Ekofo Mabamba spat with disgust as he looked over his crowded, dismal neighborhood in the Livulu slum. "None of us have enough food to eat," he said.
The words poured out in an angry stream as he moved from the gray light of his front door into the small living room lit with a kerosene lamp."We can say nothing about it, or we go to jail."
Once a week, on Wednesday morning, Catholic priests in the slum dole out small quantities of protein-rich soybeans.
"The priests only feed the children they can see, the weakest," Ekofo said. "There are too many to feed."
Ten thousand malnourished children under 4 years of age are brought yearly to Kinshasa's Mama Yemo Hospital, named after President Mobuto Sese Seko's mother. For the last two years, well over half of them have died there. Officials said the annual child mortality rate in some rural areas of this mineral-rich country of 27 million people may be much higher than 50 percent.
Ekofo (not his real name) is one of nine Zairians interviewed who asked that their name not be used for fear of arrest or reprisals, fears that help explain the absence of public outcry about conditions. As one Western observer put it, "The squeaky wheel doesn't get the oil here: he gets thrown in jail."
Most of their suppressed anger is directed at Zaire's military head of state and authoritarian president for the past 14 years who is reportedly one of the world's richest men.
But beyond Mobutu, 49, Zairians condemn the West, particularly the United States, for what they perceive as vital support for a corrupt and mismanaged regime that has brought one of Africa's potentially richest countries to the brink of insolvency.
The perceived U.S. identification with Mobutu appears to parallel in many ways Iranian's view of America's backing for shah. Both men are said to have been put in power by the CIA. Despite obvious cultural, religious and economic differences between Zaire and Iran, they face similar development problems accompanied by rising expectations.
The undertone of Zairian interviews also suggests a growing tendency in the developing world to scrutinize U.S. support for various Third World dictators, a tendency that will confront Washington with new problems in the post-Iran period.
At independence from Belgium 19 years ago, Zaire was a food exporter. Although the country was then saddled with a colonial debt of $900 million, by 1970 it was politically stable and enjoyed a strong currency. Its debt was insignificant and there was a healthy margin of foreign exchange reserves.
Mobuto basked in strong domestic support, and enthusiastically prophesized "a rendezvous with abundance by 1980" for all Zairians.
Instead, Mobuto, his relatives and political cronies have amassed enormous private fortunes, while large numbers of Zairians are left wanting for basic necessities. "His government has created a small, calloused economic elite, a 'state bourgeoisie,' if you will," said one Western source.
A corrupt and poorly trained civilian bureaucracy combined with uncontrolled overseas borrowing and plummeting world market prices for copper, Zaire's main revenue earner, in the mid 1970s brought the country to the edge of bankruptcy.
Today, Zaire is $5 billion in debt, with repayment of government and commercial bank loans $1.1 billion in arrears.
Ninety thousand miles of good road at independence have deteriorated to 6,000 miles of mostly washed out gulleys.
Zaire now spends one third of its scarce foreign exchange -- $300 million annually -- for food imports.A government monopoly on crop purchases pays below market value to farmers for their produce and in silent protest, farmers have produced less and less. Those farmers who try to get their food to local markets in the few passable roads are held up by hungry soldiers at gunpoint.
The country has yet to recover from the 1973 overnight "Zairianization" of 1,500 foreign-owned farms and small businesses that were taken from their Portuguese, Belgium and Pakistanti owners, distributed to Mobutu's supporters and run rapidly to ruin. Mobutu has since invited the previous owners to return and take up their businesses again, but few have responded to his offer.
Inflation last year was 100 percent overall and has dropped to a "low" of 65 percent this year. Food prices have soared to 200 percent above the 1976 prices.
"No one but the elite earns a living wage in Zaire," said one Western source. "Starvation and malnutrition are a Zaire problem, not just an urban problem. If you want to live, it's hustle all the way."
By Zaire's standards, Ekofo is well off. He owns his tiny, three-room house, has a job at the University of Zaire that pays $200 a month, and his wife earns $90 a month as a government clerk. Together, they earn almost six times the average Zairian monthly wage of $50.
"It is still not enough to eat," Ekofo said. "Our food for a month is more than $300. We borrow each month to eat, then borrow from another to repay and eat, and then borrow again. We are always in debt. Tell me how we are to buy clothes?
"We are suffering here, and it is because of the Americans," Ekofo continued as one of his three children tugged playfully at his shirt. "We cannot change the government, because you support Mobutu for the copper.
"But the revolution will come, and we will kick all of you out."
His wife, who remained silent throughout the hour-long interview, shot Ekofo a quick, reproachful look, fearful that he had gone too far. Ekofo slumped back in his chair sullenly and asked "What else do you want to know? Zaire is sick country."
The autocratic Mobutu agrees his country is ailing. In an independence day speech two years ago, Mobutu candidly criticized what he termed "the Zairian sickness" of widespread corruption and slovenly government management that was dragging Zaire down to ruin. The fact that he has not stressed a public rally since then, Zairians said, is a sign that he knows how unpopular he is among them.
Mobutu's harshest Zairian critics credit the proud and easily offended leader with forging political stability and economic prosperity out of an immense polyglot of mutually antagonistic tribes, ethnic groups and region.
With the aid of the handful of university graduates educated during the colonial era, Mobutu established a colonial model.
Under Western pressure for political reforms, Mobutu allowed nationwide elections for the first time in 1977 for a 270-member legislative council. Although the elections were considered fair and, in some cases, were hotly contested, the legislative council is allowed only to debate and raise embarrassing questions while Mobutu retains ultimate decision-making power.
Recently, the legislators delivered a series of allegations to Mobutu pinpointing high-level government officials they accused of corruption.
They also investigated payroll fraud in the government, where they found one department head personally pocketing the salaries for half of his section's nonexistent employes, a practice Zairians said is widespread.
"Mobutu did nothing then either," the source said. "He's done nothing to some extent because it affects people close to him, and to some extent "Because there are not enough Zairians with skills who could replace those who are corrupt. "A middle-level bureaucracy does not exist in this country," the source said.
Against this background, Zaire's malnutrition and health problems fuel popular discontent. A U.S. aided and Zairian government-funded nutrition center has discovered that chronic malnutrition here is "50 percent worse" than in nine Third World countries with similar problems. The nine are Egypt, Haiti, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Liberia, Togo, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
"The child mortality rate here from measles approaches 50 percent compared to 1 percent in the United States," said a physician who asked not to be identified. "Overall, child mortality could be as high as 500" for every 1,000 children born, he added.
Food for the neediest is distributed by Catholic and Protestant churches. The Catholic Church, with the widest number of adherents, distributed food in an effort to keep government officials from rerouting overseas food donations to Zaire's thriving black market, according to Western sources.
In three years the cost of bread has jumped from 25 cents a loaf to $1.50. At Lubumbashi, for example, discs are passed out to worshipers at Catholic communion services so they can get free bread at the church's distribution centers.
Even university students complain that they are poorly fed. Following a recent human rights symposium at Lubumbashi, a Zairian student said, "Here human rights concerns are for those with something in their stomach."
There have been occasional organized attempts against Mobutu's power. Twice, in 1977 and again in 1978, Katangan gendarmes who had fled United Nations peacekeeping forces during secession attempts by the southern mining province (now known as Shaba), returned to attack from their refuge in Angela.
Shaba is where Zaire's copper is mined, but troops stationed there, rarely paid and poorly fed, fled into the forest rather than face the relatively small force of rebels. Both times, the invaders, who enjoyed some measure of local support, had to be repulsed by foreign troops flown in by Mobutu's Western supporters.
This, in turn, has made Mobutu more paranoid and secretive, according to observers.
Foreign observers and Zairians point to the recent rehabilitation of Foreign Minister Nguza Karl-i-Bond, as an example of Mobutu's paranoid and mercurial temperament.
Nguza, who enjoyed high prominence in Mobutu's government prior to the first Shaba invasion, was arrested shortly afterward, convicted on questionable evidence of treason and sentenced to death. Mobutu pardoned him, and released him from jail a year later, in response to Western pressure. h
Last March Nguza, who is from Shaba, was appointed by Mobutu to the Popular Movement's 36-member political bureau, and made foreign minister. "His real crime was to be from Shaba and to be cited in the Western press as a possible heir to Mobutu," a source said.
A number of Zairians said they see cracks forming in Mobutu's government, the beginning of disintegration they hope will bring him down.
Sabiti Ngolon (not his real name), 35, is a Kinshasa government clerk who tries to survive with a wife and two children on $50 a month. He said the immediate future for his family "looks black."
But if we can get the Americans to stop encouraging [Mobutu's] government," he said, "there are small signs that things will change."
"I have friends and relatives in the army who are tired of not being fed and paid," Sabiti said. "We civil servents are tired of suffering. I, and many others, have to cheat and steel to feed our families."
"There will be some change," he said. "Mobutu knows it, too."