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Mobutu amassed billions after pledging to live on soldier’s salary

May 15, 1997 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Gen. Joseph Desire Mobutu took power in Zaire in 1965 and promised his countrymen he would live on his soldier’s salary, many Zairians thought the pledge was too good to be true.

It was.

Building on a corrupt tradition dating back to the colonial era, the man now known as Mobutu Sese Seko parlayed extravagant tastes and a gift for plunder into a fortune estimated by U.S. officials at between $3 billion and $5 billion.

But officials believe that Mobutu’s wealth peaked during the 1980s and since has shrunk sharply as a result of a series of reverses, not least of which was his costly quest to cling to power.

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There are no reliable estimates of Mobutu’s current wealth and scant information on the whereabouts of his cash assets. A recent check of Swiss banks by bank regulators failed to turn up any Mobutu holdings.

A decade ago, the future looked bright for Mobutu, who seemed unchallenged on his home turf. Nowadays, he finds himself dying of cancer, isolated and virtually friendless. A determined rebel movement, having conquered the bulk of the country, is moving inexorably towards Kinshasa, the capital. The White House dismisses Mobutu as a ``creature of history.″

Mobutu is leaving behind one of the world’s poorest countries, not the country that he said 32 years ago ``should be among the world’s richest.″

The rebels have seized control of the diamond, gold, copper and cobalt mines whose proceeds had enabled Mobutu to amass his personal fortune and secure the support of military officers and political cronies.

According to Zaire experts Steve Askin and Carole Collins, Mobutu also took bribes from foreign governments and security agencies and was on the take from foreign investors. He had unrestricted use of millions of dollars from the government treasury and siphoned off foreign aid funds.

``Starting in the late 1960′s, presidential appropriations officially consumed 15-20 percent of the government’s operating budget and 30-50 percent of its capital budget,″ Askin and Collins have written. ``In 1988, this fund totaled $65 million.″

Jose Mutombo-Kady, a Zairian opposition leader, said Mobutu ``could pick up the phone and ask the Central Bank of Zaire to bring round $500,000.″ Nguza Karl-I-Bond, a former prime minister, says Mobutu had amassed $4 billion by the late 1970′s.

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His sprawling property empire, stretching from Brazil to Belgium, is said to encompass 21 estates with a minimum combined value of $37 million. He owns 11 properties in Zaire alone, including one on which he built an international airport for himself.

There was no shortage of international complicity in helping Mobutu gather his fortune. A preliminary U.S. estimate indicates that Zaire owes the United States $1.5 billion for loans.

Successive administrations backed Mobutu not out of personal affection but because he was a well-placed Cold War ally. John Stockwell, who coordinated the CIA’s Zaire-based war against formerly Marxist Angola, says the agency repeatedly made multi-million dollar payments to fund specific military missions, only to discover that Mobutu pocketed the money.

But the United States was hardly an uncritical friend. U.S. diplomats frequently pressured Mobutu to mend his ways. In the early 1980′s, Mobutu found particularly irritating the entreaties of U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley and asked him to leave the country.

Between 1976 and 1991, U.S. economic assistance to Zaire totaled $706 million. U.S. officials said some assistance was earmarked for non-governmental organizations to keep it out of government coffers. All aid stopped abruptly shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. military aid for the same period totaled $161 million.

A survey of Mobutu’s wealth, published this week by the Financial Times of London, says Zaire received $8.5 billion in loans and grants from Western donors, including multilateral financial institutions, between 1970 and 1994.

Leo Tindemans, a former prime minister of Belgium, the one-time colonial power in Zaire, told the Financial Times that donor countries were far too indulgent with Mobutu.

``There should have been a tougher policy towards Zaire,″ he said. ``Policies applied by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were not applied rigidly enough ... money was being lent in the knowledge that nothing was being done to modernize Zaire.″