Future unclear for fast-on-his-feet leader

PARIS (AP) — Marshal Mobutu must have been mortified, slinking into his collapsing capital to jeers and whistles to watch three decades of triumph recede like a film running in rapid rewind.
In hilltop seclusion, with an army of dissipating loyalty, he awaits a coming judgment. Will virulent prostate cancer cut him down before his archenemy Laurent Kabila drives him from power?
Or will the convoluted politics of Zaire deliver some other fate entirely?
Rebels who daily control more of the mineral-laced east hold the upper hand, refusing to cease fire against a crumbling army until Mobutu takes a step backward. Kinshasa, the capital, is thick with coup rumors.
Humbling comeuppance is an amazing sight to those who knew him when. But no one who has dealt with Mobutu Sese Seko, a master at reversal of bad fortune, believes it is over until it is over.
Mobutu’s strength is his ability to pit factions against one another in bitter free-for-all while he hovers above the fray. For this he needs little real power. He only has to stay alive.
His rabble of an army may not be able to defend his capital, but the jungle might. Long neglect of the interior has left Zaire with no roads between Kinshasa and the rebels’ widening territory.
Now a haggard 66, Mobutu winces when he walks, a sharp contrast to the fire-eater who inflamed followers in his early years.
CIA operatives were quick to see leadership in the young colonel with hollow cheeks and hungry eyes, a former journalist. With their help, in 1965, he seized control of the chaotic Congo.
Mobutu imposed his power the old way: He betrayed friends, co-opted enemies, and made pacts he did not keep.
He used white mercenaries to crush rebels and then discreet American help to quell a mercenary revolt. Outside help put down repeated assaults on Katanga province (now Shaba), Kabila’s next target.
He excoriated racist South Africans with flaming rhetoric that enhanced his standing at summit meetings, but he accepted their secret support.
“We must isolate them,” Mobutu thundered to a young reporter. “Buy nothing! Sell nothing!” The journalist then noticed what the president had offered him to drink: South African grape juice.
Mobutu pardoned rebel leader Pierre Mulele and embraced him when he came home. Mulele then faced a long secret trial, with regular news bulletins on its progress. In fact, he was shot before it began.
Year after year, more opponents were murdered, and the amounts diplomats said Mobutu stole rose toward $6 billion. Yet U.S. officials privately insisted that only he could hold together Zaire and prevent bloody madness at the heart of Africa.
The answer was similar in Paris. President Francois Mitterrand welcomed Mobutu’s Zaire to the club of former French African colonies, even though it had been owned by Belgium.
Justified or not, the pragmatism had a purpose. From independence in 1960 until Mobutu ended a string of coups and rebellions — from the short reign of the martyred Patrice Lumumba to Moise Tshombe’s Katanga war with the United Nations — Congo was a five-letter synopsis of Africa’s worst nightmares.
Zaire’s 40 million people break down into 250 tribes spread in clusters across an area as big as Europe, with little communication among them. A handful of dominant tribes have been at odds forever.
Vast wealth is dispersed in pockets: diamonds in Kasai, copper in Shaba, gold in the east, oil in Kongo territory near the coast.
Rather than trying to detribalize Zaire, Mobutu simply made sure that leaders of each power faction had a share of the riches, while he skimmed off the top. He himself is from a tiny minority.
Ordinary people have fallen below any measurable poverty line, and most families survive by what was already known in the 1960s as the “Congolese miracle”: a blend of barter, theft and suffering.
Kinshasa erupts on occasion. In 1991 and 1993, unpaid soldiers joined tumultuous mobs, and waves of looters picked the city clean. Yet again, France and Belgium sent troops to rescue their own.
And, yet again, Mobutu survived. He promoted commanders from different regions, whose foreign bank accounts enforced practical loyalty. He gave opponents a little rope and guarded leeway.
When the going gets tough, Mobutu takes the high road to safety. His son and spokesman, Mobutu Nzanga, protested when a reporter wrote that Mobutu was responsible for economic calamity in the country he had ruled for 32 years.
“That is the prime minister’s responsibility,” Nzanga said. “The president only looks after the army and the overall situation.”
As cancer advanced, he settled into his French Riviera estate, from which he makes periodic forays to Zaire. He made his latest return March 21, arriving too ill for the habitual staged welcome.
Nothing is yet clear about the future of such a wily survivor. But with every passing day, those who know him say, the glorious epithet could come back to haunt him.