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  Economic Collapse Withers Lush Zaire

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 31, 1992; Page A01

KINSHASA, Zaire—There's not much left of the General Motors assembly plant here. Last fall, three waves of looters picked it clean.

The first wave, a Zairian military unit based at the nearby airport, stole all the plant's vehicles. A second wave of rioters took all the assembly-line equipment and everything else that wasn't welded down. There wasn't much left for the third wave of looters, so they took the walls and the roof. Now all that remains of GM Zaire is a structural skeleton supporting the familiar blue GM logo.

The devastated plant, part of a row of newly abandoned factories on the route into Kinshasa from the airport, stands as a compelling metaphor for the hollow shell that is now Zaire's economy. Potentially one of the richest countries in Africa -- a country with enough arable land and hydroelectric potential to feed and power the entire continent -- Zaire has been stripped bare and left to wither.

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the economic crisis here, a crisis brought on over years by mismanagement, neglect and monumental official corruption. Diplomats and other observers here attribute the chaos largely to the policies of one man, President Mobutu Sese Seko, who they say has treated the national treasury as his personal account for more than a quarter century -- and to Mobutu's foreign backers and aid donors who overlooked his excesses because he was seen as a valuable Western ally on an unstable continent.

The crisis was made worse by rioting last September, which was touched off by angry army troops who had not been paid in months. The riots sparked a massive exodus of the country's expatriate community -- a vital cog in the economy -- and forced the closing of countless businesses that were then looted or wrecked by a hungry, frustrated populace.

In the capital now, the cost of adequate food is out of reach of most Zairians, so many eat just one meal a day. In large families, some parents can afford to feed their children only on alternate days. At least one Western diplomat has begun bringing cookies and pastries to her office so her Zairian staffers can have something to eat.

Western aid workers say they are seeing an increase in malnutrition cases, particularly among children, almost ensuring inadequate development. "You can't really overcome the affects of malnutrition on children," said one aid worker. People are not quite starving because they can fill up on widely available cassava root, a starchy staple here in trying times. But while filling, cassava has little nutritional value, and the plumpness of some local residents belies their poor nutrition.

The capital's state-run hospitals are closed, and the patients have been sent home. Officially, this is because the doctors are on strike over their minuscule pay, but they say it wouldn't matter if they worked anyway, since they have no medical equipment and no medicines.

Schools are closed because the teachers also are on strike, from primary school through university level. The government warned the teachers to return to work or be fired. The teachers said that would make no difference, since they had not been paid in five months.

The public service sector, by and large, has ceased to function. There is a government, there are ministers and there even is an official budget, but there is an air of fantasy about it all, since the tax collection system has broken down and virtually no customs revenues are coming in. For the most part, the government has taken to paying its bills by printing fresh batches of currency.

According to foreign diplomats and Zairian opposition figures, bank notes in the local currency -- called the Zaire -- are being printed in Germany and flown to Kinshasa's Ndjili airport. There, the plane is met by a helicopter that loads up with the new money and whisks it immediately to a yacht on the Zaire River that is the floating refuge of Mobutu. He has thus become a one-man central bank, dispensing cash as he sees fit -- and that means making sure he meets the monthly payroll of key military units that ensure his grip on power.

The country's official banking system has all but collapsed. Customers are limited to withdrawals of about 100,000 Zaires each day, but rampaging inflation has reduced the value of this to the equivalent of about 75 cents. "There is no economy left, at least nothing formal," said a European diplomat. "The production figure is so low it's terrible. There is no money in the banks; there's no money left. Nothing is working -- no hospitals, no schools, no public service."

When asked how long this could last, the diplomat -- like others in the shrinking foreign community here -- shrugged his shoulders and suggested that the country should have collapsed long ago. The situation defies logic and, therefore, prediction, he said. Another diplomat, groping for an explanation of how the country could continue to limp along as it does, said finally: "An object in motion tends to remain in motion."

On Monday of last week, one U.S. dollar was worth 110,000 Zaires. By the end of the week, the rate fell to 130,000. Economists and Western diplomats say the inflation rate has slowed somewhat in recent weeks, simply because there is not enough Zairian currency in circulation to push the rate higher. "Because so few people have jobs, no one is spending," an economist explained. "You can't have {more} inflation when no one is spending."

Salaries no longer bear any resemblance to the true cost of living -- or the price in human suffering. By one estimate, a janitor might earn the equivalent of $100 a month, but a sack of cassavas -- which might last his family a few days -- costs $300. Foreign companies, embassies and United Nations offices here have pegged the salaries of Zairian employees to the U.S. dollar to keep them even with the hyperinflation, but there is still the problem of getting the actual cash to pay them.

The largest note here is for 100,000 Zaires -- less than a dollar. To pay staffers, embassy officials have to bring crateloads of cash from local banks each month, then spend days counting it. Because the banks have no reserves, checks are virtually worthless, so all transactions are conducted in cash. "This is a cash-and-carry economy, and there's not enough cash," said one Western diplomat. Said another: "It's like trying to run the American economy with no checks and no bill larger than $1."

The city's telephone system has nearly shut down, so those who can afford it rely on portable satellite telephones that cost $2,500 locally and $6 a minute of transmission time. Safe drinking water is expected to become a problem next week, as the government has no hard currency to buy chemicals for water purification and the current supply has nearly run out. The electrical system, too, is apparently on its last legs since the government cannot afford spare parts, and most of the expatriate technicians who maintained the system have left.

In a city whose people cannot find enough food, the animals at the dilapidated Kinshasa zoo obviously fare much worse. Many have already died of starvation, and the few remaining are fed only on alternate days, if that often. Two brown bears that live in a concrete pit have become so emaciated that when they stand up, their ribs poke through their fur. Two lions languish on a nearby rock, hungrily eyeing the zoo's few visitors. A caged chimpanzee named Sakombe sticks his arm through the bars of his pen, his palm open upwards, begging passersby for something to eat.

One oasis of normality is the Kinshasa Intercontinental Hotel, where the few visitors to the capital can still dine in a posh resturant, listen to the latest French and American music at the upstairs disco, still frequented by a few prostitutes. The hotel's shopping arcade includes fashionable boutiques with names like Via Veneto, Benetton and Grenadine -- all with the latest fashions from Paris and Milan -- and also a telephone store with a Batmobile phone and phones shaped like pianos.

It's difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the current crisis but most Zairians and foreign observers say the economy was in a free-fall well before last September's rioting spree. "It wasn't because of September that everything fell apart. September only accelerated it," said a foreign economist. "The economy here was a disaster for a long time."

The main impact of the rioting, Zairians and diplomats agree, was the departure of the large expatriate community -- mostly Belgians and French -- who had been involved in such fundamental aspects of the economy as supervising copper production in the Shaba region and providing aerial inspection of the 1,000-mile-long Inga-Shaba power line. The departure of the expatriates also has spurred unemployment in the capital, and closed businesses dependent on foreign management -- like the GM plant -- are not likely to reopen soon.

Since the rioting, most international air carriers avoid Kinshasa's airport, once a commercial hub for West and Central Africa. These days, the airport is largely barren, taken over by a motley collection of hustlers, shoeshine boys and crippled beggars. International flights now land across the river in Congo, ostensibly because Lloyd's of London insurers have dramatically increased the rates for any planes landing at Kinshasa.

Zaire still has copper that can be sold for hard currency, but 1991 production -- 210,000 metric tons -- was the lowest in more than a decade, and this year's output is expected to be even lower. Part of the problem is that the country's transportation system is in such disarray that copper mined in Shaba takes days to move overland to Kinshasa for export -- on trains until the tracks run out, then on trucks and finally by riverboat. One economist estimates that Zaire has only about 10 percent of the road network that existed on independence from Belgium in 1960.

In such desperate times, it is hard to see how people manage to survive at all. Some point to the thriving unofficial economy of the streets -- and Kinshasa's streets have become a market for many of the goods looted during last September's riots.

Many Zairians find the basis for their survival in what they call "African solidarity," meaning an extended network of family, clan and friends, all pitching in to help one another. "Logically, there is no explanation to give for the survival of the people," said the Rev. Gode Iwele, a Roman Catholic priest. "If you have a member of the family who is working and has some money, he will help the other members of his clan. . . . From the American point of view, you would say it is impossible to survive in this situation."

A Western diplomat put it this way: "The African capacity for suffering seems limitless."

NEXT: Mobutu and the art of survival.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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