As desperate refugee columns criss-cross central Africa, John Beya shows how the conflict arose and became entwined with Zairean President Mobutu's oppressive regime. We ask academics if the crisis will precipitate the disintegration of Zaire, while Barbara Harrell-Bond highlights the dilemmas for aid workers in a situation of such complexity.
What are the prospects for Zaire and her neighbours, and what role should the West play?
JOHAN POTTER Senior lecturer in anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies.
"Zaire has been disintegrating for the past 25 years - for instance, the Kasai province has its own currency and is virtually autonomous. But Kivu is a different story: there are all sorts of internal fights that are not clearly linked with what is called the rebel group under Laurent Kabila. It's difficult to know to what extent it's all been orchestrated from outside, but it's likely to lead to changes in the politics of Kivu. These groups that people usually refer to as militias - they're not fighting for the disintegration of Zaire, they're fighting for Kivu.
"We cannot pretend that we in the West are not part of the conflict. Take the 1994 genocide in Rwanda for instance - one aspect of the deterioration there was that coffee prices slumped internationally and Rwanda wasn't protected. Thousands of young people were desperate and would join any militia that promised good looting. The land scarcity in Rwanda is not an issue those people could do much about."
JOHN WISEMAN Senior lecturer in politics, University of Newcastle.
"There is a real prospect of disintegration in Zaire, not just because of recent events but as a long-term consequence of the way politics have worked there. In a sense it is an archetypal example of personal rule of an autocratic and crude kind. But despite being very authoritarian it's a very weak state with a self-interested leader who is skilled at enriching himself.
"On the other hand, given the artificiality of their post-colonial borders, African states have shown a remarkable ability not to disintegrate, so one should be cautious.
"If such a huge state, with a number of problem states like Angola and Rwanda on its borders, were to break up, the knock-on effects would be very significant indeed.
"The only real argument for the West caring is for humanitarian reasons. The economic and strategic rationale is now less prominent. But I simply do not know what we can do about the situation."
ALI NAZRUI Director of global cultural studies, State University of New York, Binghamton.
"There is the possibility of Zaire disintegrating, but that is nothing new. The present situation could be an opportunity for rethinking the region, which cries out for it.
"To avert further catastrophe we should try to persuade Rwanda and Burundi to federate with Tanzania. If you gave them room to breathe in a new united states of central Africa, and with the armies of the two states disbanded, the Hutu and Tutsi would discover what they had in common, and defuse the conflicts in the region as a whole. Otherwise, the Hutu and Tutsi will continue to be a destabilising factor in Zaire.
"But any fundamental changes which involved redrawing the awful boundaries left by the colonising powers would require resources. They would require a huge package of incentives that would convince the three governments - which would mean the involvement of a wider sector of the human race than just Africans in this region.
"The Clinton administration has recommended the creation of an African emergency force. I have been making the same point within the circles of the Organisation for African Unity, but with one huge difference: Clinton wants it under the UN Security Council, and so under western control. But Africans should learn to assume more control themselves and not look outside for saviours: there should be a pan-African emergency force and a pan-African security council."
BASIL DAVIDSON Historian and writer.
"My feeling is Zaire won't break up right now. Habit will keep it together in some form, although most of Shaba and some of the northwest may try to secede. The Zairean state does not have control over much of its territory; people are living from day to day according to their own rules.
"If there is a parallel that is useful it is Uganda. It hasn't solved all its problems but it is at peace, and a reconciliation process is going on. The regime there has been able to call together a sufficient variety of representative opinion.
"The notion that the French had for sending troops to Zaire is about as sensible as calling a fire brigade after a house has burned down. Of course there has to be humanitarian aid, and it's perfectly practicable to send it. But it's up to the people of Zaire to sort out the conflicts. It may take ten years, but it will happen.
"Why should we in the West care? On the whole we don't. But if we have any sense of history and of our place in the world, we should. And if it's true that British firms have been supplying arms to the area, we should care a lot that we have such men in our midst."
Additional reporting by John Davies.