A week after President Mobutu Sese Seko returned home from four months of medical treatment in Europe, Zaireans are waiting for evidence that his new military chief can rally a chaotic Army into retaking eastern land captured by mostly Tutsi rebels.
In appointing Gen. Marc Mahele Bakungo Lieko as military chief of staff Wednesday, Mr. Mobutu aims to boost the confidence of Zaire's demoralized troops, who have retreated as Rwanda-backed guerrillas have taken over many towns in this giant, sub-Saharan African nation. While General Mahele has a strong record in suppressing rebellions, this one offers a daunting challenge.
Unlike most of Zaire's top military officials, Mahele earned his rank on the battlefield, not through being a close relative or business associate of Mobutu. He began his military career in 1965, the same year Mobutu seized power, and has protected him against a number of rebellions.
In 1984, for instance, Mahale defeated an attempt by the current rebel leader - Laurent Kabila - to establish an independent republic in a southeastern corner of Zaire. He is also recognized for fighting alongside the former Rwandan Hutu Army in the recent civil war there.
Mahele is most known within Zaire, however, for speaking out against a mass pillaging spree by Zairean soldiers in 1993. Mahele was then chief of staff, as he is now, when troops rampaged against lack of pay, destroying businesses and terrorizing civilians. He helped rein them in, but was removed from the job when he sought sweeping reforms to address the soldiers' grievances.
The same problems that led to the 1993 looting spree have contributed to the Army's humiliating defeats during the current 2-1/2-month-old guerrilla war. Most soldiers earn a salary of just $1 per month - and often go months at a time with no pay at all. They are also poorly equipped. In town after town, they have refused to fight, choosing instead to strip what they can from businesses and homes before retreating. Residents in abandoned cities say soldiers have also raped and killed civilians.
The previous chief of staff, Gen. Eluki Monga, was suspended last month for complaining to reporters that the government had not given the Army the means to fight a war. Yet analysts point out that top officers have long siphoned off money budgeted for the military, and some have even sold their contingent's weapons and pocketed the profits.
Mahele is reported to have been granted increased powers before accepting the chief of staff post - including the ability to impose sanctions on officers and to bring a more unified command over the military's disparate divisions.
But even if he manages to reinvigorate Zaire's Army, most analysts believe the military needs outside help to regain control over its lost land.
Government spokesmen have not ruled out hiring mercenaries, though recent talks with an outfit from South Africa are believed to have collapsed. For his part, Mahele has refused to provide any details on his plans for restoring control.
"I'm a military man," he told reporters in a brief press conference last week. "I don't take part in politics. In our profession, as they say in France, the Army is a big mute."