An Absent, Ailing Leader Adds to African Crisis

President Mobutu sits at his French villa as Zaire descends into chaos

Louis Mavunga is still angry about Oct. 27, 1971 - the day he lost his name and had to pack away his suit and 10 ties.

The chauffeur, like 41 million other people in Zaire, was informed over national radio that President Mobutu Sese Seko would no longer tolerate European names or clothing in this country at the heart of Africa.

So Mr. Mavunga hid his Western clothes and chose the name Vipila because it means "patience." And he waited, patiently, for 20 years until President Mobutu changed his mind and the law and allowed Zaireans to go back to their old ways.

"That decree was so stupid," Mavunga recalls. "It was meant to make us proud of our heritage. Instead, it got us mad."

For 31 years Mobutu has had a singular influence on Zaire, controlling even the habits of his subjects.

The man in the leopard-skin toque, whose picture hangs everywhere, has so powerful a hold on Zaire that he is seen as the only force keeping this disintegrating country together.

Today Africa's longest-ruling dictator is at his villa in France, recovering from treatment for cancer he received in Switzerland. He has no obvious political successor.

Now a massive refugee crisis and war in eastern Zaire - with more than 1 million refugees fleeing the fighting between Zairean troops and rebels backed by neighboring Rwanda - has caused even Zaireans who dislike Mobutu to worry about what will happen if he does not return soon.

"He is the only one who can get the generals into line," says a businessman in the capital city of Kinshasa. "Even the symbolic gesture of being here would be good for the country's stability."

Many Zaireans say that the best thing would be if Mobutu flew home, even if he then spent his time in bed. In this city of rumors and few working telephones, the hearsay is that he will return to Zaire this weekend.

The rumors of his return illustrate the sway of a man who figures among the most legendary of African despots.

Once a cold-war proxy for Washington in central Africa, Mobutu has long since fallen into international disgrace as a vilified antidemocrat. He took a country rich in minerals and withered it with corruption until it became synonymous with anarchy.

Yet his influence is such that many Zaireans fear him even when he is thousands of miles away. A network of spies and secret police keeps residents of the capital looking over their shoulders when they talk of the "Great Leopard," as Mobutu is known.

"He ruined this country," says a teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity - and in a moving car with the windows rolled up so no one could overhear. "Very few people like him."

Since he took power, in a 1965 coup during the confusion that followed independence from Belgium in 1960, the president has tried to convince the nation otherwise. The former Army comander has nurtured the cult of "Mobutuism," and named one of Zaire's largest lakes after himself.

In the 1970s, Zaireans were encouraged to replace Christian crosses with his portrait in the front of classrooms. Workers sang songs extolling his strength before starting their jobs in the mornings.

In case anyone had any doubts about his powers, in 1972 he renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. It means "the all-powerful warrior who, by his endurance and will to win, goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."

Mobutu had a promising start as president, building schools and clinics. His riveting oratory drew crowds of 100,000.

But as time went on, he drained the state coffers for his own use, threw dissidents into jail, and in the name of authenticit, or Africanization, enforced the laws that so bothered people like Mavunga, the chauffeur.

TODAY, the neglected roads are largely impassable. One resident estimates that it would be quicker to drive from Kinshasa, in western Zaire, to eastern Zaire via the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, and Uganda than to attempt to go directly across the country from west to east.

Despite Mobutu's faults, during the cold war the United States found him a more palatable ally than the socialist states it opposed in Africa. The two countries collaborated in propping up rebel chief Jonas Savimbi in next-door Angola.

Things started to change for Mobutu when the cold war thawed and the West grew disenchanted with his antidemocratic tendencies.

Under pressure, on April 24, 1990, Mobutu announced the end of single-party rule (and the end of the authenticit measures). Zaire then embarked on a political transition that has propelled it further into uncertainty.

Once the transition began, Mobutu retreated to the marble-floored residence in his home town of Gbadolite in northern Zaire, leaving the country to unravel in violent food riots as he watched sunsets on his terrace.

Mobutu first appointed the leader of the opposition, Etienne Tshisekedi, to the post of prime minister. Later Mobutu replaced him with Leon Kengo wa Dondo, who is popular with Western governments but not in Zaire.

Mr. Kengo now is under pressure to resign, due to the Army's perceived humiliation in losing the battle against rebels in the east and his unpopular Rwandan-Tutsi heritage.

The Speaker of the parliament is supposed to succeed Mobutu if he dies, but fears are rife that the military would take power instead. However, one factor working against a military coup, political analysts say, is that Mobutu allowed the Army to fall into disarray, too.

"The generals are so badly divided and the troops so poorly paid that they would have difficulty pulling off a coup," one diplomat says.

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