Ngizo, the Colonel

April 15, 2004

Distrust, power plays hamper Congo's search for postwar order


KINSHASA, Congo (AP) _ For years, Col. Siatilo Ngizo was a soldier in Congo's eastern battlefields, serving in a rebel army that tried _ and failed _ to seize Kinshasa, the capital.

Ngizo finally has made it to Kinshasa _ not as a fighter, but as a bureaucrat.

He serves in an internationally brokered power-sharing government of former enemies charged with a daunting task: patching together a nation the size of western Europe torn apart by five years of war.

But with old rivalries running deep and half the country still carved into de facto fiefdoms, it isn't easy to divvy up power, government posts and mineral spoils.

"Things are moving very, very slowly," said Ngizo, the defense minister's adviser on military affairs. "People are resisting change."

The transitional government was born nine months ago in a peace deal after a conflict that sucked in the armies of a half-dozen African nations and claimed an estimated 3 million lives, mainly through war-induced hunger and disease. President Joseph Kabila has four vice presidents _ two of them rebel leaders who had long fought to overthrow him.

A two-house legislature is divided among eight groups, including smaller rebel factions, the political opposition and the Mayi Mayi, a tribal militia whose followers believe magic water can protect them from bullets.

In the lush hills overlooking Kinshasa, rebel officials have moved into sprawling villas, living alongside government officials who were once their enemies. Airlines fly to formerly rebel-held eastern cities. Long-severed trade routes on the Congo river have reopened.

"Not long ago, it wasn't possible to think that we could all sit together in the same government. We've made a great step," said Sesanga Hipungu, chief of staff for Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice president and one-time rebel leader. "But there is a long way to go."

In the capital, former rebels complain that military brigades, police and ubiquitous intelligence agents are still controlled by Kabila and the hard-liners around him. Their leaders each have about 200 troops in the city _ and a helicopter on standby for a quick escape if needed.

Other habits die hard. In south and central Congo, the main state companies exploiting lucrative diamond, copper and cobalt mines are still run by Kabila appointees, who, along with the president's closest associates, are believed to be profiting personally.

In the north and east, former rebel factions retain control over huge tracts of land rich in gold, diamonds, timber and coffee.

In a mineral-rich country long pillaged by its leaders, the poor are resigned to more of the same.

"They're all egoists, they only care about themselves," said Guy, a security guard who wouldn't give his surname. "While we're struggling to find something to eat, they're trying to find nice cars to drive."

To regain control of Africa's third largest nation, Kabila has dispatched 10 new regional military commanders nationwide _ putting rebels in former government zones and vice versa.

But plans to appoint new governors to each of Congo's 11 provinces _ a big step toward imposing central government authority _ have bogged down in bickering over how to share out the posts.

Elections are scheduled for June 2005, but many believe they will be delayed. Much of the last is still volatile and lawless, despite the presence of 10,800 U.N. peacekeepers.

The first battalion of a newly unified national army has graduated from a Belgian-run training program. It has yet to be armed. Nationwide disarmament plans are still in limbo.

"Despite initial progress in national reunification, the peace process is facing daunting challenges," chiefly whether the transitional leaders can overcome "an atmosphere of distrust" and become a unified government, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned in his latest report on the country.

Tensions hit a new high March 28, when hours of gunfire rattled through the crumbling streets of humid tropical capital for the first time in years.

Diplomats and authorities say about 40 men launched simultaneous, pre-dawn attacks on four military bases in the city, and fled after troops loyal to Kabila stepped in. Two weeks later, it's still unclear who they were.

Theories include a coup attempt by ex-combatants, a mutiny by unpaid troops or, as Ngizo believes, stage-managed violence aimed at derailing the peace process to put off elections.

"Those who have power want to hold onto it as long as possible," Ngizo said.

Copyright 2004 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.