CONCERNS are mounting in African and Western capitals that Zaire's steady descent into political and economic anarchy could lead to widespread ethnic conflict and the eventual disintegration of the massive central African state.
"The country now has two governments, two legislative authorities, two currencies, and two armies," says an exasperated Western diplomat here. "But there is still disagreement as how best to force President Mobutu Sese Seko to relinquish power because of widespread fears that what comes after him will be worse even than the status quo."
The streets of this crowded capital bear witness to a turbulent two years during which looting by forces loyal to Mr. Mobutu has destroyed much of the city's commercial and industrial activity and struck fear into the population. Corruption and protection rackets are commonplace. Soldiers frequently pillage homes and raid opposition newspapers. Bodies riddled with bullets lie in the streets.
The United States and France recognize the government of interim Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi as the legitimate authority. But Mobutu, the country's dictatorial head of state for the past 28 years, continues to rule by retaining the loyalty of the the 20,000-strong Special Presidential Division (DSP) and practicing his brand of political patronage, brutal repression, and a policy of divide-and-rule along ethnic lines.
The crisis has deepened since Mobutu installed a new government April 3 in defiance of the High Council of the Republic (HCR), the transitional parliament established last year.
The newly imposed government of Prime Minister Faustin Birindwa, a former economic adviser to Mobutu and until recently the treasurer of Mr. Tshisekedi's Union for Democracy and Social Progress, has won little domestic or international support. But Mobutu has used it to give decisions by his regime a broader legitimacy and a veneer of democracy. Despite stating his commitment to multiparty democracy in April 1990, Mobutu has repeatedly frustrated the HCR's efforts.
"Mobutu is playing for time because he knows he is going to fail in the end," Tshisekedi told the Monitor in his well-guarded house in a Kinshasa suburb. "We are looking very carefully at a way to neutralize Mobutu without sparking a war."
Tshisekedi insists that the majority of Zairean troops are in favor of reform and democracy and that the DSP alone is loyal to the president. But requests for foreign military aid to train the regular Army - which opposition leaders say could beat Mobutu and the DSP - have been refused.
Still, Western countries are coming under increasing pressure to impose economic sanctions on the country and freeze - or even seize - Mobutu's assets abroad, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. The new conservative government in France has refused Mobutu a visa, and he is no longer welcome in the US.
Tshisekedi, who narrowly escaped an attempt on his life on March 28 when troops of the DSP stormed his house, is adamant that he represents the legitimate government and that it is only a matter of time before Mobutu falls. Mobutu, whose term of office expired last December, has responded to efforts by the HCR to remove him by declaring the body illegal and reconstituting the old National Assembly to elect the new Birindwa government.