Mobutu Sese Seko may have given up his powers, but during three decades the dictator who promised his impoverished African land that he would live on his soldier’s pay salted away a vast secret fortune often estimated at $4 billion.
That huge sum would make him richer than well-known tycoons like Rupert Murdoch or Ross Perot, and give Zaire’s longtime ruler the same assessed value as a company the size of United Airlines parent UAL, or a similar Fortune 500 corporation.
During Mobutu’s years in office, Zaire’s treasury was plundered, foreign aid - including U.S. taxpayer money channeled through the CIA and other agencies siphoned off, economic assets such as copper mines and cocoa plantations embezzled from and bribes demanded and obtained.
The former army general appeared to consider his country - the repository of vast deposits of diamonds, timber, copper, cobalt and other natural resources - to be his private plantation. “I owe Zaire nothing,” Mobutu has said. “It’s Zaire that owes me everything.”
A few years ago, the employee of a U.N. agency based in Geneva recalled there was an army revolt in Zaire, and Mobutu’s position looked shaky. That night, the Swiss remembered, he heard the droning of an airplane.
It was the Zairian presidential jet, he later learned, ferrying in a last-minute shipment of coffee for sale to Europe. “Mobutu could just never steal enough,” the Swiss said. “He had to have every last bean.”
Mobutu himself told a reporter for Time magazine in 1993 that his available funds “amounted to no more than $10 million.” But that, Mobutu said, did not include foreign real estate holdings or nonliquid assets.
Friday, hours before the cancer-stricken 66-year-old left Kinshasa, the Swiss ordered a freeze on his luxury villa in Savingy near Lausanne, which local tax authorities value at $2.75 million.
Purchased in 1968 for his first of two wives, Marie-Antoinette, the Swiss property includes a large house, swimming pools, garages, a tree-fringed pond and a small chalet nestled in a garden.
Under the Swiss order, the estate in the canton of Vaud now cannot be sold or transferred until further notice. The rebels fighting Mobutu had asked that his assets in the country be impounded.
But the decision by Swiss authorities did not affect any of Mobutu’s bank assets that still may be in the country, which at one time were believed to total about $4 billion. And he has plenty of other properties elsewhere.
Those include a vacation home at Cap Martin on the Mediterranean coast of France worth more than $4 million, an apartment on the upscale Avenue Foch in Paris, numerous properties in Belgium, a home in Madrid, Spain, a seaside villa and hotel in Marbella, Spain, and a chateau in southern Portugal that is said to boast a wine cellar stocked with 14,000 bottles of choice vintages.
In Zaire alone, Mobutu owns 11 palaces, a luxury yacht on the Zaire River and a private gold mine that reportedly holds 100 tons of gold spread over 32,000 square miles. A recent investigation by the Financial Times newspaper of London found Mobutu to be in possession of 20 properties from “Belgium to Ivory Coast, from Switzerland to Morocco,” with a minimum assessed value of $37 million.
The newspaper found the precise size of his fortune impossible to determine because “much of the property is held in the names of front companies, business associates and family members not using the Mobutu name.”
Under Mobutu, the Financial Times found, Zaire - a land of 44 million people - was used by the president as little more than a personal piggy bank.
According to two U.S. researchers, Steve Askin and Carole Collins, Mobutu was on the take from foreign private investors and foreign governments and security agencies alike. “Starting in the late 1960s, presidential appropriations officially consumed 15-20 percent of the government’s operating budget and 30-50 percent of the capital budget,” Askin and Collins also found.
As Mobutu’s reign reached its twilight, the responsibility of the West - and of the United States in particular - in allowing what is generally considered the greatest act of wholesale larceny committed in post-colonial Africa was being debated.
“At the beginning we thought Mobutu was the only person who could lead Zaire,” Leo Tindemans, the former prime minister of Belgium, Zaire’s onetime colonial master, told the Financial Times. “We thought he had the talent, capacity and intelligence. … Then he changed. He just wanted the money, from wherever he could get it, private companies, foreign governments. He had no feeling for financial policy, but it didn’t matter. He knew the money would keep on coming.”
Between 1970 and 1994, the newspaper said, Zaire received $8.5 billion in loans and grants from Western donors, including multilateral financial institutions.
Succeeding U.S. administrations, starting with the Kennedy presidency, backed Mobutu because he seemed a reliable friend. Americans involved with the CIA’s Zaire-based war against formerly Marxist Angola said the agency made covert multimillion-dollar payments to Mobutu to fund specific military missions, but that the money never went where it was supposed to go.
For some Africans, anxious to see democracy and prosperity become the rule rather than the exception on their continent, the greed of the Mobutu years was so enormous that the former leader should not be allowed to slip quietly into exile but rather be held to account.
“The world should take steps to set up an international tribunal to try Mobutu; otherwise this encourages impunity,” Tito Rutaremara, a member of Rwanda’s parliament, said after a two-day conference in Lisbon, Portugal, on the subject of central Africa.< Other participants said that if Mobutu flees to Morocco or France, as some expect, he should be extradited back to Zaire. “People who appropriate collective goods should be tried,” said J. Victor da Silva Angelo, U.N. resident representative in Tanzania.