Around the northeastern Zairian town of Bukavu, a fertile highland area on the Rwanda-Burundi border, food crops are rotting in the fields because avaiation fuel is not available to fly it to other parts of the country.

Because what remain of the thousands of miles of roads in Zaire at independence in 1960 are now mostly washed-out gulleys, "trucks can't bring it out, either," the Zairian said.

"Farmers in that region smuggle coffee into Rwanda in exchange for gasoline," he said. "Each region does its own thing to survive."

Smugglers bring food into Lubumbashi from Zambia, Zaire's equally hard pressed southern neighbor. In three years, the price of bread here has jumped from 25 cents a loaf to $1.50.

Government corruption, exorbitant borrowing and mismanagement all have contributed to turning Zaire from prosperity a short five years ago into what is now considered among the world's worst economic "basket cases." Added to these ills was 1974's sharp drop in the price of copper -- Zaire's main foreign exchange earner -- from $1.40 to 60 cents a pound.

Almost insolvent by 1976, Zaire ended up $5 billion in debt. Today, Zaire must pay for nearly all its imports in foreign exchange prior to to delivery. Few companies are willing to extend credit to the country.

"Fifty percent of this mess can be laid directly on the Zairians," said one Western source. "But I also blame the West for pouring loans in here when Zaire was doing well."

One-fifth, or $1 billion, of Zaire's debt is owed to international commercial banks who envisioned healthy returns on their loans when times were good. The rest is owed to other governments and their agencies in the West.

Anxious to keep the vital copper and cobalt mines in southern Shaba Province running, and to support the authoritarian but friendly government of President Mobutu Sese Seko against Communist inroads that have taken over neighboring governments in Angola and the Republic of the Congo, the West has found itself in the position of continuing to fund his corrupt regime and Zaire's downhill slide.

Last November, the principal Western nations that aid Zaire -- including the United States, Belgium, France, West Germany, Britain and Japan -- met in Brussels and agreed to lend the country an additional $200 million in 1980. In December, Zaire's creditors -- a group comprised primarily of the same nations -- pledged in Paris to reschedule hundreds of millions of dollars in debt over the next several years.

A debate is raging in the international economic community on whether to "turn off the spigot" to Zaire, said a World Bank official here. But so far creditors, despite Zaire' current $1.1 billion debt arrears, have put their confidence in the International Fund, which has attempted to take control of the administration of Zaire's economy.

Mobutu "realizes he must follow the IMF stabilization plan," one financial expert said, "and allow their team to run the economy, or they pull out. He doesn't have much breathing space."

As part of his agreement to the fund's plan in 1978, Mobutu had to accept a team of IMF-selected Western economic experts, headed by West German banker Erwin Blumenthal, to run the national bank. "A major part of that was to halt those who were dining at the trough," one expert said.

Other international experts have ben brought in to run sections of the Ministry of Finance.

The Fund's intercession came too late to stop Zaire's purchase of a now-deteriorating $18 million radio-television complex from France, or the recently opened $34 million People's Palace conference center from China. "Zaire didn't need either one," a Western source said.

Twenty-four percent of Zaire's public debt is tied to the construction of the economically wasteful 1,100-mile Inga-Shaba power line project. When completed in 1983, the line will carry hydroelectric power from Zaire's coast down to Shaba for the copper industry.

"They just listened to incredibly bad advice on that project," said one informed source. "It'll be years before it pays for itself."

Almost immediately upon his arrival in August, 1978. Blumenthal attacked the country's pervasive corruption at official levels, extending his reach to Mobutu's family and political entourage. As principal director of Zaire's central bank, Blumenthal cut off all credit and foreign exchange to Mobutu's powerful and wealthy uncle, Litho Moboti, Fifty Zairian companies, owned by Mobutu's closest associates, were banned from doing any business with the bank until they paid long overdue loans previously ignored with impunity. Most have paid up.

Blumenthal and his team also put stringent controls on how foreign exchange earned from Zaire's copper and cobalt exports, the source of 70 percent of the country's revenue, would be distributed.

Thirty percent of export earnings were kept by the bank to begin paving off the country's debst, two-thirds spent on food, medicines, spare parts and raw material imports for local industry, 2 percent on gasoline, and 5 percent on nonpriority items.

Blumenthal also had to face down at least one Army general whose subordinates threatened him with physical harm unless the general was given some foreign exchange, according to a Western source: "The general didn't get one penny, and he was later dismissed from the army.

Blumenthal left in a huff last July, after completing 11 months of a year-long IMF contract, following a conflict with the Central Bank's Zairian governor, Emony Mondanga.

"Blumenthal was not a man to compromise," said a source who knows both men, "and Emony does not suffer his power to be diluted. Blumenthal said he was going to Germany for a vaction, and unles Emony was removed, he would not return."

Neither Mobutu nor the IMF backed Blumenthal's demand, another source said: "He won many fights and lost some, including that one."

The Fund has since replaced Blumenthal with Mauritanian economist Mamadou Toure, who arrived in mid-October. A full IMF investigation team will come during the last two weeks in January to check Zaire's compliance with Fund guidelines.

When you ask 'whither Zaire?'" said a U.S.-educated Zairian intellectual, "you should be asking 'whither Mobutu?' As long as the West supports Mobutu," he continued bitterly, "then this pit I call home will continue to go down."

In a country where an estimated 40 percent of government funds goes into the pockets of government officials, Mobutu has climbed the acquisition ladder from a salaried Army lieutenant general to become one of the world's wealthiest men.

"We're not talking about peanuts," said one expert on Zaire's trouble finances, "We're talking about Mobutu's people using the Country's bank as their personal piggy bank to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars."

A Western official cited a study by Prof. Crawford Young of the University of Wisconsin that indicate irregular financial transactions involving coffee exports. In 1977, Zaire exported about $540 million worth of coffee but only about $160 million were registered by Zaire's central bank.

"Clearly some funds go into foreign accounts," an American official said. Mobutu and his family control Celsa, a major coffee conglomerate in Zaire.

The official also described as "murky" Zaire's diamond exports. They are also controlled by the president.

Despite IMF intervention, many here believe Zaire will never regain economic health as long as Mobutu remains in power.

Direct rake-offs of government funds by Mobutu and his poltical cronies are reflected all the way down the line of authority to rank-and-file soldiers in the Zaire Army, many of whom extort civilians as a matter of practice. But the Army, too, has its troubles. Officers traditionally pocket the pay of their soldiers, and sell their good on the thriving black market.

Smuggling, for those outside of Mobutu's family and personal patronage circle, is a hazardous endeavor, but many risk life and limb, "sometimes just to get enough to eat," said one informed source.

This year, Zaire will lose an estimated $40 million in coffee revenues and $60 million in diamond revenues to smugglers.

In an effort to break out of a cycle of deepening poverty, Zaire's financial planners have put together a $1.8 billion economic reform and development proposal, characteristically called "The Mobutu Plan," that they hope will be financed by the West over a three-year period.

Kiakwama Kia Kiziki, the country's minister of economy, industry and commerce, argues that the plan is the only thing that can turn Zaire's economy around.

But one informed source, waving copies of the foot-thick proposal, said the plan has no priorites, the financing is unrealistic, and Zaire "can't absorb that amount of money over three years."

The West is "not about to bail Zaire out" with the plan, said one Western source familiar with the proposal.

But Kiakwama, speaking in his plush, wood-panelled office, ended an interview on a note that has in the past brought last-minute help to Zaire.

"If there is no peace in Zaire," he said, "there is no peace in Africa. The West must help us now."

Most observers believe Zaire' principal hope for turning the economic tide that has flowed so strongly against it in recent years are its mineral reserves.

Prices for both copper and cobalt have risen since 1976, with copper presently up to 90 cents a pound, and cobalt at $25 a ton to regular purchasers like the United States and $32 a ton on the mineral spot market.

Cobalt prices, which were only $6 a ton a year ago, are in fact so high that transportation and gasoline-short Zaire has been flying the mineral out of Shaba instead of using its cheaper and only availabl rail route through South Africa.

The increase in earnings has gradually pulled Zaire's growth rate from a minus 6 percent to about minus 1 percent today. But the real possibility of a recession in the industrial West and Japan could set the country on an economic backslide.

"Any drop in demand or drop on [mineral] prices would hurt us," acknowledged Economy Minister Kiakwama.

"If prices remain as they are today, we think we can get out of negative growth by 1981. If there is a recession in the United States and Europe -- remember our economy is based on what happens there -- then we will suffer," Kiakwama said.

According to one Western source, "If the mines at Kolwezi keep producing, if the world market is stable for a couple of years, and if there are no upheavals (in Shaba) like last year, then Zaire has a chance in the long run.

"I know," the source said. "Those are a lot of ifs."