In a mere six months, rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila has evolved from an obscure guerrilla fighter to the presumed next leader of this crumbling Central African nation.
With dramatic ease, Mr. Kabila's rebels have captured one-fourth of Zairean territory. He has brought the 31-year dictatorship of ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko to its knees, and few analysts expect it to last much longer.
But as the affable Kabila is cheered as savior as he triumphantly enters town after town, his ideology and aims remain a mystery.
"What does he want? What are his beliefs? Your guess is as good as mine," says one Western diplomat who has known Kabila for several years. "But he certainly can't be worse than Mobutu."
That appears to be the view of thousands of Zaireans, who welcome Kabila as an alternative to the corrupt Mr. Mobutu, who has reduced Africa's third-largest country to anarchic shambles.
This uprising is the culmination of Kabila's long revolutionary career, which began shortly after Zaire gained independence from Belgium in 1960. In the early 1960s, he took part in Marxist-inspired provincial rebellions, at one point fighting alongside the legendary Latin American guerrilla Che Guevara. In 1964, rebels took control of the east and northeast of Zaire. But the next year, Mobutu quashed the uprising with the aid of Belgian troops.
Kabila then retreated into the jungle and set up his own mini-insurgency on the western shores of Lake Tanganyika, supporting himself with trade in diamonds, ivory, and gold. He cultivated the confidence of current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, an alliance which was to prove useful later on.
Every few years, analysts say, Kabila would seize a few hostages in the name of overthrowing President Mobutu. State troops would storm in, but they were often paid off, and the two sides settled into pragmatic coexistence.
Nothing more was heard from Kabila until he suddenly emerged last October as leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. Given that until recently Kabila appeared to be a failure as a rebel, critics were quick to deride him as an opportunist and a puppet of Uganda and Rwanda, which lent his forces military support to serve their own agendas.
Kabila is from southern Shaba Province and a member of the Lundu ethnic group. But the core of his fighters is ethnic Zairean Tutsis, whose revolt late last year in the east served as a base to launch Kabila's wider campaign.
Kabila has worked to correct the image of his army as an invading Tutsi force. And with each military victory he appears to be building a nationwide movement that aims to unite the fractured country of 250 ethnic groups.
The discipline of his troops and the efficient local administration of conquered towns are welcomed after Mobutu's looting Army. Kabila carefully cultivates a persona as liberator, using as his rallying cry uhuru, Swahili for freedom.
"The people support me. They have had enough of Mobutu," Kabila said in a recent interview with the Monitor. "They want to be free." He has stopped wearing military fatigues, opting instead for safari suits. He also mouths the words so precious to Western governments disillusioned with Mobutu: "We want free elections and democracy."
However, some analysts urge a dose of skepticism about Kabila's purported love of democracy. They note that Kabila's voice was nowhere to be heard in 1991 and 1992, when Zaireans from all political stripes came together to plan a democratic transition leading to elections. Kabila's Marxist roots may ultimately culminate in undue social control and centralization, they say.
"There's this optimistic will that has turned him into a democrat," says Peter Rosenbloom of Harvard University's Human Rights Program in Cambridge, Mass. "But there's nothing in his past that would suggest that he has particularly steeped himself in democracy and [that] that's the ideology he's bringing."