Zaire can be seen as a metaphor for the rest of Africa, embodying its drama on an almost operatic scale.
Politically, it lies at the heart of a volatile region. Its sheer size - about that of Western Europe - and mixture of natural and human factors have added to the hyperbole.
For instance, Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, is perhaps the most corrupt and tenacious despot on a continent of many despots. The hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees in Zaire present the biggest humanitarian crisis in a region of catastrophes. Zaire's Army is arguably the most inept on the continent, and its rebels, who have conquered half the country, the most successful.
On a continent famous for its natural resources, Zaire has been blessed with almost every mineral known to man. But the government, due to massive corruption, has managed to bankrupt one of Africa's potentially wealthiest countries. As a result, long-suffering Zaireans have come to epitomize African resilience.
Zaire's political and institutional anarchy are so great they have become synonymous with collapse.
"Even the potholes seem bigger here," says one Western diplomat.
Now, as the age of Mobutu draws to a close, Zaire has come to embody hopes across Africa for a new age of more pragmatic and democratic leadership.
If Zaire can succeed, say the pundits, then so can the rest of the continent.
The country's size and stature has made it the inspiration of writers such as Joseph Conrad and V.S. Naipaul. The two used Zaire as a metaphor for moral decay respectively in "Heart of Darkness" and "A Bend in the River."
This tendency by outsiders to impose their own interpretations on Zaire began centuries ago when the Portuguese turned the mighty Congo kingdom into a gigantic slave market. In 1884, imperial European powers divided up Africa at a conference in Berlin, ignoring the region's diverse ethnic groupings as they carved the artificial borders of the modern state.
After the country won its independence from Belgium in 1960 during a wave of African liberation movements, a series of separatist rebellions, mutinies, and coups made Zaire an emblem of volatility.
When Mr. Mobutu, as a young Army officer, took over in a 1965 coup, a new phase began. Like the shah of Iran, Mobutu was one of America's cold-war proxies, in this case used to undermine the leftist government of Angola to the south.
A clever, self-serving man, he knew how to play France, Belgium, and the United States off against each other, with complete disregard for the well-being of his countrymen.
He carefully fine-tuned the myth that he was the only man who could unite Zaire's 250 different ethnic groups, presenting himself as an all-powerful tribal chief of the land. Mobutu's status as a bulwark against communism won him the support of Washington, which looked the other way as he plundered the country and ran it to the ground.
When the cold war ended, his importance evaporated, and he fell out of favor with the US for failing to embrace the democratic reforms it began to push in Africa in the 1990s.
Mobutu's political clout revived in 1994, after the ethnic genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. Mobutu, with French help, gave refuge to 1 million mainly Hutu Rwandan refugees. Among them were the Hutu perpetrators of the massacres, who used refugee camps in eastern Zaire as a base to attack the new Tutsi-led government in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
Ultimately, the refugee crisis contributed to Mobutu's downfall. The ethnic conflict that spilled over from Rwanda spawned a rebellion by Zairean Tutsis. This quickly fed into rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila's more broad-based uprising, which had the backing of Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola.
Mr. Kabila has now taken more than half the country with little resistance as Zairean Army soldiers beat a pathetic retreat. The rebels control nearly 90 percent of Zaire's mines and are reportedly 180 miles outside the capital. But Mobutu still refuses to leave Zaire or the presidency that he has held for 31 years.
No one knows exactly what kind of leader Kabila will prove to be, or whether he will oversee a new era of democracy being urged by the West.
Pessimists warn of a new wave of refugee movements, ethnic tensions, and even implosion in the region. But advocates of a new African dawn see hope in Kabila and the opportunity he represents to reverse Zaire's decline. If the economic potential of the country could be realized, it would bolster the stabilization of southern and central Africa, which for decades has been ensnared in violence and poverty. Zaire borders nine countries in southern, central, and eastern Africa.
Several of the countries bordering Zaire are either immersed in or emerging from civil conflict. A stable Zaire would lessen the possibility of weapons being smuggled through it or the use of Zairean soil by rebels as a base to stage raids into neighboring countries.
In the rest of Africa, optimists point to a new, more accountable leadership in countries such as Eritrea, Uganda, and Ghana, which are in the midst of impressive economic revivals. They trumpet the end of wars in Ethiopia, Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola, South Africa's peaceful end to apartheid, and thriving democracies in Botswana and Mauritius.
But even those who are upbeat say the challenges ahead in reversing a tradition of corruption are as great as Zaire's vast potential. Kabila, or whoever takes over, will inherit the difficulty of dismantling the Mobutu political machine and uniting an ethnically fractured country. "It will not be easy," warned one Western diplomat. "Kabila is going to have a very difficult time."