Only the corrupt shed tears as Africa's great kleptocrat finally goes into exile

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The Independent Online
Kinshasa - In an emergency midnight address on Zairean state television, the government spokesman was emphatic. Laurent Kabila's rebels were poised to take Kinshasa but the population could be confident that president Mobutu Seko, 66, Zaire's ailing dictator would not stand down. Few could have found that message comforting.

Just eight hours later President Mobutu was boarding the plane which would take him first to Gbadolite, his lavish palace in his tribal home land of Equateur; and then, at last, and not a moment too soon, into exile.

It was the end of the thirty-two year reign of one of Africa's last, and most accomplished, kleptocrats - a man whose power was based on theft. Only the corrupt shed any tears, for the gravy train was at least pulling in for President Mobutu's vast army of cronies.

On the streets of the capital yesterday there was only celebration, after the news of the President's departure, spread mostly by word of mouth. For in a ransacked land like Zaire, word of mouth is the main method of communication. There are few phones, few televisions and only a handful of passable roads - fewer than there were than when the Belgians left the country. This nation has been efficiently and comprehensively looted.

One of the world's most corrupt politicians had finally gone. It was a sweet moment for those raised in the cult of Mobutu, in a one-party state which sang Mobutu's songs and encouraged the wearing of his image on T-shirts. Yesterday in the Rue du Commerce a Zairean draper was selling a souvenir piece of Mobutu. It had been three months since he sold his last. He laughed he would soon be selling the image of Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader, who is expected to march into Kinshasa in the next few days.

It has been a remarkable revolution, a military marvel. In just seven months Kabila's rebels have marched across this giant nation of over 2 million square kilometres capturing city after city, province after province. Initially backed by outside governments - primarily Uganda and Rwanda - the rebels have been sustained nonetheless by a huge reservoir of home grown discontent.

"We did not realise the country was hollow," said one western diplomat. "Or how easily Zaire would fall."

Uganda and Rwanda initially backed the uprising in Eastern Zaire to clear millions of Hutu refugees from their boarders, but the rebellion took on a life of its own.

In Kinshasa yesterday few seemed concerned about the meddling of foreign governments. "I could not care who started it," said one local resident. "So long as it brings change. Mobutu made us the joke of Africa. He humiliated his people. Under Kabila we may get our dignity back."

In the back streets of the city people were busy putting the finishing touches to white flags and scarfs in anticipation of the rebels arrival. For the past week leaflets have appeared on the streets advising citizens to make flags and advising the city's tens of thousands of undisciplined soldiers to back the anti-Mobutu elements in their ranks.

Yet the excitement yesterday was mixed with fear. The population ironically is not worried about the rebels, but about their own troops. The Zairean army is unpaid and undisciplined. Kinshasa fears another military riot before the rebels arrive.

But despite the fears, despite the uncertainty, yesterday was a day for optimists, not for fear. "Kabila cannot become Mobutu," argued Jean-Pierre, a lecturer. "We are more politically mature than when the Belgians left. We would not allow another dictator."