When Zaire's strategic river city Kisangani fell to rebels last month, state-run television neglected to mention the fact in its evening news. Instead, it reported about plans for new license plates in the capital, Kinshasa.
The self-delusion of the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko seems to have no limits as his reign enters its final days. The rebels of Laurent-Desir Kabila have taken half the country and most of Zaire's vast mineral wealth in seven months. Mr. Mobutu's former backers, the United States and Belgium, have declared the ailing despot history.
But as rebels advance toward the capital, the dictator resembles the ruler in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Mobutu's henchmen still vouch for his fictitious popularity, surrealistically going through the motions of ruling a country they no longer control.
Some of Mobutu's advisers have taken to blaming Western countries for retarding democracy in Zaire. "It is a Potemkin government that won't admit it is totally lost," one Western diplomat says.
The rebels' military successes have turned Zaire into a state that now exists in name alone. The government no longer controls the economy. State-run airlines can't fly to major cities outside the capital, reducing Kinshasa to a near island. International mining companies are switching their loyalties to Mr. Kabila.
And with Kabila just 180 miles outside Kinshasa, ordinary Zaireans are increasingly outspoken about their anguish at seeing their country reduced from one of Africa's most promising to one where roads are impassable and civil servants are paid $1 a month.
It is increasingly difficult to find Mobutu supporters among common folk - just as it is increasingly uncommon to find in the markets the cotton cloth with his face that women wore for years.
Although little is known about Kabila's ideology, he is seen by many Kinshasa residents as a liberator who offers the promise of a long-awaited change. The concern is less of what repression he will impose than of looting and killing by Mobutu's soldiers in a desperate last stand in Kinshasa.
"We don't fear Kabila. We are afraid of our own soldiers," says a nurse identified only as Marie-Claire. Shelves in her clinic are still bare from the last sacking. The door frames are splintered where the hinges were ripped out. "They took our air-conditioning units, passports, fans, and light bulbs, and beat us," she adds.
Attempts by South Africa to organize face-to-face talks between Kabila and Mobutu have raised hopes of a peaceful transition of power. But many diplomats privately question whether the talks will take place as hoped next week. They note the basic impasse between the two men: Kabila demands that Mobutu step down, while the president insists on a cease-fire before talking.
Most Kinshasa residents and diplomats say the end of Mobutu's reign is a matter of weeks. The hope is that Kabila will respond to Western pressure to organize elections and cooperate with the legal political opposition in Kinshasa.
"We Zaireans want a change," says computer engineer Jean-Marie Booto. "We have had enough of Mobutu."