After more than three decades of ruthless and corrupt misrule, President Mobutu Sese Seko fled with members of his family and key aides early Friday, apparently relinquishing power before an expected takeover of this nervous capital by advancing rebel soldiers.
Africa’s longest-serving despot was driven from his palace shortly after dawn in a small car, rather than his usual stretch limousine, in a heavily guarded motorcade of about 10 vehicles, witnesses said.
The convoy raced through the deserted streets to the international airport, where Mobutu and his entourage took off at about 9 a.m. in a Boeing 727 jet. Trucks carried so much luggage that some had to be left on the tarmac.
State-run television said Mobutu, who is dying of cancer, went to rest at his pink marble palace in Gbadolite, his ancestral village in northern Zaire. But Western diplomats said they expect him to head to Morocco soon and ultimately into exile at his villa on the French Riviera.
“He’s gone,” said a Western ambassador. “He’s not coming back. … It’s the end of an era.”
Asked why he was so sure, the envoy said, “It was either leave or get captured. There is nothing that’s going to happen here that would allow him to come back now or resume power. It’s unimaginable.”
Zaire’s military high command planned to meet late Friday night amid speculation they would declare the capital an open city. That would effectively surrender Kinshasa without a fight to rebel leader Laurent Kabila’s guerrilla army, now poised to enter the city from the east.
“When does a place fall?” the envoy said. “When the Zairian army leaves, or when the first rebels come in, or when they occupy the place in force? Whatever it is, they are a halfhour’s drive or two hours’ walk out of Kinshasa.”
The rebels appeared in no hurry to make the final push, however. Several were seen Friday drinking beer in a roadside restaurant just outside the capital. Kabila may slow his advance now to give Mobutu’s inner circle time to follow his exit and reduce possible resistance in the city.
There was no immediate response from Kabila, the enigmatic former Marxist bush fighter who emerged from obscurity last October and claimed to an unbelieving world that he intended to march 1,200 miles to Kinshasa and topple Mobutu. He was in his stronghold in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi Friday after meeting Thursday with South African President Nelson Mandela in Cape Town.
But representatives of his rebel forces held a news conference in Lubumbashi and denounced what is left of the Mobutu government. Rebel “foreign minister” Bizima Karaha said Mobutu’s cronies want a fight and will “be responsible for what might happen in the city.”
Kabila was expected to make a public statement Saturday, but details of what he was expected to say were not revealed.
There was no fanfare in the streets of Lubumbashi Friday, although some expect it to become the new capital if Kabila takes over the country.
Mobutu’s sudden departure left a power vacuum and considerable uncertainty about the future of a nation as large as the United States east of the Mississippi and with a history marked by ethnic bloodletting and secessionist revolts. There were conflicting reports about who, if anyone, is running the government.
Kin-Kiey Mulumba, the government spokesman, told reporters after a Cabinet meeting that Mobutu had delegated his once-absolute power to Roman Catholic Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo before slipping out of the city. Monsengwo was elected speaker of the Parliament last week, making him the constitutional successor to Mobutu, but he has refused to accept the job. Kabila, in any case, has rejected Monsengwo’s role as a transitional leader, and the rebels do not recognize Zaire’s constitution.
“The president has ceased to play any role in the affairs of the country,” Kin-Kiey said. But he insisted Mobutu is still head of state because he has not formally resigned. “He reigns, but he does not govern,” he explained in a long and confusing statement.
Diplomats said Mobutu’s prime minister, Likulia Bolongo, was technically in charge. But they were relying on Gen. Mahele Lieko, the deputy prime minister, defense minister and army chief of staff, to ensure order and arrange what one envoy called “a slow takeover” by Kabila and his followers in the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire.
Mahele has assured diplomats he will attempt to rein in his unruly and defeated army in an effort to prevent bloodshed or looting in the city before the rebels arrive.
“Everything hangs on Mahele,” said a European ambassador. “He is the central character now, the strongest, most respected and most responsible person in the leadership.”
News of the dictator’s sudden flight after 32 years of authoritarian rule sparked stunned disbelief, rather than jubilation or violence, in Kinshasa’s decrepit streets as anxious office workers and shopkeepers went home at midday to cluster by radios and await developments.
Many were fearful that Mobutu’s army would go on the rampage in a repeat of its deadly pillaging of the city in 1991 and 1993 after Mobuto stopped paying the military. Some rushed to build barricades and organize neighborhood defense leagues.
“We’ve dug holes to keep cars out,” said Jean-Jacques Kabanga, a 31-year-old university economics student here. “We put down nails and broken glass, and we blocked the entrances with old cars and pieces of metal. We have whistles, and some people even have weapons.”
Others vowed to seek revenge against those they blame for this country’s long-running misery.