Natural Wealth Dissipated by Unsound Development Policies, Corruption : Zaire’s Veneer of Affluence Undermined by Reality of Poverty

Times Staff Writer

For an illustration of Zaire’s method of government, consider the day President Mobutu Sese Seko managed simultaneously to raise and lower the price of gasoline.

At the start of the day, Zaire’s prices were among the lowest in the world, although the country imports about three-quarters of its automobile fuel. For years, international banking authorities had insisted that Zaire slash its heavy gasoline subsidy to halt the drain of resources from its economy.

So, with an International Monetary Fund monitoring team on its way to Zaire, the government one Monday morning in late October raised gas prices 17%, to 69 zaires a liter (about 30 cents) from 59. The same day, the Bank of Zaire devalued the zaire itself--by 20%. And so, in dollar terms, gasoline became even cheaper than before.

In its way, the move was a perfect metaphor for Zaire, a country that often gives the appearance of forward motion while rolling steadily, inexorably, toward ruin. At almost every level, Zaire is a place where the reality of poverty--material, spiritual, political--undermines a veneer of exceptional affluence.


Studded With Luxuries

Until recently, Kinshasa boasted the world’s greatest per-capita concentration of Mercedes-Benzes. The city’s leading hotel and its main boulevard are studded with European luxury boutiques, and its elite are among the best-dressed in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet what paving is left on the city’s avenues is rutted and potholed. The swamp of mud and the decor of twisted vehicular wreckage gives much of the city the appearance of a vast junkyard.

All over Africa’s second-largest country stand majestic dams, bridges, hospitals and power line systems. Most have been built with foreign aid and foreign debt. Some employ technology that is the most advanced in the world.

But the dams and power lines bring electricity to vacant areas of Zaire and use technology so innovative they are often difficult to maintain. The great suspension bridge over the Zaire River at the port of Matadi leads to nowhere, having been built to serve a transshipment port that was canceled when planners realized that the river’s lack of navigability made it impractical. The Belgian-built hospital in Kinshasa is a shell--without doctors, equipment, or patients.

Blessed with Africa’s largest expanse of exploitable forest, prodigiously fertile croplands and the most productive mineral deposits on the continent outside South Africa, Zaire is potentially the richest country in black Africa. But its development policies are textbook examples of how not to exploit one’s wealth: Per-capita gross national product fell from $203 in 1981 to $160 in 1986, making Zaire one of the five poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Budget Deficit Doubled

Chances are things will only get worse. The country’s annual budget deficit doubled in the last two years to $30 million. And its human resource, a population of 35 million, faces a monstrous toll from AIDS, which already afflicts an estimated 8% of Kinshasa’s 2.5 million residents.

International agencies estimate that, with 18,000 deaths expected in Zaire next year alone and as many as 100,000 a year by the turn of the century, the disease may all but destroy the country’s fledgling middle class, whose educated and urbanized members are the highest-risk group.

Also, with an estimated 3% of all infants in Kinshasa being born seropositive--that is, having been exposed to the AIDS virus by their mothers--Zaire’s infant mortality rate could rise by 20%, a level not seen in this country in 25 years.

Meanwhile, the collapse of the country’s basic infrastructure of roads, telephones and electricity is accelerating.

Tax Money Is Kept

“Absolutely no money goes into heavy maintenance here,” remarked one Western economic expert. Road maintenance depends on a fuel tax of 7.5 zaires a liter that fuel distributors collect but don’t forward to the government.

Strapped by the need to pay more for imported gasoline than they can collect at the pump, they keep the tax money to cover their expenses.

Many crucial enterprises are under the control of government companies, or “parastatals,” reknowned throughout Africa for their majestic scale of corruption.

“The parastatals are run by Mobutu cronies who spend more time pilfering the coffers than running the businesses,” complained one businessman here. “They exist to maintain the status quo and keep important people fed.”

Only one parastatal functions well: Gecamines, the giant mining concern whose output of copper, cobalt and diamonds is the fuel that drives the Zairian economy, accounting for as much as three-quarters of its foreign exchange. As one European diplomat puts it, “Gecamines is the main generator of the wealth that’s getting stolen.”

Key Is to Keep Peace

The diversion of national resources into carefully selected pockets plays an important political function here, many diplomats and officials agree: keeping peace.

When Mobutu Sese Seko, then known as Maj. Gen. Joseph D. Mobutu, became head of state in 1965, the country he inherited was a benumbed giant, having seen as many as a million of its inhabitants slain in civil war. The nation’s core of educated Belgian civil servants and industrialists had fled in panic upon the outbreak of an army mutiny just after independence in 1960, leaving scarcely a single college graduate in the land.

Formerly chief of staff to the first prime minister of independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu built upon what by all accounts was an already corrupt, graft-ridden administration bequeathed by the Belgians. He fashioned his own “kleptocracy,” in which the potential for theft from a government post was so great that he could pacify opposition leaders simply by dangling patronage in their faces.

The result is a relatively bloodless, if extremely costly, method of dictatorship.

‘Uses System to Co-Opt People’

“It’s a system he uses to co-opt people rather than do things more brutally,” said one Western diplomatic source.

If graft is not an official component of Zaire’s political policy, it can certainly be understood to have unofficial approval. Civil service salaries are so low that, from the head of the most important utility to the lowliest border guard, people have little choice but to steal, pilfer or extort money in order to live.

Last year, for example, Mobutu promulgated a regulation barring all foreigners from visiting the country’s mining districts, which extend from the southeastern border with Zambia to parts of its western panhandle.

“You needed a travel permit to visit any of those sites,” recalled one expatriate, “but you can’t find one anywhere, so you end up having to bribe a mining official. And that means the officials don’t have to be paid salaries.”

Uneven Burden

Naturally the burden of such widespread graft falls unevenly. Big businesses often pay less in bribes to obtain permits, customs clearances and the like than they would pay in official fees. But the experience of most Zairians is more like that of Landu Malula, an office worker who explained one day while waiting for a bus on Kinshasa’s busy Avenue de 30 Juin that, while the official fare is 20 zaires, the bus driver would not let him board without collecting an extra 30 for himself.

In another procedure that keeps the peace at the expense of creating any consistent level of administration, Mobutu habitually shifts ministers and parastatal executives from job to job at a rapid rate, preventing them from accumulating a potent political constituency but encouraging them to suck dry any enterprise with which they may be associated, for however brief a time.

Politicians who still remain difficult can expect to be relegated to some term of exile in the country’s vast interior--but they are often recalled after a year or two to serve in some high capacity.

Accumulated Wealth

Mobutu’s own accumulation of wealth evokes comparisons with the likes of former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos. No reliable estimate has ever been made of Mobutu’s bankroll--he and Western diplomats alike deny the $5-billion figure that stands as the high-end estimate--but there is no doubt that he has accumulated extensive real-estate holdings throughout Europe to go with his multiple palaces in his own country.

He also exhibits a highly developed taste for luxury. Some years ago, he bid on a corporate jet owned by Arco, the Los Angeles-based oil company.

“He was like a kid in a candy shop,” said one Westerner who was present at Mobutu’s examination of the plane, recalling how the president sat wide-eyed in the pilot’s seat as the pilot explained the controls from the co-pilot’s seat.

Mobutu then asked that the plane be flown up to his new jungle palace at Gbadolite, near the border of the Central African Republic; after the Arco pilots refused because the Gbadolite runway was too short, Mobutu had the length of the runway, which serves the palace alone, doubled. (He eventually bought a more luxurious plane.)

Pays the Bills Personally

Mobutu often runs the state treasury out of his back pocket. State Department officials say the Zairian Embassy in Washington is so starved for funds that complaints from unpaid suppliers and vendors pile up at the State Department’s protocol office until Mobutu makes a state visit--when he pays all the bills personally.

As an international figure, Mobutu is extolled and damned in roughly equal measure. Take his recent high-profile diplomatic initiative: an October meeting at his palace at Gbadolite with Pieter W. Botha, the president of South Africa and head of its white-led minority government.

Diplomats here are divided over whether the meeting was an embarrassing debacle for Mobutu or set the foundation of a personal triumph. Some observers thought his treating with the enemy might well undermine his ambition to be anointed doyen of African politics after the death of Ivory Coast’s aging president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Zaire’s southern neighbors, Zambia and Zimbabwe--two of the six so-called front-line states, black-ruled African nations leading the diplomatic war against South Africa--angrily canceled a southern Africa summit being planned for Zaire.

Protest Turned Into Riot

Tides of obloquy washed over Mobutu from the European press. A protest at the University of Kinshasa turned into a riot, with several persons killed, but the campus quieted down after Mobutu flew some student leaders out to Gbadolite for a conference.

He was even undercut by the South Africans themselves, who minimized what he publicly claimed was a promise from Botha to free Nelson R. Mandela, the long-imprisoned founder of the anti-apartheid African National Congress. South Africa has since moved Mandela to a house on a prison farm.

And yet, many diplomats here express a sneaking suspicion that Mobutu effectively positioned himself to claim credit if Mandela is eventually freed, as well as for any political settlement of the civil war in Angola, on Zaire’s southern boundary. For his part, Mobutu argued that as two of Africa’s leading political and economic entities, Zaire and South Africa can scarcely avoid contact; better, he reasoned, if they try to meet amicably.

Stressed Angola’s Importance

Furthermore, “We have a border of 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) with Angola,” he told a group of Belgian journalists later in the month. “Nothing can happen on Angola of which we won’t be a part.”

Still, there is considerable question over whether Zaire can survive economically long enough for Mobutu to play any significant role in the Africa of the future.

He is fond of blaming the Belgian colonizers for leaving Zaire in ruins. Yet even many Zairians trace the nation’s maladies to Mobutu’s own 1973 policy of “Zairianization,” when he nationalized many private enterprises and created enduring suspicion on the part of international investors.

Then there is the Zairian taste for what one local banker calls “white elephants and white rabbits,” those large-scale, useless projects that have contributed heavily to the country’s $7-billion foreign debt and that divert important resources.

Power Line Project Cited

“The single project that put Zaire on its knees is Inga-Shaba,” remarked this banker, referring to a 1,200-mile American-built power line that alone accounts for $1 billion of that debt. Many observers believe that Mobutu’s main interest in the project was to give him firm control over power supplies to the southeastern Shaba province, already the scene of two unsuccessful rebellions.

For many analysts today, the burning question about Zaire’s future is whether the prodigality of its ruling factions, the decline of its educational system and its general economic illness will stifle what many consider the basic vigor of its people.

“If there’s a country in Africa that can really succeed in exporting manufactured products, this is it,” said one local banker. “The Zairians are not inhibited, the labor force is full of good craftsmen and there’s a lot of emphasis on vocational training.”

Added one Western diplomatic source: “If you look strictly at the economic data, commodity prices, debt and so forth, there’s no reason to be optimistic. But I look at it in terms of the Zairians I know. I feel that amount of energy and intelligence will find its own channel.”