President Mobutu Sese Seko's last-minute pleas that Zaire hold elections before he gives up power came far too late (especially since he himself impeded previous plans to hold elections this very month). But now the longtime Zairean leader's sway over his 45 million countrymen has imploded. By the time this column appears, opposition forces led by Laurent-Desir Kabila may already have reached the capital, Kinshasa.
The issue, clearly, is not the holding of elections before Kabila takes power but what outside parties can do to structure the incentives for him after that.
The evidence available about Kabila's intentions is not reassuring. In particular, the arbitrary, possibly even genocidal, treatment of Rwandan refugees in zones he controls raises a real concern that his philosophy of rule may be little different from the autocracy of Mobutu.
What can outsiders do to prevent chaos and give Zaire's hard-pressed residents a better future?
The international community has a strong interest in the welfare of both refugees and citizens in Zaire. But at least for the refugees, however horrible their treatment to date, the broad outline of a solution (speedy repatriation to Rwanda) has been agreed. So, too, at some fundamental level, has the "right" of the international community to pursue an interest in their welfare.
In the case of Zaire's own people's welfare, by contrast, no such "right of external concern" has been forcefully articulated by the major international actors. Nor has any such concern been accepted as legitimate by Kabila.
The Zaire in which Kabila is approaching power is one that, after decades of Mobutuism, is politically and economically stunted, as well as cross-hatched by multiple ethnic rivalries.
The very speed with which Mobutu's forces collapsed means that Kabila was never called on to devote much effort to developing the skills in coalition-building and negotiating that will be needed to effect a broad democratic opening in Zaire. And we have seen how Kabila treated the remnants of the ethnic Hutu groups who previously tried to oppose him. Magnanimity is not this man's middle name. We cannot rely on him to have the vision and flexibility that his country needs.
Which means that such vision, and a solid commitment to furthering it, must come from outside the country. The major relevant actors seem to be South Africa, France, the United States, the United Nations, and the major international lending agencies.
What should they press for?
*Scrupulous respect of human rights standards for citizens and noncitizens alike.
*The freeing of political prisoners, and immediate guarantees of freedom of peaceable assembly and freedom of expression.
*Convening a broad consultative assembly in which all major Zairean parties and factions can reach agreement on the country's constitutional future.
*A reasonable timetable for the holding of verifiably fair multiparty elections.
*Concrete progress in professionalizing the security forces and building an independent judiciary.
*Devolution of many powers to the country's far-flung regions.
And why, Kabila may well ask, are such matters any business of outsiders?
We should be unashamed in stating that the world community has a strong and legitimate interest here. Past instabilities in Uganda, Rwanda, and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region have shown the capacity of misrule in those countries to exponentially increase human suffering. But their populations are small compared with Zaire's. A continuation of the misrule that Zaire has already suffered for decades would rock the stability of much of Africa.
Even before Kabila reached the capital, international business people were flocking to him to win access to Zaire's mineral wealth. But, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said, "There can be no true globalization if it is only economic."
Kabila has to hear an outside voice besides that of the mining conglomerates - one challenging him to bring wisdom and magnanimity to his rule. That challenge needs to be backed up by a strong structure of incentives and disincentives. Zaire - and the world - cannot afford another Mobutu.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.