LUBUMBASHI, Zaire -- Until seven months ago, the man who declared himself president of what he has renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo was an obscure rebel leader with a history of starting quixotic Marxist revolts that fell apart. He had never administered anything larger than a small socialist commune in the mountains of eastern Zaire in the 1970s.
Now Laurent Desire Kabila has succeeded in ousting President Mobutu Sese Seko and becoming the next ruler of Zaire, a vast country of more than 40 million people whose tribal and regional conflicts would try the skills of the most masterful statesman.
At a news conference yesterday at the governor's mansion here, Kabila made no mention of holding elections and left unanswered major questions about how he will structure his government, chief among them being whether he will invite other opposition politicians to play a role.
The rebel commander, 56, whose troops began routing the demoralized government army last September, beamed as he read a nine-point declaration from the rebel movement's executive committee -- which he controls -- naming him as the next head of state.
The statement said the rebel movement was seizing power because Mobutu had fled the capital and "sabotaged" peace talks.
"President Laurent Kabila will assume from now on the functions of head of state," Kabila read aloud. For Kabila, a former Marxist who has started numerous failed revolts, the moment was the end of his three-decade quest to unseat Mobutu. He has said all along he wants to restore what he sees as the democracy envisioned when Zaire gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Zaire is renamed
He immediately declared the country would again be called the Democratic Republic of Congo, a name Mobutu replaced with Zaire in the 1970s. "I am happy, very happy to succeed," Kabila said, with a deep-throated laugh.
Kabila said in recent days that he had had conversations with several high-ranking generals in Mobutu's government, all of whom had agreed to hand over power to him and swear allegiance to the rebel movement, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo.
Though Kabila promised to forge a "government of national salvation" within three days, he did not say if it would include members of the opposition parties in Kinshasa, especially Etienne Tshisekedi, one of the country's most powerful opposition figures.
No backlash feared
Asked if he was worried about a backlash from other opposition leaders, he shrugged off the question and said they could join his rebel movement instead.
"If they are democratic forces, they are with us. No confrontation at all," he said.
It remains to be seen if Kabila will reach outside the current alliance members as he puts together his Cabinet.
One hurdle is to find talented administrators. Most of the eight civilian "ministers" in his current committee have only recently returned from years of exile, and they are known for their %J idealism rather than their experience or ability.
The justice minister, Mwenze Kongolo, is a lawyer who worked in the district attorney's office in Philadelphia. The finance chief, Mwana Mawampanga, is an adjunct professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky.
The foreign minister, Bizima Karaja, is a 29-year-old doctor from South Africa with no government experience.
Kabila has made it plain that high-ranking members of Mobutu's ruling party will have no role to play in his government, but he had sent mixed signals about what role Tshisekedi and other opposition leaders might play.
Balancing Zaire's many tribal and regional power blocs is the key to Kabila's success, diplomats and African politicians say.
To stay in power, they say, he will need to bring popular politicians like Tshisekedi, the leader of the largest opposition party and the most powerful man from the Kasai province, into the government.
"Kabila should be the main element in the government, in the transitional authority, and therefore he should have the majority, the working majority, in order to enable him to pass through decisions," said President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, a close ally who has aided Kabila's revolt from the start. "However, he must accommodate other political forces. There must be a broad-based administration."
One of the biggest dangers facing the rebel leader is a backlash against ethnic Tutsis, the core of his fighting force. While the majority of Zairians wanted Mobutu to leave office, most are not necessarily willing in the long run to accept a new government dominated by Tutsis, who started the rebellion and are still Kabila's closest advisers.