Anxious and Jaded, Zaire Capital Waits

Danger from Army, rebels creates edginess

Ecotourists head for the rain forest and adventurers go outward bound. But for those who want to make a study of cynicism, Kinshasa should be holiday destination No. 1.

Looted, run-down, impoverished, isolated, and soon to be besieged, Kinshasa is fast becoming the world capital of the jaded. The average citizen could make a Raymond Chandler private eye seem like a wide-eyed Boy Scout.

Kinshasans are not unaware that their government, headed by the "great redeemer" President Mobutu Sese Seko, has stolen many billions of dollars from the country in the past 31 years. They also appreciate that the rebels advancing from the east are winning the war largely with weapons purchased or captured from the Zairean Armed Forces (FAZ). It may well be that no people have expected less from their rulers since Nero took up the violin.

Yet the announcement this week, that Mr. Mobutu's Cabinet wants to try former Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo for embezzlement and treason, has raised a few eyebrows, even in this hard-bitten town.

To paraphrase from the movie "Apocalypse Now," charging a Zairean leader with fraud is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

According to Kin-kiey Mulumba, the newly appointed minister for information, Mr. Kengo has disappeared with at least $1 million of government cash less than three weeks after being fired as prime minister.

Mr. Mulumba said that the ex-prime minister was suspected of deliberately sabotaging the war effort against rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila's guerrillas (although he made it clear the misleading dispatches of the Western media had also done much to demoralize the troops as they squatted in their remote jungle foxholes). The government was investigating further, and an international warrant might soon be issued for Kengo's arrest.

It would surprise nobody in Kinshasa if Kengo had indeed helped himself to an honorarium before slipping across the Congo River to Brazzaville, Congo. The US State Department estimated in 1989 that Mr. Mobutu had personally taken $5 billion from Zaire's substantial mineral wealth, a sum then equal to the national debt. But it does surprise them that, after years of unchecked state banditry, a politician should be called to account for such a trifling sum.

One Western diplomat remarked that the more hopeless, paralyzed, and morally bankrupt the Zairean government becomes, the more stridently it talks of human rights, good governance, and military victory.

Last week, for instance, the newly appointed prime minister - the third in a month - Gen. Lukulia Bolongo, marked the beginning of his term by promising to hold elections within a few months - after the country was pacified. Zaire wouldn't be the first country to overcome significant early defeats in a war and then go on to victory, he said.

Since the rebellion erupted in October, the rebels have taken nearly half of Africa's third-largest country.

"Wherever our valiant soldiers have decided to engage in combat, the enemy has been defeated," the general said in an interview (conducted by Information Minister Mulumba) in the pro-government Le Soft. "We remain an effective Army, with our human potential intact and a worth that has already been proven across Africa, in Nigeria, Chad, Burundi, and Rwanda."

Yet in Kinshasa itself, most people seem to believe that the greatest threat to their security comes not from the rebels, but from the FAZ. Residents in the capital are reportedly bracing for another round of pillaging, like the ones they faced in 1991 and 1993, when Zairean soldiers went on the rampage over low wages.

Foreign observers report the cloud of deserters and broken Army units are drifting back toward Kinshasa from the east, looting and destroying as they come.

Stragglers have been arriving in Kinshasa ever since the war with the rebels began six months ago. But they have been easily picked up by the relatively well-ordered members of Mobutu's Pretorian Guard, the special presidential detachment called DSP.

But, one African diplomat says, "The question is, can the DSP keep control when whole units start arriving on the edge of town?"

Nobody knows what will happen next: Mobutu could flee tomorrow; there could be a coup or maybe even a cease-fire; or things might just drift on until the first rebel mortars land at the airport weeks or months from now. But everybody - Zairean and foreigner alike - fears there will be one last great spree of theft and vandalism before the kleptocracy in Zaire finally flees.

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