Opposition leaders brought the capital to a virtual standstill on Monday to press demands for President Mobutu Sese Seko to step down as Zaire’s spreading rebellion celebrated fresh gains in the south.
In a protest billed by supporters as the “dead city” strike, streets here were eerily deserted. Shops, offices and public transportation were shut down throughout the day as residents of this normally bustling city of 4.5 million heeded the opposition’s call to stay at home.
The strike was organized by supporters of the recently dismissed prime minister, Etienne Tshisekedi. It was part of what has emerged as an undeclared race between him and the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, for control over Kinshasa and credit for bringing Mobutu down, Zairian political analysts and foreign diplomats said.
But as if to emphasize the ascendancy of his rebellion, Kabila flew on Monday to the capital of Zaire’s southern copper belt, Lubumbashi, the country’s second-largest city, where his arrival drew large crowds of well-wishers.
The strike by Tshisekedi’s followers in the capital was seen as a blunt challenge to Mobutu’s authority and to his decrees last week setting up a new military-led government and imposing a state of emergency. Before being removed last week, Tshisekedi was prevented by soldiers from occupying his office after a violent crackdown on a rally of his supporters.
“Today we have a dead city, dead villages, dead schools and a dead country,” said Andre Kyushe, a supporter of Tshisekedi. “What we are waiting for is a dead Mobutu, and we won’t stop now until he is out of the way.”
For many here the most immediate question is whether fighting or wide-spread panic and looting can be avoided in the capital.
Kinshasa has a history of devastating army riots, and with the deeply corrupt political establishment here already on edge over the arrival of a score-settling revolutionary regime, many residents and diplomats fear that little more than a spark could set off a conflagration.
Diplomats here say they hope that Kabila realizes this danger.
“If he is intelligent, he comes in here with allies in place - military and civilian,” said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The last thing you would want is to have 10,000 to 15,000 government soldiers all disappearing with their weapons, and the old political class trying to organize them into resistance because they are bitter over a lack of power-sharing.”
But so far Kabila has expressed no desire to include Zaire’s opposition leaders in a transitional government.
With Mobutu’s army in collapse, the rebels’ biggest challenge has been the great distances between cities in a country one third the size of the United States.
Throughout most of their seven-month war, rebel forces have moved without motorized vehicles, advancing by foot or in dugout canoes and typically covering anywhere from 20 and 60 miles a day.
“The only military obstacle now between the rebels and Kinshasa is the state of the roads,” said one regional military expert.
“And they are just about the worst in Africa.”