Biggest Change in Congo: Rulers Who Bring Order

Even before Kabila's new government is named, days-old Congo already isn't Zaire.

One of the first things Laurent-Desire Kabila's underlings did when they installed themselves at Kinshasa's premier Hotel Intercontinental last Sunday was to remove the gold metal letters "ZAIRE" from above a conference room.

Now a gap waits next to the letters "SALON," ostensibly for someone to come and put up the new name of the country, "CONGO."

The sight of the missing letters evokes the sense of unfinished business in the first days of Mr. Kabila's reign.

The capital, Kinshasa, has been in a state of suspense since his men completed their eight-month uprising Saturday morning by walking into the capital virtually unopposed. Now the rulers of the new Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the city's 5 million residents, are trying to find their feet.

"I'm quite confused," says Philippe, a businessman who gave only his first name. "I was born in the Congo. Then the name changed to Zaire. Now, it's Congo again.... This is going to take some getting used to."

In some superficial ways, life has not changed. The brief power vacuum - a new government has yet to be announced - made little difference in a city where most institutions had long broken down into chaos under nearly 32 years of rule by ousted President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Even before his government was announced, Kabila received strong backing from South African President Nelson Mandela. Africa's respected elder statesman slammed Western nations for "lecturing" Kabila on democracy. "What is most strange is that some Western countries that have supported the most vicious dictators for decades are now ... taking it upon themselves to lecture him upon democracy," Mr. Mandela said while attending a conference in Zimbabwe yesterday.

On Monday, traffic had resumed and markets had reopened as they would on any other Monday, despite the weekend of gunfire and the change of government.

But the toppled statues of a leopard and Mr. Mobutu's mother - symbols of the ancien rgime - are signs that a new era has dawned.

The former rebels quickly snapped into action Monday, calling a meeting of businessmen. They informed them of their plans to reawaken the paralyzed economy, halt what is perhaps Africa's worst corruption, and spend more on the country's 45 million neglected people.

Money changers on the streets reflected the the new sense of order as the value of the local currency rose from 175,000 to the dollar to 70,000.

The new emphasis on morality is one huge difference for Kinshasa, where Mobutu's lawless soldiers and secret police used to harass citizens, commit rapes, and demand bribes with complete impunity.

Suddenly, an entire industry has vanished - le protocol, the middlemen vital to visitors to steer them past predatory bribe-takers in airports and in business transactions.

The new rulers have taken their strict military rule to the streets, shooting looters on sight. Diplomats report dozens, if not hundreds, of cases where people have been summarily executed - or where the rebels have gone door to door seizing plundered goods and insisting they be returned to their owners.

Diplomats say the majority of Mobutu's estimated 5,000 presidential guards, the DSP, have reported to be demobilized. But a mafia of former soldiers has sprung up, intimidating former politicians and seizing their property.

JUST days after being invaded by Mobutu's elite supporters, who sought refuge here before fleeing the country, the Intercontinental Hotel is subject to a new occupation.

The lobby of the Inter, as the hotel is known, is packed day and night like a rush-hour subway by dossier-wielding businessmen, diplomats, and opposition politicians seeking contact with the new men in charge.

It is a strange sight: Soldiers in mismatched fatigues and carrying automatic rifles make queries at the marbled reception desk or stroll past the chic hotel boutiques that display Swiss watches and orange patent-leather shoes.

"I'm not sure some of these guys have seen anything like this hotel before," says a hotel employee, as one war-weary soldier scrutinized with puzzlement a plastic-card room key.

"Then again, we haven't seen anything like this before either."

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