Giant Nation Takes Baby Step Toward Voting

ZAIRE, a potentially rich African nation still far from democracy, has officially committed itself to heading that way.

Longtime dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko, who has enjoyed close ties to Washington, says he wants a transition to democracy, with free elections planned for July.

But one Western diplomat in the capital, Kinshasa, says the strongman's idea of a transition is ''from Mobutu to Mobutu.''

Bonzai Mukulai, a senior aide to Mr. Mobutu, is mapping out his boss's reelection effort. He candidly describes the regime as ''an autocracy.''

Politics in Africa is not a matter of ideology but of power, he says bluntly during an interview in his suite in a luxury Kinshasa hotel. Gaining political office means ''jobs ... income: They [politicians] have no other work,'' says Mr. Mukulai.

Many Zaireans in the opposition are not strictly anti-Mobutu. ''I'm against the ruling system,'' says Dieudonne Moboyo-Bangili, an organizer for the opposition Democratic Union for Social Progress (UDPS) in Mobutu's home region. ''If he [Mobutu] accepted to work by the norms of law and democracy, I'd accept him as president.''

Mr. Dieudonne says he began using his motorbike to go around organizing meetings for UDPS, several years before Zaire legalized opposition parties in 1990.

Before, he says, opposition party workers faced harassment and sometimes detention by government security agents. ''Now there's not much difficulty,'' Dieudonne adds. ''Politically, we are free. But it's not full freedom.''

These days, pro-democracy advocates in Kinshasa have a surface confidence, almost a cockiness. People criticize Mobutu openly in public conversations. But an underlying fear persists. The military and other federal security forces still carry out arbitrary arrests, torture, and murder, according to Zairean human rights groups.

An editor of an opposition newspaper, Adoph Kavula, was killed in November, apparently by security agents, says the editor of another opposition paper. ''We [journalists] are in a lot of danger,'' says the editor, who asked not to be named.

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