Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mystery of Mobutu's Millions

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mystery of Mobutu's Millions

Article excerpt

Atopic 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.

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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. …

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