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Mobutu takes the money and runs to a safe haven

The President departs: Zaire's leader leaves behind a bitter nation ruthlessly stripped of all its wealth over 32 years

Mary Braid Kinshasa
Friday 16 May 1997 23:02 BST

There is a story about Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko which sums up the arrogance and gall required to ransack your homeland and not lose a night's sleep. In an interview on American television the President was asked about the size of his personal fortune. Could he personally pay off his country's multi-billion dollar debt? President Mobutu answered that theoretically that was possible - but how could he be sure he would ever get his money back?

Today Zaireans will be asking themselves just that question once the reality of the President's departure has sunk in. How can they ever recover the billions stolen from the nation?

In the end, President Mobutu went with a whimper not a bang. The man who vowed to see off the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, sneaked out of Kinshasa airport, bound for his lavish palace in Gbadolite, northern Zaire - in his tribal homeland - with only a few generals and soldiers as witnesses.

At first the government insisted he had packed just a weekend bag. But Western diplomats said Gbadolite was just a stop over on a flight into exile that would take him first to Morocco and then onto Villa Del Mar, his pounds 3.2m home at Cap Martin on the French Riviera.

His decision finally to relinquish the affairs of state was made public only seven hours later. It came after the generals and senior ministers laid it on the line.

They could no longer guarantee his safety. And with Laurent Kabila's rebels poised to take Kinshasa - as the climax to an astonishing seven- month military campaign in which they had seized most of the country - they could not promise to defend the capital.

"It's the best thing for Zaire and offers the best chance of a peaceful transition," said one relieved Western diplomat yesterday, after weeks of international pressure on President Mobutu to step down.

In the streets of the capital they could not quite believe that the man who bled Zaire dry for 32 years had finally gone. The past two weeks had been filled with rumours of his resignation. Each trip from the country was said to be his last.

The city remained calm in the main. Everyone is waiting, as they have been for months, for Mr Kabila. "For us," said Joseph, a beaming street vendor "it can only get better."

But in the darker corners of Kinshasa, a few scores were being settled. Members of Snip, President Mobutu's hated secret police, were being cornered. Mr Mobutu's Zaire required terror as well as political cunning to function.

"I have had a call from a friend who was in the secret police who is being chased all over the city by six men," said a local businessman. What could he expect when they caught him? "Death, or a beating depending on what they think he has done."

At the city's finest hotel, the Intercontinental, Zairean businessmen continued to check in with their families. "Their houses have been attacked," said a hotel insider. "Many are just waiting to catch the ferry to Brazzaville."

At the main ferry to Brazzaville heavily armed Zairean soldiers were under the command of a man in dark glasses, leather jacket and jeans. "Forget about the documents," said the port official, long converted to President Mobutu's ways. "We can deal with all that for a price."

At the city's small private harbour there was a queue for the minority who have reason to run. Journalists were threatened with arrest; the harbour's customers, in expensive cars, were shy of publicity. It was almost impossible to get rich in Mobutu's Zaire without contamination and corruption.

At the Central Bank long-suffering civil servants, unpaid for months, were queuing in the hope of some wages, even in worthless Zairean currency, before the coming change. But the bank's gates remained shut.

For 32 years President Mobutu has treated Zaire like a toy and used its rich mineral reserves like his own private bank account. He plundered its mines, insisting their entire annual profits be transferred to personal accounts overseas.

In the beginning his country stood still, then as the infrastructure left by the Belgians in 1960 after independence began to crumble from neglect, Zaire began slowly to implode. In the end the Zairean state was just Mobutu; and its gross national product was just pocket money for him and a vast network of cronies. President Mobutu turned the country into a gangsters' paradise where only those in the mob could prosper. He kept friends close and enemies even closer. All patronage eventually flowed from him.

"We had to be close to the regime to do business," admitted Mohammed Abdul, a Lebanese businessman yesterday as he fortified his shop for an expected pre-Kabila pillage by Zaire's ruthless and brutal army. The Lebanese are hated by Zaireans who believe they colluded with President Mobutu to plunder the country's diamonds.

The United States and the West are also despised for standing by while a nation suffered three decades of assault and robbery. During the cold war years they turned a blind eye to President Mobutu's excesses because he was seen as a buffer against the spread of communism in Africa, and in particular, in neighbouring Angola. Only when the cold war ended did human rights matter. But by then President Mobutu had amassed a fortune and Zaire was spent.

Villa Del Mar is just one of 20 luxury properties owed by Mr Mobutu and his family around the world. The Zairean President has built up an overseas business empire from his spoils.

At the city's Parliament yesterday a deputy raged at Mobutu's easy departure. "I want him here," he frothed, on the steps of the vast soulless building constructed by the Chinese. "I want Mobutu humiliated. He should not be allowed to just walk away."

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