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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zaire Army Defeat Could Presage Nation's Breakup

NAIROBI -- If Zaire's army is defeated by Tutsi forces in the east, Africa's stumbling giant will be at greater risk of dismemberment than at any time since independence in 1960.


The prospect of military defeat loomed large on Thursday with news of further Tutsi gains in and around Goma and Bukavu, capitals of the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu.


Zaire's armed forces were already a byword for undiscipline in Africa. They have proved no match for the ethnic Tutsi rebels supported by the Tutsi armies in command of neighboring Rwanda and Burundi.


"It is fair to say Zaire has no army today. After years of tribalism and political interference we have a lot of men in uniform but no real army," said one Zairean analyst in Nairobi.


The bad news from the east could stir a rare display of patriotic fervor in Zaire's capital Kinshasa.


But it is just as likely to encourage secessionist elements in mineral-rich Shaba, bordering Zambia, and diamond-studded Kasai in the center of Zaire.


The threat of break-up has long been an issue but one man, Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, kept the country whole by relying on foreign friends when he was a key pro-Western African leader during the Cold War.


The armies of France, Belgium and Morocco all intervened in the 1970s and 1980s to crush secessionist rebels, mainly in Shaba. An array of nations, led by the United States, provided arms and security assistance.


Today the Cold War is over, Mobutu is a 66-year-old cancer patient in Switzerland and Zaire has no powerful friends.


"Zaire is alone for the first time and during its biggest crisis," said a Zairean analyst.


With Mobutu now in his third month abroad, the political vacuum is deepening. There is no designated or constitutional successor. With nothing to show after six years of pro-democracy agitation, the opposition is utterly split and many parties are tribal or secessionist or both.


Zaire's 35 million people will be insulted and ashamed at their army's showing. The government says the Tutsis of tiny Rwanda, with a population of only 6 million, have orchestrated the Tutsi rebellion in the east.


"The Zairean army is a force with no morale or discipline. It pays itself by looting property. We never underrate anybody but if it comes to a fight we are very confident," a senior Tutsi Rwandan army officer told Reuters in September, just before the war in eastern Zaire began.