Praying for a miracle in Zaire

When Zaire's president, General Mobutu Sese Seko, returned to his crumbling, war-torn country last month thousands thronged to Kinshasa airport to greet him. Tens of thousands more lined the broken and pitted 12-mile road into the capital and crammed Kinshasa's main street.

This "spontaneous" outburst of affection from one of the poorest nations in the world surely even brought a tear to the eye of a corrupt old dictator, back on home soil after four months treatment in the south of France for prostate cancer.

When Mr Mobutu left Kinshasa to return to France for more treatment two weeks later he sneaked to the airport by side roads. There was no big- event staging; no special transport to deliver waving crowds to the roadsides and no laminated gold name cards for the army of foreign journalists who flew in for the president's return and were astonished by the uncharacteristic organisational skills of a regime which has grown rich and fat while presiding over the slow death of Zaire.

People who spotted Mr Mobutu's entourage on its way to the airport booed the president; a brave few, legend now has it, even threw stones. This week, Kengo wa Dondo, the Prime Minister appointed during Mr Mobutu's short visit home, issued a rallying call to all Zaireans to support a major military offensive to retake eastern Zaire from the rebels who swept through the region three months ago.

Patriotic demonstrations paralysed the capital when the Rwandan-backed rebellion in eastern Zaire began. This week, as mercenaries from France, South Africa and Angola assembled 800 miles east in Kisangani to replace the unpaid and thuggish Zairean troops who retreated from the enemy, the nationalist appeal met an eerie silence in the capital.

Satellite has defeated the state propaganda machine. In television interviews, Laurent Kabila - the rebel leader condemned as a traitor by the government - has convinced many Zaireans that his rebellion is home-grown, and not merely the creation of Rwanda. He is now a potential saviour, a close second to Etienne Tshisekedi, the main opposition leader.

The city is alive with rumours that Mr Kabila was in Kinshasa on Christmas Day. When he launched his insurrection, he promised Zaire he would reach Kinshasa by then. Zaireans ignore the near impossibility of such a feat: 800 miles of roadless jungle separates the capital from the conflict. But the desperate must be allowed to believe in miracles .

"I would support Kabila if he came to Kinshasa," says January, 34, born two years after Mr Mobutu took power. In his lifetime, Zaire's economy has collapsed and its infrastructure disappeared. The old colonial roads peter out into jungle just outside the city.

January has never had a job. His two young children are in hospital. In a country where inflation is more than 4,000 per cent, barter is the mainstay of the economy. At a hospital pawn shop, full of domestic appliances, January has just handed over a suitcase - one of his few possessions - to meet his children's medical bills.

He lays his misery right at Mr Mobutu's door. "When he was back he promised much and changed nothing," he said. The President raised hopes when he returned by saying he was listening to the nation and would respond positively to their demands. Kinshasa celebrated, sure that Mr Mobuto meant he would reinstate Mr Tshisekedi as prime minister. "Instead he made sure Mr Kengo, his puppet, was appointed," said January. "We just want change from anyone who can give it."

Like almost everyone in Kinshasa, January is involved in a new defiance campaign; refusing to use new bank notes issued last week because they weaken an already worthless currency. Mr Mobutu had the good sense to head back to his French villa before the notes were released. In the last few months, the zaire (the national currency) has halved in value from 80,000 to the dollar to 160,000.

"They are happy to issue the new bills though it means more misery for us," says Lady Matshiaba, 25, a baker. The new notes - nicknamed the prostate - are shunned all over town; and those who ignore the popular protest are beaten by other citizens in the street. "We call it the prostate," said a local teacher, "because cancer kills and this money may kill us".

Kinshasa (Reuter) - The government said yesterday that the army had launched its promised counter-offensive in the east and recaptured the town of Walikale. A defence ministry statement said that 100 rebels had been killed.