Charming homes to hide in

After 32 years of plundering Zaire, the game is up for President Mobutu: rebels control half his country and he has prostate cancer. But there are compensations - pounds 6bn-worth, to be exact. By Ann Treneman
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The Independent Online
To get an idea of what it means to be President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire - yes, he of leopard-skin cap fame - imagine for a moment what happens when Africa's richest dictator gets a toothache. There he is living like a king in his jungle palace - air-conditioning is essential to prevent the gold-leaf chandeliers from tarnishing - and he has the merely mortal experience of a pain in the bicuspid. What to do?

The local dentist is out of the question. Zaire is not known for its health care - there are 13,540 people for every doctor. And President Mobutu is not a man who likes second best. At one point he was said to have had a hairdresser flown in regularly from Paris. So a bad tooth demands at least the same consideration. Sometimes he rents Concorde (a special runway had to be carved out of rainforest to accommodate it), but this time he decides to make do with a personal jet or two.

The journey was smooth: first Nice Airport, then the marble colonnaded mansion on the Riviera, then the dentist's surgery. It was a discreet visit involving a four-car motorcade, 15 bodyguards and the wife. "It is not a diplomatic illness and he will be returning," commented the embassy in Paris, countering allegations that the toothache was convenient given international pressure on Mobutu at the time to step down and make way for democracy.

A few years - and many more dental check-ups - have passed since that mercy dash, and times do change. Then, Mobutu was worth an estimated pounds 4bn. Now, aged 66, he is worth pounds 6bn, money in large part pilfered, it is generally agreed, from the companies that export Zaire's copper, cobalt, uranium and diamonds. His political problems are much worse - rebels rule much of his country - and so are his health problems. Treatment for prostate cancer has meant that he has missed much of the revolution, watching events from the Neo-Baroque Beau Rivage hotel in Lausanne, where he needed 15 suites to accommodate a party that included family, 10 bodyguards, two doctors, two drivers and a butler.

The Swiss are a cautious lot - revolutions are not really their thing - so the hotel asked him to settle his bill every few days or so. It's the kind of attitude that he must have found irritating. After all, this is one man who hardly lives life on the HP. He has 11 palaces in Zaire alone, give or take a few that have fallen into rebel hands recently. Then there is the castle in Spain, the chateaux in Belgium, the houses in Paris, Portugal, Morocco and the Ivory Coast. Not to mention the Swiss bank accounts, the diamonds and the yacht.

This latter has come out of dry dock recently amid rumours about an escape plan, but there is always the possibility that the Leopard of Zaire simply missed sitting on the Belgian steamer's settees. They are pink, silky and oyster-shaped. It must be said that they clash somewhat with the dining- room, with its decor theme of endangered animal. One cannot do anything without being confronted with a leopard's head or five. They are on the cutlery, the coffee pots, the plates, the tablecloths, the serviettes.

Mobutu is obsessed with the big cat. His full name, changed from Joseph- Desire during his African authenticity drive in 1972, is Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga. That means Fearless Warrior who Goes from Triumph to Triumph Leaving Fire in His Wake. He is said to think that the leopard also does this, and as such is always seen wearing a piece of the cat on his head. He has seven identical hats, made of real fur and sewn up for him by a Paris furrier. Isn't that illegal? "I'm sure it is," sighs a frequent visitor to Zaire, "but then, most things about Zaire are."

This is because the man who took power in 1965 has always had trouble understanding that his country's wealth should be separate from his own. He once told his people that corruption was acceptable as long as they only "stole a little". He has famously not followed this tip, and even his former best friends of America and France got a little fed up with Mobutu and his kleptocracy. "He is a walking bank balance with a leopard skin cap," said France's former humanitarian aid minister Benard Kouchner. It was the nicest thing anyone had said about him in years.

Mobutu's lifestyle is as lavish as his countrymen's is poor. This has made the escape plan a logistical nightmare. He was last heard of holed up in a palace in the capital, Kinshasa, watching CNN and French videos while his aides busied themselves trying to organise peace talks with the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila. At least that might save the hassle of fleeing with an entourage that is said to number near 700. There is the wife - much given to wearing ballgowns and white gloves - and her identical twin sister, reported to be one of the Leopard's mistresses. Then there are the Leopard's 14 children, aged between eight and 40, and lots and lots of guards and hangers-on.

Relations with his people have not been helped by his two eldest sons. One is so popular he is nicknamed Saddam Hussein; the other, Manda, is said to carry a gun to meetings, and recently closed down the central bank after the manager complained about his overdraft.

But unlike so many who have gone before them - the Duvaliers or the Marcoses, for instance - the Mobutus have already moved into damage control mode. "I think the problem is one of communication," says son Ntsanga, a 27- year-old with a degree from Canada who now has the worst PR job in the world. "My role has been tough," he has told journalists. "There have been stories and rumours about President Mobutu for so many years, he has become a myth. People say things like the country is collapsing or the president has stolen billions. I ask them to provide proof of their allegations."

This all has a tedious ring to it, however, and perhaps Ntsanga would do well to take a tip from the United States, where the Politics of Redemption are proving a super way for politicians to be reborn. Mobutu can recant in a style not seen since Imelda's shoe closet. It's the kind of thing Hello! would not want to miss. Here's the deal: rent Concorde and fly a load of diplomats, journalists, rebels, etc into the jungle palace at Gbadolite. Make sure the Taittinger (the Leopard's preferred brand) is flowing. Then, apologise unreservedly for past pillaging and take vow of poverty. Remove endangered cat from head, and there and then (photo opportunity) hand huge cheque for entire fortune to grateful countrymen and women. Oh, and make a point of inviting the local dentist - he's the kind of friend the new Mobutu may needn