Mobutu puts his country on the market: In Kinshasa Richard Dowden came face to face with the ultimate Thatcherite dream - or nightmare

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EVERY DAY between 700 and 800 people gather in the huge theatre of the bleak, civic, Chinese-built 'People's Palace' in Kinshasa. All are in suits; the only women are the languorous secretaries. It could, at first sight, be a meeting of businessmen or perhaps, judging from the pre- eminence of designer suits, flashy ties, gold tie-pins and watches and the whiff of expensive deodorant, it could be a fashion show. This, however, is politics and in this parliament the future of Zaire is being forged. Or maybe it isn't.

About two hours after the official opening time the little gangs of chatting suits are pushed aside by a posse of armed guards dressed for battle who stride across the atrium into the hall. Hurrying along in their midst is a stocky, fit-looking man in a white soutane with a purple waistband and skullcap. This is Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo, the chairman of the conference and possibly the most important figure in Zaire today.

The Archbishop chairs the conference with wearied patience, like an over-indulgent primary school teacher. The speeches are long, the business ordered, the protocols observed minutely. There are references to the American constitution, all the Republics of France and even one long diversion on Magna Carta. The only question is whether this great piece of theatre has the slightest relevance.

It looks like the forging of a new state, but it is difficult to know if this is real, because Zaire is different. In Zaire everything is privatised. In the words of the President, Mobutu Sese Seko: 'Everything is for sale, anything can be bought in our country. And in this flow, he who holds the slightest cover of public authority uses it illegally to acquire money, goods, prestige or to avoid obligations.'

So civil servants collect their own salary as they go; some would call it corruption, but since the state does not pay them they only work when someone else pays. Similarly, the state does not pay the army and police so they protect people who pay them. Of course if someone else pays them more they may attack rather than protect.

The biggest payer in Zaire is the President. He owns the country rather than rules it. Zaire is the ultimate Thatcherite dream - or nightmare. There is, indeed, no such thing as society here. Looked at from a European perspective there are the rich, a besuited clan of about 100 families, and there are 40 million poor people. The lucky ones are 'clients', protected by a 'patron' in a hierarchy of wealth. The rest live in the Iron Age.

State hospitals and schools are closing down through lack of funds, but this does not affect the elite whose children are educated in Europe. When the jungle swallows up roads, the rich fly. When Zaire's telephone system collapsed, the rich brought in a mobile satellite system. When there is no food the poor starve, while the rich can buy cake made in Belgium hours before. When the water system breaks down in the city the poor get cholera, the rich can buy Perrier.

But this is a very European way of looking at Zaire. From within, Mobutu is the Chef, the Patron. He first seized power more than 33 years ago and has been there ever since. Living in the baroque splendour of his marbled palaces in his home village of Gbadolite, 700 miles from the capital, he receives a string of visitors who keep him well informed on events in the rest of the country. The only people he listens to apart from his advisers and spies are the witchdoctors who wait at his door. He waits, pulls strings, gives money and stays in power.

The lives of other Zaireans are taken up with survival. In 1991 and 1992 the unpaid army, encouraged by the President, turned on the commercial district of each town in Zaire and looted it. The citizens joined in and for three or four days Zaireans indulged in the most comprehensive orgy of theft and destruction ever witnessed in modern Africa. Even houses were taken to pieces. They took the doors and door frames, windows and window frames. Then they took the rafters.

But this was not a popular uprising against bad government. The sacking of Zaire did not happen when inflation reached 71,000 per cent, as it did last year, or when there was no food in Kinshasa and no fuel in the rest of the country. It happened when the army decided it was time to take and then the people felt it was their turn. It was more like an extension of government policy, as if the people had finally understood and adopted the philosophy of their own ruler towards the country - grab as much of it as you can. Now. 'Like everything else in Zaire it was the economy of ripeness. The shops and houses were ripe for picking and eating. There was no thought for tomorrow,' said one Western diplomat in Kinshasa.

But that was the extent of mass political activity. The wasteland left by the looting brought out the great Zairean ability to survive. Now Kinshasa bubbles with commerce and street life again. People are too busy staying alive or making money to think about politics. So is the great drama in the People's Palace a genuine attempt to find a new political future, or is it a charade of players who can be bought off at any moment?

It is hard to find out who the politicians represent. According to one observer the richest man in each region buys up the local chiefs and proclaims himself its representative. If he is challenged it is by someone claiming to be richer. Wealth equals power equals wealth. The last thing to occur to any of the suits at the People's Palace is to identify with their constituents.

The only politician who seems not to have sold out to Mr Mobutu is Etienne Tshisekedi, who was appointed prime minister by the National Conference in August last year. This was a serious blow to Mr Mobutu, and many thought his rule was coming to an end. But Mr Tshisekedi played his cards badly. He tried to sack the governor of the Bank of Zaire and make other appointments without consulting Mr Mobutu or the Sacred Union, the coalition that supports him. Mr Mobutu sacked him and gave the job to Mr Tshisekedi's deputy, Faustin Birindwa. Since then there have been two governments, neither of them effective, but Mr Mobutu has been given a chance to reclaim the power he lost. Like a card player down to his last card he has steadily regained everything he lost to the National Conference.

The final act is the resurrection of the National Assembly, the parliament of Mr Mobutu's one-party state. It has been merged with the High Council, the residue of the National Conference which nearly overthrew Mr Mobutu. It is this merged, unmanageable mass that the Archbishop is trying to chair.

So far its committees have produced two reports on everything; those from the National Assembly favour Mr Mobutu, those from the High Council favour Mr Tshisekedi. Mr Mobutu has bought off a number of former Tshisekedi allies and created a group of floaters to muddy the waters further. One of the tasks of this parliament is to decide whether Mr Tshisekedi is or is not prime minister, but instead many delegates are going back over fundamental constitutional issues which were discussed and agreed at the National Conference two years ago. Since they are paid a day rate for attending the conference no one, except the Archbishop, is in a hurry to move on.

Meanwhile the country is falling apart. Shaba, the southernmost province, has declared autonomy; Kasai, whose diamonds earn Zaire's only foreign exchange at present, refuses to use the new currency; and Kivu, the eastern province which produces much of the country's food, is finding better markets in neighbouring countries.

It is hard to see how change will come. Western countries have banned entry to Zaireans connected to the Mobutu government, but France breaks the ban with impunity and there is no attempt to block Mr Mobutu's funds in the United States and Belgium. Aid was cut three years ago and the World Bank has closed its office. Perhaps the prospect of urban starvation might upset Zaire's notorious political passivity. The only other possible source of change is a coup. But then who would be paying for it?

(Photograph omitted)