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On the Election Trail in Backcountry Zaire

IN this isolated village, peanut and fruit farmer Kawenga Bamana will help determine a question just beginning to emerge across Africa: Can some of Africa's long-time, often dictatorial leaders of one-party nations manage to stay in power, even if they bow to growing demands for multiparty politics to replace their autocratic one-party rule?

Despite strong urban-based opposition, Ivory Coast President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny pulled off an election win in November only months after allowing rival parties to form. Now Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko appears to be trying to do the same thing.

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Multiparty elections have become the hottest political topic in many African capitals, including Zaire's Kinshasa, but the majority of Africans still live in the countryside. So villages such as this one, a six hours' drive southeast of Kinshasa (when roads are dry), will play an important role in deciding the issue.

While the leading opposition candidates are encouraged by the strikes and antigovernment headlines in urban areas, President Mobutu is counting on farmers like Mr. Bamana to help keep him in power.

And the president may be correct.

``We've learned from people coming from Kinshasa about the five [strongest] parties,'' says Bamana, squatting on a steep hillside, under the broad leaves of a banana tree, where he sought refuge from a pending rainstorm. ``I don't even know the names of the candidates.''

``I eat, I work. What else can I say? Peace must continue [in Zaire] because when there's no peace, what can you do in life? And he [Mobutu] brought the peace.''

Bamana, who held a government typing job in Kinshasa until he was laid off, has had more contact with the outside world than many of the local farmers.

Others here, like Balungidi Bilongo whose farm plot is near Bamana's, admit they are even less in touch with politics. His assessment must be sweet music to Mobutu's ears.

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``He [Mobutu] is our papa,'' says Mr. Bilongo. ``It's up to him to see what he wants to do with his country. I can't talk of different parties because I am a simple man.''

At the edge of the village, another farmer, shares that view: ``I can't say anything because its not my right. It's the right of political men. I'm afraid to speak.''

But not everyone in this village of mud brick and tin or thatched-roofed homes was so reluctant.

A young man, though he asked not to be named, acknowledged that Mobutu had brought peace 25 years ago.

``But it's not just peace that counts. People are hungry. Is he the only person capable of governing the country?

``I think many people who understand the bad deeds of Mobutu are already against him,'' he adds. ``But there's a group who are not well informed who can vote blindly for Mobutu. For me, the dictatorship [of Mobutu] will not cease until there's another head of state or until multipartyism is genuinely installed.''

Mobutu is widely criticized in Kinshasa for poorly managing the economy and for draining state funds for personal use. In rural areas like this, little has been done to develop basic networks and infrastructure such as farm-to-market roads, health, and educational services.

But, insists a civil servant from eastern Zaire, ``Mobutu is still very popular in the interior. You can tell: Many people cheer him when he visits a village.''

A Zairean pastor from this region, however, disagrees. ``We want rule by law, not by person,'' he says. ``If he [Mobutu] came to our village, except for persons obliged to show up, he'd be alone.''

If the elections are fair - and that's a major if, according to many Zaireans, the political future of Mobutu may hinge on whether the civil servant or the pastor is correct.

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