KINSHASA, ZAIRE — It was a perfect afternoon in the capital. The view from the terrace of the politician's house was lovely; the lunch spread was the finest one could find. But the guests seemed alternately angry and subdued. A car that backfired in the street made everyone flinch. And then there were the two suitcases packed in the foyer that no one wanted to talk about.
Kinshasa's ruling elite are living their last decadent days as the 31-year dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko draws to a close, refusing to openly admit they are sinking with a battered ship. Only the reservation lists on flights out of the country reveal their uncertainty about what is to come.
Most people in Zaire's dilapidated capital take as a given that Mr. Mobutu will not be in power much longer. Rebels led by Laurent-Desir Kabila have seized most of the country and on Tuesday took Kitwit, the last major town east of Kinshasa. Mobutu has been jettisoned by his former allies - the United States, France, and Belgium - rendering one of the world's longest-ruling dictators an isolated relic.
For the tight circle of confidants around the despot, loss of power after so many years is bewildering. Their unwillingness to accept likely defeat remains strong.
"Sometimes you have to die for a cause," says one close aide. "I think [Mobutu] is ready to die for this one."
Some question why. During his three decades in power, Mobutu has siphoned billions of dollars from Zaire's treasury and, in the past year, has spent more time in his villa in southern France than in the country he rules.
Sources close to him attribute some of his inflexibility to his isolation, surrounded by powerseekers from his family and ethnic group who stand to lose much when he leaves.
The president rarely ventures out of Tscha-Tschi on the edge of Kinshasa, a military camp with a private zoo and peacocks that is far removed from the city's squalor. He sees virtually no one outside his inner circle.
Even political allies admit Mobutu is being manipulated by his entourage, who keep pragmatists far away from the dictator. "He is surrounded by opportunists who give him bad advice. The entourage is writing letters in his name and is taking advantage of him," says a government source.
Mobutu's isolation is the culmination of a progressive retreat that began seven years ago when, under pressure from the US, he falsely promised to carry out democratic reforms. Over the years, he moved from Kinshasa to a boat on the Zaire River, then to his jungle retreat of Gbadolite, and finally to France. He rarely visited Zaire except for crises.
Mobutu made a rare public appearance Tuesday after a meeting with US special envoy Bill Richardson.
Mr. Richardson's visit is the latest attempt to arrange a meeting between Mobutu and Mr. Kabila with an eye toward some sort of peaceful transition of power and eventual elections.
But US efforts to facilitate a graceful exit for the dictator have only angered the proud man, his confidants say. They are upset with the US, which propped up Mobutu during the cold war as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Africa, and then deserted him when he was no longer useful.
"It's a bad precedent for the rest of Africa," says Nzuzi Mbombo, a former governor of Kinshasa who is close to Mobutu. "It is not a question of loyalty. It is a question of principle.... What has Mobutu not done for the Americans? What risks did he not take? But now he is being attacked with American help while he is ill."
Those close to Mobutu seem convinced that the rebellion is the product of a US conspiracy, backed by governments in Uganda and Rwanda.
As though to express their disdain for the American initiatives, soldiers at the gates of Tscha-Tschi beat a Zairean man in civilian dress in full view of foreign journalists.
Just yards away, new recruits for the presidential guard paraded by in uneven formation, wearing plastic flip-flops and worn clothes.
Many diplomats have privately expressed skepticism that Mobutu and Kabila will meet. Troubleshooter Richardson said Tuesday that he had won an assurance from Mobutu that he would meet Kabila face to face. But yesterday, Mobutu rejected the proposed site for talks.
"There's a basic impasse," says one diplomatic source. "It's hard to imagine what would really come out of such a meeting."