It is a measure of the chaos and confusion that prevails in the Democratic Republic of Congo that it took two days after an assassination attempt on President Laurent Kabila for the government to confirm that he had in fact been killed. The Congo government wants to prevent the country’s slide into anarchy; with soldiers from six countries already present in Congo, it does not have much further to go.

Mr. Kabila came to power three and a half years ago, when he overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who had plundered Zaire — as it was then known — for decades. The new president took over with the help of the governments of Uganda and Rwanda. Those two governments, dominated by Tutsis, had hoped that Mr. Kabila would crack down on the Hutu militias that operate with impunity on the Congo side of the border. From those safe havens, they were launching attacks against their former adversaries. Mr. Kabila proved more interested in taking up where Mobutu had left off in plundering his nation and took no action against the rebels.

In frustration, the governments of Rwanda and Uganda backed a second army, the Congolese Rally for Democracy. It failed to drive Mr. Kabila from power, but its forces did seize almost half the country. Mr. Kabila survived with the support of governments in Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, who, it is rumored, were granted rights to Congo’s vast mineral wealth in return.

Incredibly, the situation has continued to deteriorate. The rebel troops have split into factions. Both African leaders and the United Nations have attempted to mediate peace accords, but they have all disintegrated, some even before they were signed. All the concerned parties seem more interested in enriching themselves rather than forging a real peace.

The facts surrounding the shooting are murky; they may never be known. But Mr. Kabila was reportedly shot by his bodyguard after a dispute with generals over the prosecution of the war. The Congo government delayed announcement of his death so that they had time to put security procedures in place and avoid more chaos if factions battled to replace Mr. Kabila.

All the signs point to a continuation of the status quo. Mr. Kabila’s successor is his son, Joseph, commander of the army. He was at his father’s side throughout his exile; when Mr. Kabila took power, he was sent to China for military training, and he took charge of the military upon his return. By all reports, he is the opposite of his father: quiet and unassuming. He does not have his own political network. There are doubts about who will truly be running the country.

Whoever is in charge, the first order of business should be ending the war that is destroying Congo and threatens to spill over into neighboring countries. By one estimate, the fighting absorbs 80 percent of the government’s limited funds. Valuable natural resources are being stripped by the government’s “allies,” who have more of a stake in continued fighting than they do in peace. More than 200,000 people have been killed and another million are estimated to have been displaced by the conflict in the very heart of Africa. Nearly one-third of the children under the age of 5 in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, are malnourished; the situation is also grim in the countryside. Unfortunately, there is little hope for peacemaking. One of the new government’s first acts was bombing the rebel forces.

The problem is not Congo’s alone. The country is the size of Western Europe, and shares borders with nine neighbors. In Congo there are some 250 ethnic groups, many of which have tribe members in other countries. While Tutsi-Hutu fighting has been the most violent, there are other antagonisms, too. Chaos in Congo could easily destabilize many of its neighbors.

Avoiding that nightmare means that African leaders must put national interests before their own; the governments involved in Congo have been slow to do that. Sadly, Congo’s own government has set a poor example, preferring plundering to governing.

Mr. Kabila came to power promising to end the abuses of the Mobutu regime, to respect human rights and to move toward democratic governance. Instead, he set about enriching himself, his family and his friends, backing away from any pledge that might restrict his authority. He blocked human-rights monitors from checking on his government. The failure to implement peace agreements has kept the U.N. from sending more than a token number of peacekeeping forces into the country. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that he will not send troops until all the sides to the conflict demonstrate a commitment to a peace. The new government in Congo should lead the way.

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