1997 News of the World: Africa

Updated July 10, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

1997 News of the World

Africa has been experiencing one of its most violent periods since the Colonial era, with fighting taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congo Republic, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Angola, Somalia, and Sudan. At the center of Africa's unrest during 1997 was Zaire.

Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's flamboyant dictator for 32 years, was overthrown in May, ending one of the world's most corrupt and megalomaniacal regimes. The last of the CIA-nurtured Cold War despots, Mobutu deftly courted France and the U.S., which used Zaire as a launching pad for covert operations against bordering countries, particularly Marxist Angola. Mobutu's disastrous policies drove his country to economic collapse while he siphoned off millions of dollars for himself. Laurent Kabila and his long-standing but little-known guerrilla movement launched a seven-month campaign that ousted Mobutu and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo, its name before Mobutu changed it to Zaire in 1971.

Mobutu's downfall began in October 1996, when he planned to banish the Zairian Tutsi who had lived for centuries in eastern Zaire. Neighboring Rwanda's Tutsi-led government came to their aid, as did other rebel groups, one of which was led by Kabila. After conquering eastern Zaire, Kabila earned the support of a host of Mobutu's enemies, including Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola. His troops swept through the country, encountering little resistance. Mobutu fled in exile to Morocco on May 16, where he died of cancer in September.

Elation over Mobutu's downfall faded as Kabila's own autocratic style emerged. He stymied U.N. human rights investigations and continued to depend on foreign troops for border skirmishes rather than establish a strong national army. Many Congolese dismissed him as a puppet ruler who allowed his country to be overrun by outsiders. These foreign armies, many of whom were pro-Tutsi, exacerbated ethnic tensions. Kabila's shaky grip on the country worried many of his neighbors, who had hoped a unified Congo would stabilize the entire region.

Ethnic violence continued unabated in neighboring countries. Following Kabila's takeover of Zaire, Rwanda relapsed into civil war, with Rwandan Hutu mounting a guerrilla war against the Tutsi-dominated army along the Congolese-Rwandan border. In Burundi, where a Tutsi-led military coup in July 1996 ignited civil war, Hutu rebels on the Congolese and Tanzanian borders renewed their attempts to topple the government. In Uganda, guerrillas with bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo became intent on the downfall of President Yoweri Museveni, denouncing him as pro-Tutsi. The Democratic Republic of Congo's western neighbor, the Congo Republic, resurfaced from a four-month civil war (June 5–Oct. 15) with the former Marxist dictator Denis Sassou-Nguesso at its helm. Buttressed by military aid from Angola, he overthrew President Pascal Lissouba, the country's first democratically elected president.

The continent's two oases of hope continue to be Uganda and South Africa. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which promises amnesty to those who confess their crimes under the Apartheid system, grapples with its enlightened but painful process of national recovery. Uganda's Yoweri Museveni has transformed the ruins of Idi Amin and Milton Obote's Uganda into an economic miracle. He and Nelson Mandela serve as the charismatic mentors to other African countries, preaching a philosophy of self-sufficiency and anti-corruption.

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