Zairean rebel leader Laurent Kabila may not have won his war yet, but he has already given himself a parade. The rebel capital, Goma, came to a standstill March 18 as thousands of people crammed the streets to watch the rebels celebrate the weekend capture of the city of Kisangani, a strategic victory that could topple ailing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
For Mr. Kabila, who has struggled to oust Mr. Mobutu for more than three decades, the occasion was a personal triumph. The parade was led by rebel officials, each wrapped in the seven-starred flag of the Congo, the name for Zaire before Mobutu renamed it after his 1965 coup. Kabila says he will reinstate names and symbols of the early 1960s republic.
One symbol of the budding regime is its official stamp: a snarling lion. But some observers believe the stamp may not be such a good omen. On closer examination, the lion is not just any lion, but the evil character Scar from Disney's movie "The Lion King." Nobody has yet dared to ask the rebels what this means.
Wearing a Stetson hat and a broad smile, the man whom everybody in Goma now calls "Mr. President" sat in an armchair and acknowledged cheers from the crowd.
Yet while the symbols and faces have changed, veteran Zaire watchers noted that the style was eerily the same.
Kabila and two lieutenants sat in opulent armchairs, while behind them concentric rings of officials perched in ever-decreasing levels of comfort. The lowest-ranking officials of his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire had to stand.
A tin roof sheltered the dignitaries from a tropical downpour, while the townspeople huddled in the rain. Rebel soldiers beat the curious crowds back into line with sticks.
A Kalashnikov-toting soldier, who could not have been more than 10 years old, was whisked hurriedly away when too many foreign lenses swung toward him. All the while, an electronic organ played jaunty tunes.
Then the people paraded past. There were agricultural societies, women's groups, a guild of shoe saleswomen with sneakers balanced on their heads. Many of the banners had the word Congo hastily pasted on where Zaire had been shown many times before.
The slogan for the day was Uhuru - Swahili for freedom - a cry that went up in country after country as colonial powers pulled out of Africa in the 1960s. But when the cries died down, Kabila returned to the present and the struggle that seems almost but not quite won. In five months, the rebels have gobbled up more than one-sixth of Zaire, Africa's third-largest country.
Responding to rumors that Zaire's high command might oust Mobutu - currently receiving medical treatment in Monaco - Kabila said the rebels would keep fighting no matter who was running the government in Kinshasa. A cease-fire will only come after negotiations begin. In the meantime, the rebels say all Zaireans are swinging to their side. "In Kinshasa, people are happy," Kabila said, "While people like Mobutu and his family are already packing their bags."
IF the people of Goma never quite seemed ecstatic, there was still plenty of optimism in the air. One schoolteacher said that while people are wary of the new rulers, everybody hopes that things would improve once the war ended. "Mobutu hasn't paid us since 1991," he said. "But now that president Kabila says we'll be paid, we believe we will."
The rebels have imposed taxes and relatively tight controls on the local population. Citizens can't move about as freely as they used to and are heavily taxed when they cross the border.
The local radio station has a distinctly cold war approach to news. Cars are commandeered, although people now get receipts, which they say is preferable to having them seized outright by Zairean troops. The rebels are more organized than Mobutu's corrupt soldiers; many Goma residents say they prefer taxes to the random robbery common before November, when undisciplined Zairean troops controlled the town.