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Mobutu returns to Zaire Country in chaos: Accord with rebels and honest election is only way out of chaos.


THE HOMECOMING of President Mobutu Sese Seku after four months in Europe was the best thing that could happen to troubled Zaire in the short term. He was running his regime by phone, diplomats attest. Even his enemies give him some credit for holding the country together. The best use he could possibly make of this probably brief presence, however, would be to prepare an orderly departure.

After international agencies and donor nations suspended Zaire's aid, the dictator who seized power with U.S. support in 1965 pledged to hold nationwide elections next June. Meanwhile, Zairian rebels of Tutsi ethnicity, with Rwanda's help, have frightened away what remained of the Zairian army and seized control of the eastern borderland holding perhaps some six million people.

Laurent Kabila, leader of the eastern rebels, made clear his intentions not to dismember Zaire for a greater Tutsiland, but rather to join with rebels of other ethnicities to seize -- and, by their lights, save -- all Zaire. However ominous this sounds, it is not yet happening. The front has stabilized, with Zaire unable to reassert authority along the edge of Africa's Great Lakes and border with Rwanda and Burundi, but the rebellion not spreading far westward.

Raymond Chretien, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. and temporary U.N. emissary to the crisis lands, said that President Mobutu in interviews showed a strong preference for recovering lost territory by negotiation. Some of his advisers favor reconquest, but Zaire's unpaid army is probably not up to that.

It should be clear that the key to reasserting national integrity, and to succession of the 66-year-old ailing president, and to forging national unity of more than 200 ethnic and language groups in a huge country is the promised election. It could be NTC made into a sham or a respected device for apportioning power among ethnic groups and representing territorial interests.

During President Mobutu's lifetime, it will happen only if he wills it. He could retire in honor to France, and claim as his final achievement the introduction of honest self-government and the return of national treasure he reputedly has stashed away.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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