The curtain has all but fallen on the 31-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko as he seeks a graceful exit from Zaire. But the next act for this giant country is opening with a certain degree of confusion that may keep Central Africa unsettled and America a key player.
It was US intervention and the moral stature of South African President Nelson Mandela that finally persuaded one of the world's longest-ruling despots to seek his own departure rather than fight an unstoppable rebel army for control of the capital.
But it's unclear whether similar pressure can push his likely successor, the enigmatic rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila, to bring democracy and stability to a country short on both.
The power transfer may reveal just how Kabila, who was a revolutionary nobody during most of his 30-year guerrilla career, will rule Zaire. Yesterday, he and Mobutu met on a South African ship, agreeing only to meet again in 10 days. Mobutu wants to hand over power to an elected, interim government. Kabila, seeking power first then elections, may continue to fight on.
Rebel forces, which have steamrolled over more than three quarters of the country in seven months, have reportedly amassed at Kenge, less than 125 miles away from the capital.
Even if Kabila, who ordered his troops to halt their advances, elects to take power peacefully, there are still open questions about how he will rule. Diplomats question whether he has the vision to behave as less a despot than Mobutu, who ran Zaire into the ground as he pocketed billions of dollars. They are also debating whether Kabila can unite 250 ethnic groups, wipe out endemic corruption, rebuild roads in a country the size of Western Europe, and work with the political opposition in the capital.
Diplomats agree the jury is still out on Kabila's intentions. It's easy to take over a country when Army troops desert without a fight and the people are desperate for change. It's another to rule with fairness. "They've done a good job at rebellion. Governing is another matter," says one Western diplomat. "Kabila has a lot of problems ahead. He doesn't have a lot of experienced people or the administrative structures to govern, and there's not a lot of indication that he believes in power-sharing with other parties."
Just rebuilding the deteriorated infrastructure would require billions of dollars, economists estimate. There are virtually no working phone lines. Only four-wheel-drives can navigate the potholed, muddy tracts that used to be paved highways.
The international community is ready to provide aid for Zaire's reconstruction. But the US in particular has made clear that this will hinge on Kabila's willingness to embrace democratic reforms. "Elections, elections, elections," says one Western diplomat. "We have made clear that any assistance will be linked to elections."
Kabila has made public relations blunders that have raised doubts about his commitment to human rights. He has generally been uncooperative toward humanitarian organizations striving to save tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire. There is much speculation that Kabila is carrying out the dirty work of his backer, Rwanda's Tutsi government, which is not sympathetic to the refugees, who include perpetrators of the 1994 genocide of about 800,000 Tutsis. Although Kabila agreed, after meeting with US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson last week, to allow aid agencies access to the refugees, he only gave them until the end of June to send the multitudes home.
Kabila has indicated vaguely that he will hold elections but has displayed deep ambivalence toward opposition groups in Kinshasa. "I think Kabila knows that if he wants assistance, he will have to share power. But that is to assume he is a responsible leader. I'm not sure he is," says one Western diplomat.
Kabila's two mentors are men who are US allies but who are not committed to multiparty rule - Rwanda military strongman Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
Aside from needing to win foreign support, Kabila will have to convince Zaireans from some 250 ethnic groups that he is acting in their interests. The rebellion began in October as a mostly Tutsi uprising. Since then, fighters from other ethnic groups have joined in, but Tutsis have continued to play a major role. Many other Zaireans resent Tutsis, and Kabila will need to broaden his base to assure them he is not creating a minority elite.
Even in his native Shaba Province, Kabila has blundered. He has alienated many locals, who resent his attempt to impose a governor not of their choice. They and the Baluba people of the diamond-rich Kasai Province will be looking carefully at whether the mineral wealth of the region will go toward local development rather than the pockets of government officials. Besides having to make appointments that will placate various groups, Kabila will be under scrutiny to pay civil servants, soldiers, and administrators, who went months without being paid under the old regime.
Kabila has had an easier time convincing international businessmen that he is the man to reckon with. He has substituted his old Marxist rhetoric for reassuring talk about maintaining existing contracts and attracting private investment. The result? Mining companies have lined up to discuss deals to exploit the country's extraordinary diamond, cobalt, gold, and copper wealth.