KINSHASA, ZAIRE -- During a debate this year on Zaire's economic sickness, a number of professors from the University of Kinshasa made unflattering references to the leadership qualities of Mobutu Sese Seko, their president.

They spoke of misguided economic policy and corruption. Mobutu sat in on some of the debate, and afterward he asked that the professors be brought to him.

As the undisputed, all-powerful leader of black Africa's second-largest country, Mobutu had a number of options in disposing of the prickly academics.

He could have had them tortured -- as he allegedly ordered the torture of a former foreign minister who did not please him. He could have had them "rusticated" -- a technique by which annoying minions are forcibly exiled to their rural villages. He could even have had them hanged, as his government once hanged four former Cabinet ministers who discussed the possibility of a coup.

But Mobutu gave the professors a healthy raise -- junior faculty salaries jumped to $480 per month from $72; senior faculty salaries to $1,280 from $360. The teachers returned to the university, and there have been no more troublesome debates.

Of all the leaders of the 45 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, no one else cuts the figure of Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga. He is fabulously rich. His fortune is estimated at $5 billion and includes 11 palaces in Zaire and assorted fancy houses in several European countries.

He is fabulously egotistical. His late mother has been transformed into a cult figure akin to the Virgin Mary while he is called "the Messiah."

Yet, as his encounter with the professors demonstrates, Mobutu is no fool.

For the past 22 years, he has single-handedly manipulated the competing interests of 200 fractious tribal groups and 35 million people. On a continent cursed with coups and crawling with rebel armies, Mobutu presides over a nation in which there is now thought to be no serious threat to his power. More than any leader in Africa, he has perfected the art of using power and money to keep the lid on.

"You can't even posit the unity of Zaire without Mobutu," said one western diplomat here. "He essentially created a nation out of a territory carved out of the forest by the Belgians. It is so immense that it shouldn't even exist as a country."

"Mobutu does not make any enemies who can threaten him," said another diplomat, explaining how Mobutu has survived. "This is not a regime based on repression. It is based on palaver and compromise and buying off potential problems."

Conventional wisdom in Kinshasa says that besides Mobutu and his family only 80 people in the country count. At any one time, 20 of them are ministers, 20 are exiles, 20 are in jail and 20 are ambassadors. Every three months, the music stops and Mobutu forces everyone to change chairs.

While oversimplified, the conventional wisdom does point to the essence of Mobutu's ruling style. Between 1965 and 1975, only 41 of 212 senior government officials held high office for five years or more. In that period, 29 leaders went directly from ministerial positions to jail.

"Cumulatively, these devices constitute a powerful mechanism of informal intimidation and suggest why systematic opposition has never arisen within the top organs of the state," writes Crawford Young, an authority on Zaire and professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin.

Perhaps the best witness to Mobutu's management wizardry is the current Zairian ambassador to Washington.

In the early 1970s, Nguza Karl-i-Bond served as Zaire's foreign minister and then as political director of the country's ruling party. But in 1977, he fell out of favor, was accused of high treason and sentenced to death.

Nguza later told a U.S. congressional subcommittee that Mobutu personally threatened to shoot him, but that instead he was tortured. Nguza said torture techniques to which he was subjected included the application of electrical shocks to his testicles.

A year later, Nguza was freed, and in 1979 Mobutu made him prime minister. Two years after that, he fled to exile in Belgium and wrote perhaps the most scathing indictment of Zairian corruption ever printed. He came to Washington and told the House subcommittee on Africa the particulars about how Mobutu bled hundreds of millions of dollars out of government coffers and injected the money into a Swiss bank account.

Some time after that, Mobutu invited Nguza home. And last year, to the astonishment of the State Department, Mobutu made him ambassador to the United States.

Last week, Mobutu did it again. Bearing gifts, he turned on his enemies. Three opposition politicians whom he had ordered jailed in 1983 for seeking to establish an opposition political party were appointed as members of the ruling party's central committee.

Mobutu, who is now 57, grew up poor. His father was a cook for a colonial magistrate. His mother worked as a hotel maid. At 19, he was booted out of missionary school for disciplinary problems -- one biographer says he burglarized a mission library -- and was conscripted into the colonial army.

He rose quickly to the rank of sergeant-major, relying on his good French and knack for making important friends. At 25, he left the army and became a journalist in Kinshasa, where he made contacts with European patrons and a circle of ambitious men who were to become the elite of Zaire. He traveled to Belgium, where his biographers have said he made contacts with operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency.

At Zaire's independence from Belgium in 1960, Mobutu was well positioned to become commander of the country's Army. During the five years of anarchy and bloodshed after independence, Mobutu appointed people loyal to him to key positions in the military. Possessing a passion for power that was unmatched among his peers, he emerged in 1965 as undisputed leader of the Second Republic. From that moment on, he began to correct the unfortunate circumstance of having been born poor.

A number of diplomats, exiled Zairians and academics have concluded that Mobutu regards the immense mineral wealth of Zaire, large reserves of copper, cobalt, diamonds and timber, as his personal preserve.

While many leaders on the continent have backed away from the conspicuous consumption that marked the early years of independent Africa, Mobutu has not.

He routinely charters a French Concorde for his world travels. According to diplomatic sources, a government aircraft is dispatched regularly from the president's huge private farm in his ancestral home of Gbadolite to pick up plants in South Africa and livestock in South America. He entertains on a river boat that he seized from a government agency. He is, diplomats say, an unusually gracious, attentive and generous host.

"Mobutu simply does not believe that the millions of dollars wasted on the Concorde is money that could be put to good use in his country," said a diplomat here.

Asked to comment on the president's ostentatious consumption of government resources, Zaire's minister of information, Mandungu Bula Nyati, said:

"For the big man, you have to do it. We need security for this president. Without this man, we would be in a mess . . . . We are an undeveloped country. The role of the chief is quite different than in America. When he comes to a village, people expect him to solve their problems on the spot. They sing to him, 'The Father has come. We are not going to be hungry.' "

Mobutu does spread money around. According to Zairian scholar Crawford Young, spreading money around is a key to Mobutu's survival.

In his book "The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State," Young writes: "To sustain the system, large patrimonial investments have been necessary to ensure the continuing loyalty of the presidential fraternity of close collaborators who staff the key agencies of the state and, above all, the security forces. To some extent the faithful have been permitted or, even encouraged, to remunerate themselves by participating in similar schemes to intercept public money."

Although spreading around public money and reshuffling his ministers have proved effective ploys for keeping Mobutu in power, they have proved disastrous for the development of Zaire.

Mobutu's style of leadership has, in many ways, undone the development of Zaire.

The country, potentially one of the most fertile in Africa, has gone from being a net food exporter to being dependent on western food aid and commercial imports. According to the World Bank, the per-capita daily supply of calories declined between 1965 and 1985. Real wages are one-tenth of their preindependence level.

The Belgians left one of Africa's best system of roads. Lack of maintenance has left the roads in ruins. As a result, it is impossible for most Zairian farmers, 70 percent of the population, to get their produce to market.

Lacking any real development plan, Mobutu's government has squandered billions of dollars in copper and cobalt revenue while pursuing such big projects as steel mills and hydroelectric works. Most of these investments have proven unwise. Many do not work. They are the principal reason why Zaire has a foreign debt of more than $6 billion.

In the early 1970s, Mobutu launched "Zairianization." It turned over most foreign-owned businesses to Zairians, many of whom were cronies of the president. Most of these businesses promptly collapsed, and the country still suffers from a shortage of small entrepreneurs capable of supplying goods and services in Zaire's vast interior.

As for the government's ability to fix what it now acknowledges were mistakes, observers here say that Mobutu's habit of shuffling his senior ministers all but precludes the development of a competent bureaucracy.

When a new minister is appointed to head an agency, such as the one in charge of road construction and maintenance, he knows he will not be there long enough to take credit for the completion of major roads. Nor will he be around to take responsibility for roads crumbling from lack of maintenance.

Consequently, according to several economists and diplomats, such a new minister will assess road projects with an eye to their kickback and payoff possibilities.

"They run with the loot while they can," said one western diplomat. "That is the price of peace and unity in Zaire."

To keep tabs on his unique system of government, Mobutu uses several competing intelligence networks. Diplomatic sources say he receives intelligence reports every six hours. They also say that Mobutu, after 22 years of shuffling and coopting his subordinates, is still at the top of his game.

"He runs a bloody big country extremely tightly. He is an awesome man, with aura and presence. I think the country is more stable and united now than at any time in the past 22 years," said a European diplomat, whose opinion echoes that of many foreign observers here.

Mobutu's system and the stability of Zaire, of course, require that he stay at the top of his game.

"At this point, corruption is absolutely essential to Zaire's stability," said a diplomat who added that the president could not change his system even if he wanted to. "The day Mobutu starts really cracking the whip on corruption, he will start making enemies and they will gang together."