AS Zaire - one of Africa's poorest nations but potentially one of its richest - prepares for its first democratic elections after 29 years of dictatorship, many people here, like unemployed electrician Jean Marie, face a more immediate issue: hunger.
``Our main problem is having enough food. We eat only one time a day,'' he explains, sitting on a chair in the small dirt courtyard in front of two rented rooms where he and his parents live, in a slum near the center of the city.
Zaire is at a critical point. Depending on whether and how the proposed elections are held, reformist politicians see Zaire as moving toward democracy and economic recovery, or toward further deterioration and more political repression.
Rather than developing, Zaire has been undeveloping under President Mobutu.
He is described by his Zairean critics and Western diplomats as one of the wealthiest men in Africa, the result, they allege, of massive corruption and mismanagement in his 27 years in power.
``The country has failed under him,'' says a Western diplomat here. ``There's a lot of hunger in Zaire.''
One meal a day - if that - has become the norm for many Zaireans, even as a minority drives expensive cars, lives in mansions, and eats well.
Raw sewage fills an open ditch on one side of the muddy pedestrian walkway that passes near the courtyard of Jean Marie (who asked that his last name not be used.). Potholes in many of the nearby streets of this capital have gotten so big that cars must slow to a crawl.
Most roads in the interior of this vast country - the second-largest in sub-Saharan Africa - have disintegrated so badly that boats and airplanes are the most common means of travel. Few telephones work; people who can afford it communicate by cellular phone.
Hospitals function with hardly any medicine; schools fall apart; and civil servants wait months for paychecks that amount to only a few dollars.
Zaire has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Africa. The country suffers from depressed prices for major exports, massive foreign debt, capital flight, and an inflation rate that hit 5,000 percent in 1992. Zaire was expelled from the International Monetary Fund in June.
There is no rule of law. The unpaid military savagely looted most public and many private properties in 1991 and 1993, here and across the country.
And according to Zairean human rights activists, Mr. Mobutu's security agents are responsible for arbitrary arrests and occasional murders and torture.
In April 1990, under pressure from Western governments to democratize, and following the sweep of democratic reforms across Europe, Mobutu joined many other African dictators in allowing the creation of competitive, political parties.
Many parties, some supported by Mobutu, sprang up. Private newspapers began openly criticizing Mobutu.
Etienne Tshisekedi, a longtime opponent of Mobutu, was elected prime minister at a national conference of government and opposition delegates in October 1991. Mobutu later removed him, but Mr. Tshisekedi insists he is still the legal prime minister under the transitional Constitution.
Tshisekedi remains deeply popular, at least here. Diplomats admit to not being certain how popular he is nationwide. Known as an honest man - in sharp contrast to Mobutu's reputation as one of the most corrupt and richest leaders anywhere - Tshisekedi is uncompromising in his insistence on the rule of law.
At a Tshisekedi rally here Jan. 7, attended by thousands of enthusiastic supporters, post office worker Joseph Nsenga Famba said: ``We want an end to dictatorship.''
Last July, Kengo wa Dondo was elected interim prime minister by a transitional parliament. On Dec. 31, Mobutu called for completion of elections. ``I do not intend to allow the transition to stretch beyond July 9, 1995, the date set by the transitional constitutional act,'' he said on state television.
Mobutu's plan is clear: ``We're sure to win the elections,'' says Bonza Mukulai, the No. 2 official, in the dictator's party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution
Mobutu is still popular because he has kept the country from disintegrating into ethnic wars, Mr. Mukulai says. Zaire's ``is a precarious unity,'' he says, and the country needs a man like Mobutu to hold it together.
`Tshisekedi ... not a chief'
A Zairean businessman who asked not to be identified, calls Tshisekedi an ``anarchist'' for urging poor workers to strike in political protest and for wanting to delay the elections. He called Mobutu a true ``chief,'' saying Zaire needs ``someone who can say: `Shut up. I'm the chief.' Tshisekedi is not a chief,'' he says.
Tshisekedi points out that conditions agreed upon in negotiations with the government call for a census, a proper registration of voters, and a referendum on the transitional Constitution before elections are held.
He promised more strikes and marches to pressure Mobutu and the interim government to live up to these agreed-upon preelection conditions.
In an interview with the Monitor, Tshisekedi said: ``It is the Western spirit to insist: `When will [the transition] be finished?' What is important for us is not to end the transition, but to have good-quality elections.
``We need good preparations'' for an election, he stressed. ``Angola had elections without [good] preparation.''
Angola's election in 1991 was followed by a resumption of civil war.
Mr. Kengo's government is contacting other governments to ask for money to fund the census, registration, referendum, and election. If the government can not complete the elections by early July, the interim parliament will extend the deadline, says Gustave Malumba, vice prime minister and minister of the interior.
But Mukulai, Mobutu's aide, says if there are no elections by July, that will be ``the end'' of the authority for the transitional government.
If Mobutu then reassumes all power - a possibility Mukulai did not deny - that would be ``a coup dtat,'' says Vice Prime Minister Malumba.
Meanwhile, Jean Marie, who has completed post-secondary school training in electrical engineering, has been looking for a job for two years. He has heard there might be more jobs in Kenya and is hoping to join friends there.