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Mobutu's Mysterious Return Only Adds to the Uncertainty in Zaire

Africa: Aides put wraps on president's arrival, and crowds jeer his motorcade. Meanwhile, supporters mob rebel leader Kabila.

March 22, 1997|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KINSHASA, Zaire — It is a tale of two cities, but it speaks volumes about the dying days of Africa's longest-surviving dictatorship.

President Mobutu Sese Seko flew home to this crumbling capital Friday from cancer treatment in Europe. But after his jet landed, security agents ordered Cabinet ministers, military commanders, an honor guard and reporters from the airport so no one could see the ailing ruler climb--or be carried--down the stairs.

Then the people scattered along the dusty route to his palace loudly jeered and heckled the despot as his darkened limousine speeded past.

In contrast, 900 miles upstream on the Zaire River, rebel leader and Mobutu archenemy Laurent Kabila was greeted as a conquering hero in Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city.

Thousands of cheering, chanting supporters mobbed the grinning guerrilla chief on his first triumphant visit to the strategic city. His troops captured Kisangani last Saturday after Mobutu's ragged army dropped their weapons and ran away.

Kabila's name was openly chanted in Kinshasa on Friday, an act of unimaginable defiance during most of Mobutu's brutal and corrupt 32-year reign.

"We need Kabila, not him," shouted Serge Kaolonani, a 20-year-old jobless man who booed as Mobutu's heavily guarded motorcade roared by.

"We are waiting for Kabila to come," barefoot laborer Claude Dikoko agreed, adding that Mobutu "hasn't done anything for 30 years. Do you think he will do something now? . . . It's better he stays in France."

Instead of calming the country, Mobutu's mysterious return only added to the uncertainty and tension now gripping Africa's third-largest nation.

When Mobutu did not appear in person, rumors that he was dead quickly spread. Aides insisted, however, that he was simply too tired to greet his followers.

Either way, the public reaction was dramatically different when Mobutu last returned from France on Dec. 17.

Then, throngs of supporters greeted him at the airport and hundreds of thousands of others cheered and sang as he stood in his open-topped stretch Cadillac and triumphantly rode into town.

"The first time he came, we welcomed him," recalled Freddy Kabeya, who shouted taunts at Mobutu's motorcade this time. "We had great expectations. But he did nothing. We don't need him. . . . We want Kabila here."

Kabila's fast-growing army has made astonishing gains since December, capturing more than one-quarter of the territory in a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Even more surprising, the conflict has caused little confirmed bloodshed or destruction because Mobutu's army has deserted en masse almost every time the rebels have approached. Only two people are known to have died in the capture of Kisangani.

"Everything was a house of cards, and it's collapsed very quickly," a Western diplomat said.

The result is that Mobutu's power and popularity are fading as quickly as Kabila's are growing.

The latest evidence is the term Zairians use for the country's latest, and virtually worthless, currency: The newly minted notes are called "prostates." Mobutu has been treated for prostate cancer.

"Kabila is winning," a European ambassador said. "And no one is defending Mobutu. No one."

He added: "Nobody knew [Zaire] was in such a state of disintegration. Zaire is a shell. It's a pretend state. It doesn't exist except on maps."

Many here say the only question is whether Mobutu will die before his regime does. Others insist that the post-Mobutu era already has begun.

A power vacuum has added to the confusion. Mobutu's hand-picked prime minister, Leon Kengo wa Dondo, was voted out of office this week by Parliament. But Kengo and his government insist that the vote was illegal and have refused to step down.

Said one worried African ambassador, "I don't think anyone is in control."

The leading but largely impotent opposition party, led by former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, has announced that it will send a delegation to meet with Kabila in hopes of joining whatever government he seems destined to form.

"Nobody feels Mobutu exists," said Guillaume Ngefa, the head of Azado, Zaire's largest human rights organization. "Everybody wants change."

The military is so demoralized and divided that Gen. Marc Mahele Lieko Bokungu, the army chief of staff, called a news conference this week to say he was not launching a coup, as newspaper headlines had predicted.

Even Banza Mukulay, a longtime Mobutu loyalist who is now minister of mines, called for compromise with Kabila.

"Everybody is ready for negotiations," he said Friday.

Kabila has said he is willing to negotiate the terms of Mobutu's resignation. Only then, he has said, will he consider a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, the insurgents are steadily advancing southward on Lubumbashi, the country's second-largest city and the lucrative center of copper and cobalt mining in Shaba province.

Diplomats and aid workers say Mobutu's army commanders have made no visible effort to defend Lubumbashi or the equally important diamond center of Mbuji-Mayi. The chief obstacle to the rebel onslaught appears to be the rugged terrain.

Here in the capital, anxious residents have packed flights and ferries out of the country all week.

Their fear is that Mobutu's soldiers will begin looting in a repeat of the devastating bouts of urban murder and mayhem they have launched twice this decade.

"There's a sense of panic," a longtime Belgian resident said. "Everyone is leaving."

Kabila has said he does not plan to reach Kinshasa before June. But the rebel advances are already strangling the capital's food and supply lines from the country's major agricultural areas.

"Little by little, Kinshasa is being cut off from the rest of the country," said a senior aid worker here.

Drogin is on assignment in Kinshasa.

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