An international scramble is under way to influence the future of a Central African giant, a century after imperial powers carved out its borders.
South Africa, France, and the US are, with varying degrees of rivalry, trying to come up with their own solution for Zaire, where besieged dictator Mobutu Sese Seko refuses to give up power. Time for a mediated end to his rule is running short, as rebels are almost on the doorstep of the capital.
The rapid rebel advance that may soon end a 32-year dictatorship is seen as the most important event in Africa since the end of apartheid. The legendary figure of that struggle, South African President Nelson Mandela, has become a moral mediator in calls for a peaceful transfer of power in Zaire. "The real superstar of the operation is Mandela. Neither side feels it can stiff him," says one Western diplomat.
For South Africa, authoring a Zairean peace would polish its faded diplomatic image. For the US, ensuring a stable Zaire would help it counter the Islamic militant threat of Sudan and strife in Angola. France has the most to lose, having based its diminishing global prestige on its influence in Francophone Africa.
Paris has been President Mobutu's last great Western friend, and a rebel victory would likely end any special access it has enjoyed in Zaire.
With French elections later this month, the timing of a likely diplomatic defeat is most uncomfortable for the French government. "The end of Mobutu seems to be interpreted in Paris as the end of French neo-colonialism in Africa," says another Western diplomat.
Few question that Mobutu, who has been diagnosed with cancer, must go soon. Rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila has taken about 80 percent of the country and his forces are only 110 miles from the capital, Kinshasa. But so far, Mobutu has refused to cave in to pressure to resign to avoid a bloodbath.
France is believed to be the only country that has enough clout to persuade Mobutu to step down. But Paris does not want to send the message to other allies in Africa, such as Gabon, that they too could be easily dropped, diplomats say.
Meanwhile, a summit of Francophone African leaders was held in Libreville, Gabon, last week, which several diplomats interpreted as a ploy by France to exert its own influence in the peace process.
Washington's involvement in Africa is a major irritant in Paris, which resents what it views as American efforts to nudge it aside in Central Africa and promote an English-speaking bloc.
Aware that France had taken a diplomatic bruising, US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson flew to Paris last week to brief high-ranking French officials and include them in the process. In a press conference in Paris, Mr. Richardson lauded France's "joint leadership with the United States."
Annoyance with Washington has also been expressed by some South African officials, who privately feel the US is trying to steal their mediating thunder. This comes on top of overall South African sensitivity to what it sees as bullying by the Americans over its relations with Cuba, Libya, Iran, and Syria - which the US considers pariah or terrorism-sponsoring states.
South Africa, the region's powerhouse, argues that it has more at stake in what happens to Zaire than the US.
Poised so close to Zaire, South Africa has a more direct interest in stabilizing Africa's third largest country. In addition, for South African exporters, Zaire's 45 millions people present a huge potential market. And a calm Zaire would enable South Africa and its neighbors to harness its hydroelectric power into a regional grid.
Despite irritations, both South Africa and the US share a vision for a peaceful change of power. Their ideal scenario envisages Mobutu voluntarily exiting on grounds of health, his Army refraining from violence when the rebels enter Kinshasa, and Kabila working with existing officials in a transition toward democratic elections.
Also, South Africa and the US are looking to the future and are trying to establish a working relationship with Kabila, whereas France is trying to maintain the status quo.
The US has lauded South Africa for its input, claiming that Richardson only did the groundwork and that it was the prestige of mediator Mandela that brought Kabila and Mobutu to meet face to face last week. A second meeting is planned for Wednesday in the Congo.