Zaire delivering itself to the rebels Kabila pauses: Mobutu acts as if he doesn't know his days are numbered.

April 11, 1997

THE REBELLION has paused for three days to consolidate its gains, which are now half of Zaire, as it prepares the final push to Kinshasa and the sea. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila gave President Mobutu Sese Seku this time to hand over the country. If the reaction of the million people in Lubumbashi is indicative, the country is handing itself to Mr. Kabila, with most people welcoming him as a liberator.

So much for the brief negotiation in Pretoria, or talk of a cease-fire, or shared power, or the forlorn U.S. State Department suggestion about transitional arrangements. None of that is relevant in the absence of meaningful resistance. Mr. Kabila has been given no incentive to compromise or temper his demand to take over in preparation for an election.

That may come, of course, as the rebellion spreads westward and encounters new ethnic groups and factions. Many Zairians and foreigners are concerned about Mr. Kabila's three decades of revolutionary rhetoric. Will he be another Pol Pot, destroying his own people in the name of their ideological purity, or another Nelson Mandela, bringing wisdom and healing along with democratic processes? No one knows. But his forces have acted so far with a discipline and restraint unknown to previous armed bodies in Zaire, including the army of President Mobutu.

Breakup of the huge country is the theoretical grave danger. But from the start of his campaign on the eastern border last autumn, Mr. Kabila has repudiated secession and called liberation of the whole country his objective. Only if a stand is made by forces loyal to the established order is dismemberment to be feared. That danger has not as yet materialized.

There is little sign of reality taking hold of the rulers whose days are so limited. President Mobutu named his military chief, Gen. Likulia Bolongo, prime minister to squelch the brief experiment with the oppositionist, Etienne Tshisekedi. What government force remains is repressing Mr. Tshisekedi and his supporters, not erecting defenses against the rebel movement that already controls much of the nation's diamond and copper capacity.

The U.S. is right to call General Mobutu a "creature of history" who should step down before he falls. No outside power should intervene to prevent a rebel victory and thereby cause a de facto dismemberment. Left to their own devices, the Zairians are removing the Mobutu problem and keeping one Zaire in the process.

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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