Working Paper
Zaire after Mobutu

A Case of a Humanitarian Emergency

The recent history of Zaire presents a unique opportunity to understand and explain humanitarian emergencies. This monograph follows an inductive approach in analysing the trajectory of state-building in Zaire as a significant explanatory variable of humanitarian emergencies. By tracing the sources of vulnerability to the colonial legacy, this study shows that Mobutu's rentier state was a vulnerable institution, providing little foundation for a strong state. The concentration of power in the hands of one man weakened the economic base of state-building. The end of the cold war with its democratization wave only accelerated the demise of the rentier state. The analysis suggests that the ruling elite in Zaire saw the democratization process as a threat to its power, social status, and retirement security and was therefore willing to see the remains of the state be totally destroyed rather than bailed it out. By opening up the political system, democratization increased political demands that overloaded the system. The result was a breakdown of the social system and a rise of humanitarian emergencies. Although the statistical analysis is confined to Zaire, the implications of the study's findings extend beyond this particular country. The findings first suggest that the inability of a political regime to adapt to new challenges is a major source of humanitarian emergencies. A social system needs to adapt to changing circumstances. Second, a growing economy that enhances regional integration and rural productivity as well as sound policies that minimize elite polarization and state economic intervention are likely to decrease the chance of humanitarian emergencies. Third, mass mobilization, in the absence of adequate institutional arrangements to handle increased demands, tends to polarize the society and increase the chance of humanitarian emergencies in plural societies. Fourth, political sources of vulnerability indicate that state penetration and the capacity to protect territorial boundaries should reduce humanitarian emergencies. Moreover, political instability is also a major political source of vulnerability in cross-regression. Zaire remains a critical case in Central Africa, given the volatility of Burundi and Rwanda. The international community must avoid all steps that could threaten its shrinking capacities. A fragmented Zaire would complicate any effort for a lasting peace in Central and East Africa. The international community should now direct considerable attention and resources toward strengthening the African civil society, and increasing recognition and respect for basic human rights and freedom. Still, solutions must come from within and be Zairian mandated to have lasting effect. Grassroots solutions should constitute the first preventive tool to avert humanitarian tragedies, because a lasting peace is possible only if it is embedded in local values. Nonetheless, the international community has a moral obligation to protect human life by making state leaders who violate human rights accountable for their actions and by promoting grassroots organizations capable of monitoring government performance. National sovereignty should no longer be an excuse to sacrifice human life, dignity, and freedom.