With his motorcade’s lights flashing and two truckloads of soldiers in camouflage uniforms, President Mobutu Sese Seko once again sped through the potholed, garbage-strewn streets of the capital on Wednesday morning in his long black Cadillac on his way to the airport, where he boarded a plane out of the country.
Many Western diplomats say the flight was the beginning of permanent exile for Mobutu, 66, who is seriously ill with prostate cancer. But residents of this city are not so willing to make that bet, not even those who fervently hope, as the large majority appear to, that they have seen the last of the man with the trademark leopard-skin cap.
“He’s courageous, so he may come back,” David Paini, 57, said, sitting on the rusted skeleton of a truck cab, at the roadside stall where he sells crushed rock. He saw Mobutu’s motorcade pass Wednesday morning and hopes never to see it again.
“The great event we are waiting for is the arrival of Mr. Kabila,” Paini said, referring to the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila.
In another part of the city, next to the art market, a 26-year-old man said: “I have heard on the radio that he is going to come back Friday. I have also heard on the radio that the Americans say he is not coming back.”
For the most part, this bustling capital does not have the look or feel of a city bracing for war, even though the rebel forces could be here within days.
The city’s traffic police, men and women in green uniforms with white helmets, struggle to keep battered, rusting vehicles moving on streets congested with pedestrians and vendors. But there are no police roadblocks or checkpoints.
Gleaming new Mobil, Shell and Elf stations are open, and noticeably absent are the long lines of vehicles, the ominous signs of a population preparing to flee or worried about impending shortages brought on by war.
At Camp Kokolo, one of the country’s major military bases, in the southwestern part of the city, there is no evidence of any additional security at the front gate or along the perimeter. Indeed, there is no sign of any security, and soldiers were playing soccer late Wednesday afternoon in a field without a gun in sight.
Residents are not putting sandbags around their homes; businessmen are not taping their store windows to protect them from being shattered by the concussions of artillery.
Many residents say they believe that the way to avoid a battle for the capital is for Mobutu to remain out of the country, in exile.
“If President Mobutu decides to give up power, there will be no fighting,” said Eyala Eboyo, a history professor at the University of Kinshasa. He was sitting outside a restaurant with several businessmen.
The men, who were sitting at a white plastic table, under two large trees that provided some relief from the heat, thought it was good that Mobutu had left today as the head of state going to an official meeting.
“We want him to go with a little bit of honor, rather than be hounded out,” Eboyo said. “That way there will be no looting, and not the loss of a single life.”
When the rebels do reach the city, there is increasing doubt whether the army will fight. Even some hardened soldiers appear to have had enough.
“If the rebels come in shooting, we will fight,” said Mwanapaba LeBlanc, a tough-looking 26-year-old parachutist, with a long scar under his left eye and biceps bulging under the rolled-up sleeves of his camouflage uniform.
“But if not, we will give them our guns,” he said, extending his assault rifle, with two ammunition magazines strapped together with black tape.
With two bayonets strapped to his suspenders, LeBlanc was on police duty at the Congo River docks in the Ndolo district of the city.
Women were scraping in the dirt for kernels of corn, and others waited for coffee, corn and other goods to be unloaded from boats.
They were asked if they thought Mobutu would return. “That’s not our problem,” one said. “God will take care of us.”