Yesterday the streets were all but deserted and the shops were closed after student activists declared a ville mort (dead town). Youths manning makeshift barriers turned back motorists on the road to the airport while troops looked on.
It is now a week since the students started rampaging through the capital's streets. So far two have been shot dead by the military. Every day hundreds of cars are seized by youths and driven around the city, horns blaring. Shortly after leaving the airport my taxi was hijacked by chanting youths, many of them wearing bandannas around their heads and brandishing imitation machineguns.
Stones and bottles flew through the air as young men danced on the bonnet of the car. One took charge of the wheel while others bustled the driver into the back seat. Finding myself, in effect, kidnapped I opened the door and threw myself out of the moving vehicle. Soldiers at a nearby petrol station were too busy looting beer to take much notice.
The political order, or what stands for such in the anarchy of Zaire, has collapsed since the Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels and their Rwandan allies routed the army. In the vacuum caused by the continuing absence of President Mobutu Sese Seko, the opposition has been able to exploit the frustration of the populace. The man believed to be behind the protests in the capital is Etienne Tshisekedi, an ousted prime minister and opposition leader. However, his support is limited and regional. It is widespread dissatisfaction with Mr wa Dondo rather than any forceful leadership on the part of Mr Tshisekedi that has been the main motor behind the demonstrations.
"I'm afraid that the unrest could spill over into rioting and looting," said a diplomat. "When their emotions are pushed over a certain limit, these people can do a lot of damage. The rank-and-file of the military could easily get fed up and provoke looting."
Looting is a commonplace in this country where the military is paid a pittance or not at all. The last outbreaks occurred in 1991 and 1993. Many feel that only the return of President Mobutu, still recuperating in Europe after a cancer operation, can rescue Zaire.
Kisangani, a large town west of the area in which fighting has taken place, is said to have suffered severely from the ill discipline of the war-weary and poorly provisioned soldiers. Other villages are said to have been ransacked and their inhabitants driven out.
"The military is fragmented and dangerously volatile," said one diplomat. "Mobutu is the only one who can control the army. I believe he will come back soon but the longer he stays away the more uncertain things become."
President Mobutu has approved United Nations' proposals for the intervention of a multi-national humanitarian protection force in Zaire. But so far no strategy has been agreed for the deployment of such a force, deemed essential if adequate aid is to reach more than 1 million civilians and refugees who have been displaced by the fighting. It is now understood that there will be no British participation in any international operation that might be mounted.
The Zairean government insists that all relief efforts must come through the capital and not through its eastern region over which it no longer has any control. The International Committee of the Red Cross says its attempts to despatch airborne relief supplies to the displaced have been frustrated by the authorities in Kinshasa. Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were also blocked from visiting the stricken interior.Reuse content