When asked about his impressions after the death of Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria in June, an informed Nigeria watcher remarked, "It proves God exists." The departure of the notorious dictator of Lagos eliminated an impossible policy challenge on the plate of the Western powers and opened the door to the restoration of the state and democracy in Nigeria. Similarly, the fortuitous death in July of Mashood Abiola, "president elect" to a term that had expired without having been occupied, removed another impossible obstacle to Nigerian normalization.

Laurent Kabila, the salon revolutionary, may be playing the same role in Congo (ex-Zaire). Greeted by many as the savior of his country as he led the victorious sweep from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean in eight months of 1996-97 and ousted the notorious dictator of Kinshasa, Mobutu Sese-Seko, he has turned out to be more incompetent than venal, and now is the target of a second rebellion traveling the same path, almost exactly two years later.

Two years ago, Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire swept across the country on the back of three waves: the enthusiastic welcome of a public fed up with Mobutu, the solid support of the Rwandan army -- also fed up with Mobutu -- and the flight of the Zairean army, not fed by Mobutu. Today, all three factors are present, although some in still-uncertain degree.

The Rwandans are tired of Kabila's inability to take care of their problem: the continued support coming from eastern Congo for the genocidal dissidents who massacred 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. The new Congolese army still has not been consolidated by Kabila and is torn between its Tutsi component, backed by Rwandans, and its Katangan component, backed by Angola. Congolese civil society and the population in general also are alienated and embittered by the indecision and incompetence of the Kabila regime.

But the degree of support the population gives to the new rebellion will depend on the extent to which it is seen as a uniting and liberating Congolese experience rather than a Tutsi or Rwandan operation. Kabila's chance of survival depends on his ability to paint the rebellion as an operation of Tutsis, toward whom there is widespread ethnic animosity throughout Congo, or of Rwandans, who are seen as arrogant, domineering invaders. Kabila's firing of the Congolese Tutsis and Rwandans in his cabinet and his army last week may well have been such a ploy, since Rwanda claims that it was withdrawing its soldiers, making it easy for Kabila to fire them.

In the absence of a coherent state consolidated by the present group in Kinshasa, Kabila's Congo is a carrion country, preyed on by neighboring countries, soldiers of fortune, business groups, pieces of armies and private plunderers, while its people look on in disgust. There is no role for the United Nations there, and it is no place for a well-intentioned "peaceful resolution of the conflict." With some neighbors' participation, Congo needs to work out its own transition to an effective regime that can rebuild the state and restore working relations within the region.

But there is a role for interested outside countries, from distant Europe and North America to surrounding Africa. That role -- in Congo as in Nigeria -- involves identifying benchmarks and standards that the new regime will need to meet to qualify for international acceptance and support. Such standards involve well-planned (not instantaneous) elections, starting at the local level; judicial independence; free press; a liberal regime for civil society groups; financial responsibility; and civilian control of the military, among others.

Would-be Congolese and Nigerian successors should be put clearly on notice that they can expect moral and material support if they embark on a program that will set up a sound state with popular participation and good governance in their country.

Kabila may turn out to be only a transition rather than a solution. Having gotten rid of Mobutu and shown how not to reinstate a country, he now opens the way for a successor in a more clearly defined opportunity. He also has performed another service in weakening the most prominent leftover of the old system, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, a poor governor and a worn-out politico.

The new rebellion will spawn its own leader -- not the man on a white horse that Kabila claimed to be but optimally a man who will complete the transition and raise a new political system. We should thank Kabila for his transitional role, removing major obstructions from the past system, and hold to our standards for the next stage of the transition. The writer is director of African Studies at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.