History is full of political leaders who survived against seemingly impossible odds through strength of character, charm or cunning.

But few contemporary politicians can rival Zaire's Gen. Mobutu Sese Seko when it comes to staying in power thanks to successive failures and grudging Western backing dictated by fear of the unknown that would result from removal of the leader.

Successively army commander, president and president for life, he has played a leading role in his country's tumultous history since it ceased being the Belgian Congo in June 1960.

Aside from a period of relative calm in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, his rule provides an excerbated microcosm of many of newly independent Africa's problems: corruption, waste, anarchy, brutality, and personality cult.

His popularity has dwindled badly, especially among the young who resent the shortages, runaway inflation and his emphasis on his increasingly remote deed of ending the chaos of the first five years of independence.

Motubu is at his best in the numerous crises that have marked his career - physically courageous under enemy fire and endowed with just enough of the ham actor to make an inspiring leader.

But he is at his least impressive when it comes to taking the remedial action calculated to avoid further trouble or acting on advice from local or foreign friends.

He owes his salvation in large part to the incompetence of his many enemies. They seem unable to cooperate long enough to coordinate simultaneus uprisings capable of overthrowing him.

Yet twice in the past 14 months he has persuaded foreign powers - France and Morocco in the first instance: France, Belgium, the United States and a group of former French possessions ranging from Morocco to Gabon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast in the second - to come to his rescue when faced with invasions from disaffected inhabitants of mineral-rich Shaba Province.

The rationales employed vary from the necessity to honor boundaries inherited from colonialsm, to protecting foreign nationals and keeping the country's mineral wealth - copper, cobalt, industrial diamonds and oil - in pro-Western hands. Their net effect is to maintain Mobutu in power.

Power has been Mobutu's natural element for most of his adult life.

Born in the northwestern province of Equateur in 1930, Joseph Desire Mobutu was a journalist and a sergeant in the old Belgian Force Publique before independence.

In the ensuing chaos, Mobutu moved quickly to the fore with American blessing. He was instrumental in seizing power from the radical premier, Patrice Lumumba, in September, 1960, a decision he made public by scrambling onto a cafe table in a downtown hotel in the capital, then known as Leopoldville.

As Central Intelligence Agency files later showed, he was also a key factor in arranging for Lumumba's arrest and murder, conveniently carried out in Katanga (as Shaba was then known by Moise Tshombe, leader of a secessionist regime officially at war with Mobutu's government.

But his finest hour came in 1964 when he showed his leadership qualities by rallying multinous army units and personally leading them into battle against the then all-conquering so-called Simba rebellion sweeping across the country in the wake of the United Nation troops' withdrawal.

In the November of the following year, at American, Belgian, French and other Western prodding, Mobutu seized power and ended what then was considered the danger of a pro-Chinese coup.

Much to the surprise of his foreign sponsors - and local politicians - he announced that he was staying in power for five years, a period which has been regularly renewed without formal opposition ever since.

But he was never able to extend the central government's writ throughout the sprawling country as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River and now inhabited by 25 million citizens, double the 1960 population.

Even a modicum of law and order was welcome after the chaos of the early years. His fellow citizens were not overly shocked when he condoned the kind of massive retaliation and executions for causing trouble that he learned from his Belgian colonial masters.

Mobutu even changed the name of the country to Zaire as if to conjure away the automatic association the Congo had in many quarters with mindless Third World disorders.

A strapping six-footer, Mobutu affected a leopard skin hat that soon became his personal symbol. Other aspects of his cult of personality for a while involved the evening television news showing him descending from clouds.

In the name fo "authenticity," he declared that in French revolution fashion Zairese should call each other "citizen." He dubbed himself "the guide" and later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, a Lingala language phrase meaning "he who leaves no hen untouched,"

Such decisions brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, whose schools he took over until he became convinced the state was running them into the ground.

Although reputed to be one of the world's richest men - with a personal slush fund equivalent to a third of Zaire's foreign exchange earnings plus sizeable real estate holdings from Senegal to Switzerland - Mobutu indulged in a disastrous experiment in socialist economic in 1973 and 1974.

Following to trips to China and North Korea, he first took over extensive foreign business interests and gave them to cronies, then nationalized them when they went bankrupt.

In the process not just the Belgian businessmen were affected, but more importantly the small Greek and the Portuguese traders in the bush.

With them went what remained of much of the hinterland's rudimentary economic system.

Unable to obtain such essential as kerosene, matches and cloth, peasants simply stopped farming.

The tropical rain forest covering much of the country in any case had all but swallowed up the remnants of the once-elaborate road network. making it practically impossible to bring the harvest to what remained of the previously efficient transportation system.

Ever pragmatic. Mobutu rescinded his orders and offered to let the foreigners back with management control of their former property. Only recently did small European traders show much interest in returning to the bush. That trend may have been reversed in light of the Kolwezi killings.

Gradually over the years, Mobutu's neglect had made the once bountiful and balanced economy increasingly dependent on copper, which alone accounts currently for more than half government revenues and 70 per cent of foreign exchange earnings.

Everything from beef to strawberries, which once were grown locally, came to be imported. Favorite sources of supply were Rhodesia and South Africa, with much of the food flown in.

Gross domestic product declined 5 percent in each of the past two years and was likely to follow suit in 1978 even before the Kolwezi copper mines were put out of commission.

A short-lived copper price boom in the early 1970s prompted Mobutu to spurlge on nonproductive prestige projects.

Successive efforts to oblige Zaire to honor as much as $3 billion worth of already rolled over loans have met with only limited success.

Mobutu over the years has quareled with most of his foreign friends - especially the Belgians who as recent events showed, have learned to live with his mercurial temperament.

At one point he publicly demanded the recall of the American ambassador and made sure another never returned from consultations in Washington.

He has systematically exiled, poisoned off, jailed or executed any civilian or soldier of leadership ability in a classic strong-man tactic that has forced Zairians and foreign powers alike to accept him for want of even a semiviable alternative.

Now relying on the presidential guard, chosen from its own Equateur Province and the only regularly paid government employes, Mobutu has lost little of his aplomb.

If anything, his closest shave to date - in the Shaba war last month - has left him euphoric. On the basis of past performance that indicates little disposition to apply the much-needed reforms that alone can save both Mobutu and the Western economic and strategic interests in Zaire and much of central and southern Africa.

But in one of those telltale admissions two years ago he told a crowd angered at shortages, corruption and the general chaos that he no longer wanted to hear anyonetelling him how good things had been under the Belgians.