When Zaire's elite paratroopers on guard around the recaptured airfield outside Kolwezi woke up the other day, they began firing their American M-16 rifles into the air, wasting hundreds of rounds of ammunition while thoroughly enjoying the fireworks display.
Finally, their French advisers, furious at this misuse of bullets, prevailed upon them to stop.Foreign correspondents watching the whole affair were agog.
Earlier, the same correspondents had been warned at an official French Army press briefing not to wander around the battered mining center without an armed escort because Zairian soldiers were likely to take their watches or other valuables at gun-point.
For more than a decade, a number of Eastern and Western nations - China, North Korea, the United States, Israel, Italy, France and Belgium - have worked to put together an armed force in Zaire with a minimal amount of discipline, self pride and ability. It has been on the whole a Sisyphian task with little to show for anynation's efforts.
It has been just as frustrating for Western banks and financial institutions, carrying $3 billion in unpaid debts, to try to impose a measure of discipline and order on the unorthodox economic practices of the Zairian government.
Since March, 1975, Zaire has been "effectively bankrupt," as one Western economist put it. It has gone on nonetheless with its creditors pouriing ever more money in hope of eventually salvaging some of their huge investment in this mineral-rich land gone bust on fallen copper prices and mismanagement.
Now, the Western powers have finally decided to take their stand against the growing Soviet and Cuban involvement in Africa here in Zaire. They are meeting in Paris to discuss ways of defending President Mobutu Sese Seko's 13-year-old government against any further attempts by leftist rebels, backing by neighboring Angola, with the aid of the Soviet Union and Cuba, to overthrow him.
Also at stake in Paris is whether these powers will take advantage of the current crisis to take a common stand toward Mobutu.
For Zaire, under President Mobutu, has been long in making meaningful reforms.
Despite the country's ever-growing financial, economic and security crisis no Western nation has been able so far to curb the whim and will of the Zairian leader. This has been largely because of his shrewd tactic of playing one Western nation off against another, threatening a break in diplomatic ties or a serious crisis in relations whenever one of them dared press him too hard.
Three years ago, the former American ambassador, Deane Hinton, was thrown out after Mobutu alleged that the United States was backing a coup attempt against him. In fact, Hinton, an economist by training, had lost favor long before because he had taken to lecturing Mobutu on the imperative need for economic reform.
The calculated slap in the face to Washington had the desired effect: Every effort was made to pacify Mobutu and assure him of continued American backing, an attitude that helped to involve the United States even deeper in the Angolan civil war.
Mobutu is still using the same old tactics. He has created a crisis in his relations with Belgium because it failed to rush with the same speed as France to his rescue when the rebels seized control of Kolwezi. He has hinted, among other things, that Zaire could easily replace the 5,000 Belgian technicians serving in Zaire with French ones.
Meanwhile, the present U.S. ambassador, Walter Cutler, appears worried that Mobutu may turn against him just as he did against Hinton. Cutler has ordered his staff to keep as much distance as possible from American correspondents, apparently out of fear that the Zairian leader might blame the embassy for any negative reporting on his leadership.
That is what happened last year during the first 80-day war in Zaire's Shaba Province when the U.S. Embassy made a major effort to help keep Western reporters abreast of breaking news at the distant war front.
This time, American reporters have practically no information about the war from the embassy, even about events directly affecting U.S. interests such as the evacuation of Americans from the Kolwezi area. Indeed, they were initially led to believe that no such thing was happening.(See ZAIRE, A16, Col. 1)(ZAIRE, From A1)
Yet, there is an almost universal conviction among the Western embassies here that now is the time to make a stand, when Mobutu is more dependent than ever for his survival on the largesse of Western nations even to bring a pan-African force to his rescue.
He has, after all, lost three-quarters of his copper production, worth about $300 million in foreign exchange. This is between a third and a quarter of Zaire's total foreign exchange earnings.
There is also a feeling among some Western diplomats for the first time that perhaps all is not hopeless. Indeed, they point cautiously to some signs of reform in the making!
It is true, they acknowledge, that the Zairian army did not distinguish itself in the defense of Kolwezi, that the general in command and many other officer fled before the rebel attack, and that a good portion of the troops ran away into the bush.
But, they say, it was also true that a few Zairian soldiers held out bravely in two command posts against enormous odds and that one post was never captured by the rebels. Furthermore, Zairian army paratroopers who were still undergoing training managed on their first test in battle to retake the Kolwezi airport in their own - two days before French Legionaires dropped on the town.
One person somewhat amazed but extremely pleased by the paratroopers' showing was Col. Yves Gras, who heads the French military mission here providing 40 advisers to the Zairian army. His theory is that if a shock force of 3,000 relatively well-disciplined paratroops could be formed, then Zaire might handle another Shaba invasion mostly on its own.
Right now, a team of 26 French advisers is training the first battalion of such a force while another 14 are trying to form a motorized company or two using French armored cars.
But the problem of army discipline remains enormous, as clearly indicated by the widespread looting and extortion even by the elite paratroops in Kolwezi. For some reason, the Mobutu government has never been able to pay its soldiers with any regularity, although it depends on them for its survival.
On the economic front, the optimists point to some indications of progress by the government toward reigning in its free spending, devil-may-carespirit of living in the midst of bankruptcy.
Chief among these is its decision to allow the International Monetary Fund to appoint a foreigner to oversee the disbursement of foreign exchange earnings within the central bank. It has also agreed to set up a special escrow account in a Swiss bank to assure the regular payment of interest and principal on the nation's huge debt once it is rescheduled. The account now has $85 million.
In effect, these were measures Mobutu had to take to get another IMF standby loan and $220 million from a Citibank-led consortium of American and European banks to keep his government afloat.
In addition, Belgian and American assistance experts have helped Zaire draft an emergency three-year plan which for the first time sets clear priorities to help revive and diversify the sagging, mineral-centered economy. The plan is to be discussed with potential Western donors in Brussels this month.
The basic question, however. according to Western economists, has always been less one of getting President Mobutu to recognize his problems and propose the right solutions than of getting him to carry through on any rescue program.
"There is a tendency here to act as if the problem is over once a speech has been made and a decision announced," commented oneeconomist.