Zaire Involvement in Angola
Despite the deficiencies of the FAZ, during the early 1970s Mobutu was viewed as a major player in Africa, and the Zairian military was considered to have improved. As a result, Mobutu sought to acquire the image of power broker by involving himself in the Angolan civil war.
The military setbacks suffered by the Zairian army in the course of its intervention in the Angolan civil war further aggravated the economic fiasco of Zairianization. In late 1974, in order to counteract the growing influence of the neo-Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola—MPLA), Mobutu chose to throw his weight behind Holden Roberto's pro-Western National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola — FNLA), and by July 1975, with Angolan independence just around the corner, units of the Zairian army made their way into Angola and joined the FNLA in an effort to seize control of the capital.
Anxious to prevent the victory of the Soviet- and Cuban-backed MPLA, Mobutu sent several battalions of the Zairian army into Angola to support anti-MPLA forces. These units advanced south toward Luanda with FNLA elements and also entered Cabinda with forces of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Frente para a Libertacao do Enclavo de Cabinda—FLEC). During October 1975, FAZ/FNLA forces advanced in the direction of Luanda, encountering gradually stiffening resistance from MPLA units defending the city, acting in concert with remnants of the old Katangan gendarmes. MPLA forces received assistance from Zairian exiles and Cuban units.
Eventually, Cuban soldiers supporting the MPLA inflicted a devastating defeat upon the Zairian-FNLA units. This combined force routed the Zairian/FNLA soldiers and counterattacked, sending them fleeing toward the Zairian border. As the FAZ retreated, it disintegrated into disorganized bands looting the countryside. According to historian Crawford Young, the result for Mobutu could hardly have been worse: "humiliating defeat for the army; the entrenchment of his enemies in Luanda; and the exposure of Zaire as a junior partner" to the United States and South Africa.
While the defeat of the Zairian troops in Angola cast grave doubts on their military capabilities, their performance during the 1977 and 1978 Shaba invasions proved equally disastrous. The FAZ not only failed to stop the invasions but showed its usual disposition to steal and loot civilian property. Only after the intervention of Moroccan troops in 1977, and of the French Foreign Legion in 1978, were the invaders forced back into Angola, accompanied by thousands of civilians fleeing their homeland for fear of retribution.
The 1977 and 1978 invasions were spearheaded by the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (Front pour la Liberation Nationale du Congo—FLNC), the only Zairian opposition movement that at the time claimed a measure of credibility. The distant origins of the FLNC are traceable to Tshombe's Katangan gendarmes, many of whom had found refuge in Angola after the secession; others were incorporated into the Zairian army, and those few who survived the Kisangani mutinies of 1966 and 1967 fled to Rwanda. Of the few thousand who found a haven in Angola in 1963, many joined the irregular units then being assembled by the Portuguese (the so-called Black Arrows) to fight the Angolan insurgents. In 1968 the Black Arrows transformed themselves into the FLNC . Understandably mistrustful of Mobutu and the FNLA with which he was allied, when Portuguese rule was about to crumble in 1974, the FLNC threw its support to the MPLA.
After the independence of Angola, the FLNC returned to its original sanctuary, near the Shaba border. It was from this base area that the "rebels" launched their first invasion into Shaba, on March 8, 1977. The towns of Dilolo, Kisenge, and Kapanga, all in south and west Shaba, fell into their hands with little or no resistance from the FAZ. In mid-April, as the FLNC closed in on Kolwezi, a major mining town in south Shaba, Mobutu issued an urgent call for military assistance to France and Morocco, and shortly thereafter French transport airplanes proceeded to airlift Moroccan troops into Shaba. Unwilling to engage the Moroccans, the invaders quickly retreated into Angola. FAZ units then moved in to orchestrate a brutal "pacification campaign" that led to a massive exodus of the civilian population into Angola.
A year later, in May 1978, the FLNC launched another invasion into Shaba, this time from Zambia. Once again, the performance of the FAZ proved less than spectacular. Encountering virtually no resistance from the Zairian army, the attacking units moved into Kolwezi on May 13. Greeted as liberators by the young and the unemployed, many of whom bitterly resented the presence of a sizeable group of expatriates in this major industrial town, the FLNC leadership appeared utterly incapable of controlling its troops, much less those Zairians who had spontaneously cast in their lot with the invaders and who now took the law into their hands. Scores of Europeans were massacred, some by the FLNC, some by Zairian civilians, and many more, according to knowledgeable observers, by Zairian troops anxious to loot European property.
As on previous occasions, the FAZ showed itself to be little more than a rabble. Not until May 19, after paratroops from the French Foreign Legion and Belgium were airlifted into Shaba, was Kolwezi recaptured. By then more than 100 European residents had lost their lives as well as large numbers of Kolwezi residents and FAZ and FLNC soldiers. Again hundreds of rebels withdrew into Angola, anticipating vengeance from Mobutu's FAZ.
Zairian allegations of joint Soviet-Cuban involvement in the Shaba invasions were instrumental in prompting a favorable response from Mobutu's friends (France, Belgium, and the United States) to his request for immediate military assistance. But the evidence in support of these allegations is scanty at best. Quite aside from the part played by the FLNC in spearheading the invasions, the sharp deterioration of the Zairian economy after 1975, coupled with the rapid growth of anti-Mobutist sentiment in the copper belt and elsewhere, were crucial factors behind the Shaba crises in 1977 and 1978. His impeccable anti-Soviet credentials nonetheless gave Mobutu guarantees of Western backing against his domestic foes, as well as substantial rewards in the form of United States development assistance and military aid.
In later years, Mobutu converted the Kamina Base into a major link in the supply route for arms shipments to Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola — UNITA). In so doing, he once again benefited from the convergence of his regional foreign policy goals and United States strategic objectives in southern Africa. Mobutu's endorsement of United States security objectives in southern Africa made it possible for his regime to benefit financially from foreign aid while resisting domestic pressures for economic, social, and political reforms.
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