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Zaire Rebel Leader Dons Respectability On The Eve On Ascension

Sat., May 17, 1997

As his dream of toppling Zaire’s dictator neared reality, rebel leader Laurent Kabila traded his combat fatigues for pinstriped shirts and huddled with businessmen more often than with soldiers.

Kabila has kept his eye on the future during his seven-month rebellion to oust Mobutu Sese Seko, saying that military victories were easy compared to running Zaire’s government and rebuilding its economy.

“If I can’t do better than Mobutu, then our rebellion will have been a failure,” Kabila said.

So, as his forces swept westward across Zaire, Kabila made it a priority to begin repairing the economy that Mobutu had plundered for more than three decades to become one of the world’s richest men.

In the cities and provinces that the rebels call the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kabila reduced duties on most imports and exports, trimmed the civil service and tried to stop corruption.

He even began to dress the part to woo foreign investors.

The 56-year-old Kabila stopped wearing fatigues early in the rebellion. Then as victory drew within reach, he replaced his a crisply pressed safari suit, baseball cap and white Nike shoes with more Western attire - black pants, a pinstriped shirt and leather shoes.

If his aim was to help calm fears that he is a wild-eyed revolutionary intent on snubbing the West for its longtime support of Mobutu, it appeared to succeed.

A mining firm agreed to give the rebels $50 million as a down payment on a deal to dig for what could be the world’s largest copper and cobalt deposits. About 30 investment bankers visited rebel headquarters in southeastern Lubumbashi to talk with Kabila about possible investments.

After their uprising began in September as a protest against an attempt to expel ethnic Tutsis from eastern Zaire, Kabila’s rebels faced only occasional resistance from mostly ragtag government forces. That allowed them to advance swiftly across Africa’s third-largest country to within striking distance of Kinshasa.

So far, Mobutu has turned over power only to his own government - not to Kabila. It appears only a matter of time, however, before Kabila is running the country, and doubts already have arisen.

Kabila has said that he expects to step down after a yearlong transition to elections. But he’s banned all political parties except his own, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the same thing Mobutu did after seizing power.

His reputation has been tarnished, too, by allegations that his soldiers have massacred Rwandan Hutu refugees.

Many of the refugees are former Hutu militiamen and Rwandan soldiers who slaughtered at least 500,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 before fleeing to Zaire. Zaire’s government has armed them to fight the rebelsk.

“The jury is still out on Kabila,” says U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson. “He needs a lot of seasoning in the democratic process.”

Tags: Civil War

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