The writer Frantz Fanon once noted that if the map of Africa is turned sideways, its outline resembles a pistol - with Zaire as the trigger.
As a center for mayhem, Zaire is living up to the comparison, as armed rebels have swept across the mineral-rich land in a deadly dance with the nation’s ailing and corrupt leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Mobutu’s 32-year reign - during which the globetrotting dictator amassed a personal fortune estimated at $9 billion while his country collapsed into starvation and destitution - is coming to a close, that much seems certain.
But what is much less clear is what will happen next in Zaire, a once-critical Cold War ally of the United States whose sheer size and location - it is bordered by nine countries - almost guarantees a continental ripple effect.
“Zaire is at the heart of Africa,” one senior State Department official said. “It is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. And yes, we are concerned about this war spilling across the borders.”
There is oil-rich Angola to the south, where a fragile peace has just brought genuine power-sharing after two decades of civil war.
To the north is the Sudan, embroiled in its own civil war and a known exporter of terrorism. To the east are Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, all of which - along with Zaire - have had to confront dire and often explosive refugee problems in recent years.
How peaceful a transition Zaire experiences clearly has much to do with Mobutu, although he wields little power today beyond the capital city of Kinshasa, which has a long history of uprisings.
The real cardholder is Laurent Kabila, 58, the rebel leader whose ragtag troops have captured three of the country’s four largest cities within the last six months.
They include Mbuji Mayio, where $20 million in industrial grade diamonds are unearthed every month, plus much of the mineral-rich Shaba region.
Kabila, an enemy of Mobutu’s since the 1960s, also has seized the hearts and minds of many Zaireans, promising wherever he goes to halve the price of fabric, beer and electricity and move the country toward a free-market economy.
Few expected this from Kabila, who up until last October was an obscure Marxist bush fighter from eastern Zaire.
He once trained alongside Che Guevara but was never considered much more than an irrelevant nuisance.
The present conflict started last year as a limited ethnic uprising when neighboring Rwanda helped to organize members of the Tutsi in Zaire as a way to put down incursions into Rwanda by Hutu refugees then in Zaire.
Mobutu attempted to expel these Zairean Tutsis, but they soon found themselves in control of a 600-mile strip of eastern Zaire.
Eager not to let pass a fresh opportunity to embarrass Mobutu, Rwandan leader Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni searched for an available rebel to keep the uprising alive and soon settled on Kabila. The three men made a deal: Kabila would assume command of the 2,000 Tutsi troops, and in exchange he would lead a broad-based rebellion against Mobutu.
Kabila cuts an unlikely figure. In the early part of the rebellion, he was aided by Mai-Mai tribesmen, who smoke marijuana, worship water and drape themselves in bathroom fixtures, believing these devices will aid them in battle. His following, if not his image, grew with every new conquest.
“He is a tired old hack who was in the right place at the right time and has put the right pieces together,” said Peter Rosenblum, projects director at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program. “But I think the bottom line on Kabila is, ‘We really don’t know.”’ The Pentagon seems equally perplexed by Kabila, whose followers kidnapped three Americans and a Dutch woman from a wildlife research center in Tanzania in 1974. More than $500,000 in ransom was allegedly paid.
“He is an enigma,” said one Pentagon official. “We know he has been a Marxist, but then he’s said some things recently suggesting he is for good government.”
The official said the State Department has spoken with Kabila several times.
“What we said to him is: ‘Look, if you want to be a leader, you have to make sacrifices. You have to take risks and understand that the will of the people must be respected.”
Kabila’s greatest selling point, however, is Mobutu, 66, the son of a hotel maid whose ascent to power was largely, if not wholly, engineered by the CIA in 1965 - five bloody years after the country won independence from Belgium.
Ever since, he has treated Zaire’s vast resources like a personal cash machine.
His known assets include mansions in Spain and Switzerland, a horse ranch in Portugal, several homes in Belgium, a townhouse in Paris and a villa on the French Riviera, where he has spent much of the last six months battling prostate cancer.
In 1994, prices in Zaire rose nearly 24,000 percent, the highest inflation rate in history.
Industry output hovers at 10 percent, and unemployment is near 80 percent. Government officials wear $2,000 suits, while families in Kinshasa’s vast slums can’t afford to bury their dead.
“Zaire has already disintegrated,” said Constance Freeman, director of African studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The only question is how much more it can disintegrate.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.