Some 30 years ago in the capital Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) of the Belgian Congo (until recently Zaire), I waited for an interview with a young African strongman named Mobutu Sese Seko.
There was a delay, and clearly some tension in the air. When I finally got in to see Mr. Mobutu, there was a wet patch on the carpet in front of his desk. After the interview, I asked an aide what had transpired. Well, he said, just before my appointment, the new leader had a dissenter shot, and they had to clean up the presidential office.
Whether the story was true or not, the end of Mobutu's reign of oppression and misrule has been a long time coming. For 30 years the bulk of the 40 million people of Zaire, renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have seen their potentially rich country despoiled as Mobutu and an elite claque have siphoned off billions for their personal use.
Now a new leader, Laurent Kabila, is in charge, and one is tempted to think that Congo could hardly be worse under President Kabila's hand than Mobutu's, and might be a lot better.
Well, the verdict is out on that.
Kabila is a little-known entity. He has limited experience with running anything of consequence, let alone a huge and disparate country like Congo. He seemed able to control his soldiers as they advanced on Kinshasa, and unlike the raping and pillaging soldiers in Mobutu's army, the rebels apparently won the respect of many villagers whose territory they occupied. But Kabila, many of whose troops were Tutsis from the eastern part of Congo, has either been unable or unwilling to curb atrocities against Rwandan Hutu refugees.
Whether or not he can bring some immediate order to the chaotic situation in his country, the larger question is what political and economic policies he will seek to implement. With a flirtation with Marxist theory in his past, how will he manage the development of Congo's substantial mineral wealth?
This ranges from huge deposits of copper in the old southeastern province of Katanga (now Shaba), to gold, diamonds, manganese, zinc, and cobalt.
Kabila has latterly been anxious to convince that he has forgone his earlier Marxist inclinations, that he has embraced a free-market philosophy, and that he is ready to do business with the big Western companies with the technical know-how and resources to extract his country's minerals. However, there is some odd socialist zigging in his past that contrasts with his present zagging in favor of capitalism.
Is democracy in store for the new nation of Congo?
One would certainly hope so after the long years of darkness under Mobutu. It is a country of many factions and ethnic groups, and Kabila would be wise to skillfully weave them into a coalition working for peace and prosperity.
Kabila has promised multiparty elections in a year or so, but many African coupists have promised that and failed to deliver after assuming office. Even in African countries where elections of a sort have taken place, democracy has not been the outcome.
Unscrupulous leaders have maintained autocratic rule, hobbling opposition parties, muzzling the press, and intimidating the judiciary.
One hope is that the Clinton administration, which has largely ignored Africa, will be forced to pay attention. While countries in Asia and other parts of the so-called third world have zoomed out of their "undeveloped" status, Africa has remained forlorn economically and backward democratically. With American help, the new Congo could start transforming that image.
* John Hughes was a Monitor correspondent in Africa for six years.