The roads in Zaire are so notoriously bad that potholes are said to swallow cars the way that the local crocodiles swallow turtles: whole. Sometimes, driving in the countryside, the only way to continue a journey is over the rooftops of the vehicles which the road has already eaten.
A more practical way to move about is by river. That is how Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire, 'the Father of the Nation', travels. He does not go anywhere in particular; he just goes steaming up and down the Zaire river, eating like a king on his colonial riverboat-cum-floating palace, Kamanyola.
The boat takes its name from a village in easternmost Zaire. It is the place where Mobuto Sese Seko could not be killed. That was in the mid-Sixties during a civil war when the newly independent Congo was falling apart. The east rebelled, the south seceded. Leading troops against rebels in Kivu province, Mr Mobutu, then Lieutenant-General Joseph Desire Mobutu, was hit. He did not go down. The rebels were crushed. Since then it is said that anyone who tries to shoot Mr Mobutu will die by his own bullet, which will avoid its target and turn on the attacker.
Mr Mobutu keeps the myth alive by naming important things 'Kamanyola': a loyal presidential guard unit, his favourite military march and the riverboat on which he cruises while Zaire burns. And Zaire has been burning, especially since Mr Mobutu tried to pay his army two weeks ago with notes that shopkeepers regarded as worthless. Hundreds have since died in the rioting and looting. Mobutu Sese Seko Ngbendu Waza Banga, 'the all powerful warrior who, because of endurance and an inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake': rarely has a name been more aptly chosen (except perhaps when he took a woman named Marie-Antoinette as his first wife). He chose his grand title during an Africanisation programme whose aim was to 'decolonise' his people's minds and make them proud of their origins.
The programme started by his renaming the Congo as Zaire. That was in 1971, seven years after he had secured his position as strongman.
Joseph Desire Mobutu was born in 1930 to a mission cook and an escaped harem girl in the Belgian Congo province of Equateur. Thrown out of a mission school for spraying a teacher with ink, he was recruited into Belgium's colonial army, where he reached the highest permitted rank, senior sergeant. He then dabbled in journalism, and in 1958 he joined the Congo Freedom Movement. By 1960 the senior sergeant was the head of the army, a position from which he dismissed the prime minister and president of the Congo. He handed power back to a civilian government' but seized it again in 1965, announcing that 'This time I shall not give it up.' All 14 officers with whom he organised the 1965 coup have been killed, jailed or exiled, a pattern of dealing with rivals that he has repeated as he moved from conquest to conquest.
The fire in his wake today is the result of his inflexible will. His refusal to bow to demands for multi-party democracy or hand over power to a growing opposition and his scorched-earth economic policies in which the funds of Zaire are confused with his own, have led to a 19-month political crisis, the breakdown of law and order and the revival of secessionist sentiments.
The end of the Cold War brought about a change in attitude by Washington and France, his chief backers and financiers. The need for a bulwark against communism, a role President Mobuto filled faithfully for 27 years, was no longer necessary. Suddenly, after years of watching the economic and political corruption that had reduced Zaire to wretched, grinding poverty, the West had become embarrassed.
At one meeting in Washington, when Mr Mobutu was seeking loans for Zaire, a banker suggested that the President use the funds - between pounds 3.5bn and pounds 6bn - that he has salted away during his reign, to help his people. He was quoted as responding: 'I would like to, but my people could never pay me back.'
Stories like this proved more than even ex-president George Bush could stand. He wrote to Mr Mobutu three times asking him to step down, but he has shown no sign of leaving.
The latest trouble started last month when the Mr Mobuto tried to pay his destitute army with
5m-zaire notes. Mr Mobutu ordered the printing of the notes to keep up with the 7,000 per cent annual inflation. However, the Prime Minister, Etienne Tshisekedi, President Mobutu's main political rival and arch-enemy, declared the note inflationary and called for a boycott. Shopkeepers refused to accept the money, and soldiers went on the rampage.
As his loyal, well-disciplined guard put down the rebellion, President Mobutu watched from his mansion in Gbadolite, the marbled 'Versailles' of the jungle that he built in the sleepy village of his birth, eating lobster and sausages, washed back with vintage wine.
Although Mr Tshisekedi has managed to chip away at Mr Mobutu's authority, the President is still firmly entrenched. The most powerful elements of the army, state finances and the media are all under his control. Utlimately his survival depends on the loyalty of the army, and to that end he reshuffled the military last week. The outstanding question is: can a successful disobedience campaign render the country ungovernable?
That remains to be seen, for Mr Mobutu has announced plans to issue a 10m-zaire note soon. In the meantime, calls for his resignation do not seem to be reaching him on board the Kamanyola.
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