Zaire’s president convalesces in his French Riviera chateau, while students rule the streets of his capital. The prime minister hasn’t surfaced in days.
So who is running central Africa’s largest nation, a resource-rich land thrust into chaos by the ethnic hatred in Rwanda, its neighbor to the east?
“Nobody,” a newspaper publisher says.
“The people are just running themselves,” an opposition politician lamented.
“Who knows?” a university student snarled. “You tell ME!”
Just months ago, Zairians hoped the first multiparty elections were in sight and that decades of dictatorship under President Mobutu Sese Seko would end.
Today, Mobutu has cancer, for which he sought treatment in Europe three months ago. Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo’s job appears to be on the line. And since Rwandan Tutsi rebels drove Zairian soldiers out of the main cities of eastern Zaire, the army has hinted at mutiny.
Inflation has soared by 100 percent since June. Thousands of unemployed youths roam the streets of Kinshasa, stealing cars and destroying Tutsi homes and businesses.
Tens of thousands of young men demonstrated Tuesday, speeding around the capital and aiming fake, bamboo rifles at people with the tall, angular features of Tutsis. Two university students were killed and dozens injured in the violence.
“There’s no point in understating the degree of government disarray in this country,” said U.S. Ambassador Daniel Simpson.
The students, frustrated by a university system so corrupt and bankrupt that many sit in empty classrooms day after day, demand Mobutu’s return and Kengo’s resignation. Because the prime minister’s mother is a Rwandan Tutsi, the students say he is not a true Zairian and has been too soft on his mother’s homeland.
Kengo has yet to respond to calls for his resignation. He refused to attend an emergency summit on the country’s crisis held in Nairobi on Tuesday, saying Zaire wouldn’t join any talks until the rebels left its territory.
Opposition politician Iyombi Botumbe Akarele, one of three declared presidential candidates in elections promised next year, says that is nonsense.
“If you love your country, and you see you have become a problem for your country, then you do what’s best for your country,” said Akarele, who says weak leadership has led Zairians to take over the streets.
‘A crazy country’
Others say Kengo’s resignation would make no difference.
“Zaire is already a crazy country, so what would that change?” asked Kin-kiey Mulumba, publisher of the popular independent Le Soft newspaper.
There is talk around the capital that Mobutu is headed home to fire Kengo, but Western diplomats doubt that. If Mobutu wants a scapegoat for the unrest during his absence, it likely would be army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Eluki Monga Aundu.
During the Cold War, the Zairian army was propped up and trained by Western allies using the country to spy on its Communist neighbors. But the army hasn’t had Western support since disgruntled soldiers rioted in 1991, killing hundreds and prompting donor countries to withdraw aid.
Without any military transport planes, the army had to send soldiers to the fighting in eastern Zaire on commercial jets.
Simpson, the U.S. ambassador, says the weakness of the army - and of Zaire itself - was demonstrated in the dramatic fall of the main two cities of eastern Zaire, Bukavu and Goma.
And he says Mobutu’s return is crucial for restoring order.
“When a country has been attacked by outside forces, the symbolic value of the presidency with someone like Mobutu is enormous,” Simpson said.