Finally, it seems that Zaire's dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had used up the last of his many political lives.
Ostensibly protesting against low pay and inflation, disgruntled elements of Zaire's underpaid and undisciplined army mutinied this past week in the capital of Kinshasa. Then, joined by civilians, they rioted and looted shops in the city center before stripping the suburban homes of the pro-Mobutu European expatriate families. Unrest quickly spread throughout the country.
The civil disturbances, virtually unprecedented in Mobutu's 26-year iron-fisted rule, left at least 100 dead, 1,750 more injured and sent thousands of foreigners and government supporters streaming across the Zaire River to safety in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.
Despite the intervention of hundreds of French and Belgian paratroopers to retake Kinshasa's international airport, ostensibly to protect the departure of thousands of their nationals, the events of the past week appear to have only briefly postponed, not canceled, Mr. Mobutu's final fall from power.
Ironically, Mr. Mobutu was thrust into power in the aftermath of an army mutiny more than 30 years ago when Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, began its chaotic transition to independence from Belgian rule. Now the mutinies by his own army may signal the transition from Mr. Mobutu's dictatorial reign to the multi-party democracy that Zaire's growing political opposition has been striving for.
For years, the army had been Mr. Mobutu's power base. Although proven ineffectual whenever faced with armed opposition, the Zairian army had few problems quashing political unrest by shooting political opponents. Now, even their loyalty to Mr. Mobutu is in question, as is their ability to maintain law and order.
"It's clear there is no government in the country right now," said Nancy Ross, director of the Washington-based Rainbow Lobby. "The right, the left, the center, everybody wants [Mr. Mobutu] out."
While the 51,000-man national army has suffered through lack of supplies, uniforms, pay, poor morale and ammunition, Mr. Mobutu created various elite units as a counter. Most notable among these various forces are the French-trained 31st Paratroop Brigade and the Israeli-trained Special Presidential Division (DSP), the latter being hand-picked from Mr. Mobutu's own ethnic group and region. However, it was elements of these two which apparently stirred the mutinies.
"He has lost control of the country," said former foreign minister Nguza Karl-i-Bond, a leading opposition member. "The army has always been his strongest base."
The unrest coincided with plans for a national political conference among Mr. Mobutu's growing political opposition, which is being convened to strip the dictator of his political power and form a transitional government to guide the country's return to democracy.
Mr. Mobutu, who agreed this year to the formation of opposition political parties, has attempted to manipulate Zaire's political liberalization as most of Africa has been swept by the winds of multi-party democracy. About 150 different parties have been formed, about half supported by the dictator.
Late this week, the opposition moved ahead with plans and formed a transitional government to supplant Mobutu and attempt to manage the national crisis.
"The people have completely lost their fear" of Mr. Mobutu, said Dr. Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Howard University academic and member of the opposition National Congolese Movement (MNC). The opposition for the first time has been able to muster sufficient support to show the people that they have a credible alternative. The people want change."
During the last 26 years, Mr. Mobutu has been the West's dictator of last resort, a corrupt, albeit, willing collaborator, in the struggle to win the Cold War. Whenever Mr. Mobutu has faced a crisis, he has appealed to the West for support, and the West has stood with him.
In fact, Mr. Mobutu was a Cold War baby, installed with the help of the CIA to undermine and eliminate Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first prime minister. He has remained on the CIA payroll for years and has supported U.S. efforts in the region.
Over the years, he has tried to install his brother-in-law, Holden Roberto, as the leader of neighboring Angola; provided his territory as a trans-shipment point for the CIA's military assistance program to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels; and provided a temporary safe haven to a force of CIA-trained anti-Kadafi Libyans, who were ferried out of Chad.
In return, Zaire has been, until recently, one of the largest recipients of U.S. military and economic assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Mobutu, himself, has been lauded as a political friend and ally of American interests from Presidents Kennedy through Bush.