In Zaire, practically nothing works. The phone lines are dysfunctional. Soldiers loot instead of protect. The roads are so bad only four-wheel-drive vehicles can traverse them.
But amid this institutional breakdown, religious institutions have quietly maintained some semblance of order on the local level.
Sometimes working in dangerous conditions, religious missions offer what is often the only education and health care available. They take care of orphans and feed the hungry. They advocate political reform, playing an important role as mediators.
With the collapse of government services under President Mobutu Sese Seko's nearly 32-year dictatorship, the Roman Catholic Church has become one of the last institutions holding this shadow of a nation together. "The church has played an enormously stabilizing role," says one Western diplomat. "It has played a huge role socially in pushing for human rights and democracy."
All over Africa, churches of all denominations perform social services when the state does not provide for its people. However, because the chaos in Zaire is so extreme, the Catholic Church has played a much more important role than elsewhere. It has also stepped into the political arena on a level unrivaled anywhere on the continent.
Some 50 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and Protestant Evangelical missions enjoy much support among the rest of the population. The importance of churches has been highlighted by the election Saturday of Catholic Archbishop Laurent Pasingya Monsengwo as Speaker of parliament.
As of noon on Monday, Monsignor Monsengwo had not yet said whether he would accept the post of Speaker. But if he does, it would make the Archbishop of Kisangani the interim successor to Mr. Mobutu if he resigns. Mobutu's political days appear to be numbered, thanks to a rebel advance that has swept most of the country.
Some Western diplomats are in favor of Monsengwo's taking the job, believing he would offer crucial neutral leadership during a transition of power. But it is questionable how much support Monsengwo commands in other circles.
One plan discussed in diplomatic circles is for Mobutu to step down peacefully and hand over interim power to Monsengwo, who would then work with rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila in a transitional arrangement before elections.
However, before Monsengwo was named Speaker, Kabila's foreign affairs spokesman, Bizima Karaha, dismissed as "absolute nonsense" the plan to give power to Monsengwo under a Kabila regime.
The political opposition, led by former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, also opposes his appointment. The opposition boycotted the Saturday session that elected Monsengwo, because it claimed he was too close to the Mobutu camp.
Monsengwo himself was guarded. "I will only accept if I have national and international guarantees," he told a news conference in Belgium Sunday during a stopover on his way back to Kinshasa, the capital.
Monsengwo's vagueness appears to reflect the ambivalence in Rome about his assuming such a prominent political position.
"The general rule in the church is that no priests or bishops should take part in politics," says a Catholic church source in Kinshasa. "Zaire presents an exceptional case. But is it really useful to make him [Speaker] of parliament with all the religious and juridical problems if he already has a position as mediator?"
Church opposes move
The source says the unprecedented situation of an archbishop acting as Speaker is one the Vatican would prefer to avoid, because of the inevitable accompanying controversy.
Rome allowed Monsengwo to accept the position of Speaker of a transitional government in 1993, solely because it was seen to help reconciliation and democratic reform.
His perceived neutrality and dynamism propelled the transitional parliament through many attempts to sabotage it. He often criticized the international community for not putting enough pressure on Mobutu to improve the pace of preparations for elections.
But Monsengwo was ousted in 1995 during political squabbling between Mobutu and the political opposition. The vilification campaign mounted against him by Mr. Tshisekedi did little to help the image of the Catholic Church.
Whether or not Monsengwo assumes the job, the church is active on another front trying to promote calm in the capital before Mr. Kabila arrives.
"We are urging people to stay quiet and not to be fearful, in order to help a peaceful transition. Panic is contagious," a Vatican official, Msgr. Nicolas Thevenin, says.
Normally, during the seven-month uprising in which Kabila's rebels have taken 80 percent of the country, unpaid government soldiers have engaged in devastating looting just before rebels arrived at a town.
The fear is that the same might occur in Kinshasa.
Church officials hope they can repeat the example of Kikwit, where they helped prevent mayhem when it was taken by the rebels recently. The local bishop organized a committee of civilians and government officials to ensure the damage was limited.
Clerics on the front lines
But while trying to promote tranquillity, clerics have been attacked on several occasions by retreating soldiers, who have plundered missions.
Last week, for example, at least 120 people attending a choir meeting were murdered at the town of Kenge in still unclear circumstances.
The jury is still out as to Kabila's attitudes toward the Catholic Church. His Marxist origins are unlikely to make him sympathetic, and missionaries have complained of restrictions in rebel-held territory.
There have been a handful of clergy killings by rebels, but church officials say this was because of their ethnic background, not their religious affiliation.