Sun sets on realm of the great dictator

Ed O'Loughlin witnesses the final paroxysms of one of Africa's most corrupt regimes
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The Independent Online
A few miles west of the Zairean capital Kinshasa, beside the great cataracts on the Congo river, lies the military base of Camp Tshatsi. Here, guarded by the praetorians of his Special Presidential Detachments (DSP), the last of the great post-colonial dictators has finally gone to ground.

It is a suitably uninspiring location for Mobutu Sese Seko's last stand. In the camp, visitors to his villa drive past crumbling barracks and a vehicle park full of dead armoured cars, relics of the President's Cold War popularity with the West.

Outside the gate, two small guns stand on broken wheels, rusting in symbolic defiance of the president's enemies. Members of the DSP slouch here and there beyond the 12ft railings or sprawl on the grass.

For three decades these forces have been enough to overawe the people of Kinshasa, and Mr Mobutu's dwindling supporters still maintain they can save the day against the rapidly advancing rebels of Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces. But this week, when fate finally came calling on Mobutu Sese Seko, it drove straight through the defences and up to the house.

The US special envoy, Bill Richardson, was protected by the Stars and Stripes and armed with a letter from Bill Clinton. It took two visits, interspersed with a trip to see Mr Kabila in Lubumbashi, but by Wednesday evening Mr Richardson was standing on the villa steps and announcing that he had achieved the improbable - Mr Kabila and Mr Mobutu were finally to meet. Mr Mobutu, in other words, was being winkled out of his refuge and sent to negotiate his doom.

The 66-year-old president attended the press conference but said nothing. When he sat, his large hands, placed on his knees, served only to show how painfully thin his legs had become. Rumours abound that the surgery he had in Switzerland last year failed to arrest the effects of prostate cancer. Two months ago, when he returned from his convalescence in France, he surprised everybody with his apparent health and vigour. This week he looked more like the dying man he is supposed to be.

For observers in Kinshasa, the press conference was a revelation. Not only did it suggest that Mr Mobutu was after all, seriously ill, but it was also the first hint that he was bowing to pressure to stand down.

Earlier, his aides emphasised that he had no intention of accepting South African and US proposals for a meeting Mr Kabila on a South African ship off Gabon. Mr Kabila was saying he would attend, but only to participate in "a short ceremony" at which Mr Mobutu would stand down.

Mr Mobutu has little left to bargain with, but diplomats believe he will do what he can to hang on to power for as long as possible. So it is believed he may be under the influence of military figures and possibly family members who are not fully informing him of the gravity of the situation.

There are also suggestions that elements in the divided French diplomatic service may be encouraging Mr Mobutu to cling on, for reasons that have more to do with internal French party politics than external national interests.

Whatever misgivings the president's camp had about meeting Mr Kabila were brushed aside by Mr Richardson on Wednesday. Some diplomats speculate that Mr Mobutu may have been told his family's prospects of a comfortable life in exile would suffer if his procrastination led to an assault on Kinshasa.

While the stick-and-carrot details of the initiative remain conjectural, it is no secret the central thrust of the US-South African initiative was always to find a way for Mr Mobutu to step down with dignity.

The presence of President Nelson Mandela at the talks would not only serve as a guarantee that any deal struck would be honoured but also help to anaesthetise Mr Mobutu's ego while diplomatic surgery was carried out. He may be brutal and corrupt but if he retires now he will be wafted off into the political sunset in a haze of congratulations.

Few outside his inner circle doubt what the alternative is. One diplomat said the rebels are less than 250km to the east of the capital and other forces are reported to be waiting in Angola for the order to seize Zaire's main port at Matadi, closing the ring around Kinshasa.