Expatriates’ sun sinks with Zaire




With business all but destroyed in the riots, Mark Huband in Kinshasa finds the capital’s black residents and white fortune-seekers both facing the prospect that worse is to come

The Guardian, 8 October 1991

Bruno raised his glass to the end of an era. It was the third time in 30 years he had done so, and it would be the last. Why should a man be forced to leave his adopted country three times? he asked.

“A better question is, why did you come back after the first time?” said one of his haggard compatriots, perched, on the edge of a bar stool in the. Savana bierkeller, a Belgian drinking haunt in Kinshasa.”

Nearby, two other men were discussing quietly how they would reclaim goods they had lost but managed to track down to Kokolo army camp after the riots and looting led by soldiers a fortnight ago in Zaire’s capital.

“You have to pay an entry fee to get into the camp. Then, when you have bought back what the soldiers stole, you must make sure you have a receipt. Otherwise, when you get to the gate the soldiers will say that you didn’t pay for the goods and they’ll take them from you, again,” one said.

The lunchtime drinkers were discussing sights from the riot days. One had seen a woman walking along the street with a stolen bath balanced on her head. Inside the bath was a fridge. Nobody questioned this tale: “Amazing what people do with their heads,” one man said.

Since the unrest prompted the latest political crisis for the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire has seen the evacuation of up 15,000 expatriates. Most of those who have said they will never return are owners of small businesses who, in 48 hours of rioting and looting, lost property the value of which has yet to be calculated but is estimated at hundreds of millions of pounds.

Theft and destruction cost Zaire’s second biggest company, the Orgaman group – which imports and transports Kinshasa’s food supplies – an estimated £30 million. Gold and diamond mining provide the group with £4 million per month in liquid cash with which it pays for food imports the capital cannot do without. Now the company’s mines are closed and there is no hard currency.

Sitting behind his vast marble desk, surrounded by marble cupboards, Orgaman’s Belgian expatriate director, William Damseaux, is threatening to leave the country unless French and Belgian troops sent to protect foreign nationals remain until there is greater security.

“The Zaireans will pray that I stay. We were the slaves of this country, working 18 hours a day seven days a week,” Mr Damseaux rails. He wears a Zairean abacost jacket worn only by strong supporters of President Mobutu and white businessmen who have emerged out of the country’s turmoil as multi-millionaires.

“I could go and retire to the Côte d’Azur,” he blusters. If he did so, one of his neighbours could well be Mr Mobutu, who has already sent some of his family to one of his many European mansions, at Cap Martin on the Riviera.

Perhaps it is an empty threat. This is the third time Mr Damseaux has restarted his business since 1957. As with the man in the Savana bar, the question is: Why do they, stay? The opportunity to make vast fortunes is the answer.

The economic crisis faced by Zaire, which is expected to lead to 2,000 per cent inflation by the end of the year, has meant that foreign companies that were planning on closing have had the looters do it for them.

The hard cash to maintain vital imports, mainly food to the capital, is in ever shorter supply. Every month, £65 million is needed for imports.


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