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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor