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Zaire, ailing Mobutu dying a slow death

The gatekeeper shook his head in despair at mention of the leopards of President Mobutu Park. No one fed them, he said, until one by one they disappeared, along with the lions and rhinos. Only a few starving monkeys remain, along with the plump crocodiles for which meat is unaccountably found.

The park named after President Mobutu Sese Seko was once a flamboyant playground in his honor on the banks of the Congo River. Visitors were welcomed to its exotic zoo and water theme park at a Chinese pagoda. And in the middle of the park sat the headquarters of the only political party once permitted in Zaire.

But, like all else touched by Zaire's ailing autocrat, it has fallen into ruin. Water to the slides dried up. The animals withered away. The road to the zoo is all but impassable.

Mobutu, once so feared and admired, is derided and openly scorned. Yet even though he's near powerless and close to death, his return to Zaire on Friday sent a shudder through the population.

Some among the poor, such as cobbler Gerard Bolombe who works 18 hours a day on a Kinshasa corner, believe they will never be rid of him.

"Mobutu doesn't just go to France and die, he keeps coming back to haunt us," Bolombe said. "He hangs over our country like a ghost. Even if we bury him in the ground, even if we burn his body and grind it to nothing, we will never escape Mobutu. His gravestone is our destroyed country."

The rebels occupy about a quarter of Zaire. They are still hundreds of miles from Kinshasa, but so great is the air of defeatism over Mobutu's regime they might be pressing at the gates of the capital.

Many who have reason to fear the rebels are not waiting. Politicians and businesspeople are shuffling their families across the water to Congo. Even some of Mobutu's relatives have fled. Flights to Brussels and Beirut are booked solid with Europeans and Lebanese diamond dealers.

Senior army officers have moved wives and children into fancy hotels guarded by trusted soldiers. The hotels do not expect to be paid but will be grateful for the extra security if the army embarks on a looting sprees.

Others, including Kithima Bin Ramazani, general secretary of Mobutu's Popular Revolutionary Movement (MPR) for the 22 years it was the only legal political party, are staying to participate in the last scramble for money.

"People don't know what they want," Kithima said. "Just a few years ago, Mobutu was their idol. Then suddenly he was a dictator and should go. It doesn't surprise me. Whoever the next president is, he will be in office one or two years, then they'll all miss Mobutu."

There was a time when Mobutu could call Zaire his own. He named the country and the giant river coursing from its heart. He defined its politics in his image and styled himself the Father of the Nation. Then he ground his nation into the dirt, critics say.

Zaire's decline was not the byproduct of a misguided policy, as elsewhere in Africa. It was the deliberate wrecking of a country to satisfy the greed of an elite and a strategy to undermine any challenge to Mobutu's rule.

He has a personal fortune estimated to be billions of dollars, and his main residence in recent years has been a pink-and-white marble colonnaded chateau in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. The villa is a short distance from the former home of Belgian King Leopold II, ruler of the world's only private colony (now Zaire) from 1885 until 1908.

Mobutu owned 11 palaces in Zaire alone _ until the rebels started to seize them _ and property from Cape Town to Paris. Yet the state ceased to exist in the traditional sense. At the Information Ministry, a skyscraper built in the post-independence boom, there is almost no sign of life until the 16th floor. The elevator operator comes when called only by furious banging on the door. The sewage pipes have burst. Tiles droop from the ceiling.

Few ministries administer services. Some barely supervise their employees, who are mostly unpaid but unwilling to abandon a job in which they may be able to wrest cash from some unfortunate person in desperate need of one piece of official paper or another. The Social Security Ministry has impressive offices, but no one can remember when it last paid out.

Kithima, the former MPR general secretary, argues that whatever Zaire's problems, they are not Mobutu's fault. "The responsibility for our deterioration lies with those who want us to have democracy," he said. "Before that, Kinshasa was very, very nice. Now we have a minister of finance and a minister of planning, so why blame Mobutu?"

Kithima lives in the Intercontinental Hotel. The elite outfitters with shops in the hotel cater to the desire to spend money as much as dress well. Typically, a suit costing $2,445 could be had in London at a tenth of the price.

Neither are the children of the elite forgotten. The Intercontinental is holding an Easter party for them at $32.60 a head, 10 times what most Zairians earn in a month.

Supposedly protecting all this was the greatest illusion of all, Zaire's army. Within days of independence in 1960, the Force Publique, as it was then known, mutinied. In the ensuing anarchy the country got its first taste of the army on a rampage. Soldiers arrested their Belgian officers and white colonists fled by the thousands.

The new government attempted to calm the revolt by promoting every soldier. For a while, the Zairian army was the only one in the world without a single private.

Now, that period seems a relative golden age. To most people today the army is an occasional instrument of terror. More often it is an organized crime syndicate. Its senior officers made vast sums from weapons deals and running protection rackets for diamond dealers and foreign business people, or their own smuggling operations.

Ordinary soldiers were given a uniform and a gun and told to make a living as best they could. Robbery was the obvious method. The soldiers say they have little choice. Even their pathetic wages of about $3 a month are paid sporadically.

Zaire's army was never prepared for war. Mobutu saw little threat from outside his borders. If one loomed, the French, Americans or Belgians would always be on hand to stave it off.

Mobutu met his match with Zaire's tiny neighbor, Rwanda.

After the Tutsi rebels won the war in 1994 and put an end to genocide, Mobutu sided with the Hutu extremists. He allowed them to camp on his soil, to continue to persecute Tutsis and to plot to reinvade Rwanda. However, this time he had misjudged his opponent.

Rwanda's army is part of a new breed of African military, trained to fight and, most importantly, with a cause.

Underpinning the new militaries is a revolutionary philosophy contemptuous of the generation that saw Africa to independence and their armies, as often instruments of repression as of defense.

Uganda's National Resistance Army was the first of the new breed in the region. It gave birth to Rwanda's rebel movement-turned-government, which in turn molded Kabila's fighters.

When the war came to Zaire six months ago, Mobutu's army never stood a chance.