Challengers try to take away Mobutu’s purse


Mark Huband finds old guard and new vying for control of Zaire’s state coffers

The Guardian, 2 October 1992


BREAKFAST became more expensive as the exchange rate changed between the croissants and the fruit juice. It had been l.2 million zaires to the dollar. But by the time it came to pay, the rate was l.1 million.

Paying is easy. There are zaire notes of one million. There are also forged five million notes, but nobody accepts them.

These notes can make a man a paper millionaire, while he remains poor. The genuinely rich are those with access to state funds.

President Mobutu Sese Seko’s 28-year dictatorship promoted theft as a government policy. Mr Mobutu merely warned his courtiers not to become richer than he.

But within the next few days, the new government of Etienne Tshisekedi is going to try to slam shut the doors to the state coffers by getting rid of the central bank’s governor, a Mobutu appointee.

Illegal diamond deals, facilitated by corrupt officials at the central bank, are among those blamed by the Tshisekedi government for the instability of the currency. According to several sources within the government, Lebanese businessmen are laundering drug money through Zaire.

Four billion zaires-worth of diamonds were bought recently using dollars believed to be the proceeds of drug deals. The diamonds were then sold in return for local currency, which was released on to the currency black market.

This caused the rate of the zaire to plummet by compensating for a recent shortage of local currency.

According to sources in Kinshasa’s diamond business, the entire deal would have been impossible if the central bank had not granted licences allowing the companies involved to buy the diamonds illegally.

Mr Mobutu’s partisans fear that this sort of abuse of the state apparatus is about to come to an end, and clashes between the old regime and the new government are expected.

Yesterday the Tshisekedi government, appointed by a national conference currently debating the future character of the country’s political system, revoked all expatriate work permits and demanded that foreigners reapply.

This move was aimed at ridding the country of the scoundrels who have exploited its natural resources, as long as government officials have received their share, ever since King Leopold of the Belgians turned this land into his fiefdom 100 years ago.

Mr Tshisekedi is widely regarded as the last hope Zaire has. The government he named on August 30 is the only grouping free of accusations of corruption and therefore potentially able to attract foreign aid.

Unemployment is at 80 per cent, and inflation keeps soaring. Zaire’s main sources of revenue – the copper and cobalt mined at the state-owned Gecamines mine in the southern province of Shaba – is producing less than 30 per cent of its capacity.

Much of the mining equipment was looted during riots last year which caused up to £lbillion damage throughout the country.

Foreign aid is therefore essential if Mr Tshisekedi is to succeed. The International Monetary Fund and the United States suspended loans to Zaire in 1990 after arrears of £40 million on loans accumulated.

Belgium, the former colonial power and an important donor, has decided to back the Tshisekedi government in its battles with the president. However, Belgium is going to restrict aid until Mr Mobutu’s access to state funds is limited.

As a “geopolitical” player, Mr Mobutu is finished, a senior Belgian diplomat said in Kinshasa yesterday. “He has been dropped by everybody, and can no longer play the cold war warrior role. Tshisekedi knows what he has to do, and he will try to do it.”

However, the diplomat added, Mr Mobutu is still an African chief, “and he has to cater for his flock. He has to pay off his retainers.”

.Belgium, France and the United States are all pushing for a long transition period before national elections. This will give opposition parties time to organise throughout the country. Mr Mobutu’s MPR already has a national structure.

However, Mr Tshisekedi – who at various points in his long opposition to Mr Mobutu has been beaten, imprisoned and humiliated by the man he described last year as a “human monster” – believes that once control of the state finances has been taken over by his government, everything else will follow: “Everything is based on the money. Without that nothing is stable.”

The central bank, Mr Tshisekedi said yesterday, “played a big role in the theft by the old regime, and Mobutu cannot stop the nomination of the new central bank governor.

“’The demystification of Mobutu has been achieved. Now the people have been freed from fear.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited