The death in exile last week of Joseph-Desire Mobutu was reported with gravity but not grief, as befits the passing of a figure of historical importance who also happened to be a despot, a windbag, a brute and a thief. To me, however, the longtime dictator of Zaire needs a friendly word. This is not because of his redemptive human qualities -- there were few -- but because he once saved my life, under rather spectacular circumstances.

When I first arrived in Leopoldville on Aug. 1, 1960, an eerily peaceful chaos reigned, a sort of hangover from the mayhem that followed Congolese independence from Belgium a month before. It was as though the family pets, having bitten everyone in sight, had been seized with amazement at their own daring and had gone to sleep.

There were no police. There was virtually no government, except U.N. officials. The country would later be called Zaire, but it was still the Congo, as it had been since the days of Henry Morton Stanley and Joseph Conrad and Trader Horn and King Leopold. Leopoldville was not yet Kinshasa. The United Nations was not yet hip-deep in the mess. Dag Hammarskjold had not yet died in a plane crash en route to a conference there. Things were, as they say, in flux.

I had been flown in from my post in Lagos, Nigeria, to interpret the recent events for The Washington Post. I knew bewilderingly little of the recent events, and was briefed by the bureau chief at the Agence France-Presse news service.

He told me about the mutiny of the "field force," a Belgian paramilitary riot squad whose task had been to back up the colonial police if the natives got restive; the flight of Belgian women and children to Brussels, while their husbands simply took the ferry to Brazzaville, the peaceful capital of a French ex-colony made famous by the movie "Casablanca" as a splendid place to flee to, and now governed by a priest-president who had his cassocks made by Christian Dior.

The French journalist told me of the fumbling ways of the Congolese cabinet, composed of Patrice Lumumba and the country's only 16 university graduates. And he told me of his personal distress; he had just lost a valuable assistant. The man had been a sergeant in the field force, secretary to a Belgian officer. Agence France-Presse had hired him for his good French, fast typing, shorthand. Name of Mobutu.

Then, lo and behold, Lumumba had made ex-sergeant Mobutu a colonel and commander-in-chief of the new Congolese army.

It was, after all, a time for fast promotions; Lumumba himself had been a traveling salesman for Polar Beer a few months before. My colleague had lost someone whom he had hoped to train to take over as a correspondent in the Congo. I told him that he had lost a good assistant but gained a remarkably highly placed source. Of course, neither of us realized how highly placed Mobutu was going to be.

After his promotion and first news conference, we went to dinner -- the Agence France-Presse man, Mobutu and I -- at the best restaurant in town. Mobutu was polite, humorless, blandly deferential to me and his former boss. He wore wire-rimmed glasses an earnest, unfathomable expression. He looked you square in the eye and you hadn't a clue as to what he was thinking.

In time, it would become clear. He was thinking about how astonishingly profitable geopolitics could be, if practiced adroitly. Tensions Mount

Shortly afterward, attempting to establish his influence as a global figure, Patrice Lumumba hosted an All-Africa People's Conference in Leopoldville. It was September 1960. Tension between Premier Lumumba and President Joseph Kasavubu was acute: Hundreds of Kasavubu loyalists sought to embarrass the premier by demonstrating before the building where the delegates were assembled. Mobutu's legions went into action, thrashing men and women with staves. I was right behind them, clicking away with my beloved Lumiere-120 camera. Soon a Congolese officer decided that having a photographic record might perhaps not be a good idea. He ordered two corporals (since the mutiny, there had been no soldiers below that rank) to seize the camera strap around my neck, and pull. I gave a choking, bug-eyed signal to a colleague from a rival newspaper, and the portly Timesman waddled off, returning in a moment with none other than Col. Mobutu himself, who ordered the lynching to cease.

I am not sure how far the punishment would have progressed without Mobutu's intervention; possibly to unconsciousness and beyond. I think of it as the first time Mobutu saved my life, though in comparison with the second time, it pales.

Later that month, Mobutu had me organize his news conference when he briefly took over the country. Under the circumstances, it was the least I could do.

By Congolese standards, it had been an uneventful day and I had filed my story before sundown. I was renting an elderly Studebaker that some Belgian colonial's wife had had sprayed pink, presumably after an accident; but I had loaned it that day to another useful source, Holden Roberto, the exiled leader of the anti-colonial revolution in neighboring Angola, while his own chauffeur-driven car was being repaired. I walked down the Cours Albert, the Champs-Elysees of Leopoldville, from the central post office where all correspondents filed their telexes. With a little daylight left, I decided to sit on the sidewalk terrace of the Manhattan Hotel and order a Polar Beer.

Whom should I see approaching but two young men in the khaki short-shorts of all soldiers in French-speaking African countries. One was Mobutu, the other a Belgian major. As they came abreast of the terrace, I called in French: "Long live Agence France-Presse!" Mobutu glanced in my direction. His sense of humor could always have been safely concealed within the navel of a flea, but he actually smiled.

He seemed unusually nervous. It was the Belgian officer who explained.

Referring to the governmental paralysis caused by the Kasavubu-Lumumba rift, he said: "The colonel has decided that this mess cannot continue. He is taking over."

"When?" I asked.

"Now!" said Mobutu. "Can you get your colleagues?"

Now?

All of us were staying at the Stanley or Memling hotels, close to each other and only a short walk from the post office. I could see several of them walking home, and shouted: "News conference! Mobutu! Here!" As I maneuvered my beer to safety, Mobutu mounted a chair, then the rickety marble table. When a dozen correspondents had panted into place, Mobutu announced his coup d'etat.

A week later, after Lumumba had been placed under house arrest and replaced by Cyrille Adoula, Mobutu was persuaded by Washington, Brussels and Paris to resume allegiance to Kasavubu. He did, remaining chief of the armed forces.

For Mobutu, it was the start of a long, wildly profitable alliance with Western Europe and the United States, which rewarded him handsomely for being a buttress against the dreaded communist threat. Whatever else he might have been, Mobutu was most decidedly a capitalist. Trouble in the Street

From Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah had instructed his envoy to the Congo, Nathaniel Welbeck, to continue relations with Lumumba. He used Welbeck as an emissary to funnel funds to the official villa Lumumba briefly shared with a pixilated, fortysomething French author, Jeanne Rouche. Her saucy memoir ("In the Cage With Lumumba") revealed that she had penetrated the villa through a ploy with which neither I nor any other male journalist could compete: "Patrice, give me a baby!"

Predictably, Ambassador Welbeck was declared persona non grata by Kasavubu. He refused to go, apparently fearing Nkrumah's wrath if he obeyed more than Kasavubu's if he didn't. Six weeks after being "expelled," Welbeck was still, perversely, en poste.

Kasavubu ordered the police to remove Welbeck from his villa and put him on a plane to Accra. To give the unarmed police more authority, an infantry company was sent along as well. Welbeck's own security consisted of five escort constables, courageous but illiterate Fra Fra soldiers from northern Ghana. They wore red tarbooshes, starched khaki shorts and gilt lanyards in their epaulets. Modeled on the Bengal Lancers, whom C. Aubrey Smith gallantly commanded in a '30s movie, their usual task was to ride beside the colonial governor's -- and now Nkrumah's -- open Rolls-Royce, bearing lances. The prospects for five men of pristine courage, armed only with bolt-action rifles, did not seem good.

The police officer walked up to the door of the villa, accompanied by the captain of the company, and tried to parliament with the Fra Fras in pidgin English. The Fra Fra sergeant said: "Me no spik English, saah!"

Art Higbee of UP and Lee Griggs of Time were my passengers in the pink Studebaker that day. We had reached the villa before our colleagues and were able to watch the doorstep scene at close quarters.

Welbeck had apparently persuaded the United Nations to send in forces. As the Congolese army and police officers debated what to do next, and the infantry deployed along the street, U.N. trucks appeared and discharged a company of Tunisians, obviously chosen because even the private soldiers spoke some French.

The Congolese company withdrew behind the tall hedge surrounding an apartment building across from the villa. The Tunisians took over the ambassador's elegant Belgian garden and -- as infantrymen, aware that they had no cover -- began digging foxholes behind the roses.

My poor geriatric Studebaker now sat forlornly in no man's land; I told Griggs and Higbee that I was going to move the old fellow to comparative safety, down by the riverside behind the villa. They came with me, so they would know where to run when the firing started. None of us had any idea that my knackered nag from Detroit was going to get us all into trouble.

A police officer approached and asked what we were doing. I said affably that I was getting my car out of his and everyone else's way.

"Who gave you permission to come to the battlefield?" asked an army captain, who had joined us. The "battlefield" in question was the most elegant residential street in Leopoldville, at least as luxurious as Washington's Foxhall Road.

"You are communist spies!" the police officer shouted. "You are under arrest for penetrating the front lines of the Congolese army!"

We were directed to the apartment building garden and ordered to squat on the grass. Each of us had a personal army guard, the barrel of his bolt-action rifle resting against our heads. After about five minutes, the inspector rejoined us. He said he and the other policemen had discussed the matter. I figured he would give us a pompous warning, then send us back to rejoin our colleagues. Not so.

"You are sentenced to death by musketry."

As we were digesting this, what looked like help appeared. One of the 16 college graduates who were the country's cabinet ministers had arrived, having just been rebuffed in an effort to call on Welbeck. He had recently been on a U.S. Information Agency junket to the United States and knew a few words of English. But colleagues watching from the riverside said later that the Fra Fra sergeant had given him the "No spik English, saah" routine, had put the cross of his rifle on the young minister's chest and pushed him off.

He approached us looking peeved but slightly abashed. He said he had been informed that we had been arrested as communist spies gathering information on the Congolese army, and that we were to be shot.

Griggs, a very tall, handsome Yalie who had a stammer that tended to get worse when he was under stress and speaking French, asked if the minister was not aware that "T-t-time magazine is the most r-r-r-reactionary p-publication in the world!"

Alas, humor didn't help, either. Our Congolese guards were given instructions, which the inspector graciously translated. They were to fire, he explained, when they heard the sound of firing.

So we were, in effect, hostages to force the U.N. captain and his men to hold their fire. But since there was no reason to believe that the Tunisians knew about our situation, there was no reason why they should hold their fire. Dusk was coming down. Near the equator, it takes only about half an hour to go from sunlight to darkness. Some bird would break a twig on a tree; a nervous soldier, on either side, would trigger a round; there would be a response; and we would be dead.

A Volkswagen beetle entered the apartment building grounds from the other side, and a plump Congolese priest in a white cassock scampered out and into the building.

"Anyone for Extreme Unction?" I asked my comrades.

"Ta gueule!" shouted the inspector, adding that if any of us opened our "gueules" (throats) again, it would be "Pouf!" (bang).

Fortunately, some of our colleagues had seen our arrest and one of them had gone to a nearby villa and called the U.S. Embassy.

It was Nov. 20, a Sunday, and the Marine guard patched the call through to the home of the duty officer. This was the most junior member of the mission, Vice Consul Alison Palmer, later to be the first woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in Washington.

Aware that a white woman about five feet tall would not have much authority with Congolese soldiers, she had called the new British chief defense attache, a tall Scottish colonel whom she had met at a cocktail party the previous night, and asked him to accompany her. She had pointed out that one of the American correspondents -- me -- was also a British subject and a fellow Scot. The colonel asked for 10 minutes to get into uniform, so that the Congolese officers would take him seriously. While he was changing, "Tally" Palmer drove her Volkswagen to his residence to pick him up.

As the time for our execution drew nigh, the 6-foot-4 Scot and the minuscule American arrived at the villa next to Welbeck's. A Belgian couple was crouching under the dining room table in expectation of gunfire, but the visitors managed to get the couple to let them in, as fellow white people in need of sanctuary.

The Highlander had already called the office of his fellow colonel, Mobutu, and had been given a number where Mobutu would be at any moment. Now, he got Mobutu and passed the receiver to Tally, whose French was more fluent. Mobutu told her to bring a Congolese officer to the phone. The kilted colonel rushed into the street, found a young officer, and bawled in French: "Lieutenant, the Colonel Mobutu, chief of the general staff, wishes to speak with you, at once!"

The subaltern had no difficulty recognizing the voice of his commander in chief. Tally recounted later that he had sprung to attention and saluted the receiver.

Mobutu ordered our release. This wasn't a special favor to me, I think, but an assertion of his power. He spoke briefly to Tally, explaining that he had told the army officer to tell the police to "stay out of politics -- that's the army's business." The world was to learn that he wasn't joking. Joking was never his style.

I had surrendered my car keys, but I had a duplicate set and had told our rescuers confidently that we didn't need their offer of transportation. I was sobered to find that Pinkie had gone -- either the inspector or the captain had decided to become the first Congolese with a Studebaker.

As dusk had fallen, our colleagues had fled, so we walked a couple of blocks to the Cours Albert and hailed a taxi to take us to the post office. But we were six hours ahead of Washington and New York, in no real hurry to file, so when we came abreast of the Royale, the apartment building which had become U.N. headquarters, we decided to stop and have an ouzo on the terrace of the Royale's Greek cafe.

As our drinks came, we heard the sound of firing -- scattered shots, a pause, then a real fusillade. It was the signal for our execution. We raised our glasses, clinked and drank.

It transpired that the inspector, accompanied by the captain, had made a last attempt to persuade Welbeck to go to the airport peacefully, under U.N. protection. Welbeck wouldn't even come to the door.

Sitting a mile away in the twilight, we were hearing the sounds of the following drama: The angry army captain and the furious inspector had been pushed into the street by the Fra Fras. Standing there, facing the villa, the exalted policeman with the pinpoint pupils (we had concluded that he was drugged) had raised his hand and shouted "Feu!"

The Congolese soldiers behind him had opened fire, and the Tunisians had responded from behind the roses. The captain standing in Pinkie's place in no man's land was killed, either by friendly or unfriendly fire or both; the inspector went down, and was to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

I never discovered who stole Pinkie; the rental firm wasn't sorry to see the old clunker go, because the insurance firm in Brussels paid off in solid Belgian francs. The More You Have . . .

In 1962, I moved to Dakar, Senegal. It wasn't until 1970 that I saw Mobutu again; by then, I was the Africa bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, and he was dictator of Zaire, called Mobutu Sese Seko, having seized control again in 1965.

A long reporting trip put me in Kinshasa on Nov. 20, the 10th anniversary of the firing squad. The Stanley Hotel had become the French Embassy, and the Memling and the Manhattan were full, so the then-U.S. ambassador had offered me a room in his residence. Perhaps it was asking that my call be returned there that persuaded the field marshal-president to grant me an audience.

I walked into his office, smiled and said: "Vive l'Agence France-Presse!" This time, he was not amused at the reference to his former status. By then he had long abandoned his military dress for an ensemble made from a leopard skin. He carried a swagger stick that many superstitious Zairians believed was so preternaturally heavy only Mobutu could wield it. His responses to my questions were perfunctory. He loosened up only when I mentioned that I was living in Dakar, and asked about a rumor that he was buying the Air France office complex, the tallest building in the city, expecting him to say "How could I afford that?"

Instead, he said he had considered the Air France property but was now envisaging building an even taller building, West Africa's first skyscraper. Virtually all African leaders had grown rich in office. But rich enough from corruption to build a skyscraper, as an investment in a foreign African country?

I began to talk to people on Kinshasa's embassy row about Mobutu's millions. Back in Dakar, I was making calls to Switzerland, where he had a small palace in Lausanne. I was able to quote both an American diplomatic source and a Swiss financial consultant as saying that Mobutu probably had a billion dollars stashed away in Belgium, France and Switzerland. It was a gargantuan sum for a politician in a largely bankrupt Third World state.

My story on Mobutu's looted fortune and his plans to build a skyscraper in cash-starved Senegal hit a raw nerve in Dakar and must have been a subject for discussion when the Mobutus paid a state visit to Senegal in February 1971. A few weeks later, Senegal refused to renew my annual residence visa.

More than 10 years after saving me from being first strangled, then shot, Mobutu seemingly couldn't fathom why I was investigating his finances. A rigid man, he nonetheless did not understand the rather rigid ethics of journalism.

Now, Mobutu has gone to where you can't take it with you. When I broke the story, Mobutu had amassed a billion dollars and the mansion in Lausanne. By the most modest estimate published this year, this had reached six billion.

Why does anyone with a billion need another five? He ended up living, much of the time, on a presidential yacht in the Congo River, to escape assassination. He had begun to sound like something out of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

I think the problem began when Lumumba offered him the colonelcy, and the keys to the armory. Otherwise, I could see him having become a perfectly competent AFP correspondent, living in a small villa on the embassy road, driving a Peugeot 405, having the only exclusive interview whenever the French president visited, being the helpful dean of the corps to visiting reporters like myself. It was the access to the bribery from Europe and America that destroyed him. Politics is a zooey business, happiness a sometime thing; booty endures.

We are what we are. I don't think Mobutu became a sergeant-typist because he was a physical coward such as, say, combat-evader Ronald Reagan or draft-dodger John Wayne, but because he had seen that his major had the toys -- the villa, the car, the Sgt. Mobutu to type, the corporal-chauffeur, the private to take care of his clothes, the private's wife to cook and clean and perhaps be available. The toys. The proof of power.

The more you have, the more you have to have, and the more people want to take it away, and the more you have to exert yourself, ruthlessly, to hold on to it. Mobutu reminds me of the central character in James Clavell's best novel, "King Rat." Who could honor a non-com who made far more money than his officers, or even his captors?

But did Corporal King have any real choice? He was at Changi prison camp in 1942.

Did Sergeant Mobutu have any real choice? He was in Leopoldville in 1960. Russell Warren Howe has been a reporter for The Washington Post and other publications since 1948. This is an excerpt from a work in progress: "Beyond the Blue Horizon: A Foreign Correspondent's Life." CAPTION: Mobutu, left, in 1989 and, below, as Agence France-Presse assistant correspondent in 1960, when the author first met him. Bottom, the author, second from left, in 1958. That is Patrice Lumumba, second from right. At the time he was a beer salesman. Two years later he would become premier of the Congo. CAPTION: Late in 1960, Col. Mobutu spoke to newsmen in Leopoldville about his stewardship of the Congolese army. CAPTION: The author in Togo in 1960 posing for a Washington Post promotional picture.