The United States is quietly letting Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko slip from power, no longer willing to support its former cold- war protege.
After helping Mr. Mobutu take power by force 31 years ago and then supporting him as a foil against communism, Washington has now decided not to intervene against a six-month rebellion by Laurent-Desire Kabila which is widely predicted to oust Mobutu soon.
Analysts say the dumping of Mobutu is the culmination of a post-cold-war policy of ending support to despots, who before were seen as necessary to combat Soviet influence in the region. The criteria deciding whom to support in the 1990s are based instead on good governance and free-market reforms.
"There has been an apparent shift in US policy toward Africa," says Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs based in Johannesburg.
"The US is clearly no longer prepared to cynically back African dictators. It's been a gradual shift. The post-cold-war era has finally dawned on US-African relations."
Mr. Kabila's success in taking nearly one-third of the country has surprised many observers, who first dismissed him as a puppet of Uganda and Rwanda. His Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire threatens Mobutu's corrupt reign, which reduced Africa's third largest country to shambles.
Dr. Mills and other analysts say that Kabila may join a new breed of African leaders sponsored by Washington. The club includes the rulers of Rwanda and Eritrea and Kabila's mentor, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
These are dynamic men who, while not wholeheartedly embracing multiparty democracy, are at least less corrupt than the old-guard despots they replaced.
"The US is auditioning Kabila for the role," says David Aronson, an expert on Zaire at Washington's Carnegie Institute. "It may have decided to switch strongmen."
Although Washington still is taking Mobutu seriously enough to push him as an interlocutor to negotiate a cease-fire with Kabila, the dictator's star has waned in Washington with his failure to adopt democratic reforms promised seven years ago.
Instead of helping him as it did before against past insurrections, Washington this time merely sent warships and 300 soldiers to evacuate American citizens if necessary. But the State Department has denied rumors that the US is quietly channeling aid to Kabila via Rwanda and Uganda.
But fueling speculation that Washington is ready to lend Kabila a helping hand is the establishment of a radio listening station in Uganda -- and visits in recent months to his Goma headquarters by US diplomats.
Questions about further American links have emerged with the revelations that at least two members of Kabila's "cabinet" -- Nkongolo Mwenze and Mawapanga Mwana Nanga -- spent a lot of time in the US. They still have family there and were part of an exiled Zairean opposition group called the All North America Conference on Zaire.
"I can't help thinking that the State Department would be secretly pleased if Mobutu were finally booted out," says Richard Cornwell, an analyst at Pretoria's Africa Institute.
While support for Mobutu may have changed, Zaire's strategic importance has not. Its fabulous mineral wealth entices foreign investors. Zaire lies smack in the middle of Africa, bordering nine countries. Several form part of the volatile Great Lakes region destabilized by ethnic strife. The US is especially concerned that a disintegration of Zaire would spread to next-door Angola or Sudan.
The last thing Washington wants is for Sudan to extend its Islamic militant influence farther in Africa, or for Angolan UNITA rebels to continue to use Zaire as a conduit for arms and diamond smuggling.
The immediate stated American objective is to obtain a ceasefire between Mobutu and Kabila, something Kabila has ruled out until now. Mr. Aronson feels that Washington is placing too much emphasis on Mobutu, who is ailing and not expected to cling to power much longer. Instead, he believes Washington should be devoting more energy to promoting talks between Kabila and important opposition leaders such as Etienne Tshisekedi.
Mr. Tshisekedi was previously twice sacked by Mobutu as prime minister but was restored to the post earlier this week. He is not popular with Washington but has much moral authority at home as a long-time advocate for reform.
The jury is still out on whether Kabila can keep secessionist sentiment in diamond-rich Kasai and minerals-blessed Shaba Provinces in check -- and maturely work with opposition leaders who have genuine constituencies.