Rich Zaire is robbed of a future Corruption: Mineral-rich Zaire has been bankrupted by a corrupt and unpopular government whose days appear to be numbered. Nowhere is that clearer than in Kinshasa, the capital.

Sun Journal

April 09, 1997|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KINSHASA, Zaire -- For a time, Kinshasa University had the best equipment money could buy.

Now, its halls are littered with broken desks and broken equipment. Physics students perform their experiments in empty wine bottles. Professors last received their $30 monthly salary in December.

"It's not only here," says Okuma Kassende, head of the school's chemistry department. "The university is an example of what is happening all over the country. You find the same thing in the hospitals, in the primary and secondary schools, and in government buildings."

During the more than three decades of Mobutu Sese Seko's unfettered rule, the president and his allies became fabulously rich as the country slid into ruin.

But Mobutu is ill with cancer now, and Laurent Kabila's rebel army has seized 30 percent of the country, including the regions rich in diamonds and gold. Government soldiers are deserting wherever the rebels approach.

Kinshasa is thus a city waiting for an era to end.

It doesn't yet seem like a capital fully at war. Traders are selling their wares on the streets, and businessmen chat on cellular phones. Students who can afford school attend classes.

Accustomed to life in a city where the bureaucracy barely functions, people see little difference now that the state is collapsing.

"For the last three or four years, we've been living without a government," says Alexis Mutanda, editor of an opposition newspaper, La Tempete des Tropiques. "The black market is really the only system that works. Insecurity is our way of living. We don't know anything else."

Ask almost anyone about his life, and he will offer a catalog of woes.

People in Kinshasa complain about the corruption, the tyranny of soldiers, the bad roads, the inadequate health care, the terrible schools. According to the United Nations, half the school-age children in Zaire are enrolled in primary school, but only a fourth of them will graduate.

"This is a rich country," says Didi Zingama, the 26-year-old father of a young son. "But I have nothing, nothing at all."

He works at the edge of a muddy canal in Kinshasa, cleaning plastic containers that street children have fished out of garbage heaps. He washes them and then offers them for sale, earning about a dollar on a good day.

Zingama says he has two goals: getting a job and returning to school, having been forced to leave school when he was 10 years old because his parents could not afford it.

"The fundamental problem is that the government has totally abandoned its responsibilities," says Kitsisa Khonde, head of Kinshasa University's physics department. "The money in this country was never invested in construction or infrastructure or research. It was stolen."

"Everything must be redone -- here and all over the country," says Kassende, the chemistry professor.

The roads would be a good place to begin. Potholes large enough to swallow a car make travel impossible between some of the major cities. The 300-mile trip from Kinshasa to Kikwit, for example, takes 20 hours in a four-wheel-drive car.

Many government services are virtually nonexistent. Postal workers are on strike because they haven't been paid in months, though even before the strike, letters were no longer delivered outside the capital. In Kinshasa's poorer neighborhoods, garbage is piled up in heaps along the side of the road or dumped in a canal. Tap water is available only intermittently.

"The problem here is a problem of government," says Jean, a physician who offers only his first name. "The government does not do any planning. All they want is money. You must give them money before they see how dirty the streets are. You must give them money for them to understand what malaria is."

Western diplomats say that corruption is the main reason Zaire's infrastructure has collapsed. Money that is allocated for roads, for university programs, for sanitation programs -- whatever the program, much of the money ends up in the pockets of officials.

"Kleptocracy is the name of the game," a diplomat says. "Steal as much as you can."

Paying a bribe is normal practice to clear immigration at the airport. It is normal for a clerk to ask for a 10 percent kickback to handle an electricity bill. Gaining entry to the Palace of the People, where Zaire's transitional Parliament meets, requires a "gift" to the soldiers standing guard.

But some of the the people who benefit from this system live very well.

There is, for example, Banda Bongo, a senior regulatory official in the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. He can afford to send his children to school in Europe and drive a red BMW. His immediate boss drives a black one.

And he is an affable figure, smiling as he describes how he profits from running a private business from his government office, a business that offers much the same services the government is supposed to provide.

"Everyone is in need of telecommunications services," Bongo says. "Users need frequencies. We sell them."

At Kinshasa University, the decay is acute. Hallways are junkyards littered with computers and laboratory equipment that no longer works. Professors needing pens, books, and other supplies must buy them with their money -- or with the "donations" the students' parents must make.

"The only reason that one comes to work is because of a passion for the subject," says Kassende, the chemistry professor. "And because there is nothing else to do."

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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