JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Far more than the future of Zaire and its 45 million people rides on the imminent fall of Mobutu Sese Seko's ruinous regime before a rebel-led military onslaught: The political and economic fortunes of much of Africa may be at stake.
Experts say the outcome of the epic struggle between Mobutu's tottering regime and rebel leader Laurent Kabila's guerrilla army could provide a huge boost to the world's poorest and most turbulent continent--or a setback that will hobble it for years to come.
"This is damned important for all of Africa," said Chester Crocker, who was assistant secretary of State for African affairs in the Ronald Reagan administration and now teaches diplomacy at Georgetown University. "It's a great opportunity and a great challenge."
By virtue of its strategic location, its rich natural resources and its colossal size--a quarter as big as the United States--Zaire anchors the nine nations on its borders. But resolution of Zaire's crisis also will affect vital interests much deeper into southern and eastern Africa.
"A takeover by Kabila, if he gets it right, could encourage stability and economic growth in the whole region," said Terence Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Analysts said a best-case scenario would begin with a peaceful transition of power from Mobutu, followed by democratic elections and a credible government able to maintain Zaire's territorial integrity and embrace free-market reforms.
That would quickly draw massive infusions of foreign aid and investment to the country that rebels have pledged to rename Democratic Congo. And that, in turn, could provide an economic and social bonanza to a region with vast potential for development.
Zaire boasts some of the world's richest deposits of gold, diamonds, manganese, zinc, copper and cobalt. Mineral production has plummeted over the last decade because of mismanagement, civil unrest, graft and lack of investment.
But neighboring Zambia is privatizing its giant copper mines. If Zaire's new government followed suit, cross-border mining and trade could benefit both nations. The Benguela railway line in Angola, destroyed by two decades of civil war, could be rebuilt as the shortest route from the mines to the sea.
Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, regularly ravaged by drought, are eager to tap Zaire's vast network of rivers and lakes. With irrigation and better farming, Zaire and the surrounding Great Lakes region could become a breadbasket for the famine-plagued continent.
Refurbishment of Zaire's dilapidated dams and electrical lines, especially from the long-stalled Inga power project on the mighty Zaire River, could generate enough electricity to light much of Africa.
"If we reach regional stability and if we can efficiently exploit the wealth of Zaire, in 10 years' time, maybe, we may see the African renaissance that Africans are talking about now," said Kikaya Bin Karubi, a U.S.-educated Zairian journalist and political consultant.
"Eastern Africa is already on the way up. Only Zaire and Angola are lagging behind," he said. Zaire is "the big missing piece in the puzzle."
On the other hand, further anarchy in Zaire could fuel conflagration in an area long seared by secessionist wars, violent coups and ethnic bloodletting.
"If there's more instability in Zaire, it affects all the adjacent countries," warned Denis Venter, executive director of the independent Africa Institute of South Africa. "The spillover affects Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, even South Africa. We could get refugees and illegal immigrants flooding in here."
Zaire could yet explode in a blood bath if the insurgents fight their way into Kinshasa, the capital. It could split into warring fiefdoms if the new rebel-led regime was unable to control the long-repressed ethnic and separatist passions that nearly destroyed the young nation at independence from Belgium in 1960 and for decades afterward.
The bankrupt and chaotic country could sink further into a political and economic abyss if the rebels simply replaced one corrupt dictatorship with another. Donor governments, international banks and multinational businesses would stay away, as they have since Mobutu reneged on promises to start democratic reforms in 1990.
"Frankly, the prospects for a stable government don't look very good," warned George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist in Washington who consults for international aid agencies. "And instability in Africa doesn't stop at borders."
Ayittey said Kabila's military and political alliance appears united only in its opposition to Mobutu. Once in power, he fears, it will splinter in a bitter competition for power and spoils.