If Zaire's cornered dictator were a stage actor, he'd be a master of the curtain call.
His reign over this giant African nation appears over. A rebel army is nearing the capital. But President Mobutu Sese Seko Mobutu nonetheless promises to return - yet again - to Kinshasa, this time from a regional summit in nearby Gabon.
His talent for comebacks is legend here. In 1993, for example, Zaire was engulfed in unrest. Zaireans were calling for him to resign. The capital was being looted by his own unpaid soldiers.
Journalists who flew to his jungle retreat, Gbadolite, asked Mobutu why, with all this chaos, he didn't just retire to his villa in France. Mobutu waved dismissively. "I thought about it," he said. "But those people [political opponents] aren't fit to run the country. I think I'll stay here and treat them as they deserve to be treated."
He survived that crisis. But maybe not this one. Most of his aides have fled Zaire, even though a US envoy, Bill Richardson said on Thursday there was "a good chance" that Mobutu will meet again with his enemy, rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila. The two strongmen had even exchanged phone numbers at their first meeting Sunday.
A Western diplomat in Kinshasa says the chances of Mobutu returning today are "50-50." The diplomat says that France was behind the meeting in Gabon of Mobutu's French-speaking allies. It was unlikely, he added, that France would use its clout to encourage him to step down as that would be a bad example for Paris's other African allies.
Diplomats say Mobutu's defiance is typical of the man who has ruled and ruined Zaire for 31 years. For years, they say, he has done what he wanted with the country's wealth, craftily pitting his enemies against each other to protect his power.
Now that the United States and most of his African neighbors have decided he should go, Mobutu is making it clear that he will not be dictated to, regardless of the fact he is ailing. The fact that the yet-to-be defeated rebels of Kabila are only about 100 miles away does not seem to faze him.
Mobutu is keeping the world guessing as to whether or not he will step down before the rebels come knocking on the capital's door. He has balked at playing by the script that his former backers, the Americans, have written for him.
"He is a proud man," says one Western diplomat. "He has a perfect way to go gracefully, by citing his health. But he is stubborn and feels humiliated by the Americans. Who knows what he will do?"
High-ranking envoys, such as South African President Nelson Mandela and US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, have tried to persuade Mobutu to leave before it is too late. But Mobutu did not, as mediators expected, agree to fly off to France after meeting with Kabila. Irked by having been kept waiting by Kabila for a day, Mobutu surprised everyone by insisting that his departure would come only after elections.
"He was ready to play the game," says one Western diplomat. "But then Kabila hurt his pride."
Now Mobutu is in Gabon, prompting speculation that he is seeking support to remain in power rather than preparing for his departure.
After taking power in 1965 after a coup, Mobutu, then known as Joseph Desir, adopted his current African name, which means "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance to and will to win, will go from conquest to conquest" - an appropriate sobriquet for a man who has done anything to stay in power.
Diplomats say a favored Mobutu ploy in the past has been to say "yes" when he means "no" and then create confusion over his intent.
At the start of this decade, Mobutu said he would bow to foreign and local pressure to end one-party rule. He fostered hundreds of opposition parties, including some pro-Mobutu fronts, reasoning that the bigger the process, the more unworkable it would be.
He was right. A national conference meant to plot the future was flooded by nearly 3,000 delegates. At one memorable meeting, after six hours delegates were still squabbling over where to sit.
Mobutu brilliantly played the opposition parties against each other, co-opting some to anger the others, observers say. He insisted he was backing change while actually undermining it. At one point in 1993, there were two constitutions, two governments, two leaders, and almost no economy. But Mobutu continued to hang onto power amid the confusion.