A picture with a story about Zaire yesterday was incorrectly captioned. The man in the picture was not Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire, but Omar Bongo, president of Gabon. (Published 8/7/95)

Conservative Republican activists, including Christian evangelist and businessman Pat Robertson, have joined with Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko in trying to persuade the State Department to lift a U.S. ban on granting Mobutu a visa to visit this country.

Mobutu and most members of his government and family have been banned from the United States since 1993, when the Clinton administration decided that such a strategy was the best way to indicate U.S. disapproval of Mobutu's 30 years of corrupt, dictatorial rule.

Robertson, whose business interests in Zaire include mining and forestry concessions, has joined other Washington-based conservatives and Mobutu-paid consultants lobbying Capitol Hill, think tanks and the news media to argue that Mobutu has seen the error of his ways. Allowing him to visit this country, they contend, will help propel Zaire toward democracy and stabilize a precarious situation there that threatens to engulf much of central Africa.

In resisting their efforts, administration officials maintain that Mobutu's real reason for wanting to enter the United States is to sanitize his image and then stage elections in which he would control the outcome, further consolidating his power over Zaire.

"Mobutu hasn't changed," said a State Department official with long experience in Zaire. "What he wants is a transition from the second Mobutu republic to the third Mobutu republic." While nominally endorsing a transition to democratic rule, Mobutu "has blocked the process of transition every step of the way," the official said.

Urged by House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) and the committee's senior Democrat, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.), to keep Mobutu out of this country, Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman responded in June: "We assure you that President Mobutu will not be coming to Washington." Referring to his "obstruction of Zaire's transition to democracy," Sherman wrote "The visa sanction has been, and remains, one of our most effective measures to influence Mobutu and his entourage, and we have seen no change on the part of the Zairian president which would warrant a reversal of this policy."

Ever since rioting carried Zaire to the brink of chaos in 1991, Washington increasingly has distanced itself from Mobutu, who was useful to the United States during the Cold War but has no current value. The long U.S. bill of particulars against him includes massive corruption, personal enrichment on a spectacular scale at his country's expense, indifference to the physical deterioration of what should be a prosperous country, connivance at rearming the murderous Hutu militias of neighboring Rwanda and repeated maneuvers to frustrate the process of transition to democracy that he has promised to support.

The United States is obliged to let Mobutu go to New York if he wishes to address the U.N. General Assembly in October. But according to Paul Erickson, whose Arlington lobbying firm has a $30,000 contract to seek a visa for Mobutu, the Zairian leader does not want a visa limited to New York because he would lose face at home.

Zaire's prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, of whom Washington approves, was allowed to come here in October to meet administration officials and members of Congress. Erickson said Mobutu "wants the same thing that was given to the prime minister. You have in play here the ego and pride of an African head of state, who has turned this into a test of honor."

Robertson, a former U.S. presidential candidate and founder of the Christian Coalition, whose African Development Co. has a diamond-mining operation in Zaire as well as forestry concessions, has long supported Mobutu as a pillar of anti-communism and a friend of the United States. He went to Zaire in May to deliver medical supplies destined for the city of Kikwit, quarantined because of an outbreak of the Ebola virus. In a show of his esteem for Robertson, Mobutu -- who spends most of his time in his home town, 750 miles from the capital, Kinshasa -- made a rare visit to Kinshasa to greet him.

While in Zaire, Robertson told journalists that the State Department's policy was "outrageous" and promised to enlist the support of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to overcome the policy of excluding and isolating Mobutu. Aides to Helms, however, said the senator has no intention of working on behalf of Mobutu.

One administration official said "Robertson's hand is all over" the visa lobbying campaign, although Erickson and his chief ally in the campaign, Jack Abramoff, said their effort has nothing to do with Robertson. They said they were enlisted by a man named Andre Soussan, a French-born Danish citizen, whom they described as a longtime confidant of Mobutu who has convinced the dictator that he must embrace true reform to stave off the collapse of his country.

A spokesman for Robertson declined to comment on efforts to acquire a visa for Mobutu.

Erickson was political director in the 1992 Republican presidential primary campaign of conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan. Abramoff was once executive director of Citizens for America, a conservative group headed by drugstore magnate Lewis Lehrman and was national president of the College Republicans. He also produced the controversial 1989 film "Red Scorpion," loosely based on the story of Angolan anti-communist rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and partly financed by what was then the white-ruled apartheid government of South Africa.

In a Washington Times op-ed column in June, Mobutu recalled that he sided with the United States throughout the Cold War. Now, he wrote, it is time to "move beyond the barricades to a new tomorrow." Promising "profound changes in our country's economic and political system," he proposed "a close partnership" in which "distinguished leaders from the United States" would join democracy-minded Zairians on an independent transitional council.

He meant it, Erickson said. He said Mobutu now understands that "if you don't have reform, you face the breakup of the country and starvation. . . . People here will tell you that you don't need a visa for here to hold elections in Zaire. But if he held elections without U.S. supervision, nobody would accept them, especially if he won."

"This isn't about Mobutu, it's about moving Zaire forward," Abramoff said. "Mobutu understands that if he were to come to the United States, it wouldn't be for a parade down Fifth Avenue. It would be for some serious, hard discussions about the future of his country."

"Giving Mobutu a visa to this country would be an enormous and serious mistake," countered Janet Fleischman, Washington director of Human Rights Watch/Africa, a rights-monitoring group. "He has manipulated the flood of refugees from Rwanda and profited from it. . . . He has manipulated the {Zairian} transition process again and again. It would be a terrible sign for the African continent if a man as corrupt and brutal as Mobutu were allowed to come to this country." CAPTION: MOBUTU SESE SEKO