The regime of Mobutu Sese Seko has been rotten and teetering for years. For three decades, Zaire's great natural wealth has been squandered for the dictator's personal gain. Its economic infrastructure, and the economic well-being of all but a tiny elite, have been utterly neglected.
No surprise that a rebellion, helped along by the Tutsi-Hutu ethnic warfare on Zaire's border with Rwanda, is now sweeping across the vast country. The quick collapse of Kisangani, a commercial center that was considered to be strongly defended, probably heralds the end of Mobutu's era.
Does a better era lie ahead? Much depends on rebel leader Laurent Desir Kabila. Long opposed to Mobutu, he has promised to turn the country around, cleansing it of corruption and rebuilding a functioning economy. Of late he has traded in his old Marxist ideas for free-market rhetoric.
But Mr. Kabila's movement also partakes of the ethnic violence raging in Central Africa. His core supporters include Tutsis from eastern Zaire who were threatened last fall with expulsion by the Zairean government. The rebels have given safe passage back to Rwanda for many Hutu refugees in Zaire, but 100,000 or more have scattered westward. The potential for mass starvation and killing remains.
To reduce that potential, as well as the possibility of extended civil war in Zaire, international and regional diplomacy is crucial. Representatives from surrounding African nations, including South Africa, met March 17 in Kenya. Their hope, earlier, had been peace talks between Kabila and Mobutu. The more realistic hope now is negotiation aimed at peacefully establishing a transition regime, leading to national elections.
Kabila appears determined to hold Zaire's collection of regions and peoples together. That is a plus. But he needs to be strongly encouraged to steer this potentially vital land away from benighted one-man rule and toward democracy and prosperity.