The Kinshasans know their government, headed by the "Great Redeemer", President Mobutu Sese Seko, has looted billions of dollars from the country in the past 32 years. They appreciate the rebels advancing from the east are winning the war largely with weapons bought or captured from Mr Mobutu's army.
Yet the announcement this week that Mr Mobutu's cabinet wants to try a former prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, for embezzlement and treason has raised few eyebrows. To paraphrase a line from the film Apocalypse Now, charging a Zairean politician with fraud is like handing out speeding tickets at the Monaco Grand Prix.
According to Mr Kin-kirk Mulumba, the new Information Minister, Mr Kengo disappeared with $1m (pounds 625,000) of government cash three weeks after being sacked. Mr Mulumba said he was also suspected of sabotaging the war against Laurent Kabila's rebels. The government was investigating further, and an international warrant night soon be issued for Mr Kengo's arrest.
It would surprise nobody in Kinshasa if Mr Kengo had helped himself to an honorarium before slipping across the Congo River to Brazzaville. The US State Department calculated eight years ago that Mr Mobutu had taken $5bn (pounds 3.1bn) from Zaire's substantial mineral wealth, a sum equal to the then national debt. But it does surprise people that, after years of unchecked state banditry, a senior politician should be called to account for such a trifling sum.
It seems that the more hopelessly paralysed and morally bankrupt the Zairean government becomes, the more stridently it talks of human rights, good governance and military victory. Last week, for instance, the newly appointed military Prime Minister, Lukulia Bolongo, marked the beginning of his term by promising to hold elections within a few months, after the country was pacified. Zaire would not be the first country to overcome significant early defeats and go o to find victory, he said. "Wherever our valiant soldiers have decided to engage in combat the enemy has been defeated," he said. "We remain an effective army, with our human potential intact and a worth that has already been proven across Africa, in Nigeria, Chad, Burundi and Rwanda."
Yet in Kinshasa most people seem to believe the main threat comes not from the rebels but the government army. Foreign observers say deserters and broken army units are drifting back towards the capital from the east, looting and vandalising. Stragglers have been arriving in the city since the war began six months ago. Until now, they have been easily picked up by Mr Mobutu's relatively well-ordered praetorian guard. But this could change when whole units start arriving on the edge of town."
Nobody knows what will happen next: Mr Mobutu could flee tomorrow; there could be a coup or a ceasefire; things might drift on until the first rebel mortar bomb lands at the airport, weeks or months from now. But everybody fears there will be one last orgy of looting and vandalism before the old kleptocratic Zaire gives up the ghost.
One old Zaire hand, a black American businessman, took it upon himself to enlighten journalists staying in the city-centre Memling hotel. Had we noticed, he said, the number of off-duty FAZ [government] soldiers hanging about outside?
"When a FAZ puts his foot down next to yours he don't want to dance," he said. "He's shopping for shoes." Newspapers report that many people have moved out of areas neighbouring military camps, the flashpoint for previous outbreaks of looting in 1991 and 1993. The pillaging was sparked off by Mr Mobutu's attempts to pay his soldiers with new banknotes that were not accepted on the street.
An African diplomat said most soldiers in Kinshasa were paid last month, albeit only $2 and a bag of rice for an enlisted government soldier. But another pay day looms next week. If the government does not have the money, or attempts to use new banknotes once again, the pillaging could resume.
This time French troops waiting across the Congo in Brazzaville have been joined by contingents from the US, Britain and Belgium, on stand- by to pull out their nationals.
Britain and the US have around 400 expatriates in the Zairean capital.
Those who remain risk becoming pawns in the struggle between Mr Mobutu's dying regime and Mr Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces. Rebel broadcasts have warned foreigners to leave Kinshasa for their own safety - Mr Kabila has promised to take the city in three weeks.
Mr Kabila has claimed Mr Mobutu is planning to murder many foreigners to provoke an international intervention in the capital, which would block the rebel advance.
Whatever the truth behind this claim, Mr Mobutu is suspected of orchestrating the 1991 and 1993 pillaging. By stopping the looting, which his soldiers had begun, he persuaded Western backers like France and Belgium that only he could hold Zaire together.
Ill-disciplined, badly trained and often unpaid, the army remains a law unto itself.
Two weeks ago, when a group of Western journalists tried to get to the southern city of Lubumbashi just before it fell, troops at the airport refused to recognise our expensive and painstakingly assembled collection of government credentials. We were held in isolation at the airport overnight.
Drunk soldiers barged in and out, demanding to know who we were and why we had come. A lieutenant, who seemed to be called Coco, left us in no doubt of his opinion of the Western press. "Speaking to you frankly," he said, "if it was left to me I would kill you all now and bury you where your bodies would never be found."
Coco was a talkative soul, and as the night wore on he expounded on the US-led, Anglo-Saxon, Jewish and Nilotic-Tutsi conspiracy to re-enslave Africa and bastardise the Bantu race by interfering with its womenfolk. He was particularly proud of his warrior ancestry and his record in the war against Mr Kabila. "I fought at Goma in November," he hissed, cradling his dirty AK-47. "I fought at Bukavu, at Uvira and - lately - at Kalemie."
We wanted to ask him when, at that rate of progress, he thought he would reach Cape Town, but somehow it didn't seem like such a good idea. Coco left us in the end, and we took what sleep we could on the wooden benches and concrete floor of the airport lounge.
It was cold and uncomfortable. But, like the people of Kinshasa, at least we had the army to protect us.Reuse content