Four months after Laurent Kabila seized power in this vast decrepit nation, opinion remains divided over whether the reclusive former rebel leader is forging a bold new era or simply a different version of the old.
The high expectations that accompanied last May's dramatic toppling of late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko have been replaced by a hard pragmatism in some quarters and bitter disappointment in others.
And some of President Kabila's most fervent supporters during his seven-month rebellion are now among his loudest critics. "He lied to us!" shouts Jean-Pierre Lianza, as a crowd of men surrounding him on a dusty street corner in the capital nod in vigorous agreement. These men supported the former Zaire's political opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, and they welcomed Kabila's promises of democracy.
Now they echo widespread anger that Kabila has not included former Prime Minister Tshisekedi in his government. "He came with the politics of exclusion," Mr. Lianza says. "He came simply to continue what Mobutu was doing. There's no state of law, no democracy. We're really stuck."
Kabila says political parties will remain banned until elections are held in two years. Late last month, he also announced a ban on closed-door meetings and ordered political groups to take down public signs.
"We don't believe this is the time for discussion and going back and forth," says Interior Minister Mwenze Kongolo. "We're trying to avoid the situation that was in this country for seven years, where all people did was argue all day long and not accomplish anything. People expect action to change their lives, not more long political arguments."
Yet few in the new Congo can point to much concrete change in their daily life, and many don't like what change they have noticed.
An odd nostalgia has even developed for something Congolese thought they'd never miss: Mobutu's notorious army. "Under Mobutu, if you gave a soldier money, he would let you go," explains Kasereka Sekulikyolo, a human rights worker in Goma. "But now that's not the case. The soldier arrives in your house, he takes all your belongings, and still you are abducted and disappear. So you see, it's twice as bad as before."
Human rights workers say Kabila's army, dominated by the Tutsi ethnic group, has killed hundreds of Congolese, often targeting ethnic Hutus or those who have spoken out against what is perceived as a Tutsi stranglehold on positions of power.
The latest charges follow eyewitness reports that Kabila's soldiers massacred hundreds of Rwandan Hutu refugees last spring. The refugees, including the perpetrators of the 1994 slaughter of about 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis, had fled their homeland two years ago after Rwandan Tutsi rebels took over the country. Rwanda's Tutsi-led government aided Kabila and his rebels during their rebellion.
Kabila's government has gotten into a diplomatic scuffle with the United Nations over the alleged massacres. Tuesday, Kinshasa accused the UN of violating its sovereignty, after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the UN mission could be if withdrawn if a probe into the allegations wasn't allowed to go forward. The probe suffered a setback when the government refused to let investigators look for evidence in Mbandaka in the northwest.
But while allegations of human rights abuses are eliciting warnings that the UN and the United States will isolate Congo diplomatically, the country is being courted by international entrepreneurs. Kinshasa's two luxury hotels are full of business people impressed with steps taken to revive the gutted economy. Inflation fell by more than half, from roughly 70 percent to 30 percent, by July, after new central-bank managers ordered an end to runaway printing of money.
Ministers have announced an ambitious three-year plan to repair or construct 17,000 miles of roads along with upgrades in rail, air, and water links. Neighboring countries are already calculating the projected increase in trade. The only problem is money: Officials have budgeted $2.5 billion for the project but admit that they don't know yet where it will come from.
Meanwhile, they're having trouble paying civil servants. Salaries have been handed out in fits and starts: Workers receive between $10 and $40 for a month's work. It may be better than nothing, which is what Mobutu's government paid, but it's hardly enough to live on, says one civil servant who refused to give his name. "The government says it wants to end corruption, but if people can't get by on what they make, they'll be left with little choice.... People are corrupted, and that's not going to change overnight."
And it seems old habits do persist. One young aide in Kabila's office shook his head while complaining to this reporter that he hadn't yet been paid. He then glanced up with a hopeful expression, and asked, "Would you like to help me out?"