issue 208 - June 1990
Zaire's den of thieves
Whew! It stinks. Steve Askin takes the lid off
one of the most rotten regimes in the world.
On a summer day an air-conditioned luxury bus wends its way along Portugal's southern coast. Impeccably dressed in custom-tailored silk, Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire, peers intently through a window, surveying the crystal-blue sea, fashionable resorts and luxuriant vineyards. 'Halt!' he orders. The man who rules 35 million of the world's poorest people has found himself another property to buy in the Algarve.
When Portugal caught Mobutu's fancy in 1984 he started regularly jetting into Lisbon and touring the countryside with swarms of friends and retainers. In a single month he spent over three million dollars on Portuguese investments including a 15-acre beach resort and a plantation of orchards and vineyards in the far north. He hosted convivial dinners for his friends - including Portugal's President and Prime Minister - entertaining them with his encyclopaedic knowledge of gastronomy, wine and 'beautiful things'.
More recently Mobutu has begun conducting official business from the ancient village of Roquebrune near Monte Carlo. Last October, French police obligingly sealed off the road to his beachfront property for a succession of official guests including US Africa policy chief Herman Cohen, Angolan and South African foreign ministers, US Congresspeople and Israeli investors. During Zaire's critically important negotiations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even Zairean government officials flew to Roquebrune to brief their president. Mobutu's long-time friend Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi billionaire arms merchant who has been charged in the US with helping Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos loot the Philippines, has a conveniently located home nearby.
When Mobutu tires of Europe, luxury homes await him in each Zairean province. Up to four months a year he lives at his family's ancestral village of Gbadolite near the Central African Republic border. He lengthened the Gbadolite airport runway a few years ago, officially for 'security reasons' but actually so the supersonic Concorde he charters from Air France can land there.
Critics peg Mobutu's fortune at five billion dollars. Mobutu himself insists it totals 'less than $50 million', but confidential financial reports suggest that Mobutu receives almost $100 million a year directly from his government to spend as he sees fit. This is more than the Government spends on education, health and all other social services combined.
Foreign friends helped Mobutu become a millionaire almost 30 years ago. His first few million dollars came from the US Central Intelligence Agency and from a United Nations peacekeeping force in the early 1960s, even before he seized power in 1965. By the mid -1970s, the CIA alone had paid Mobutu more than $150 million, according to Roger Morris, a former aide to Henry Kissinger.
Mobutu accumulates wealth for personal consumption and to fund international and domestic patronage networks. Just as nineteenth-century Belgian colonizers bought the support of Congolese chiefs and village headmen, Mobutu has purchased a stable of reliable overseas retainers, especially in the former colonial power, Belgium. Belgian politicians paid by Mobutu have included a former Prime Minister, the one-time leader of the Christian Democratic party and top civil servants in the foreign ministry.
An ever-changing team of 'registered agents' serve as Mobutu's official lobbyists in the US. Some of Washington's most respected influence peddlers have performed this role, alongside various shadier but equally well-connected operators like a Khashoggi brother-in-law.
Like a European feudal king surrounded by nobles, Mobutu also dispenses vast sums as patronage to his own elite in Zaire. Unlike an aristocracy, this elite depends for its status on one man's changing whims. As one reporter put it: 'besides Mobutu and his family only 80 people in the country count. At any one time, 20 of them are ministers, 20 are exiles, 20 are in jail and 20 are ambassadors. Every three months, the music stops and Mobutu forces everyone to change chairs.' Part of Mobutu's political genius lies in his ability to co-opt would-be rivals into the leadership class - and to boot them out again before they can accumulate too much power.
Mobutu and his inner circle sit atop a social ladder of corruption. Everyone is forced to take from those less powerful, both to survive and to meet the demands of more powerful people above. Almost all of Zaire's wealth stays on the upper rungs, in the hands of powerful politicians and politically-connected businessmen. The enduring symbol of this social stratum is the Mercedes-Benz. Zaire reputedly imports more Mercedes than anywhere in Africa and Kinshasa's Mercedes dealers prosper while all around them crumbles.
The Mercedes-riding class have made smuggling and black-marketeering Zaire's leading industries. By paying bribes to customs agents instead of taxes to the Government, they have elevated illegal gold exports to 'several times the (official) national production,' according to a confidential World Bank report. While discreetly avoiding identification of the culprits, the World Bank also notes that theft and smuggling of Zaire's most vital strategic mineral, cobalt, 'is primarily carried out by some of the most powerful individuals in the country'.
Civil servants may wield considerable power while receiving absurdly low salaries. Often the struggle to survive can compel well-intentioned officials to abandon deeply held principles.
One evening over dinner a demoralized judge in Kisangani described his unhappy compromise with economic reality. The judge's tiny salary could not even pay his family's food bill. 'I'm not going to live in a shack,' the official said shamefacedly. 'I know if a case comes before me and the merits go against a powerful commercial person I would be punished for ruling against him and he would get his way anyhow. So I take money and I rule in his favour.'
'Smuggling, barter ... speculation and middleman activity, theft, usury, corruption and embezzlement, and extortion' are more important than formal employment as an income source for urban families, according to a World Bank study. But only those with connections near the top of the political ladder can earn enough from these pursuits to live in comfort.
Foreign visitors often mistakenly blame corruption on customs officers, police and other petty officials who demand small bribes. But most Zairean civil servants are victims of a system they don't control. They earn the equivalent of about $20 or $30 a month and these pathetic salaries often fail to arrive on time. They are forced to demand private payment to perform public services.
Rather than blaming these victims, it makes more sense to view bribes demanded by hard-working teachers, nurses and other social-service workers as a kind of unofficial 'tax' levied to support services which would otherwise die of state neglect. Unfortunately civil servants can take most easily from people poorer than themselves.
The unofficial tax begins before birth when nurses and midwives in state clinics demand payments from mothers-to-be. And not even death provides respite, as an Irish Catholic missionary discovered the day that a corpse and the bereaved family arrived eight hours late for a funeral he was to conduct. The family had been forced to spend the day raising money to pay a bribe demanded by the driver of the state-owned hearse. 'Respect for the dead is the most African of values,' said the priest. 'When that disappears, the whole social order has collapsed.'
The real culprits are the foreign powers, and especially the US, which has kept Mobutu in power for 25 years. He has served their interests by making Zaire the most important staging ground for Western military intervention in Central and Southern Africa. Secret files of the IMF and World Bank are full of reports on corruption at the top in Zaire and suffering at the bottom.
These records describe how much of the money lent to Zaire by multilateral institutions and Western governments over the past quarter-century was squandered or siphoned off. Despite their secret knowledge, these same institutions persist in demanding that Zaire pays off its foreign debt of eight billion dollars by accepting economic austerity programs. These would involve further cutting an already disastrously underfunded public sector and would hit the poor hardest.
The West has economic as well as military interests in Zaire. In the early years of Mobutu's regime investors from the US and other Western nations profited enormously from a multi-billion-dollar investment and construction boom funded by foreign loans. Foreign investment ground to a virtual halt after the near collapse of the Zairean economy in the mid 1970s. But the loans which paid for that investment remain to be paid.
Zaire's top-level corruption binds these foreign creditors ever closer to Mobutu because, should the Zairean people ever elect a democratic government, there would be enormous pressure to repudiate Zaire's outstanding loans. Instead of demanding austerity from the poor, the foreign lenders would be told that if they wanted their money back they should seize Mobutu's luxurious foreign estates and bulging bank accounts. And that would be a messy business.
This article is adapted from Steve Askin's forthcoming book on Zaire under Mobutu which will be published by Zed Books. Askin is a Zimbabwe-based researcher and journalist.
Overseas aid is regularly siphoned into foreign bank accounts, while food aid liberates governments from the responsibility of feeding their people, enabling them to do other things with their money - like bolstering their armies. And further down the social and political ladder, the flowering of bureaucracies and administrative regulations have brought innumerable opportunities for civil servants to line their pockets with bribes.
The way forward