The war to oust the leader of Africa's third-largest country appears nearly over, setting up a rivalry over who will now rule a divided and strategic nation.
In a mere six months, the rebel army of Laurent-Desir Kabila has taken one-third of Zaire. Most of the gold, diamond, copper, and cobalt wealth that sustained the 31-year rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko now lies in the insurgents' hands.
Mr. Kabila's forces had all but taken the second-largest city, Lubumbashi, on April 8. "The real question now is what happens post-Mobutu," says Richard Cornwell, a regional analyst with the Africa Institute think tank in Pretoria. "He's really history now. The future of Zaire lies beyond him."
But despite his military victories, Kabila has a rival for power in post-Mobutu Zaire. In the capital, Kinshasa, long-time opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi has emerged as a leading figure in the power vacuum left by Mobutu's retreating Army.
Kabila hails from Shaba Province, while Mr. Tshisekedi holds great sway in Kasai. There is no great fondness between people of the two provinces. Kasaians are deeply resented in Shaba, where they dominated business until 1 million were driven out and thousands others killed in ethnic cleansing in 1993.
Kabila can argue persuasively that he has a right to rule the land. His men met barely any resistance as they swept through town after town in the giant Central African country. He cleverly held snap polls in areas under his control, which he can point to as indications of legitimacy among the people.
But like it or not, Kabila will have to contend with the strong-willed Tshisekedi, one of the most popular and populist leaders of the nonviolent opposition. Tshisekedi over the past seven years continually attacked Mobutu for his failure to adopt a promised transition to democracy. Last week, he was reinstated to the post of premier from which Mobutu sacked him before. He is unlikely to step down again without a fight.
Tshisekedi quickly offered six Cabinet posts to Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. He also expressed a desire to talk about working together. But the rebels spurned cooperation with the current government, with senior aides accusing Tshisekedi of behaving arrogantly toward their movement.
"We tried to get in touch with the opposition led by Tshisekedi. But he was acting as if he were already cock of the roost, and we got fed up," Kabila's Finance Minister Mawapanga Mwana Nanga said in a recent interview.
It is unclear how much support Kabila commands in Kasai and Shaba Provinces. During a triumphant visit earlier this week to Kasai's diamond capital, Mbuji-Mayi, he was welcomed as a savior. Popular opinion has reportedly swung behind him across his native Shaba.
But it whether this is euphoria over the imminent fall of Mobutu, who drove one of Africa's richest countries into shambles, or sustainable support for the rebels remains to be seen.
Analysts say that in order to suppress cries for independence in Shaba, which saw secessionist revolts in the 1960s and 1970s, Zaire's new leader must ensure its people derive greater benefits from the province's mineral wealth. Resentment over the 1993 pogroms still lingers in Kasai, which has its own currency and is proud of its exceptional entrepreneurship.
Whoever inherits the new leadership of Zaire will not only have to contend with lingering hostility between the two regions but also tensions among the country's 250 ethnic groups.
So far, the rebels are keeping their cards close to their chests. But Kabila's confidence levels have surely been swelled by overtures from foreign mining companies, which are lining up for talks to protect their vast interests.