Mystery of Mobutu's millions

A topic once close to my heart resurfaced this past week, thanks to the Swiss president, Micheline Calmy-Rey. On a visit to the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, once known as Zaire, she raised the subject of Mobutu Sese Seko's bank accounts.

Switzerland, she said, was keen to return the money deposited by the late dictator. In fact, if the Kinshasa government doesn't set the legal wheels in motion, the Swiss will be obliged to return the cash to his family in December 2008.

What prompted heated discussion in the Congolese media was the figure mentioned by Calmy-Rey: $6.6m. Six million, for the man who chartered Concordes to fly friends to his palace in the jungle and treated the central bank as his personal account? Joseph Kabila, the serving head of state, was heard to mutter that he'd been expecting at least $1bn. Shouldn't it actually be $5bn? asked Congolese commentators.

I was surprised no one went for $14bn, the figure routinely bandied about during Mobutu's rule. Since his overthrow in 1997, the mirage of an unclaimed Mobutu fortune has shimmered on the horizon. But while it's safe to assume his family will never go hungry, we are almost certainly talking millions, not billions, here.

I went into this in detail back in 1998 for my book on the Leopard's 32-year reign. I expected to spend the year talking to Congolese lawyers assigned by the new government to track Mobutu's money, liaising with western firms specialising in financial recovery, probing a complex network of Cayman Island shell companies.

It didn't turn out that way. There were no Congolese lawyers on the case, let alone western experts. The Swiss, desperate to clean up their reputation after the scandal over Holocaust survivors' assets, had frozen Mobutu's accounts and seized a villa near Lausanne. But their faxes to Kinshasa requesting guidance went unanswered. The government didn't want to know.

The more I probed, the more I doubted the existence of any huge hoard. Diplomats who served in Kinshasa in his final years pointed out that Mobutu had been having problems maintaining his personal jet. He could barely afford to pay a mercenary force hired to fight the approaching AFDL rebels, and raided his election war chest to cover the bills. Would a man with bulging accounts have hesitated to tap them at such a moment of crisis? It seemed unlikely.

Increasingly, I began to believe the presidential aides and close relatives who had sat at Mobutu's side. "A lot of money went through Mobutu's hands," said one who bore the charming nickname The Terminator. "But it didn't stay." To remain on top, Mobutu needed to buy the loyalty of his generals and governors with a steady supply of fat brown envelopes. If they didn't get their money, they were ready to go solo.

The other inescapable conclusion was that while Congo had certainly been destroyed by the pillaging of its diamond, cobalt and copper industries, this had hardly been a one-man job. The biggest disservice Mobutu did his country was to set a terrible example to his heads of industry, ministers and army generals. If he drank pink champagne, so did they. He milked state coffers ruthlessly for funds; they did the same with their companies, ministries and regiments. Raping the economy was established as the reward for reaching the top. And by the end, the US Treasury reported that the pupils were far outstripping their teacher.

Many of those players, far cannier in matters financial than a man dismissed as an "economic spastic" by the CIA station chief who befriended him in the 1960s, are now back in Kinshasa, having re-entered politics and made their accommodations with the former rebels who toppled Mobutu. The latter have proved no slouch in the looting department themselves, trading Congolese mineral concessions like so much freshly baked bread.

No wonder no one in Kinshasa is in any hurry to recover Mobutu's small change, given the far larger amounts many members of the Congolese elite hold in their own foreign bank accounts. Whether it's six million, one billion or four billion, I suspect Ms Calmy-Rey will find that no one bothers to take up her invitation to reclaim the Leopard's old takings.