End of era as Zaire's despot Mobutu agrees to stand down

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The Independent Online
The trademark leopardskin hat was the same, and he wore the same thick black glasses. But President Mobutu Sese Seko, 66, despot of Zaire and once one of Africa's most secure strong men, looked most uncertain and uncomfortable. His 32-year reign is coming to an end, and the fate of his vast nation - 10 times the size of Britain, with a population of 44 million - hangs in the balance.

Trapped in the blazing media lights on board the South African ship Outeniqua, Mr Mobutu picked the sticky tape attaching his name and title to the tableclothed desk. A few feet away on the other side of South African president Nelson Mandela sat Laurent Kabila, sleek and relaxed in the glare, the leader of the rebel army which has seized most of Zaire and is now advancing on the capital Kinshasa.

For the past seven months town after town has fallen to Mr Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, but until now Mr Mobutu had remained defiant.

Yesterday he began what he insisted he would not do: negotiating with the rebel king. And in their first joint communique, Mr Mobutu offered to relinquish power. Of course, the wily and corrupt politician attached some strings. But according to South African government sources last night Mr Mobutu had agreed quietly and secretly to stand down. His imminent departure was the one thing the warring sides agreed on at an event that was more important for its symbolism than its substance. An era was coming to an end.

"President Mobutu knows he is going, and he is going soon," said an aide of UN envoy Mohamed Salnoun yesterday just before talks began. "It's just a question of going with some dignity." Some might suggest that with his bank accounts, his house in the South of France, his years of corruption, dignity was the last thing he deserved.

The ship was originally suggested as a piece of diplomatic legerdemain because the warring sides could not agree on a mainland African venue. Yet the meeting only took place after two days of farcical mutual avoidance.

On Friday, President Mobutu, stricken with prostate cancer, was almost prevented from taking part by the difficulty of boarding. The Outeniqua then set sail for its rendezvous point with Mr Kabila in international waters. But the rebel leader came up with a string of new objections. President Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, spent all day Saturday trying to bring the two men together. It took an outburst of temper from President Mandela on Saturday night to make the meeting happen. And so, yesterday afternoon, the dictator and the rebel at last met in a tiny cabin five decks below the bridge.

They outlined positions which remained far apart. Mr Kabila demanded that Mr Mobutu hand over power to his rebel alliance and allow it to decide who forms an interim transition authority. He said he had ordered his troops to stop their advance on Kinshasa, but he made it clear there would be no ceasefire until Mr Mobutu stood down. For his part, Mr Mobutu said he would only step down when a ceasefire had been agreed, a transmission of authority established and elections held for president.

The two sides agreed to meet in eight to ten days, at a venue yet to be decided. But a South African aide said that behind the scenes, there had been more progress.

The international community is desperate to prevent a bloody battle for Kinshasa and avoid the possible disintegration of Zaire. But Mr Kabila's forces seem unstoppable; and on yesterday's evidence, Mr Mobutu is finished.