by Eric Margolis
PARIS- By the time this column appears, the Congo River port city of Kisangani will likely have fallen to advancing rebel forces. Once Kisangani is secured, and the rebel army resupplied, the road to Zaire's capital, Kinshasa lies open.
Kisangani, eastern Zaire's most important city, used to be called Stanleyville when Belgium ruled the Congo (today Zaire). After Belgium abruptly withdrew in 1960, this vast nation of 200 tribes and 40 million people dissolved into bloody chaos. Congolese rebels, known as Simbas, raped, tortured, and massacred whites in Stanleyville. Italian airmen who fell into Simba hands were eaten.
White mercenaries from France and Belgium - Les Affreux (the frightful ones) led by the legendary soldier of fortune Bob Denard, and the famed Wild Geese under Mad Mike Hoare, raced to rescue remaining whites in Stanleyville. Anti-communist Cubans paid by CIA flew air strikes in B-26 bombers.
This week, Serb mercenaries fighting for the central government of President Mobutu, who is dying of cancer here in France, were in action around Stanleyville, trying unsuccessfully to halt the rebel advance.
The Zairean Army, good only for rapine and pillage, is melting away. The rebel forces are most unusual. Unlike Africa's normally rag-tag, undisciplined soldiers, these rebels are well-organized and effectively led, amply supplied and tightly disciplined. Interestingly, they have the latest well-maintained arms and expensive combat uniforms.
It's amply clear outside powers are backing the rebels and their shadowy leader, Laurent Kabila. Some of the rebels belong to the tough Tutsi Army from neighboring Rwanda; others are ethnic Tutsis from eastern Zaire. Having crushed the Hutu army, they appear determined to march on Kinshasa and overthrow Mobutu's crumbling regime.
Uganda, a new US client, is also aiding the rebels. French security experts believe Israel and the CIA may also be secretly supporting and supplying insurgent forces. France, which rules much of West Africa through local black overseers called 'presidents,' backs Mobutu. Paris is convinced there is an American plot to oust France from much of its West and North African dominions - just as the US kicked Britain and France out of their Mideast colonies in the 1950's. France and the US are openly vying to secure control of Zaire, which has vast resources of minerals, gems, gold and oil.
The French compare today's events in eastern Zaire with the famous Fashoda incident at the end of the last century in which British and French colonial forces almost went to war at an obscure post in southern Sudan. After the Fashoda scare, the two imperial powers agreed to divide Central Africa into spheres of influence.
Over the past year, the US and Israel have been arming and financing the minority Christian regimes of Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Forces from these African nations have invaded Sudan, whose Islamic regime the Americans are attempting to overthrow. Now this 'Anglo' entente has turned on French-backed Zaire. To the angry French, nothing less than a new race to colonize Africa is under way. France's European partners are also increasingly worried by the growing strains between Europe and the US over black Africa and the Mideast.
Europe's strategy is to support France's political and economic domination of North, Central and West Africa, and to discreetly reassert European influence in the oil-rich Mideast. In the view of Paris, the Clinton Administration's Mideast policy is almost wholly shaped by Israel through its powerful American lobby. Israel's strategy is to keep Europe, which tends to side with the Arabs, out of the Mideast, while expanding Israeli influence in Central Africa and along the Red Sea Coast on the Horn of Africa. Israel has long had special interests in Zaire's mineral wealth and Africa's arms markets.
Unless France manages to mount a serious mercenary force to succor Mobutu - or even sends some of its crack intervention forces based in West Africa to Zaire - it seems inevitable that the Mobutu regime will fall, or be overthrown by a coup. The political situation in Kinshasa is chaotic, as various factions vie for power to succeed the moribund Mobutu. As of now, however, no Zairean leader has the stature of authority to grab the throne of God-King Mobutu.
Another fascinating questions is, who will lay hands on Mobutu's treasure after he dies. The Zairean ruler has a reputed US $5 billion stashed away in European banks, not counting castles and villas. His cronies have looted Zaire to the point where it is totally bankrupt. The future battle over Mobutu's treasure will dwarf the struggle by the Philippines to recover the horde of the late Ferdinand Marcos and confront Swiss banks with another major, and highly unwelcome crisis.
No matter how much lip service is paid to the UN and aiding refugees, the real theme in Africa is a return to the great power rapacity of the 19th century colonial era. Control of oil and minerals is the sina qua non of international power. The great race for Africa is again afoot.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]