afrol.com, Misanet.com / IPS, 3 February - US officials and independent experts in Washington say they now see a glimmer of hope for peace in Central Africa after the visit in Washington this week of the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.
The two presidents, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and the DRC's new chief, 29-year-old Joseph Kabila, met in Washington privately with each other, as well as individually with Secretary of State Colin Powell whose message to them both was to implement quickly the 1999 Lusaka peace accords.
The accord calls for an immediate cease-fire, the withdrawal of all foreign forces over 180 days, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, and the launching of a ''national dialogue'' between the government in Kinshasa, its internal opposition, and rebel forces backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
Of course, Washington has urged all parties to abide by their Lusaka commitments since the accord was signed. But recent events, beginning with last month's assassination of Kabila's father, Laurent, now make prospects for progress somewhat brighter.
''The major obstacle (to progress) has been removed, and everybody is tired'' said Ted Dagne, an Africa expert at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), who attended meetings with both Kabila and Kagame this week. ''I think we're going to see progress, although there will be bumps in the road.''
US officials said they were pleasantly surprised by the younger Kabila's apparent willingness to consider moves that could spark new life in the Lusaka process, including efforts to engage the domestic opposition. At the same time, they, like many others involved in the Congo drama, are unsure how much control he has over the situation or even over his own fate.
''Everyone is slightly hopeful,'' according to Stephen Hayes, director of the
Corporate Council for Africa (CCA), which hosted a reception attended by some
175 executives, lobbyists, government officials, and their spouses in Kabila's
honour Thursday night. ''But what he can do and even how long he can last is
Indeed, Kabila, a political novice, must not only deal with his father's inner circle, mostly former exiles and Katangans, but also with big foreign powers, particularly Angola and Zimbabwe, whose military intervention in the DRC has been all that separated the elder Kabila's regime from being ousted by Uganda- and Rwanda-backed rebels for the past 30 months.
Many officials in Washington believe that Angola, which some believe to have been behind the Jan. 16 assassination, holds most of the cards at the moment. Luanda's troops, many of whom were sent in immediately after a bodyguard shot Kabila, have been maintaining order in Kinshasa. ''That's the question on everyone's mind: what do the Angolans want?'' said one official.
The current war began in 1998 after Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila's biggest backers in his successful 1996-97 campaign to oust President Mobutu Sese Seko, turned against him. While Rwanda and Uganda reinforced their pre-existing military presence in the east, several governments, including Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, sent in their own troops to defend Kabila's regime.
As a result, Africa's second largest country has been divided roughly in half for more than two years, as successive offensives launched mainly by government and Zimbabwean forces have been repeatedly turned back by rebels and their Ugandan and Rwandan allies.
Some analysts in Washington believe that Kabila's poor military performance and his purges of popular generals may also have sealed his doom.
The war has devastated much of the country. While it has scared off desperately needed foreign investment in the West, the toll in the East, where hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted due to fighting and local ethnic conflicts, has been especially severe. The US-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently estimated the number of deaths directly or indirectly caused by the violence at some 1.7 million since the Lusaka accords were signed.
Each of the foreign powers has its own interests in the DRC. Rwanda, which originally backed Kabila in order to push and disperse the ''genocidaire'' forces of the former government away from its western border, says it will remain in eastern Congo as a matter of self-defence until the genocidaires are disarmed and the border is secure.
Uganda also insists that its forces are in DRC to protect its borders against its own foreign-backed rebel groups and dismantle their bases. The two allies, which themselves have come to blows over control over Kisangani, have also used their presence in the east to extract the DRC's abundant mineral resources.
On the other side, all foreign forces say they are defending a sovereign government against foreign invaders. But individuals in Zimbabwe's government and army are reported to have acquired substantial business interests, including mining concessions, which they are loathe to give up.
Angola's main interest is to deny Unita, the rebel group it has been fighting for most of the last 25 years, safe haven in DRC territory. It is considered unlikely to leave at least until it gains firm guarantees that Unita will not be able to operate from any part of the country.
In recent months, however, Angola, which appears to have the greatest influence over the young Kabila and has reportedly restrained hard-liners in his father's old clique, has been quietly exploring whether its principal aims can be achieved by returning to Lusaka. There have been reports that it has held several rounds of secret talks, including one at the State Department in November, with Rwandan and Ugandan military officials.
At the same time, Rwanda, which has always denied links with Unita, has said it believes it can provide Angola with assurances of the kind it is seeking. Indeed, Kagame during his visit in Washington asked for Powell's assistance in engaging Luanda, according to knowledgeable sources.
''Angola really is the key to this, not only because of its control over Kinshasa, but also because, if the Angolans withdrew, the Zimbabweans would have to go, too,'' said one official. ''The Zimbabweans are very nervous about the Angolans,'' he added.
In that context, the more encouraging words spoken by the young Kabila - as
well as his meeting with Kagame and another meeting on the way here with South African President Thabo Mbeki, a key mediator - are seen as grounds
for at least a glimmer of hope. In public appearances Friday, Kagame described the meeting in positive terms, suggesting, at one point, that,
''maybe, with the new situation, we can find a way forward''.
By Jim Lobe, IPS