Finally, it seems that Zaire's dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had used up the last of his many political lives.
Ostensibly protesting against low pay and inflation, disgruntled elements of Zaire's underpaid and undisciplined army mutinied this past week in the capital of Kinshasa. Then, joined by civilians, they rioted and looted shops in the city center before stripping the suburban homes of the pro-Mobutu European expatriate families. Unrest quickly spread throughout the country.
The civil disturbances, virtually unprecedented in Mobutu's 26-year iron-fisted rule, left at least 100 dead, 1,750 more injured and sent thousands of foreigners and government supporters streaming across the Zaire River to safety in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.
Despite the intervention of hundreds of French and Belgian paratroopers to retake Kinshasa's international airport, ostensibly to protect the departure of thousands of their nationals, the events of the past week appear to have only briefly postponed, not canceled, Mr. Mobutu's final fall from power.
Ironically, Mr. Mobutu was thrust into power in the aftermath of an army mutiny more than 30 years ago when Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, began its chaotic transition to independence from Belgian rule. Now the mutinies by his own army may signal the transition from Mr. Mobutu's dictatorial reign to the multi-party democracy that Zaire's growing political opposition has been striving for.
For years, the army had been Mr. Mobutu's power base. Although proven ineffectual whenever faced with armed opposition, the Zairian army had few problems quashing political unrest by shooting political opponents. Now, even their loyalty to Mr. Mobutu is in question, as is their ability to maintain law and order.
"It's clear there is no government in the country right now," said Nancy Ross, director of the Washington-based Rainbow Lobby. "The right, the left, the center, everybody wants [Mr. Mobutu] out."
While the 51,000-man national army has suffered through lack of supplies, uniforms, pay, poor morale and ammunition, Mr. Mobutu created various elite units as a counter. Most notable among these various forces are the French-trained 31st Paratroop Brigade and the Israeli-trained Special Presidential Division (DSP), the latter being hand-picked from Mr. Mobutu's own ethnic group and region. However, it was elements of these two which apparently stirred the mutinies.
"He has lost control of the country," said former foreign minister Nguza Karl-i-Bond, a leading opposition member. "The army has always been his strongest base."
The unrest coincided with plans for a national political conference among Mr. Mobutu's growing political opposition, which is being convened to strip the dictator of his political power and form a transitional government to guide the country's return to democracy.
Mr. Mobutu, who agreed this year to the formation of opposition political parties, has attempted to manipulate Zaire's political liberalization as most of Africa has been swept by the winds of multi-party democracy. About 150 different parties have been formed, about half supported by the dictator.
Late this week, the opposition moved ahead with plans and formed a transitional government to supplant Mobutu and attempt to manage the national crisis.
"The people have completely lost their fear" of Mr. Mobutu, said Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Howard University academic and member of the opposition National Congolese Movement (MNC). The opposition for the first time has been able to muster sufficient support to show the people that they have a credible alternative. The people want change."
During the last 26 years, Mr. Mobutu has been the West's dictator of last resort, a corrupt, albeit, willing collaborator, in the struggle to win the Cold War. Whenever Mr. Mobutu has faced a crisis, he has appealed to the West for support, and the West has stood with him.
In fact, Mr. Mobutu was a Cold War baby, installed with the help of the CIA to undermine and eliminate Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first prime minister. He has remained on the CIA payroll for years and has supported U.S. efforts in the region.
Over the years, he has tried to install his brother-in-law, Holden Roberto, as the leader of neighboring Angola; provided his territory as a trans-shipment point for the CIA's military assistance program to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels; and provided a temporary safe haven to a force of CIA-trained anti-Kadafi Libyans, who were ferried out of Chad.
In return, Zaire has been, until recently, one of the largest recipients of U.S. military and economic assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Mobutu, himself, has been lauded as a political friend and ally of American interests from Presidents Kennedy through Bush.
Mr. Mobutu crushed or co-opted most political opposition, created a domestic cult of personality, adopting the leopard-skinned cap (the leopard being symbol of chieftainship) as his own trademark. Among his defenders in the West, particularly the State Department, Mr. Mobutu was falsely portrayed as a force for political stability.
International support propped up a corrupt and ineffective government, trained a bloody and ruthless state security apparatus and armed a poorly-paid and undisciplined army, Mr. Mobutu and his cronies systematically looted Zaire's economy.
In 1977, when rebels swept across the border from Angola and captured the mineral-rich Shaba province from fleeing Zairian troops, France and Belgium sent troops to rescue their nationals -- and then recaptured the province. The following year, the crisis repeated itself.
Over the last 30 years, while the nation incurred a $9 billion external debt, government ministries and schools ceased to function altogether and civil servants, teachers and doctors went unpaid for months on end, with inflation eating away at their already meager salaries. Education, health care and medicine has become non-existent, while malnutrition and disease afflicts the lives of the large majority of the 40-million Zairians.
Three years ago, market women demonstrated in the capital -- traditionally a danger sign for any regime in West and Central Africa. Subsequent, waves of strikes by unpaid civil servants, students and others have rocked the capital.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles of railways and paved roads, even streets in the capital, have crumbled away. A nation that was once self-sufficient in food production now imports much of its food, with the majority of Zairians forced to buy the few items that are available on the black market -- one of the few enterprises that thrives.
The primary reason for Zaire's economic collapse is Mr. Mobutu. The revenues from copper, diamonds, manganese, cobalt, chrome and other minerals have long flowed into the government coffers, which Mr. Mobutu has used as his own personal bank account. The dictator has amassed a personal fortune of an estimated $5 billion, purchased expensive villas in half dozen West European countries and took lavish vacations with his cronies.
The pervasive corruption of Mr. Mobutu's regime gave birth to a new word in the American political lexicon -- "kleptocracy" or the rule by thieves.
Political opposition, largely exiled, has continued to build
domestically. Abroad, Mr. Mobutu's former allies, France, Belgium and the United States, have gradually withdrawn their political and economic support to the regime.
Now that the Cold War has ended, Mr. Mobutu's value to the West in regional conflicts against a non-existent Soviet threat has diminished completely.
The dictator has now turned openly to two new allies, Israel and South Africa. South Africa is training the 100-man Owl Regiment, which local human rights have accused of involvement in urban terrorism.
Despite this support, Mr. Mobutu increasingly stands alone.
"It's been past time for him to go," said Michael G. Schatzberg, a University of Wisconsin political scientist and author of the recent book, "Mobutu or Chaos?" "The warning signs have been there for at least three or four years. It's quite clear that Mr. Mobutu has lived out his welcome and the regime is bankrupt, economically and politically."
In the last several months, Mr. Mobutu made few public appearances and no longer lived at the lavish, well-guarded presidential palace in Kinshasa. Instead, he has stayed on a yacht traveling up and down the Zaire River or at his Versailles-styled palace at his native village in Gdabolite.
There is an international airport located nearby, where the presidential plane is fueled and waiting for a fast take-off at all times.
Unfortunately, the question is no longer when Mobutu falls or necessarily how, but the type of political and economic chaos he leaves behind. If the transition to the post-Mobutu era is turbulent, the immediate future of Zaire's democracy could resemble its bloody passage to independence.
In fact, within days, Mr. Mobutu could be at the controls of a jetliner, flying into political exile to one of his palatial residences in a dozen countries, ranging from Belgium and the Ivory Coast to Spain.