AFTER MORE than 30 years of bloody and corrupt rule, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko is out.
The man who reached power in November 1965 - with the support and at the urging of the Belgian Union Miniere du Haut Katanga and of CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin - has relinquished power, bested by age, illness and a broad-based and overwhelming revolt that surged toward the capital, Kinshasa, from the east of the country.
It is led by an old nemesis of Mobutu's: Laurent Kabila, who began his struggle against the Belgian- and U.S.-supported regimes in Leopoldville - as the capital was then called - even before Mobutu came to power. It is an endless tale, which involves some of the second half of this century's most legendary figures.
The Belgian Congo achieved its independence in the early 1960s, largely under the banner of the young, charismatic and radical Patrice Lumumba. As in the 19th century, the country's enormous mineral wealth soon provoked new rashes of European and North American ambition. At the urging of the West, the richest section of the nation, Katanga, quickly seceded from the newly independent nation.
In the ensuing conflicts, both Lumumba and Dag Hammarskold, the United Nations secretary-general involved in preserving Congolese integrity while at the same time defending Western interests, lost their lives under mysterious circumstances generally attributed to the CIA.
Matters soon settled down until the summer of 1964, when several of Lumumba's heirs, including Pierre Mulele, a Maoist leader in the west, and Kabila from the eastern regions - known as the Great Lakes - rebelled against the pro-Western government of Moise Tshombe and President Joseph Kasavubu.
In August, the rebels captured Stanleyville, only to be expelled from the city by Belgian paratroops and South African mercenaries flown in by the United States.
Meanwhile, Ernesto "Che" Guevara - the Argentine revolutionary who had joined Fidel Castro's successful effort to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba and had become the revolution's No. 3 man and its most charismatic and romantic spokesman - was searching for a way to leave Cuba and continue his insurrectionary exploits.
He toured Africa in early 1965, met the Congolese rebellion leadership in Ghana and Egypt, and decided to lead a group of 100 Cuban troops in support of the Congo revolt.
In April of 1965, Che disappeared from view in Cuba and secretly arrived in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. From there he traveled to Kigoma, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, where he crossed over to what was then called Congo-Leopoldville.
He stayed there for more than six months, suffering from dysentery and asthma, from disillusion and discontent on the part of his Cuban, Congolese and Rwandan troops, and from great power rivalry and tribal dissension.
More than anything else, though, Guevara failed in his mission because of the antics and behavior of Kabila - nonetheless "the best of the Congolese leaders" according to the Argentine's unpublished diary.
Those who want to know more about Kabila today might find Guevara's annotations about him useful and relevant. In his 150-page manuscript, "Passages from the Revolutionary War (The Congo)," Guevara time and again vents his frustration over two of Kabila's misdeeds.
The first was his persistent unwillingness ever to show his face at the front, spending his time instead in Cairo, Dar-es-Salaam and Paris, "in the best hotels, issuing communiques and drinking Scotch in the company of beautiful women," or simply in Kigoma, moving from "saloon to whorehouse."
But Kabila not only proved an unreliable partner in this venture because of his personal lack of courage. He also refused to allow Guevara to participate directly in the fighting and make his presence known to the Tanzanian authorities.
For a simple reason, according to Guevara: The troops would never have understood why an Argentine doctor from Cuba was leading them into combat, while their local leader spent his time wining and dining across Africa.
The following lines from Guevara's still inexplicably unpublished text reveals his frustration and distaste for Kabila, whom he originally admired:
"Every day it was the same old story; Kabila did not arrive today, but he will be here tomorrow, and if not, then the day after tomorrow. ... Kabila has not laid foot since time immemorial at the front. ... Nothing leads me to believe that Kabila is the man of the hour. He allows the days to go by without worrying about anything other than political infighting and is too addicted to drink and women. ... If someone were to ask me whether there is an individual in the Congo who could become a national figure, I could not answer affirmatively.
"The only man who has the potential to be a mass leader is Kabila. A totally pure revolutionary, if he does not have leadership skills, cannot lead a revolution, but a man with leadership skills does not become, ipso facto, a revolutionary leader. One has to be serious, and possess an ideology and a spirit of sacrifice to accompany one's goals. Until now Kabila has not shown any of these traits. He is young and might change, but for now, I am willing to express serious doubts, that will only be published many years hence, that he will be able to overcome his defects."
Once Mobutu took power toward the end of the fateful year, African support for the first Cuban venture on the continent rapidly faded. By late November, the Tanzanian authorities and Kabila himself requested Guevara's departure, and he acquiesced, however reluctantly.
Guevara crossed back across the lake into Tanzania, escaping from the encirclement mounted by the CIA, and the South African, Belgian and Mobutu-led troops. He was almost caught, but not quite, to Devlin and the CIA's lasting regret.
Guevara would die less than two years later, again supporting a revolution largely against the wishes of his erstwhile local allies, this time in Bolivia. But he wasn't entirely wrong in choosing the Congo as an African beachhead, nor Kabila as his associate.
He was only 30-odd years ahead of his time, and worlds away from the mysterious meanderings of African history.
Jorge G. Castaneda is a former adviser to the Mexican government and a professor of political science at Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley. His biography of Che Guevara will be published in September by Alfred A. Knopf.
Pub Date: 5/25/97