The nation of Congo is replete with such natural resources as oil, copper, cobalt, diamonds and gold. Of all the developing nations on the African continent, it is the one perhaps best positioned to enter the 21st century with hopes of prosperity and growth.
But today those valuable resources that could be used to feed its hungry, repair roads and erect new buildings are being used for another purpose--to fuel its war machine.
The nation currently stands on the brink of a major civil war, a conflict that could soon become a regional one, as no fewer than six neighboring nations stand poised to enter the fray. According to I. William Zartman, director of African Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, the situation is certainly a dire one.
"This is a war that if it were in Europe would be called a world war," Zartman says. "We're not talking about major casualties, not a genocide. But it could destabilize the region for some time."
Zartman is one of the many who do not want to see this happen, and he is doing something about it.
For the past three years Zartman, along with a number of other academics, has been closely following the events in the region in an effort to put a stop to the fighting and install a stable central government.
In the summer of 1996 he helped set up the International Watch on Zaire, as the nation was then called. The goal of the IWZ was to provide information on a region of which little was known. Even the U.S. Embassy there was thin on details about certain areas of the country, which is one-third the size of the United States, Zartman says.
"We thought it would be useful to get other academics and non-government officials to exchange information as to what is going on there," Zartman says, adding that these academics could then pass on what they had found out to interested parties, such as the African Dialogue Center.
It was around the time that Zartman was setting up the IWZ that Zaire's ailing president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been dictator since 1965, started to come under fire from a rebel force led by the exiled dissident Larent Desire Kabila. In May 1997 Kabila's forces toppled Mobutu's regime and took control of the country, changing its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kabila took his seat as president of the new Congo. but, according to Zartman, he failed to consolidate his power over the whole country. He also alienated his neighbors to the east, Rwanda and Uganda, two nations that had helped put him into power in the first place by purging his leadership of advisers from the Tutsi ethnic group and failing to control the fighters who continued to attack Rwanda and Uganda.
On Aug. 2 these two nations sent in troops to back a second rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, in order to unseat the new ruler. Kabila, in turn, invited in troops from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia to support his fight against the rebels. The Congolese Rally for Democracy has since overtaken one-third of the country and has just launched a new offensive to capture another third and link up with the rebel forces in neighboring Angola.
Zartman, who returned in January from his last trip to the region, says the dominant mood among the Congolese people is the war must end, and the invasions must end.
"They don't want civil war," says Zartman, the Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizational and Conflict Resolution. "We discovered that the rebellion has a good chance of succeeding and joining up with other rebellions, but it has a poor chance of governing. And so it is largely to be no better than Kabila, and it could be worse."
In the beginning of 1998 Zartman helped form the Great Lakes Policy Forum and Security Working Group. This new group--a combination of the International Watch on Congo, as it was now called, and a similar group that was studying the region--is sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, Search for Common Ground, Refugees International and the African Studies Program at SAIS.
Zartman sees his role in the affairs of Congo as that of an "informed and interested citizen" rather than a policy-maker or mediator.
He is an expert on conflict management and has written and co-written many books on the subject. A Hopkins graduate who received his doctorate in international relations from Yale in 1956, he has been a professor in the African Studies Department at SAIS since 1980 and is also director of the school's Conflict Management Program.
He first visited Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1976, while Mobutu was still in power. Zartman says that back then the roads were still functioning, and there was a semblance of order as Mobutu had managed to integrate the many different cultures and factions that lived within the country's borders. By the end of the 1970s, however, Mobutu had started to lose his grip on the state.
"He ran out of ideas and legitimacy and became concentrated in privatizing the government," Zartman says. "He became the state."
Congo's land, rich in natural resources, has made it attractive to neighboring countries, which have extensive financial holdings there. Each outside nation, it seems, has a stake in the fighting, whether it be for security or financial reasons.
In fact, one of Zartman's fears is that all the fighting will lead to a kind of anarchy in which little regions will be governed by warlords who won't answer to the country's government.
"In essence, it will be Somalia-ized," Zartman adds.
Yet despite the nation's size and political troubles, Zartman rejects the notion that a Congo unified under a central government is not feasible.
"How many factions and ethnic groups do we have in this big United States? But it takes a strategy of broad consolidation rather than narrow consolidation. It takes a strategy of reaching out to the population and being the representative of them and involving them upward into a pyramid of governance," Zartman says.
One of the recommendations made by Zartman's group is that the nation needs to build politics upward by having local elections before national ones, a proposal that has been rejected by Kabila's officials.
But Zartman does not dismiss the prospect of Kabila staying in power. The role of the Great Lakes Policy Forum is not to replace government figures, he says, but to open up a dialogue on both sides of the fighting and to develop a proposal that will get the peace process started. That means getting outside powers, such as the United States and the United Nations, to help in these negotiations.
"People in a conflict need help to get out of their conflict," says Zartman, who is a member of a United Nations advisory group on Congo. "They are so busy carrying out their own conflict that they don't think of ways to get out of it."
Zartman says he will continue to do what he can, but there comes a time when you've done all the pushing you can do, and matters will have to take their own course.
"Life goes on. And what goes on might be the new offensive, and we will be reading about some battles down the road," Zartman says. "That is when the situation will change. It will no longer be as ripe a moment as right now."
William Zartman will speak about his recent trip to Congo on Wednesday, March 3, at 12:30 p.m., 417 Nitze Building at SAIS.