Passive Protest Stops Zaire's Capital Cold
By Lynne Duke
KINSHASA, Zaire, April 14 -- This capital city ground to a halt today as residents stayed home on the first of two days of protests called by opposition leaders pressing for the ouster of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Shops, offices, schools and street markets were closed. Only a few pedestrians braved the streets of the central business district. Taxis, buses and private cars were scarce -- perhaps in fear of a threat by opposition militants that stones would rain down on moving vehicles. At a few intersections, protesters set up barricades of burning tires.
Supporters of former prime minister Etienne Tshisekedi organized today's protest -- and plan demonstrations on Tuesday -- despite a state of emergency imposed by Mobutu's government last week. Tshisekedi and the rest of the political opposition here have become, in effect, the unarmed complement to the armed campaign being waged from the east by rebels led by Laurent Kabila.
Both Tshisekedi and Kabila are seeking the end of Mobutu's 31-year reign, though tension between the two movements recently has surfaced.
Kabila's rebels, who have seized about half of Zaire in their six-month-old campaign, are slowly pressing toward Kinshasa, their last major target.
Government troops patrolled Kinshasa in mobile units today, apparently so they could quickly reach mass gatherings outlawed under emergency rule. Near Tshisekedi's home, soldiers fired shots in the air to disperse a small group of demonstrators, then turned on journalists. Several foreign journalists said they were detained briefly, including a group that was forced to lie on the ground at gunpoint.
Perhaps indicating that such harassment will become routine, the new minister of information, Kin-Kiey Mulumba, a pro-Mobutu newspaper publisher, warned journalists at a news conference that the government will use force against them if they violate the state of emergency. He would not explain what rules should be followed but criticized the manner in which journalists were doing their jobs.
"It is a pity that the international media enjoy giving importance to certain opinions or meetings," Kin-Kiey said, speaking on the authority of Mobutu's new prime minster, Gen. Likulia Bolongo. "Not mentioning any threats, such as ending your stay here, the cabinet would like nevertheless to remind you of the professionalism and morality of your job."
Though today's passive protest was relatively peaceful, fear is high here that violence will erupt during Tuesday's demonstrations, the centerpiece of which will be a procession of marchers and cars weaving through the city. But Marcel Mbayo, an aide to Tshisekedi, said the events "will be peaceful."
Tuesday's rallies will presumably be heavily attended by university students, whom opposition leaders have urged to stay away from classes. Similar student demonstrations rocked the capital last fall, when Kabila's rebel movement was widely viewed in the capital as a Rwandan invasion force. Then, many Kinshasans wanted tougher military action against the rebels. But over the past few months, the tide of opinion has turned, and Kabila is now viewed as a liberator capable of ending Mobutu's rule.
Kabila's forces -- which are indeed backed by Rwanda, Angola, Uganda and Burundi, diplomats say -- are slowly advancing toward the capital from the eastern half of the country, where they have captured all the regions that produce Zaire's diamonds, gold, copper and cobalt. Those areas include Zaire's second and third largest cities, Lubumbashi and Kisangani.
In recent days, the rebels have moved slightly westward from the central diamond-producing hub of Mbuji-Mayi. Their reported capture of Kananga, capital of the West Kasai region east of Kinshasa, appears to be their closest approach to the capital. In the north, the rebels apparently are using the Zaire River to transport troops and supplies westward.
With Mobutu facing intense international and domestic pressure to negotiate an end to the war, talks between his government and the rebels are to resume in South Africa this week. But so far, no high-level figure on either side has taken part in the talks; Kabila has demanded a face-to-face meeting with Mobutu, who has refused, although he has held out the possibility of such talks if Kabila requests them formally.
But after giving Mobutu three days to think the matter over, Kabila's forces said Sunday that they would press on to the capital, with a cease-fire possible only after Mobutu's departure.
But Francesca Bomboko, who works for a research firm here, predicted a more aggressive reaction by Mobutu, a prediction echoed by others. "I don't think he's going to leave," Bomboko said. "I think he's going to fight."