Zaire: An African Horror Story

Observers search for a suitable analogy—the next Bosnia, another Somalia—to the shaky, predatory despotism of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga

The corruption in Zaire is legendary. The "kleptocracy" has its roots in the nineteenth century Congo Free State: Belgium's King Leopold II used profits from the export of the country's extensive natural resources to build a personal fortune—profits extracted under conditions of forced labor that included killing workers and chopping off hands if quotas were not met. Mobutu's ill-gotten wealth is usually estimated at around $5 billion. Stories about his bank accounts in Switzerland and his villas, ranches palaces, and yachts throughout Europe are legion, as are wide-eyed descriptions of his home at Gbadolite, in northern Zaire, his birthplace; "Versailles in the jungle," it is called.

Born in poverty, the son of a domestic cook and a hotel maid, Mobutu is reported to have obtained his first few million dollars in the early 1960s from the CIA and the U.S.-dominated UN peacekeeping force that put down the Katangan secession. He was the army chief of staff at the time. Mobutu has steadily augmented his wealth ever since by blurring the distinction between public and private funds, dipping often into the national treasury. Not least among his many lucrative sources of "leakage," as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund call illegal diversions of money, has been Gecamines. By 1980 it was estimated that officials were skimming off at least $240 million a year from the nationalized resource. More recently a World Bank investigation estimated that up to $400 million—a fourth of Zaire's export revenues, most of it earned from Gecamines inexplicably vanished from the country's foreign-exchange accounts in 1988.

Sometimes overlooked in accounts of Mobutu's wealth is the critical role that money plays as a political tool. Even as Mobutu has accumulated great riches, he has had to spend huge sums to reward his allies and buy off his opponents. The word on the street in Kinshasa, impossible to confirm but relayed to me by a diplomatic source who found it credible, is that Mobutu paid Nguza $10 million to break with the Union Sacrée and become Prime Minister. "It's like the Mafia," a Zairean lawyer said. "All Zairean politicians are poor. For survival they have to engage in politics. To earn a living, they have to be on the side of the man in power."

Herman Cohen, who was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush Administration, and who first met Mobutu almost thirty years ago, agreed when we spoke that Zaire's central government is "basically a clan a family of cousins acting like the Mafia in Sicily, making these illegal deals, siphoning the money off cobalt and copper revenues." Cohen added, "Mobutu requires a huge cash flow. He has to keep the family afloat. In effect he has about three thousand to four thousand dependents, including women and children. It's essentially his own tribe. The attitude is, 'We've got to all hang together. If we don't, we're dead."'

Among the most important of these dependents are, of course, soldiers. A certain amount of cash has to be on hand for them. When money is tight, as it often is now that the economy is in ruins, Mobutu's tendency has been simply to print more. Hyperinflation generally follows. This was the result last January, when Mobutu tried to meet his military payroll by introducing new five-million-zaire notes into circulation, worth about $2 each at the time. The opposition, led by Tshisekedi, feared yet another round of hyperinflation, and urged shopkeepers to refuse to accept them. The strategy worked. The soldiers found they were unable to spend their money. So they went on another pillage, looting Kinshasa even more viciously and destructively than they had in 1991. This time Mobutu's elite troops intervened, grabbing their share and then summarily executing hundreds of rank-and-file looters. Nevertheless, the newly printed notes were effectively barred from use—everywhere, that is, except in Mobutu's home province of Equateur and in Shaba, where Governor Kyungu successfully coerced businesses into accepting them. Prices took off. The black-market value of zaires, 2.5 million to the dollar in Kinshasa in April, went from 12 million to 24 million to the dollar in Lubumbashi during the first two weeks of that month.

There remains the question of why Mobutu tolerates the gutting of Gecamines, a pillar of the economy and an indispensable source of foreign exchange. The answer is diamonds. By all accounts, Mobutu has managed to work out an alternative racket involving the export of diamonds from Kasai. Zaire is one of the world's largest producers of diamonds. Last year recorded diamond exports came to $230 million. Unrecorded exports? "Anybody's guess," a diplomat told me, "but certainly larger, by a substantial margin." Reportedly, an array of mostly Lebanese diamond buyers, working with silent partners in the Central Bank and in the military, are reaping hefty profits in a complex foreign-exchange scam involving a parallel market in checks worth as much as forty times the official exchange rate. They bring in their foreign currency, exchange it for zaires with their silent partners, and then head for the diamond mines. The proceeds leaving the back door of the Central Bank are keeping afloat Mobutu's extended "family" of relatives, elite troops, ethnic kinsmen, and followers. So Gecamines may be expendable.

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