After a four-month absence during which he underwent medical treatment in Europe, President Mobutu Sese Seko is expected to return home to Zaire this week amid expectations he can turn around the country's embarrassing defeats in an ongoing war against rebels.
But it's unclear whether the ailing leader - the longest-ruling in Africa - maintains the influence that has allowed him to manipulate events during a 31-year reign.
At a downtown intersection where unemployed young men gather daily to debate politics, many say he does. "Mobutu is behind everything that happens [here]," says Emmanuel Bashimungu. "The proof is that since Mobutu's been sick, no one has been able to make decisions."
Mr. Bashimungu and the others say they're members of the opposition. They blame Mobutu for Zaire's dire economic, ethnic, and social problems, including the current war with rebels on the eastern border. Yet they say only he can fix things.
That is the way President Mobutu has carefully designed his regime. His personal control of state institutions has allowed him to buy loyalties. His foes say he has fended them off through repression and divide-and-rule tactics. And the military, in particular, long has been considered Mobutu's personal preserve. "The Army obeys no one but him," says opposition politician Malonga Mangudingani. "He is going to organize his Army so they can liberate [eastern Zaire]."
The two-month-old rebellion began when ethnic Tutsis, who have lived for generations in Zaire, rebelled and easily took over a large part of eastern Zaire from the disorganized Zairean Army. In the process, they forced hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees, living in camps near the Rwanda border, to return home.
Yet faith in Mobutu's ability to lead the Army to victory is increasingly seen as misplaced. Western diplomats concede it's likely he can still pull strings among the top ranks, but say loyalty among the lower ranks has eroded due to long unpaid wages.
If he comes home, Mobutu will also face pressure to dump Kengo Wa Dondo, the besieged prime minister. Naming a new premier would be a dramatic way for Mobutu to assert power. Yet few diplomats think he will. Mr. Kengo is considered competent and there is no obvious replacement for him. Instead, foreign diplomats say negotiating with the rebels appears the best and perhaps only option for resolving the crisis.
During the past two months, Zaireans have been stunned and then angered as Mobutu remained abroad despite the war, neither making policy decisions nor issuing statements on the mounting crisis. His untimely absence has fueled speculation that Mobutu is more seriously ill than admitted, and that he may not live much longer. That alone may be enough to diminish his influence.
His absence, however, has also allowed Zaireans to begin thinking about and planning for a post-Mobutu era. Now that their president is finally reported to be coming back, many are ambivalent.
"I don't think he can really change much," says one woman who only gave her first name, Perpetue. "The rebels have already taken the land," she says, "and Mobutu is sick. What is it going to change if he is in Europe or Kinshasa?