KINSHASA, Congo—The invalids line their wheelchairs along the edge of the pier, high above the Congo River's swirling, deadly currents, as if about to plunge in.
But they are not suicidal. They are in a race. And they must solve an important puzzle: How can they board the approaching ferry without being kicked or beaten? What is the best way to avoid the bullying laborers who soon will drop crushing, 120-pound sacks of rice onto the pier? When, and for how long, should they pause to dodge the barrels of solvent that will come rolling down the loading ramp? And can they really move fast enough to squeeze past that Mercedes where a rich man sits with his windows rolled up, honking impatiently to drive onto the boat?When the ferry from Brazzaville drops its plank, the matter is resolved within minutes. Hundreds of people stampede off its deck, elbowing hundreds more who shove to get on. In between, the men in wheelchairs swivel and probe, rolling this way, nudging that way, seeking openings. Policemen in khaki swing at the passengers with webbed belts, bits of garden hose, rubber fan belts, knotted ropes and wires. A stevedore slips and spills a bale of peanuts. Short, sharp pushing matches break out.
"It helps to be like us," says Gode Mowangi, one of hundreds of polio-stricken traders who eke out their living transporting goods across the Congo River on their wheelchairs. "You are invisible. People let you alone."
Many of Kinshasa's 5 million citizens must feel something like Mowangi these days--ignored by the world, swept up in a gigantic brawl that is being fought largely over their heads, and scrambling to survive, to avoid being trampled to death.
The brawl in this case involves a sprawling, regional war of unprecedented scale in Africa. Deep in the continent's belly, a rabble of Congolese militias and seven different armies are fighting over whether President Laurent Kabila should remain in power. The conflict has ripped Congo in half.
Congo's war is to some extent a river war; the Congo River's 7,000 miles of navigable tributaries often define the route of an army's advance. To follow its bent course, then, is to follow the flow of the conflict itself--from the mineral-rich headwaters in Katanga, to the steamy jungles controlled by rebels, to the mighty waterway's final dash for the sea near Congo's forsaken river capital, Kinshasa.
But if the Congo River today tells the story of a rich, vital nation imploding into chaos, then it tells a bigger story too. Far beyond the Congo's million-square-mile watershed, politicians and diplomats are whispering that the Congo war could drag Africa into unprecedented crisis.
Some fear Kabila will fight to keep power at any cost, including even the fracturing of Africa's third-largest nation.
Should this happen, analysts say, the murky struggle in Congo will become the defining African war of the new century. And the resulting upheaval will be unlike any since colonial times.
"If you end up with a de facto partition of Congo, you set an explosive precedent," said a Western diplomat in Kinshasa. "You basically raise the specter of the breakup of the weaker nation-states in Africa. It's the continent's biggest taboo."
Since the early 1960s, when colonialism began to crumble, there has been one cardinal understanding among most African statesmen: Tinkering with colonial borders, however nonsensical they might be, invites the dual disasters of border wars and tribal secessions.
Even hard-core pan-Africanists like Tanzania's Julius Nyerere declared that such a course would "lead us to the tragic absurdity of spending money on armaments while our people die for want of medical attention."
Corrupt governments and the Cold War have confirmed Nyerere's fears anyway. But it is worth noting that in more than 70 coups in Africa since 1963, none has resulted in the forming of new nations. Eritrea, which became independent in 1993, was a colonial creation.
"The real danger of Congo today is that we are in hangover from the Cold War," says Johannes Dawit, the speaker of Ethiopia's parliament. "Old East-West alignments have collapsed and things are still very unpredictable, in flux. I would expect Africa to be in turmoil for the next 10 years. Sudan could break into three pieces--south, west and north. And Congo could be a detonator."
Dawit explains that Ethiopia's solution to Africa's lingering instability is ethnic federalism: Major tribal groups have their own schools, television stations and taxes.
But the real tragedy of Congo, with its 250 ethnic groups, is that the problem is reversed.
Just as the Congo River's branching tributaries web the country together with a maze of tropical streams, virtually all Congolese, from a jungle fisherwoman to a European-bred rebel leader, want to preserve their union.
"This was the only good thing [former dictator] Mobutu left us after decades of thievery--we all still call ourselves Congolese," says Jean Mpasi-Mazeba, a sad-faced accountant with the government's paralyzed shipping agency.