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In Zaire, hated regime heading for collapse

Published Oct. 1, 2005

At the start of Zaire's war last October, for a brief instant this ever-fractious country seemed more united than it had in decades.

For a couple of electric weeks, the streets of Kinshasa ran with students demonstrating loudly in favor of government forces, demanding that soldiers be given the means to "kick out the Tutsi enemy," as the Zairian rebels and their supporters in neighboring Rwanda were called.

Even more surprising, Zaire's opposition parties got behind the efforts of the discredited regime of Mobutu Sese Seko in its campaign to preserve the "territorial integrity" of Africa's third-largest country.

But in only a few short months, the country has swung from being united against the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, to rallying behind him as a force for change after 31 years of misrule.

The rebels have advanced in stunning fashion from the eastern region bordering Rwanda and Burundi, where their uprising began, to their current position of control over perhaps 30 percent of this vast country.

Long after their widely expected conquest is over, history is likely speak of the rebels as having won a war. But in fact, what has happened in Zaire in the last six months has far more to do with the government's loss of support from a long-abused population than with any battlefield victory.

Days before the fall of the provincial capital of Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city, last weekend, a Zairian army colonel there diagnosed the problem. "For the people of this country we are traitors to be fighting for this government," he said. "Anyone you ask will tell you that three decades of Mobutu has been pure disaster."

The forms that disaster has taken are multiple. Even in major cities, there is no clean drinking water, and children die in large numbers from easily curable diseases for lack of health care. Internal communications have deteriorated to the point that large parts of the country are inaccessible by road.

Adding insult to injury, in Mobutu and the small elite that has sprung up around him, Zaire boasts one of the richest, most callous ruling classes in Africa.

"In the beginning, people supported the government because we were told that Rwanda wanted to swallow a piece of our territory," said Henri Tsitoka, a 38-year-old tax collector, sipping a beer in the working-class Bandal quarter here. "But after the fall of Goma, Bukavu and Uvira, people began to realize that Kabila was above all a man of change, and that was pretty much all that Zairians needed to hear."

Nobody here has much of an idea of what kind of change Kabila, who was virtually unknown just six months ago, represents. But for now, the discipline of his troops, the restoration of order in cities under his control, and the ever-growing prospect that he will overthrow the ruinous regime of Mobutu, has made him almost universally popular.