuries. As Belgian power weakened, the Congolese won independence on June 30, 1960, though Belgium continued its plots for tighter control, encouraging the secession of mineral-rich Katanga (now Shaba) province.

The first Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, a genuine nationalist, sought aid from the U.S. against Belgium, but the price was too high. Lumumba commented after his trip to Washington, D.C.: “They wanted to buy the Congo; they wanted to bribe us with millions. But I refused. The Congolese people will never accept to move from one colonization to another.” So the CIA, with help from European capitalists, had Lumumba assassinated.

The contention between U.S. and Belgian capitalists continued and intensified, and succeeding governments were set up and toppled. (See Kibwe Tcha-Malenge’s booklet for a good analysis of the three contending imperialist circles.) Finally the “big finance” group, spearheaded by U.S. interests, got the upper hand and helped install General Mobutu by armed coup in 1965.

Congolese socialist writer Kibwe Tcha-Malenge describes what happened then: “Once in power, Mobutu started accomplishing his group’s mission: to replace Belgian domination with Yankee domination. He began by attacking the Belgian mining corporations under the hoax of defending the Congo’s economic independence.” After Belgium responded by promoting a secessionist war in Kivu province, Mobutu backed down some, and “peace” was restored. Still, under Mobutu, the U.S. interests began to get the upper hand. For instance, until 1965 when Mobutu “arrived,” 96% of the $9 billion invested in the Congo belonged to Belgium: direct U.S. investments were only 1% of the total. But since 1970, U.S. investments have reached over $1 billion, most of which are in the mining sector, and U.S. monopolies control the concessions for most of the rare metals needed for nuclear weapon production: 100% of cobalt, 90% of uranium, 87% of diamond, 79% of tantalum, 64% of manganese, 50% of tin, etc. (Kibwe Tcha-Malenge, pp. 19-20).

On the Verge of Bankruptcy

Despite all this investment, or, more aptly, because of it, Zaire is a poor country. Less than 1% of its land area is cultivated although 20% is arable. Mobutu has placed his country in hock to Western banking interests to the tune of more than $3 billion. Zaire’s payment on its foreign debt took up 4.7% of its export income in 1970, but it is estimated that over 25% of its export income will be gobbled up by its creditors in 1977. (Diane Johnstone, The Owl, April, 1977, issue, reprinted in RESIST, 4/30/77) Zaire, in fact, has been on the verge of becoming the first nation to default completely on its debts.

The rising costs of petroleum and fertilizers and falling prices for its own exports (including copper), as well as Mobutu’s extravagant spending and borrowing put Zaire’s economy in deeper trouble. (Millions were spent on the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight, for instance, held in October, 1974–at 3 a.m.–in Zaire, for promoting Zaire to U.S. audiences.)

In response, Mobutu has gone in for P.R. and “show business socialism” which is “neither left nor right.” After visiting the People’s Republic of China in 1973 and again in 1974, Mobutu Sese Seko (“The Redeemer”) declared his own version of what he thought Maoism was–a system of one-man rule he labelled “Mobutism” while “Zairizing” some companies, mainly Belgian interests. When his new order went nowhere but down and the economy was in shambles, in November, 1975, Mobutu accelerated his 1969 policy of throwing open his country even more to foreign investors. This increased the unhappiness and poverty of the people and did little to ease the uncertainty of the bankers and creditors about the “stability” of his regime.

The Angola Connection

The decolonization of Angola after the 1974 coup in Portugal gave Mobutu added worries. Political developments in the Congo (Zaire) and Angola had been intertwined for decades. Holden Roberto, leader of the Angolan National Liberation Front (FNLA) with its base in Zaire, had married Mobutu’s sister and was sponsored by Mobutu and the CIA since 1961 (see issues no. 2 & 3, Modern Times). Mobutu also promoted another “liberation group” in the oil-rich Angolan province of Cabinda; this group was FLEC (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda), which sought to split Cabinda off from the MPLA and Angola and attach it to Zaire, mainly benefitting U.S. oil interests such as Gulf Oil.

In late 1975, in a well-funded attempt to make Angola a neo-colony of the U.S., Zaire troops openly invaded Angola on the side of FNLA and UNITA (a “liberation” group in southern Angola supported by South Africa). This intervention no doubt resulted from Mobutu’s meeting with U.S. officials and (then) Portuguese President Spinola on the Cape Verde islands in Sept., 1974, to discuss ways of preventing MPLA rule in Angola. Mobutu was also concerned about the future status of some 4,000 former Katangese troops then serving with the Portuguese forces in Angola.

Even after the strategy worked out by Mobutu and the U.S. was defeated in Angola, Zaire has continued to sponsor raids into Angola and has plotted with the U.S. through plans like “Operation Cobra” (exposed by Angolan President Neto in early 1977) to disrupt Angola’s economy and pave the way for massive foreign intervention and the overthrow of the MPLA government in Angola.

The “Katangese Gendarmes”

Mobutu’s concern about the former “Katangese gendarmes” in Angola proved justified. For in March, 1977, these troops went back into Katanga, now Shaba province, as the Congo National Liberation Front (FLNC), and inflicted serious defeats on Mobutu’s army.

How did this FLNC come about? The story told by FLNC spokesmen in Europe is unusual but believable, especially in light of the similar radicalization of Portuguese officers and troops in Angola. Diana Johnstone’s newsletter The Owl, published in Paris (4/77), gives this account. (See RESIST, 4/30/77).

The origins of the FLNC go back to the several thousand gendarmes who had served Moise Tshombe’s attempt in 1960-63 to break off Katanga as a separate nation from the Congo and to put it more at the service and mercy of Western European, particularly Belgian, mining interests. When Tshombe was defeated, the Katangese rebel forces went into exile in Angola and Zambia. In Angola, the Portuguese accepted them on the condition that they serve in their colonial army against the Angolan people’s forces in 1967, they were joined by new recruits who left Congo-Kinshasa (Zaire) after differences with the Mobutu regime. One of these was a policeman, Nathanael Mbumba, educated by Methodist missionaries. Mbumba was placed in charge of the “Katanga gendarmes” by the Portuguese. By 1974 and 1975, General Mbumba commanded six to seven thousand men who were more than happy to fight against the Mobutu-backed forces of the FNLA, led by Roberto.

When Spinola was kicked out by more left-leaning military officers in Portugal, and the time-table for Angolan independence was set, the Katangese troops were given three options: accept Mobutu’s offer of amnesty and return home to Zaire; fight black nationalists in South Africa; or join one of the Angolan liberation movements (MPLA, UNITA or FNLA). The political ferment in Angola at the time, plus the coming of new, more “intellectual” refugees from Zaire, began to affect the thinking of Mbumba’s little army. The same politicization process that occurred with Portuguese troops through the Angolan war happened with the Katangese forces. They were far too politicized to fight for South Africa. They could relate to the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal, which returned from colonial wars in Africa and overthrew their fascist regime at home. Why shouldn’t the Katangese troops do likewise? They chose to ally with the MPLA, since it was at odds with Mobutu’s Roberto, who had spent much time, money and manpower warring against the MPLA.

When the MPLA declared the founding of the People’s Republic of Angola in November, 1975, and was threatened by the FNLA and Zaire invasion from the North, Mbumba’s army played a key role in halting the advance and earned the MPLA’s gratitude and encouragement.

Last March 8 Mbumba’s troops returned home as the “Congolese National Liberation Front,” and by all reports were greeted warmly by the villagers in Shaba province.

The Congolese National Liberation Front (FLNC) stated clearly they were not aiming to break off Katanga (Shaba) from the Congo, but wanted to “liberate the whole country from Mobutu, not to take power but to free the people.” They hoped to link up with existing opposition within Zaire, such as Lumumbist Antoine Gizenga’s Fodelico (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo), located in the Kivu region.

A leading Zairese political exile, Cleophas Kamitatu, a close associate of Gizenga and founder of the revolutionary party, the African Socialist Front, stated in Paris he hoped to unite left opposition groups in Zaire to complement the military efforts of the FLNC.

Western news accounts universally reported that Mobutu’s troops had fled in disarray and were demoralized before the FLNC advance. They told of the Shaba villagers’ welcome of the rebel troops. Mobutu was compelled to turn to his friends abroad for aid to prevent his downfall, raising the cry of protection against communist invasion led by Soviet and Cuban troops. Though no credible evidence was ever produced for his claim, Mobutu’s appeal brought results (and incidentally helped shore up financial support for his crumbling regime). With thousands of crack foreign troops from Morocco, France, Belgium and other countries and massive foreign aid, and after heavy bombing and thousands of civilian casualties, Mobutu’s forces were able to halt the FLNC offensive.

The FLNC fighters then adopted the protracted guerrilla war strategy, continuing to strive to link up their struggle with other anti-Mobutu people’s forces in Zaire. If successful in unifying the movement against Mobutu and his foreign backers, these forces pose future headaches and final defeat for Mobutu and imperialism’s strategy in the area. For, as Kibwe Tcha-Malenge sharply argues, the main contradiction in Zaire (Congo-Kinshasa) is between the people’s forces and the corrupt, unpopular, squabbling forces of imperialism, and “it is the people who will win.”

Our duty as socialists is to support the people’s forces and not Mobutu’s, to do our own analysis and investigation, to discern the main contending forces, and to reject theories which confuse reality and unite objectively with U.S. imperialism, which is the chief and main danger to the aspirations of the African peoples for liberation and revolution.