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Zairian Princess Hopes to Become President

November 8, 1996

KINSHASA, Zaire (AP) _ She’s a tribal princess and an interior decorator who spent the past three decades in Washington, D.C. So what makes her think she could ever be elected president of Zaire?

True, this candidate’s chances may be slim. But Iyombe Botumbe Akarele says even she _ a political unknown _ could defeat Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who has ruled Zaire since its independence.

``I WILL win, and then they’ll laugh,″ said Akarele, 52, her graying hair swept back in a tidy bun. ``Anybody in his right mind will not vote for the same people who have kept him in misery for 30 years.″

Zairians may not vote anytime soon. Their first multiparty elections are scheduled for May, but their country is in even more turmoil than usual because of a rebel incursion in the east.

Rebels, most of them ethnic Tutsis from Zaire, have taken over at least three key cities of this central African nation. Mobutu has been absent three months due to prostate cancer. University students in the capital have been demanding, in violent protests, the resignation of Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo because his mother is a Rwandan Tutsi.

Yet Akarele and her backers still hope Mobutu will initiate the transition to democracy he promised six years ago, even though he’s canceled elections twice since then.

``There must be elections, no matter what. People are hungry, people are dying,″ she said. ``Is a country a country without an elected government?″

Aside from Akarele, there are only two other declared candidates: Kinkela Vikansi, a National Assembly deputy who heads the Patriotic Front party; and Kisimba Ngoyi, a former environment minister and leader of the National Federalist Party.

The real one to beat will be Mobutu’s main enemy, Etienne Tshisekedi, who has not officially joined the race but is expected to announce his candidacy.

Akarele went to the Maryland Institute college in Baltimore in the 1960s, married a Nigerian physician, had three children and started her interior design business. But she says she never really left Zaire. ``Physically maybe, but mentally I never left.″

She came back in 1992, founded the Talking Drum Party, and has been campaigning ever since. Her party seeks reconciliation with the old guard and has invited Mobutu’s cronies to join in reconstruction of the country, first through stabilizing the economy.

A journalist for the state-run Zairian Press Agency said Akarele has many backers but that the more prominent ones have been afraid to publicly support her. ``Zairians are used to disorder, and when someone comes along with order, they’re afraid,″ said the journalist, who requested anonymity because he feared arrest. ``She’s an innocent, but she’s very dynamic and well-organized.″

Kin-kiey Mulumba, publisher of the independent Le Soft newspaper, said Akarele doesn’t stand a chance. ``In Zaire, people are jealous of those people who have lived outside with all their wine and cheese and mineral water, while Zairians drink from the dirty river,″ Kin-Kiey said. ``Outsiders are not well-accepted here.″

But Akarele believes her gender will help in a country where women represent 60 percent of the population. ``Their kids have been dying and their husbands don’t have jobs,″ she said. ``They think the women are going to forget that?″

Akarele concedes ethnicity will play a role. Her grandfather was king of the powerful Basengele group, whose relatives in the Anamongo tribe speak the same language and are prominent in five of Zaire’s 10 regions.

But Akarele believes voters from all ethnic groups will respect her lack of any connection with one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

Zairian politicians only know the fear and nepotism that has ruled the country since it gained independence from Belgium _ they know nothing of the democracy in which she has reared her children, Akarele says.

``Right now, an American child can talk about becoming an astronaut,″ she said. ``Ours are only thinking about how to get their next meal.″

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