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Zaireans don’t need Mobutu back, just his billions

GENEVA, May 17: Mobutu Sese Seko does not have to worry about money. He was Zaire's bank. In the 30 years that he has been in power in the ...

Written by Chitra Subramaniam |
May 18, 1997

GENEVA, May 17: Mobutu Sese Seko does not have to worry about money. He was Zaire’s bank. In the 30 years that he has been in power in the mineral-rich country with the active support of Western democracies, the Zairean dictator made sure he inherited all the money his country had.

His personal fortune is said to be equivalent to Zaire’s external debt. Estimates say he has $ 4 billion in secret Swiss bank accounts in addition to several villas in Europe, all bought at Zaire’s expense.

As Mobutu gave up power on Friday and began the search for a home abroad, he lost atleast one of his options. A luxury home near the Swiss city of Lausanne was frozen. “The Federal Justice Department, in accordance with the Foreign Ministry and on the basis of the request for legal assistance on May 7 from the prosecutor of Lubumbashi, has decided to freeze Mobutu’s property in Savigny as a preventive measure,” a government statement said. The Swiss government further ordered that the home valued at some $ 2 million in the Swiss media be placed on the real estate registry as “blocked” so that it cannot be transferred until further notice.

The Swiss Federal Banking Commission a bank watchdog has also ordered a formal search for possible Mobutu accounts among Switzerland’s 400 banks and gave them until May 30 to report if they had any cash belonging to Mobutu, his family, persons or companies associated with him. While not a formal freeze, this means if Mobutu or his lawyers call up to clean out the accounts, the bank in question is expected (though not legally bound) to blow the whistle. But banking sources say there may not be much money left in secret Swiss accounts.

The timing of what is widely seen as half-measures against the Zairean dictator is a subject of controversy. for several months now, a clutch of Swiss politicians have been calling for a freeze on Mobutu’s Swiss assets arguing that the dictator has long ceased to be the legitimate representative of Zaire.

The official Swiss position, however, has been that Switzerland cannot act unilaterally unless a formal request for a freeze comes from the competent authorities which in this case happened to be officials appointed by Mobutu himself.

While blocking the villa and asking banks to go on alert, the Swiss Government has also said the move “does not in any way equal a recognition of a (Zairean rebel leader Laurent) Kabila government.”

Twenty-four hours after Mobutu left the country, it still remains unclear who is in control as the rebels led by Kabila take over the country in full view and in some cases with the backing of the international community. Kabila has already said he wants Mobutu’s loot to be returned to Zaire. Where to, is the next question.

Too little too late, the expatriate Zairean community based in Geneva said this week. At a Press conference, three exiled opponents of Mobutu, now representing the rebels, said they wanted all measures to be legally binding. They also extended their demands to have Mobutu’s assets frozen in the US, France and Belgium, all former allies from the days when Western democracies saw the Zairean dictator as a bulwark against communism. The most famous of many stories is the one where Mobutu gifted diamonds to the wife of former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The 66-year-old Mobutu, fighting cancer and seven months of rebellion, left his capital, Kinshasa, on Friday amidst speculation that he was heading for Morocco or France.

Swiss media have carried several reports about Mobutu’s millions and years before the Zairean dictator’s fall, questioned the legitimacy of his regime based on plunder, loot and torture.

Diplomats say the Zairean strongman can pay off his country’s debt with a personal cheque and not notice it. The Swiss villa was bought in 1968 for his first wife, Marie-Antoinette, who later died. Aerial photographs show the 30-room home on a 15-acre plot complete with a swimming pool, several garages, manicured gardens and according to Swiss newspapers, a well-stocked refrigerator.

Mobutu owns nine homes and castles in Belgium as well as luxury homes in Portugal’s Algarve region, several flats in Paris conveniently located near the maker of Mobutu’s trademark leopard-skin hats and several properties in Brazil, Spain, Senegal, South Africa, Morocco and the Ivory Coast.

He has luxury boats and aircraft coming out of his ears and diplomats say he may not be able to claim many of them now because of unpaid parking fees in airports and ports. The autocrat is reportedly one of the world’s richest men, having helped himself to government coffers and diverting proceeds from diamond and other mines to his personal accounts.

Mobutu is also said to have helped himself to aid and other payments from successive US governments fearful of communist advances in Africa during the Cold War.

Money from the IMF and other financial institutions also reportedly financed Mobutu’s greed for real estate. Swiss newspapers say the dictator’s son, Mobutu Kongulu Ndolo, handled millions of dollars worth of transactions through his former Swiss-based trading company, Groupe Yoshad, and sometimes paid for services with diamonds.

The man was obviously preparing for this day and unlike Imelda Marcos, ensured that his valuables were transported out of the country in good time. In sharp contrast to his riches outside Zaire, all that make up Mobutu’s palace in Goma are fake. The marble is fake and the chandeliers are plastic as genuine as his love for the people of Zaire.

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