THE 1989 overthrow of dictators and tyranny in Eastern Europe created new hopes for liberty across the globe. Africa is a prime example. Opposition groups in numerous countries have begun to challenge decades of one-party rule.
Two weeks ago, Mozambique established a multiparty constitution. Ivory Coast has had two sets of elections this year, and last month returned longtime president Houphou"et-Boigny to power. Cameroon, Togo, and Benin in West Africa may open up. Kenya's longtime one-party president Daniel arap Moi faces democratic demands in Nairobi. Such is the power of an ideal.
African states - running on various combinations of ``big man'' leadership, tribal socialism, and military rule - won't change overnight. Opposition is centered in urban areas among students and intellectuals. The movement is fragile. Big men don't give up power easily.
Zaire offers a case study. This huge Central African state has been commanded since 1965 by Mobutu Sese Seko - one of the world's richest men (estimates run as high as $10 billion) heading one of the world's poorer societies. Mobutu, long an ally of the United States, patterned his regime on Ceausescu's Romania (with a police force similar to the infamous Securitate) but now faces unrest among a repressed population that can barely feed or clothe itself.
Last April, under pressure from the US and local dissenters, Mobutu agreed to the need for a multiparty state. But when the main opposition group, Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), met, police shot them up. In May, 50 to 200 university students were killed by police. Many were bayoneted in their rooms.
Outraged, the US Congress voted to cut aid funds to Zaire. Another meeting was shot up in November, but Mobutu now says again that political parties are legal, and that he will hold elections next year. Let's hope so.
According to Monitor correspondent Robert Press, who recently reported from Zaire, many Zaireans say ``major political violence'' will erupt next year if conditions in the country don't improve. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have withheld debt relief from Zaire - though for reasons of economic non-performance, not human rights.
Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba hopes for a peaceful transition to democracy in Zaire. But Zaireans are ready to rise up, he says. Mr. Tshisekedi's pleas for continued US pressure on Mobutu ought to be taken seriously.
But how willing is Mobutu to relinquish power? His rural base is strong. He has a formidable private militia of 15,000 trained in Israel and run by Mobutu's nephew. A second police army, 10,000 strong (the Service for Military Action and Information), is controlled by another nephew. The 20,000-strong civil guard is headed by his cousin.
The only opposing military is the 30,000-member regular army, which for several years has been deprived of guns and resources.
The State Department still considers Mobutu a close ally. Yet US policy must consider openings to new parties in Zaire. The US cannot afford to alienate those struggling for greater liberties in any African country.