The hotel incident swiftly descended into farce, as things had a tendency to do in Zaire.
'Block the lifts,' ordered the hotel's suave Jordanian manager, determined, with a level of bravery verging on the foolhardy, to protect his guests. The night staff obediently flipped the power switch. But by the time the manager's order had got through, Kongulu and two burly soldiers were already on the sixteenth floor.
Storming from one identical door to another, unable to locate their intended victims -- long since fled -- and unable to descend, the death squad was reaching near-hysteria. 'Unblock the lifts, let them out, let them out,' ordered the manager, beginning to feel rattled. Incandescent with fury, the trio spilled out into the lobby. Cursing and spitting, they mustered their forces, revved their vehicles and roared off into the night, determined to slake their blood lust before dawn.
The waiting was at an end. May 17, 1997 was destined to be showdown time for Zaire. And it looked uncomfortably clear that the months of diplomatic attempts to negotiate a deal that would ease Mobutu out and rebel leader Laurent Kabila in, preventing Kinshasa from descending into a frenzy of destruction behind the departing president, had come to precisely nothing.
The fact that so many of the key episodes in what was to be Zaire's great unravelling took place in the Hotel Intercontinental was not coincidental. Africa is a continent that seems to specialise in symbolic hotels which, for months or years, are microcosms of their countries' tumultuous histories. They are buildings where atrocities are committed, coups d'état consecrated, embryonic rebel governments lodged, peace deals signed, and when the troubled days are over, they still miraculously come up with almond croissants, fresh coffee and CNN in most rooms.
In Rwanda, that role is fulfilled by the Mille Collines hotel, where the management stared down the Hutu militiamen bent on slaughtering terrified Tutsi guests during the 1994 genocide. In Zimbabwe, it used to be the Meikles, where armed white farmers rubbed soldiers with sanction-busters during the Smith regime. In Ethiopia it is the Hilton, where during the Mengistu years some staff doubled as government informers; in Uganda, the Nile, whose rooms once rang with the screams of suspects being tortured by Idi Amin's police.
In Congo the honour most definitely goes to the Hotel Intercontinental. I know, because I once lived there. With one room as my living quarters, another as dilapidated office and a roof-top beer crate as the perch for a satellite telex -- my link with the outside world -- I soon realised that the hotel, as emblematic of the regime as Mobutu's leopardskin hat, offered the perfect vantage point from which to observe the dying days of the dinosaur.
The hotel was built on a whim. On a visit to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, President Mobutu saw the Hotel Ivoire, and decided he wanted one too. For once, his impulses were based on canny business instincts.
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