In 1990 Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko conceded to international pressure and promised multiparty elections. It looked like the end of one of Africa's longest dictatorships. Instead, it was the beginning of the continent's longest democratic transition, one that six years later appears as stalled as ever.
After being canceled last year, elections are now scheduled for next May. But there's little to suggest they'll take place. The transitional parliament ended its last session without approving a new constitution that would shape electoral law.
Nor did the appointed legislators address the lack of funding for the country's supposedly independent election commission. That led the commission's vice president to resign in frustration Sept. 3, complaining the government was not committed to holding a vote at all.
United States Ambassador Daniel Simpson notes that the members of parliament - who must contest their seats if elections are held - draw well-above-average pay. "Everyone just looks at things from the point of view of his own personal interest," he says. "Almost nobody thinks about the country."
The Zaireans call the situation "blocage," and both they and Western diplomats agree that nearly all the numerous impediments can be traced to one person, President Mobutu. Since taking power in a coup in 1965, the former journalist and Army sergeant has been the most tenacious of Africa's self-proclaimed chieftains. First he made himself indispensible to the West. During the cold war he was a loyal anti-Communist. Vast Zaire, as large as the US east of the Mississippi, was considered a bulwark against leftists.
Mobutu also cast himself as the only leader who could keep this ethnically mixed nation from unraveling into chaos. When threats to his power did arise, as during rebellions in the eastern Shaba region in 1977 and 1991, it was first American and then European military aid that helped put them down.
During the three decades that Western aid flowed into Zaire (in the late 1970s Zaire was receiving nearly half of all American aid to sub-Saharan Africa) Mobutu conducted an "authenticity" campaign to replace Christian names with African ones and forbid the wearing of foreign fashion. But while Mobutu preached to the masses that it was better to die of hunger than bow to Western influences, foreign diplomats say many officials in the government were skimming a portion of Western aid and profits from copper exports into personal bank accounts abroad.
Former allies now realize that far from holding Zaire together, Mobutu has exacerbated its slow disintegration. Yet diplomats and human rights groups say one thing has not changed: Mobutu's vast personal wealth allows him to buy off the opposition and foil election plans in the same way he's warded off coup attempts.
"We've seen certain people who've demonstrated a lot and played the role of an opposition member, but in reality they work for the powers in place. And often that's because of corruption," says Floribert Chibeya, who heads the nongovernmental group Voice of the Voiceless.
Religious groups, especially the Roman Catholic Church, have filled the political vacuum, preaching activism and organizing protests.
Now, says Guillaume N'Gefa of the Zairean Human Rights Association, Mobutu is covertly funding his own evangelical groups. "The message delivered by these religious groups is 'Don't be involved in political activities.' And so if a political demonstration is organized, people won't go because they consider it a sin," he says.
Such antics may not be needed. Diplomats say that with the opposition badly divided, and the Army and media in Mobutu's grasp, there is a good chance he would win elections. His supporters are already using news of his recent health problems - he has been in Switzerland for medical treatment - to argue that he is indispensible, the only man capable of keeping the country from falling into the political chaos of a Rwanda or Liberia.
The possibility that Mobutu is unbeatable in May is forcing political activists to think long term. Their hope is that if opposition candidates win even a few seats in local districts, they could forge a credible political class in a decade or so.
Sabin Banza of the nonprofit League of Voters says the task is to encourage the right kind of people to pursue politics - which is not an easy task in Zaire.
"Even in a family, if someone says they want to go into politics, people think you're going to become a liar or an assassin, because they think that's politics," he says.
Mr. Banza's group organizes seminars that cover everything from the principles of pluralism to the logistics of an accurate census. So far, he says, the group has educated 9 million people, nearly half of Zaire's eligible voters, and has trained and registered 8,000 election observers. "They are ready to go," Banza says.
Ready - and waiting.