Corruption, political repression and poverty are fueling violence in Zaire. The French ambassador was slain. The country's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, has again blocked democratic change by dismissing the prime minister. Hundreds have died in rioting.
Mr. Mobutu is trying to keep his grip on power, as a nascent democracy movement struggles for recognition and as the United States searches for a new policy toward an old ally. It is a policy change the Clinton administration should make as soon as possible. Consider:
* A teen-aged girl lies on a bench in a government hospital, crying in pain, as she waits for a relative to arrive with surgical supplies so her appendectomy can proceed. The hospital in Kisangani has no such supplies left, because the doctors have stolen them for use in their private clinics.
* An aging, dilapidated, diesel-powered riverboat heaves its way up the Congo, every inch of deck space crammed with passengers and their merchandise. As the boat proceeds from the Zairian capital of Kinshasa into the heart of central Africa, Zairian farmers and hunters launch from the riverbanks canoes laden with animals and other goods to trade with merchants on the big boat. The river and its tributaries are the only functioning route for commerce in a country where the economy and infrastructure have collapsed. Most roads are impassable.
* In the Cite, the slum that surrounds the capital city's downtown and that is home to most of the capital's residents, mud houses and hovels pack the labyrinthine alleyways. In bars, where extra large bottles of Zairian beer are sold and help to quell frustration, Zairians abstain from talking politics unless they are whispering with someone whom they trust. Fear of the security police, who can swiftly punish discontent with the regime of Mr. Mobutu, is ubiquitous.
With the backing of Washington, Mr. Mobutu was installed in power 27 years ago. Since then, he has ruled dictatorially over a country that is one of the most naturally wealthy in Africa but that has become one of its poorest. The economy has deteriorated as Mr. Mobutu and his ruling elite have grown rich.
Zaire's wealth is the result of substantial mineral deposits that produce copper and cobalt. Petroleum is drilled offshore near the mouth of the river. Industrial diamonds are mined in Zaire, as are gold, zinc and tin. The Congo and other rivers provide hydroelectric power, which, if fully exploited, could amount to 13 percent of the world's total. Droughts are not a threat, land is abundant and the rain forest has hardly been cut. At independence, Zaire was a food exporter. Three decades later, it is importing rice, corn and meat.
The country's 35 million people have some of the lowest incomes, highest infant mortality rates and shortest life expectancies on Earth, according to World Bank figures. Mr. Mobutu is one of the world's richest men, with a fortune estimated at more than $5 billion.
Human-rights groups and opponents of Mr. Mobutu have publicized his excesses. They have written reports, published books and testified before congressional committees about Mr. Mobutu's mismanagement of the country, his use of a multi-tiered security-police apparatus to torture and otherwise suppress dissidents and his condoning of the army's massacre of opponents.
He has gone so far as to donate the proceeds from the nation's coffee crop to his wife, siphon millions of dollars from the national bank and appropriate military aircraft, provided by the Americans, for use in transporting his ranch cattle. The rampant corruption, starting at the top, is no secret.
The United States, which has provided the Mobutu government with more than a billion dollars in economic and military support, has slowed aid to a trickle over the past couple of years, routing it through non-governmental organizations free of Mr. Mobutu's influence.
Otherwise, the United States has done little, save for publicly admonishing Mr. Mobutu for his dictatorial practices and asking him to hand over power to a transitional democratic government. Mr. Mobutu has consistently refused.
Protecting and financing Mr. Mobutu is a longtime habit for the United States, ever since the mid-'60s when the Central Intelligence Agency abetted the assassination of his predecessor. Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected head of state on the African continent, was killed, and Mr. Mobutu installed, in 1965.
U.S. motivation was simple then. Mr. Lumumba was suspected of harboring communist sympathies, the Cold War was young, and Americans wanted an anti-communist in a mineral-rich country at Africa's strategic center. Over the years, Zaire became a safe haven for anti-communist guerrillas fighting in neighboring Angola, a U.S. ally in supporting Chad against an incursion from Libya and a loyal vote at the United Nations.