WHEN Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceausescu was executed, the shot reverberated like thunder in Zaire. Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who rose to power with America's blessing and was supported for 25 years as a bulwark against communism, had modeled his political system on Ceausescu's. ``Take Romania as a model,'' Mobutu told Zairians, and then they saw the Romanian revolution. Since America helped bring down Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba - mislabeled a communist in 1960 for seeking Soviet help against the Katanga secession - the US has anchored its Central African policy on Mobutu's rule. The Carter administration sent planes to transport Belgian, French, and Moroccan troops to counter invasions by Zairian exiles in 1977 and '78, and the Reagan White House kept opponents of Mobutu at arms length as the CIA used Zaire's Kamina airbase to ship arms to Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola.
Meanwhile, President Mobutu has run a ``kleptocracy'' where underpaid teachers demand bribes for grades, hospital guards extort money from patients seeking admission, and police in the street shake down passersby. Mobutu treats the national treasury as his bank account, chartering Concordes, buying European villas, and favoring his Ngbande tribe while most of the 35 million Zairians survive on a fraction of what they had under the Belgians.
Political opponents have spent years in prison, in exile in isolated villages, or abroad. Most Zairians were silenced by the fear of jail, torture, death and by the belief that the US would act to keep Mobutu in power.
Then the bottom fell out of the market for bulwarks against communism. The Namibia conflict was settled, improved US-Soviet relations augured an end to Angola's war, and peace seemed possible in South Africa.
Mobutu got frightened. At meetings around the country, he nervously asked citizens what they wanted. Emboldened by the changes in the East, people answered: democracy. Secretary of State Baker stopped in Zaire during a visit to Africa in March with the same message. Nguz a Karl-i-Bond, then Zaire's foreign minister, was present for part of the Baker-Mobutu meeting and told me: ``The US used to tell him, `Reform, you are making our task difficult with Congress.' Now it is, `Change or we can't help you.' He got a messsage that things have changed. He was upset.''
Zairians believe that moved Mobutu on April 24 to promise a multi-party system. But the nationwide joy was tempered by a backsliding May 3, when Mobutu said political parties wouldn't be legal till next year, and June 30, when he said only the three top parties in a local vote could compete for national power.
Protests were immediate, and Mobutu answered with repression. At the University of Lubumbashi, the second city, electricity was shut off and bayonet-wielding security forces invaded the darkened campus the night of May 11 to terrorize and murder students hiding in rooms or running for their lives. Zairians were upset that, unlike the Belgians, Washington did not refute the government's claim of only one death - estimates range from 30 to 250 - nor did it call for an international inquiry.
Mobutu is trying desperately to reverse the glasnost that has sparked strikes of public workers in major cities, publication of dozens of new critical newspapers, the resignation of leading members of the government party, and a groundswell of new parties demanding a national conference to organize elections under international supervision. Reflecting a common fear, a technocrat who is an aide to the prime minister told me soberly, ``The US has to give us a strategy to neutralize the presidential guard,'' a Ngbande tribal force he said was ``trained to kill indiscriminately'' on behalf of Mobutu. Zairians liken it to the Romanian Securitate.
Washington, which smoothed the way for Mobutu's accession to power, ought to help achieve a democratic transition. It needs to speak loudly for immediate legalization of all parties, for an international inquiry into the massacre, and for a national conference of representative groups to determine the country's future. It would send a strong message if the Senate followed the lead of the House of Representatives, which in the Foreign Operations Bill for FY 1991 ends US military financing to Zaire and requires all economic assistance to be channeled through private and voluntary organizations.
Perhaps Mobutu thinks America is too preoccupied with the Middle East to pay much attention to Zaire. But failure to act decisively could lead to instability, tribal conflict, and violence in a country Washington has long considered ``strategic'' because of its size, its mineral wealth, and its position at the hub of nine Central African nations.