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The More Congo Changes, the More It Stays the Same

New government, sworn in yesterday, gives Kabila almost unchecked power.

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Nuno Booto is considered by most of her acquaintances to be a demure young woman who conducts herself with modesty. But for the former rebel soldiers of Laurent-Desir Kabila, she was immoral and had to be put in her place.

On a late night last week, three soldiers stopped her in the street and demanded she remove her black trousers. "They said they'd shoot me if they ever saw me again in pants," recalls Ms. Booto, who was forced to walk down the street in only her underwear. "They said only women of dubious virtue wear trousers and short skirts."

The reactionary practice against women is ironically similar to one carried out during the previous dictatorship, from which the rebels fought to free Congo.

Shooting of looters on sight, killing of prostitutes, harassment of women in the "wrong" clothes, and impatience with the opposition are worrying trends in what used to be Zaire. Since they took the capital, Kinshasa, May 17, and renamed the country, Mr. Kabila's men have shown a disturbing bent toward social control.

Kabila, whose new government was sworn in yesterday, has given himself sweeping powers, including the right to make laws by decree. He has said he will hold democratic elections in two years, giving his transitional government time to rebuild Congo's crumbling infrastructure.

Some foreign observers, including South African President Nelson Mandela and visiting United States congressmen, say the new, inexperienced government should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Need for stability

Foreign Minister Bizima Karaha justifies the crackdown, saying that stability has to be installed after nearly 32 years of anarchy under the ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Allowing protest demonstrations is out.

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