A POLITICAL power struggle over a bank note worth less than $2 has pushed this impoverished Central African nation to the brink of anarchy, and an undisciplined and unpaid military could lead the country into civil war.
Interim Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekidi and other opposition leaders have been fighting for more than a year to wrest control of Zaire's central bank from President Mobutu Sese Seko and to replace his corrupt 27-year regime with a democratically elected government.
Mr. Mobutu tried to dismiss Premier Tshisekidi's government in December, but Tshisekidi insists that he is Zaire's democratically elected leader.
Mobutu has proved a tenacious master of the surreal and dangerous world of Zairian politics, blindsiding and undermining his opponents and using the military to maintain a constant state of insecurity and fear. He promised in April 1991 to hand over power to an elected government but has blocked every step toward reform.
Troops went on a rampage last week when Mobutu paid them with newly printed notes, each with a value of 5 million zaires, about $1.80. Tshisekidi had declared the notes worthless. Looting and shooting
Soldiers looted and shot their way through the city center of Zaire's capital of Kinshasa, stripping shops and warehouses of their goods and fixtures. Whatever wasn't stolen was destroyed.
The violence recalled similar rioting 16 months ago that forced the evacuation of 20,000 foreigners.
Hundreds were killed in the latest rioting, including seven foreigners. The interim government put the death toll at 1,000. French Ambassador Philippe Bernard was among them, perishing Jan. 28 in a machine gun attack on the French Embassy. At least 1,000 foreigners were evacuated from the city.
The majority of those killed in the rioting were soldiers, and clashes between forces loyal to Mobutu and those troops who have been unpaid occur nightly around the city. Mobutu's forces on Tuesday night tried to seize control of the strategic Kokolo military base in downtown Kinshasa, but regular Army forces repelled the attack with a midnight barrage of machine gun and mortar fire.
The only elements of Zaire's regular Army accepting the 5 million zaire notes are in Mobutu's northwestern province of Equateur and the southeastern Shaba province.
Mobutu has effectively accused Tshisekidi of treason and threatened to introduce a 10 million zaire note.
Some analysts, however, worry that if Mobutu were deposed, Zaire would plunge into anarchy because the last shred of control over the military would vanish.
"If Mobutu goes," says one diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, "this place will be just like Somalia - total chaos."
France, the United States, and Belgium, Zaire's former colonial ruler, this week demanded that Mobutu cede all powers to the interim government.
Mobutu seized power in 1965 with the backing of the US Central Intelligence Agency and was propped up by the US during the cold war because his country provided a haven for rebels battling a Marxist regime in neighboring Angola. Intervention asked
Tshisekidi confirmed yesterday that he had asked for international intervention, saying efforts at democratically restructuring and bringing the military under control had failed.
"I have launched an appeal to the international community. One of our friends, Belgium, has troops across the river to put at our disposal to assure security here," he told reporters.
Belgium and France, however, have announced they are withdrawing most of their combined forces of about 900 troops situated in Congo, across the Congo River from Kinshasa where they were helping with the evacuation of foreigners that began Saturday.
When asked whether he had the backing of Zaire's unpaid and rebellious troops, Tshisekidi said only that he hoped to improve the relationship.
The clashes and tribal anymosity among Zaire's armed forces threaten to lead the country to civil war. Mobutu's special presidential guards are mainly drawn from his tribe, the Ngbandi, while forces from the regular Army hail from among the remainder of Zaire's estimated 200 ethnic groups.
As Zaire's military and political power struggles continue, the Zairian people plod on through the country's economic vaccuum.
Zaire's civil servants have not been paid for months. Their salaries range between $66 and $140 per month. Prices have skyrocketed. Five liters of gasoline sold for about $3 before last week's rioting; the cost is now about $15.