MBUJI-MAYI, ZAIRE — While students run wild in the streets of Kinshasa and soldiers loot their way across the country in retreat from the fallen East, Zaire has never seemed so vulnerable to disintegration as now.
But Mbuji-Mayi, which is the diamond capitol and second city of Zaire, is like a pocket of stability in this chaotic country.
Speculation has been rife that Kasai Oriental province, of which Mbuji-Mayi is the capital, might actively pursue secession, as might the neighboring province of Shaba, following the fall of the eastern Kivu region to Tutsi rebels 700 miles to the northeast.
But just weeks after Kivu was effectively appropriated by the rebels, Mbuji-Mayi is doing what it has for several years now - being virtually autonomous in a country of crumbling national authority.
"Secession is not an issue at this moment," says an official at Miniere da Bakwanga (MIBA), the mainly state-owned company that runs one of the world's biggest industrial diamond mines and provides the main livelihood of the city of 1 million. "People are independence-minded here, but they don't necessarily feel the need to break away."
Talking with residents on the potholed streets here, there is a sense of "why bother" for now. While secessionist fervor has overtaken other parts of Zaire, Mbuji-Mayi seems more comfortable with its own arrangement.
As one resident says, summing up a commonly expressed view: "What is the point of seceding, when in essence, Kasai Oriental decides its own destiny?"
Then he waves a thick wad of bills in the currency used in Kasai. It was phased out by the government in the capital of Kinshasa in 1993, but the province defiantly continues to use it. This gives Kasai some control over its economy, including maintaining an inflation rate that is far lower than the extravagant 500 percent per year in the rest of the country.
Looking at the city, which despite its population more resembles a run-down country town, the callous neglect of the central government and corrupt officials is palpable. The only electricity is for the rich, who have generators. Most houses lack running water, and the unpaved roads become a soupy mass of holes when it rains.
This lack of development and the siphoning off by the federal government and foreign smugglers of more than 80 percent of the diamond proceeds that go outside the province make it no wonder that resentment is great against the central authority. Anger is growing as well at foreigners, particularly Lebanese diamond merchants, whose property has been looted in recent weeks.
BUT there is also a sense of civic pride unseen in other parts of Zaire for having gotten to where they are without outside help. Despite a crumbling infrastructure, Kasai has built a new university and upped MIBA's production in recent years, accomplishments due in part to the influx of the Luba people, persecuted in neighboring Shaba, who are reputed for a high level of education, entrepreneurial skill, and technical know-how.
Diplomats doubt strong secessionist fervor will soon come to any fruition in Kasai, perhaps in contrast to Shaba, where passions run higher. Here the memory of the violent put-down of rebellions in the past keeps things calm.
One of President Mobutu Sese Seko's chief aides, Mukendi wa Mulumba, says the war in the East had encouraged rare patriotism across the country, rather than promoting separatism. "Tension in the Kasai has subsided now; the war in the East has instead created nationalist unity," Mr. Mukendi says. Although popular sentiment in Shaba is secessionistic, the likelihood of a major move in that direction is unlikely for now and might not even happen after Mr. Mobutu is gone.