KINSHASA, Zaire — Members of the new government of this country, arriving on the job for the first time Monday, were greeted by the results of three decades of corruption, mismanagement and inefficiency: no working telephones, no functioning modern equipment, no stationery and few staff members able to describe their exact role in the huge bureaucracy.
"We are beginning from ground zero," said new Interior Minister Mwenze Kongolo, who got to work early only to find that what are now his offices had been looted for the second time in a week. "It's going to be a long process."
Forming a government has been tough enough for the victorious rebels whose seven-month civil war drove dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power; rebuilding the nation seems an almost insurmountable task when there is hardly a foundation on which to begin.
But members of the new Cabinet of President Laurent Kabila, which has yet to be officially sworn in, said it is a challenge they are ready to face. "Before we came, the state had stopped existing," said Foreign Minister Bizima Karaha. "It will be the priority of the government to improve people's lives."
Putting the nation back to work tops the new agenda. In the capital alone, almost 100% of the population of nearly 5 million is unemployed. Those few who do hold jobs have not been paid in several months. Pensions and retirement plans do not exist here.
Sitting in his dank and run-down office Monday and not knowing whether he would still have a job, Ngoy Ntambwe, a former Justice Ministry official who has been forced to use his car as a taxi to help support his wife and 13 children, awaited the arrival of the new justice minister. Ntambwe described the problems that have caused the country's legal system to collapse.
There are no longer any comprehensive court records or files, he said. More than 80% of those people arrested have languished in jails for more than six months awaiting a hearing. Many of the country's best lawyers have fled overseas.
"We have competent people here, but they have been corrupted by the system," Ntambwe said. "The challenge will be to alter people's mentality, improve their spirits and change their ways."
Interior Minister Mwenze, a criminologist who was an investigator in the Philadelphia district attorney's office for eight years before returning to Zaire last year, believes the answer lies in first creating an efficient system of internal security that people can trust. About 320 men are already being trained for a new police force in this capital that will begin operating within six months. One hundred of them will immediately begin to serve as traffic police.
Former soldiers and military police feel they are being left out in the cold. They complain of being evicted from their camps to make room for troops of the new regime. Each day, they flock to the Intercontinental Hotel, headquarters of Kabila's government, to voice their concerns.
"We cannot afford apartments and houses," said the former army's Cpl. Mayimona Matondo. "We don't have any money. Where are we going to take our children? If the president wants us to leave, he should pay us, so we can afford to return to the villages. Many of us do not have relatives in Kinshasa."
Their complaints have won little sympathy from the new government officials, many of whom were among Kabila's inner circle during the civil war.
"These are our former enemies," Mwenze said of the more than 60,000 soldiers and police of the old regime who still call the capital home. "Even though they have given in their arms, it is because they had no choice. But this is not an act of revenge. It is a matter of practicality. We have to put the soldiers we brought in somewhere. We can't leave them out on the street."
It is inevitable that some of the new police recruits will be remnants of the old regime. But the interior minister insists that with new uniforms and new guidelines, their behavior will also change.
"Essentially, they are good," Mwenze said. "We will try to improve their attitude."
Some adjustments to the work ethic will be basic, such as beginning the workday as early as 7 a.m. In the past, most civil servants drifted in to work around midmorning. Others simply stayed home.
If Jean Baptiste Sondji had adopted this attitude, life would have been even more miserable for hundreds of Zairians. The former surgeon general, now health minister, earned the equivalent of less than $1 a month but refused to quit.
Instead, he watched helplessly the decay of a health care system that once was considered among Africa's best. The Mobutu government allocated less than 50 cents per inhabitant per year for health care, so patients must still buy everything from medicine to sheets to latex gloves to surgical thread.
Hospitals, which once celebrated more than 200 births a day, are now breeding grounds for illness and death. "Diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and sleeping sickness that we fought against in the 1960s are again beginning to skyrocket," said Sondji. "We are regressing back to the 1930s."
The challenge will be preventing most of the nation from following suit. "People have lost the ability to dream, to be ambitious, to take initiative, " said Roger Munyampenda, a South African advisor to the new regime. "It is up to the government to help them discover this again."