KINSHASA, Zaire -- From his plush 15th-floor hotel suite, far above the broad Congo River, Mukalay Msungu Banza juggled three cellular phones, taking calls from an ambassador, a government minister and party loyalists.
All wanted the news. When will Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's dictator since 1965, come home from the French Riviera, where he has been recuperating after his treatment for prostate cancer August?
This week. Definitely. Maybe.
"The population can feel the void, the absence of the president," said Banza, a top Mobutu aide. The president's return, he added cheerfully, "will raise everyone's morale."
Even Mobutu's political opponents agree. The students, human rights leaders, diplomats and other longtime foes who call his reign one of the worst in post-colonial Africa say the only thing worse than Zaire under Mobutu has been Zaire without him.
The government of Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo has been unable to quell a rebellion in the country's east, where Rwanda-backed insurgents have emptied refugee camps, captured town after town and threaten a lucrative diamond and gold mine. Zairian troops have retreated.
Many argue that only Mobutu, still feared and revered as the self-appointed "father of the people," can rally the nervous nation and solve its latest crisis.
"We want him to come back," said Mary Pey Bmoma, an adviser to Etienne Tshisekedi wa Malumba, the leader of the bitterly divided opposition. "Because we know reconciliation is only possible with Mobutu."
"There is no alternative," agreed Guillaume Ngefa, head of the Zairian Association for the Defense of Human Rights, which has documented numerous abuses under Mobutu. "He is the only one who can bring people together. Unfortunately, we need him back."
The real question is why. Mobutu has only visited the capital, Kinshasa, twice in recent years, holing up instead on his yacht or at his palace in the remote jungles near Gbadolite in the north. And 31 years of Mobutu misrule has left Zaire in a state where chaos is the norm.
With a population of 42 million, and an area as vast as the United States east of the Mississippi, Zaire is potentially rich with diamonds, copper, cobalt and other minerals. Its huge rivers could provide electricity for much of Africa.
But Zaire's formal economy has collapsed, and its people are among Africa's poorest. Hyperinflation this year is about 800 percent. Most mines and other industries have closed. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Western donor nations have suspended nearly all assistance after seeing billions of dollars stolen in government corruption.
Civil servants rely on bribes to live because monthly salaries are only $1 and are rarely paid anyway. Roads are swallowed by the jungle outside the cities. Communication links barely exist.
A 3 percent population growth is slowed only by the deadly ravages of malnutrition, acquired immune deficiency syndrome and such preventable diseases as measles and malaria. The country is lawless, with police and soldiers preying on the population.
The revolt in the east has yet to spark sympathetic uprisings elsewhere in Zaire. But that may be a formality.
In the East and West Kasai provinces, local authorities are so contemptuous of the national government that they refuse to use the new national currency.
With billions of dollars salted away in foreign bank accounts, however, Mobutu's influence is real.
"You can count 5 million people who are on the payroll of Mobutu," a Western diplomat said. "Several leaders, political opponents, the military, religious leaders, everyone."
Pub Date: 12/17/96