Mobutu's Wealth Drains Zaire

When rebels took over the private gold mine of Zaire's president this week, it hardly made a dent in his personal fortune.

With 11 palaces in Zaire alone, a luxury yacht on the Zaire river and numerous villas in Europe, Mobutu Sese Seko is said to have amassed a fortune of as much as $5 billion - most of it allegedly taken from state coffers.

Now back in Zaire after prostate-cancer surgery in Switzerland and recuperation in France, Mobutu remains in questionable health. Should he die, an unseemly court battle could be unleashed for his fortune - much of which is thought to be stashed in Swiss bank accounts.

The true extent of Mobutu's wealth is unknown. Estimates range from $4 billion to $15 billion.

At his home village of Gbadolite, the president has built himself a marble palace surrounded by a moat of crocodiles and extensive grounds complete with lions and elephants and an international airport.

He has palaces, too, in each of the other 10 regions of Zaire.

"Mobutu controls every industry in Zaire," said Jose Mutombo-Kady, who represents the Democratic Alternative on the Horizon (Diaspora), an opposition group in Switzerland. "He could pick up the phone and ask the Central Bank of Zaire to bring round $500,000."

Despite great natural wealth in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and other precious resources, in the 31 years of Mobutu rule Zaire has become one the most corrupt and impoverished countries in Africa.

Its rich copper mines produced 474,000 tons of copper in 1986 but just 40,000 tons in 1995.

The currency, the zaire, traded at 160 to the dollar in 1994, but stands at 86,000 to the dollar today. Inflation has been at 100 percent since June.

Roads marked on the maps as highways have become overgrown by jungle. The telephone network hardly works.

While Mobutu received top medical treatment in in Switzerland, clinics in Kinshasa, the Zairian capital, have no medicine, equipment or food for patients.