Kabila keeps low profile as new era dawns

Yesterday was Day Zero for the people of Kinshasa. Laurent Kabila, the new leader of the rechristened Congo-Zaire, took over the reins of power in the capital, sparking a frantic jostle outside the city hotel which has become the temporary headquarters for his new government.

Hundreds of men and women in their smartest clothes brandished curriculum vitaes as they battled with security guards to get into the building in the hope of securing a job with the new regime.

"You see how desperate people are," said Paul, an unemployed graduate who has been working as a translator. "Everything before is swept away - all the old patronage - and now people are insecure and uncertain."

Paul added that the low-key arrival of Mr Kabila in Kinshasa on Tuesday night - and his absence from public view since - had added to the unease replacing the wholesale euphoria which followed the ousting of Mobutu Sese Seko.

"We can see Kabila does not feel safe because he did not come during the day time," said Paul. "And that makes us also nervous."

As civil servants and white-collar workers fought for survival outside the hotel housing Mr Kabila's alliance party, Mr Mobutu's former soldiers were queuing to sign up for Mr Kabila's army.

Earlier in the day, two of Mr Mobutu's generals, Amela Lukima and Michel Elessi, jeered by a crowd of youths, turned themselves in at the city hotel.

The military transformation seemed to be going better than the political. Mr Kabila's aides met yesterday with political groups, including the city's most popular opposition figure, Etienne Tshisekedi, who had non-violently opposed Mr Mobutu's 32-year rule.

The alliance has repeated its commitment to holding elections. But last night Mr Kabila had still not announced the members of an interim government, which would include opposition politicians. He had originally promised to do so within 72 hours of taking power. Mr Tshisekedi's supporters were out on the streets of Kinshasa in force, demanding he be made prime minister after Mr Kabila's appointment of himself as president.

But at a meeting of Zimbabwean businessmen yesterday, the South African president, Nelson Mandela, castigated Western countries for lecturing Mr Kabila on democracy. He suggested that this was rich, given the West's long support for the former dictator Mr Mobutu. President Mandela said Mr Kabila was already making good his pledges.

But there is considerable concern at the alliance's lack of readiness for the monumental task ahead - pulling this huge, bankrupt country, with a non-existent infrastructure, back from the abyss.

The local currency, already almost worthless, seemed to be in free fall yesterday. Many had expected the alliance to take immediate measures to stabilise the economy but diplomats say that the former rebels, still dizzy from taking the country so quickly, have so far formulated few, if any, policies.

t Four British soldiers were reported yesterday to have been arrested in Brazzaville. British officials said the soldiers were part of the international evacuation force based there, but insisted that the incident was the result of a misunderstanding. Diplomats said they expected the soldiers to be released last night.

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