Behind the Headlines Zaire, a Country That’s Sick, Hopes Israel Will Help with Cure
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Behind the Headlines Zaire, a Country That’s Sick, Hopes Israel Will Help with Cure

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Zaire President Sese Seko Mobutu is a born gambler. Since he took power in 1965 he has played a number of international cards and, like the good poker player which he is, he has known how to stack the deck, change partners and raise or lower the adds. The French, the Belgians, the Americans, the Chinese and even the North Koreans have been used and often played one against the other.

Zaire’s foreign debts now total some $3 billion mostly borrowed from foreign banks. The United States has invested over half a billion dollars over the last 20 years and U.S. companies still have $200 million in the country. The French have poured in $200 million as well and Japanese interests were worth $185 million in 1978.

United Nations organizations, international and private banks, investors and larger corporations have all tried their hand at one time or another in a country which is known to contain large deposits of silver and gold, cobalt and cadmium, copper and titanium. They had all failed. Zaire’s problems have not only remained unchanged, they seem to have grown with every passing year.


When the director general of the Israel Foreign Ministry, David Kimche, paid his first secret visit to Kinshasa on May 20, 1981, Mobutu was at a loss. His country’s foreign debts had reached new peaks, foreign investors, private and public alike, were reluctant to pour into it even one additional dollar. Inflation was running wild and public unrest increasing. There was no real organized opposition inside the country.

But the masses were obviously unhappy and the armed forces had shown themselves during the 1977 and 1978 Shaba invasions as practically useless as a fighting force on which Mobutu could not count even for law enforcement purposes. The slightest spark could set off a violent explosion of popular wrath.

To make matters worse, the President’s only friend abroad, France’s Valery Giscard D’Estaing had just lost the presidential elections and could help him no longer. It was Giscard who had flown French paratroopers to Kolwezi during the second Shaba invasion, rescuing the trapped white community but also saving Mobutu’s tottering regime.


Mobutu needed a friend abroad. Israel needed to break out of its diplomatic isolation Neither the Zaire president nor the Israelis looked too closely at the horse’s mouth. Each believed that the other side could provide for more than what now looks feasible. The Israelis hoped that once Zaire renewed its diplomatic relations with Israel the rest of Black Africa would follow suit. Mobutu, who thought he knew Israel and the Jews well from his previous visits to Israel and his contacts with Kinshasa’s prosperous Jewish community, still believes that Israel can mobilize world Jewry on his behalf and influence the Western world, especially the U.S.

Throughout the year-long secret Zaire-Israeli negotiations, which culminated with Israel Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Kinshasa last November, no precise demands were formulated, Both sides preferred to leave things vague, Israel because it did not want to be tied down to any definite commitments, Mobutu because he believed that whatever he asked would still be too little as Israel could provide far more.


The danger of this situation became evident, to the Israelis at least, rapidly. Mobutu’s first concrete request, formulated last year already, was for Israel’s help in setting up a medical unit in his home province of Bolite. He requested that two Israeli doctors be sent and said he was prepared to pay for their salaries, their trip to Zaire and part of their equipment. Israel, according to his request, had only to “supplement” some of the costs.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials found two young doctors speaking fluent French-Zaire’s national language–but were unable to raise the $100,000 needed to materialize the plan. There simply was no available budget for this operation. In spite of Israeli pledges of good will, the medical unit at G Ba Bolite does still not exist and the two doctors have long ago moved to other jobs.


In spite of Israel’s own lack of financial means, it can help. It can provide agricultural experts, like the 10 now working at the N’sele Agro-Industrial domain near Kinshasa, who have managed in less than four years to locally grow a large part of the capital’s food needs. It can also train Zaire technicians, reorganize Zaire administration and help Mobutu’s struggling infant industry. Israel can do little, however, as long as Zaire fails to solve its main internal problem.

Mobutu called it in a speech in 1977 “Le Mal Zairois” (the Zaire illness). Europeans and Africans call it “Matabush,” the local word for graft, bakshish or corruption.

Everybody “is on the take,” everybody, or so it seems, asks for “Matabush” from the humblest market porter to the country’s top officials. At the Kinshasa Central Post Office I had to pay it, and as I was desperate to file a story, I had to pay a lot. At luxury hotels, sheets and towels are changed in the rooms when a proper amount of “Matabush” has changed hands.


At the newly opened Israeli Embassy in Kinshasa, contact with Israel was, and probably still is nonexistent. The telephone lines are invariably dead and, the telex never works. Both are chronic Kinshasa facts of life. The Israeli charge d’affaires personally drives to the Central Post Office every day and after paying ‘Matabush” drives back with a technician to repair the lines. The trouble is that when leaving the building, the repairman cuts the wires so as to be called once again and be paid a second time. Paying him a monthly sum, sort of a fixed retainer to keep the telex working is no good either. His colleagues will cut them so as to be paid as well.

In his speech of November, 1977, before the congress of his national Revolutionary Movement, Zaire’s only political formation, Mobutu denounced the “Zaire Illness” saying: “Everything is for sale, even the use by an individual of his most legitimate right is subjected to an invisible tax, openly pocketed by anyone in authority. Thus, a meeting with an official, enrolling children at school, obtaining school certificates, access to medical care, a seat on a plane or an import license — all these things are subject to this tax which is invisible yet known to everybody.”


This tax system is such that the “gendarmerie,” the military police the civilian police was disbanded for its alleged corruption–will stop a car driver at random to ask for “Matabush” and tourist guide books including the American Embassy’s official handout to new officials and employees, advise all foreigners to pay over but not get out of their car and only open the windows a crack.

The trouble, the serious part of this disease, is that the symptoms go all the way up. A serious study reprinted a couple of years ago by the prestigious “Foreign Affairs Review,” claims that in a year under study, 1971, in occurrence 60 percent of the state operating budget was either last or diverted to purposes other than those intended.

“Matabush” is blamed for Zaire’s poor foreign exchange income from its main exports such as diamonds, coffee or copper. It is also one of the reasons for the country’s shrinking road system. Only a few major new roads have been built such as the one linking Kinshasa with the presidential agricultural domain of N’sele and which also services the capital’s international airport. The overall estimate of usable roads has passed from 140,000 kms. (some 90,000 miles) at independence to 20,000 kms. (12,000 miles) today.


Government issued statistics say that some 30,000 telephones exist, a small figure at its best in a country of such huge size. Few of them actually work. To obtain an international call one needs a good “pull,” protectzia, and sizeable Matabush. The lack of telecommunications and roads paralyzes the country’s economic development. Agricultural products, even where and if they exist, can not be brought to towns and mineral riches remain unexplored. Their development is stopped by the widespread corruption which in its turn is due to the prevailing inflation.

Nobody, neither the modest market woman not the top government official, can live on their salary which in the best of cases represents a fraction of what is needed to remain alive.

Foreign investments have practically stopped. The Europeans who still do business in the country concentrate on export-import activities and not on long-term investments. Huge sums are made practically overnight but Zaire itself draws little benefit.

The Europeans have their private clubs, from which the Zairians are barred by economic considerations. There are two yacht clubs for sailing or motoring on the Zaire River, several riding and golf clubs and the ultra chic “Le Prive” where white diplomats and businessmen can dance in air conditioned luxury in white dinner jackets and black tie.

The upper class Zairians, the top officials and businessmen, after 20 years of independence, also want chic, well cut clothes, air conditioned cars, trips abroad and a luxury villa with swimming pool. They want to become rich as fast as the Europeans do.

The morale of the country is at its lowest and many observers wonder whether Israel can help where so many others, larger and richer, have failed. The task is huge and the risks, should Israel fail to live up to Zaire’s expectations, in proportion.

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