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International Socialism, May 1977


Notes of the Month

Zaire: The war in Shaba


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, pp. 5–7.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FIFTEEN months ago the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) defeated the Western-backed invasion force largely composed of South African and Zairean troops that had sought to crush it. The reverberations of that victory were felt throughout Southern Africa: it stimulated the escalation of the liberation war in Zimbabwe and helped to instil into the black youth of Soweto the confidence to take on the South African regime. The war that broke out in Shaba province of Zaire on Angola’s border in March this year is also an effect of MPLA’s victory.

Zaire and Western imperialism

THE government of General Mobutu Sese Soko in Zaire (before 1971 Congo Kinshasa) is one of US imperialism’s closest allies in Africa. During the years of turmoil after the country became independent of Belgium in 1960 the CIA systematically intervened to ensure that its men were in control. They connived in the removal and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the left-wing nationalist who became the country’s first prime minister. CIA agents also played a vital part in setting up a secure pro-Western regime under Cyrile Adoula, and, after Adoula’s fall, under Mobutu who seized power in November 1965, and in defending it against nationalist and separatist uprisings.

The reason for American intervention was Zaire’s vast mineral wealth. Mines concentrated mainly in Shaba province in the south of the country produce copper, zinc, cobalt, uranium, cadmium and crushing bart. Zaire accounts for 8 per cent of world copper production and 67 per cent of the strategically vital mineral cobalt. (Economist, December 25 1976) The Zairean economy is almost completely dependent on the mining industry, which accounts for about 2/3 of the country’s exports. 70 percent of the population of 25 million live off subsistence agriculture, while manufacturing industry accounted for only 9.2 per cent of the Gross National Product in 1974. (Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Economic Review: Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Annual Supplement 1976)

Zaire’s mineral wealth, combined with the ‘stability’ offered by the Mobutu regime, has attracted large-scale Western investment. There are about 1 billion dollars of US investment in the mining industry alone. (Le Monde, March 22 1977). Although the previously dormant Belgian mining interests were nationalised in 1967, Belgian capital continues to play a vital role in the Zairean economy, for example, controlling the banks, and Belgium still took 46.9 per cent of Zaire’s exports in 1974. (EIU, op. cit.) A number of major Western car companies – Leyland, Renault, Peugeot, General Motors, Ford, Fiat, and Datsun – are building assembly plants in Zaire, while the French firm Thompson recently received the contract for a lavish television and telecommunications project. In 1974 private investment provided 51.9 per cent of gross fixed capital formation. (EIU, op. cit.)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, buoyed by a high world copper price, Mobutu launched a massive public spending programme. When the copper price began to fall steeply, the resulting balance of payments deficits were covered by borrowing from Western banks. Zaire is now estimated to be nearly 2 billion dollars in the red with its Western creditors. In early 1975 it began to default on its loan repayments. By the end of last year it was overdue to the tune of between 75 and 100 million dollars. (Financial Times, April 14 1977)

The burden of Mobutu’s policies fell on the backs of the workers and small peasant farmers, who saw their real incomes fall while inflation rocketed.

Consumer price index












(EIU, op. cit.)

Even the army, whose wages Mobutu had been careful to increase faster than inflation previously, went unpaid at the height of the crisis in 1975–6.

This crisis was aggravated by the war in Angola, which cut off Zaire’s access to the Atlantic port of Lobito via the Benguela railway, causing the loss of 80 million dollars in copper sales. Copper, cobalt and zinc production and sales all fell in 1975. (Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Economic Review: Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, First Quarter 1977)

As in the case of Zaire’s southern neighbour Zambia, the effect of the copper crisis was to force Mobutu to rely on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Vorster provided Zaire with credits and easy terms for South African imports. Zairean exports routed via the South African port of East London.

Finally, the imperialist countries intervened directly to save their loyal ally. In December 1976 a consortium of US, European and Japanese banks agreed to give Zaire a 250 million dollar credit, with more money in the pipeline. The price was high. In 1973–4 Mobutu had launched a ‘radicalisation of the authentic Zairean revolution’, ‘Zaireanising’ and then nationalising a number of foreign (mainly Belgian) enterprises (American interests were untouched). He now had to reverse this policy, offering to hand back the firms to their former Belgian owners. He also introduced an austerity programme laid down by the IMF, involving a freeze on the number of state employees and on public sector wages.

As in Zambia, the world crisis has destroyed the old dreams of national independence. And, as in Zambia, the result has been an upsurge in working-class militancy. According to the European representative of the opposition Congolese National Liberation Front, there was a wave of strikes in 1975–6, embracing transport workers in Kinshasa, dockers at Matadi and miners and railway workers in Shaba and Kasai (interviewed in Hebdo 77, reprinted in Rouge, April 13 1977).

Shaba and Angola

THE regime faced in March this year with invasion from Angola was, therefore, one heavily dependent on Western imperialism for its survival and engaged in attacking the living standards of workers and peasants as the price of this independence. This may explain why the invasion force that entered Shaba province on March 8 and 9 met with support from the local population and why Mobutu’s 45,000-strong army found such difficulty in defeating a force estimated at around 1,000, according to some observers.

Shaba, however, has a history of opposition to the central government. In July 1960, shortly after independence, the provincial president of Katanga (as Shaba was then called), Moise Tshombe, seceded from the Congo. He did so with the backing of the Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga, the Belgian company controlling the province’s mineral resources. It was only with massive American aid that Adoula and Mobutu (then army chief of staff) were able to oust Tshombe in 1963.

The invasion of Shaba has been linked to the Katangese secessionist movement. It is claimed that the invasion force consists of former Katangese gendarmes, the elite force recruited from the Belgian officered colonial Force Publique and led by white mercenaries, which murdered Lumumba and served Tshombe and Union Miniere in the early 1960s. Allegedly this force fled to Angola after the reconquest of Katanga and served in the Portuguese colonial army, before siding with MPLA during the 1975–6 war.

However, according to Afrique-Asie (April 4–17 1977), almost all the Katangese gendarmes were slaughtered on Mobutu’s orders in two extermination camps at Lisala and Ingongo. The leader of the invasion army, Nathaniel Mbumba, was chief of police in Shaba until 1967, when he was arrested for opposing Mobutu’s one-party state. He was able to escape to Angola, where he joined the Portuguese commandos.

What seems likely is that many exiles from Shaba, like Mbumba, also became Portuguese mercenaries in Angola. When the Caetano regime fell in April 1974, they naturally gravitated towards MPLA because they shared a common enemy in the shape of Mobutu, chief backer of the stooge Angolan movement FNLA, headed by his lifelong friend Holden Roberto. (Rosa Coutinho, leftist Portuguese high commissioner in Angola during 1974–5 is supposed to have played a part in bringing MPLA and the Zairean exiles together.) Armed and trained by MPLA and their Russian and Cuban allies, the exiles fought against the Zairean and South African invaders during the Angolan war. They have now received their reward in being

permitted to invade Zaire from Angolan territory. The regime of Agostinho Neto in Angola seems to have been moved to making this decision by a desire to destroy their most bitter opponent in black-ruled Africa – Mobutu. Although Neto and Mobutu signed an agreement in February 1976 to end hostilities, there have been recent reports that FNLA guerillas on the Zairean border with Angola have been reactivated. The Angolan government claims that 43 villagers in northern Angola were killed by a force from Zaire on February 26. Shortly before the invasion of Shaba Neto accused the US of training anti-MPLA forces in Zaire under the direction of Colonel Appelido Johnson, who commanded the ‘Green Berets’ in Bolivia in 1966–7. (Le Monde, March 1 1977) Moreover MPLA is under pressure from South African-backed Unita troops in southern Angola.

The aim of the Shaban rebels does not seem to be a revived Katangan state. They are fighting under the banner of the Congolese National Liberation Front (FLNC), whose objective is the overthrow of the Mobutu regime itself and whose rhetoric is leftist. They also seem to have the sympathy of the exiled Lumumbist leader Antoine Gizenga, whose Simba guerillas are still operating in eastern Zaire, the base of a nationalist government headed by Gizenga, in the early 1960s. Moreover, while the Katangan secession had the support of Western European (principally Belgian) capital, who saw their interests threatened by a unified Congo linked to American capital, today all the Western imperialist countries are united in supporting the Mobutu regime.

Soviet social imperialism?

GOVERNMENTS sympathetic to Mobutu from Peking to Pretoria have blamed the Shaban war on the Russian bureaucracy and their Cuban clients. The rulers of China have, as usual, outdistanced most Western governments in their cold-war rhetoric. New China Agency declared that ‘The [Shaban – Ed.] mercenaries are paid by Soviet social-imperialism, which has organised the invasion of Zaire ... The events establish that Soviet social-imperialism has recourse traitorously to neo-colonial manoeuvres to pursue its aggression and its expansionism in Africa.’ (Le Monde, March 24 1977)

Credence has been added to this claim by the fact that the fighting in Zaire coincided with the African tours of Castro and Podgorny. Unquestionably, the Russian bureaucracy are eager to establish close links with various African regimes, in particular the radical nationalist rulers of Angola and Mozambique. Moreover, they would undoubtedly welcome the overthrow of the Americans’ best friends in Africa. But their objective is not the economic colonisation of Africa. The mineral wealth of southern Africa largely duplicates Russia’s natural resources. The Soviet economy needs, not raw materials, it already possesses plenty, but the Western capital and technology required to raise productivity and develop the country’s natural resources – hence the pursuit of detente with the US. Russia’s aims in Africa are more limited – the acquisition of strategic naval bases and, if possible, the denial of Western access to crucial raw material sources.

Moreover, the Soviet bureaucracy hopes to achieve these aims through the encouragement of links with ‘progressive’ African regimes. Overt attempts to overthrow pro-Western African rulers could well unleash an anti-Russian backlash among other black governments. So it is very unlikely that there are Russian or Cuban troops in Zaire, although the Shaban rebels may, like many African liberation movements, have received arms and training from Russia and its allies. Even NATO sources confirm that the rebel force is entirely African. (Le Monde, April 16 1977)

The Arab connection

THE invading army won a number of rapid victories. Popular response in Shaba itself was sympathetic and the Zairean army itself seemed alienated from Mobutu, with leaflets attacking the high command and calling for a fair deal for junior officers and the rank and file finding their way into a number of military bases. By the beginning of April the rebels were advancing on Kolwezi, Zaire’s main centre of mining and manufacturing industry. Attempts to drum up mass support for the regime were ineffective, with an apathetic crown of under 20,000 turning out in Kinshasa on a government-organised demonstration.

Mobutu appealed to the US government for help. After all, Zaire had received 500 million dollars of American aid between 1960 and 1973. (Le Monde, March 22 1977) In 1974 there were 4,000 US government personnel in Zaire. There were reports that mercenaries were being recruited in the US and Britain to serve Mobutu. But the Carter administration, anxious to avoid a repeat of the Angolan debacle, limited itself to the supply of medical stores and ‘non-lethal’ military equipment, refusing to send troops or arms.

However, on April 8 the Moroccan regime announced that it was sending 1,500 troops to Zaire in response to Mobutu’s appeal for aid to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The troops were transported by planes supplied by the French air force. 30 French paratroop officers arrived in Kolwezi. Their commander explained: ‘We are here to organise the defences of Kolwezi and to assure the reception of the Moroccans.’ (Le Monde, April 13 1977)

There are traditional links between Mobutu and the Moroccan regime dating back to the overthrow of Lumumba by Mobutu in September 1960: The principal leader was supposed to have been General Kettani, the commander of the Moroccan UN contingent (in the Congo – Ed.) and a former major in the French army. In any case, it was he who had selected the 2,000 ‘paracommandos’ whom Mobutu made his praetorian guard and his principal Congolese instrument of power.’ (A. Fontaine, History of the Cold War from the Korean War to the present, New York 1970, p. 375)

There are also close links between Giscard D’Estaing and Hassan II of Morocco. The French action seems to have been dictated by a number of motives – to reassure France’s African allies, like Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, who are worried about the spread of Russian influence, to reassert the independent role of French imperialism a la De Gaulle, to strengthen Giscard’s position within the French ruling bloc after the blows dealt him by Chirac to his right (see Notes of the Month, International Socialism 97). There is a French tradition of intervening in French-speaking African states – for example, Gabon (1964) and Tchad (1968).

Other Arab regimes have come to Mobutu’s aid. The Numeiry regime in the Sudan said it ‘was ready to furnish Zaire with all the aid it needed’. (Le Monde, April 13 1977) An Egyptian military mission was sent to Zaire. This concern by Arab rulers in part reflected the close links that Mobutu has developed with them since he broke off links with Israel in 1974. But more important, it is a sign of the stabilising role that the rulers of Saudi Arabia in particular are increasingly playing in the Third World.

As the Economist put it recently:

‘For the moment, the mantle of Arab leadership is firmly on the shoulders of the Saudi royals, and it is woven from the wealth that goes with the possession of vast amounts of oil.

‘At the moment Saudi Arabian money is trying to divert the Marxist-Leninist [sic] regime of Somalia into more moderate ways. This is only the latest example of Saudi Arabia’s busy new policy all around the ring of the Arab and near-Arab world. It took a decisive hand in stopping the Lebanese civil war; in calming the Syrian-Iraqi dispute; in ending the war between South Yemen and Oman, and the near war between North and South Yemen; in smoothing over the Moroccan-Algerian contest for the western Sahara.’ (April 2 1977)

It is inconceivable that the Egyptian and Sudanese regimes should have come to Mobutu’s aid without consulting their paymasters in Riyadh. And Saudi Arabia is Washington’s most loyal ally in the Middle East. The Nixon doctrine, according to which US imperialism should operate, no longer by direct intervention, but through intermediary powers responsible for various regions (e.g. Iran, Japan and South Africa) has survived its author in the White House.


THE French and Arab intervention may have saved Mobutu for the time being. Already there are reports reverses for the rebels since the arrival of the Moroccan troops in Kolwezi. But the invasion revealed the fragility of the Mobutu regime. Even if the invasion is beaten off, Mobutu remains vulnerable to external attack, and, more important, to internal challenge both from ambitious officers and workers and peasants. After the fall of Hailie Selassie in 1974 Mobutu is reported to have been haunted by the possibility of the same scenario – military rebellion and mass strikes – in Zaire.

Such an explosion could well begin to unravel the artificial pattern of post-colonial states in southern and central Africa. There are close ethnic and economic links between Shaba and the turbulent Zambian copperbelt, with its militant mineworkers and shaky Kaunda regime. Mobutu’s fall could herald dramatic development; in other black African states.

Such a prospect terrifies the rulers of Africa, black and white alike. The Nigerian regime has been trying to find a negotiated settlement to the war, while Vorster, for whose policy of detente Kaunda and Mobutu are central, is reported to have sent a senior BOSS official to Kinshasa to discuss military aid against the rebels.

The lesson is clear. The great mining centres of southern and central Africa – stretching from Shaba to the Zambian copperbelt to the gold mines of the Witwatersrand – are links in a chain that unites the workers of these countries against their rulers, whatever the colours of the latter’s skin. Only revolutions that bring these workers to power and link their in the struggle to break the hold of Western capitalists on their economies, and to spark oft revolution in the imperialist heartlands themselves, offer any way out.

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