Zaire’s cancer-stricken president was in seclusion Saturday, the day after returning home after months recuperating on the French Riviera, and speculation deepened over his health and ability to run the country.
“He can’t even stand on his own,” one opposition newspaper headline said of President Mobutu Sese Seko, who is back from Europe but unwilling or unable to meet the public or the press.
“Where’s the Mystery Man?,” another newspaper asked.
On the streets of Kinshasa, the Zairian capital, people were abuzz over Mobutu’s whereabouts, debating why he had himself whisked away after Friday’s low-key homecoming.
Supporters of rebel leader Laurent Kabila rallying in Kisangani, Zaire’s third-largest city, vehemently opposed talk of a cease-fire, and the United States sent troops to west Africa in case it becomes necessary to evacuate Americans.
Most Kinshasans have no access to television, so they were unable to see international news reports that showed Mobutu getting on his private jet in Nice, France, to return home.
“They’re trying to hide something from us,” shouted Evariste Kunda, a university student. “He’s not on TV, not on the radio. Do you know where he is?”
Nestor Mpolo, who is unemployed, said he didn’t care if Mobutu - 66 and suffering from prostate cancer - was dead or alive. In his 31-year dictatorship, Mobutu has become one of the world’s richest men and his country one of the poorest.
“Look at me. I’m older than 40 and have done nothing with my life because of him,” Mpolo said. “They say that he wants to die here - but he’s already dead.”
Yet others were praying for Mobutu’s quick recovery, so he could put his house in order. In his absence, Zaire has slid into insurgency, and rebels now hold a third of the Central African country.
In a show of support for the president, young army recruits sporting freshly shaven heads paraded about Kinshasa on Saturday singing and shouting.
“He’s our papa and we’re his children,” said Sasa Ebenge, a cloth saleswoman at the Grand Market. “If there’s no papa in the house, there’s going to be disorder.”
Up at Camp Tshatshi, a military camp on the outskirts of the city where Mobutu was said to be resting at one of his residences Saturday, a hundred other young recruits milled about waiting for orders.
Mobutu has spent much of the past seven months abroad, receiving treatment for his cancer. Before his return Friday, he was in a Monaco hospital, reportedly with internal bleeding linked to previous surgery.
Rebels took the strategic city of Kisangani last weekend. On Saturday, thousands cheered Kabila there when he vowed to keep fighting until Mobutu is toppled.
“Do you want a cease-fire?” Kabila asked. The 5,000 Zairians booed, hissed and shouted, “No!”
“Advance, advance,” they said. “Freedom! Freedom!”
Kabila promised, “This movement will continue until Gbadolite, until Kinshasa.” Mobutu’s jungle palace is in Gbadolite, near the Congo border.
The rebels are moving toward Lubumbashi, the country’s secondlargest city. They have said they will stop fighting only after Mobutu holds direct talks with Kabila. Mobutu so far has refused.
Kabila invited U.N. envoy Mohamed Sahnoun to the rally. Sahnoun is trying to persuade the warring factions to lay down their arms before the whole region ignites.