Little Is Left To Prop Up Zaire's Ruler
By Lynne Duke
KINSHASA, Zaire, April 16 -- With a rebel onslaught in his future and decades of corruption in his past, President Mobutu Sese Seko's shrinking domain is facing economic asphyxiation, officials, diplomats and analysts here say.
The government is virtually broke, and rebels sworn to overthrow him control all the country's revenue-producing mines. A former prime minister is suspected of robbing the treasury of millions of dollars. Mobutu, who has taken millions for himself over the past three decades, is dug in in the apparent belief that his empire can be saved. But that seems unlikely, since even his soldiers' pay is dependent on donations that the government is desperately seeking from big business. Soldiers with empty pockets are feared here; twice in the past six years, they have ravaged Kinshasa like vultures on a fallen leopard.
That the government of Africa's third-largest nation could sink so spectacularly low appeared to be the motivation behind the announcement here today that a meeting between Mobutu and the rebels' leader, Laurent Kabila, is imminent, though a date and place have not been set. And with rebels controlling the half of the country where diamond, gold, copper and cobalt mines have accounted for 75 percent of Zaire's foreign exchange earnings, Mobutu's regime has little revenue to work with except local business taxes and royalty fees from oil exploration, a government banking official said.
"The government is broke," said an accounting official, also with the government, who added that Zaire's external debt is $14 billion. Zaire has been mired so deeply in debt that it has been 23 years since the government last had foreign exchange reserves, he said.
More than the threat of taking Mobutu's capital, the taking of his mines may yet emerge as the decisive factor in resolving Zaire's conflict, one that will force Mobutu's government to finally face his rebel foe across the negotiating table.
Though the government-run mining sector has for years been the center of a vast network of fraud, corruption, money laundering and smuggling that robbed the government of untold amounts of revenue, it at least kept the supply of dollars high here, albeit on the black market. Now, with less cash in circulation, even the black market is feeling the squeeze, analysts say, and this economy built on the shakedown appears shaken to its core.
The economic squeeze also has hit the agricultural sector. Produce from the central diamond region of Kasai, now held by the rebels, can no longer reach Kinshasa, nor can produce that once was shipped down the Zaire River from Kisangani in the northeast. Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city, fell a month ago, followed last week by the fall of Lubumbashi, the second-largest city.
With the government pressed by the rebel threat and a hungry army, the most pressing order of business here today was the pacification of the military through pay. Without pay, even soldiers who otherwise might be willing to fight to save Mobutu likely will not. And without pay, the specter of violence looms large.
To bail the government out of this predicament, officials today asked several large businesses, including public utilities, food importers and breweries, to commit millions of dollars toward military pay.
"Yes, they will give. They agreed. They cannot disagree," said Leon Kalima, spokesman for the new prime minister, Gen. Likulia Bolongo. He called the fund-raising drive a "special effort" and said contracts would be prepared for private-sector donors.
The banking official said the equivalent of $4.3 million is needed to pay off the back wages owed to the military -- all of it in cash, which is the universal form of payment for salaries here, whether in the public sector or private. He was doubtful that the amount would be reached, and said the government will have to prioritize who will be paid.
The banking official said the central bank has a stock of new high-denomination notes, put in circulation late last year, equivalent to about $120 million. But those notes, whose introduction produced hyperinflation, have been rejected by the populace and are not accepted in the market.
A Western diplomat said Zaire's military comprises about 70,000 people. "What is available now does not allow the government to pay everybody," said the government accounting official. "That's a standing problem every month."
The typical soldier earns the equivalent of about $10 a month, sometimes including an allotment of food. But as a wartime incentive, their salaries have been increased, leaving the government even more hard pressed than usual to pay them.
Though many here fear the possibility of military unrest because of the wage shortage, a Western diplomat said that many soldiers have adapted to Zaire's tight economy. They work as security guards for private firms or bodyguards for foreign businessmen, or turn to farming, growing corn or other crops for sale in the central markets. In some areas, soldiers have become collectors of bus fares or taxes that should have been collected by state authorities. Throughout the country, soldiers have been known to routinely shake down people in their homes or on the street.
"You have a bunch of people here who are military, but that's their part-time job," the diplomat said.
Whether facing a rebel threat or facing the threat of no pay, the soldiers are not likely to take up arms for Kabila, the diplomat said, because they have been so beaten down by hardship that they lack the will to fight.
Even those who fight, should it come to that, would be hampered by poor training and equipment, the diplomat said. Weapons that were purchased for a government counteroffensive this year were second-hand, and many arrived without proper ammunition, said the government accounting official. About $75 million was spent on weapons procurement, but "the way it was managed has to be called into question," he said.
The Western diplomat said the military is "going through the motions" of putting up a defense. "The war is over. It ended in Kisangani."