Extravagant Evil and the I.M.F.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Oct 8 12:47:12 MDT 2000

NY Times, Oct. 8, 2000


Extravagant Evil and the I.M.F.


LONDON -- FIRST Seattle, then Prague. The recurrent images of clashes
between hooded demonstrators and police officers defending the barons of
global capitalism have become a powerful motif for the protests and
preoccupations of a new millennium.

At first blush, the demonstrators' rage may bewilder many Westerners. After
all, whether the body under assault is the World Trade Organization, the
International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, the institutions' stated
aims are surely laudable: liberalized trade, economic rescue and development.

But the protests — seizing on targets as disparate as finance ministers'
gatherings and McDonald's outlets — have touched a raw nerve at a time when
the gap between rich and poor is widening, when many poor countries labor
under unpayable debt inherited from the politically driven international
lending of the cold war and when trade, for many, means little more than an
uneven exchange of expensive Western goods for cheap commodities.

Nowhere are these issues more evident than in Africa. And as Michela
Wrong's "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz" (Fourth Estate) appears to suggest,
no single African country has taken the bizarre interface of ill- fated
international lending and corrupt politics to the same extremes as Congo,
the former Zaire.

As the title suggests, this is not a "business" book or a dry academic
study. It is a journalist's fast-paced account of the final years of the
regime of the late President Mobutu Sese Seko, whose blend of greed,
corruption and hunger for power fascinated generations of reporters from
his rise to power in 1965 to his ignominious demise in 1997.

It is a book whose time is right, because it illuminates much of the
current debate underlying the protests in Seattle and Prague. (Published in
London, the book will be issued in the United States by HarperCollins next
May.) It points an accusing finger at the readiness of the International
Monetary Fund to almost encourage the errant ways of a political elite that
it was avowedly rescuing from itself. And, not least for anyone who
contemplates greasing the wheels of business in pursuit of a quick deal, it
demonstrates the perils of corruption — a force that, in Congo's case, led
directly to a national implosion.

Mr. Mobutu was hardly a stranger to harsh scrutiny. No visitor to Kinshasa,
the capital, in his heyday in the 1970's and 1980's could avoid the twin
frisson of revulsion and bewitchment that the country inspired.

Here was a dictator — as this reporter can attest — who kept caged leopards
in his garden, dined off gold plates and repelled insurgents with the ready
help of the United States Air Force and the French Foreign Legion, even as
the African bush seemed to be reclaiming his decaying capital.

Then as now, Congo drew outsiders into its heady web of bloodshed,
absurdity and evil — distant massacres offset against fine restaurants
patronized by the elite, the pony- tailed pianist at the Hotel
Intercontinental who played "As Time Goes By" and presidential extravagance
on a scale as grand as the broad sweep of the Congo River.

All this imbues the rich, anecdotal tapestry in the book, starting with a
description of Mr. Mobutu's henchmen fleeing the capital, carrying machine
guns and Louis Vuitton luggage as rebels advanced. (The absence of the
pianist in May 1997, Ms. Wrong says, signaled that the end was nigh for Mr.

BUT Ms. Wrong takes the debate much further with her keen understanding of
where, exactly, the Mobutu regime was coming from as the ultimate heir to a
Belgian colonial administration founded on the awesome chutzpah of King
Leopold II, who in the 19th century simply took over the Congo — a country
the size of western Europe — as a personal fief.

Ms. Wrong, who covered the final Mobutu years for Reuters and The Financial
Times, has woven her title from an allusion to Kurtz, the central figure of
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," whose dying words — "the horror, the
horror" — have inspired legions of journalists and moviemakers.

She is quick to point out that those words have often been presented as an
indictment of African ways rather than Kurtz's own acknowledgment of his
own fall from grace. "Conrad was more preoccupied with rotten Western
values, the white man's inhumanity to the black man than, as is almost
always assumed today, black savagery," she writes.

And that brings her to the central theme. If Mr. Mobutu was the archvillain
of his nation's tragedy, he was not a simple caricature, or, indeed, a man
without a context. "The momentum behind Zaire's free fall was generated not
by one man but by thousands of compliant collaborators, at home and
abroad." This is no exculpation of Mr. Mobutu, but, in the present debate
over the role of international financial institutions, it helps explain
just why Congo — and many other African countries to a less dramatic degree
— got into such an enormous financial mess.

Indeed, it evokes a central question for the international institutions and
donors of today as they contemplate the morass left over from the cold war:
where is the morality in imposing yet more fiscal hardship on nations
burdened by the same debts as those the "compliant collaborators" in the
international community helped to create?

Zaire is a particularly glaring example. But, as Ms. Wrong points out, the
International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were complicit — by default
at the very least — in creating this monster. From 1975 to 1997, Zaire
received $9.3 billion in foreign aid, much of it at the height of the cold
war and much of it from the I.M.F. and the World Bank, at a time when the
United States and other Western powers were determined to keep Mr. Mobutu
in their camp.

Yet throughout this period — and particularly after the I.M.F. installed
its own representative, Erwin Blumenthal, at Zaire's Central Bank in 1978 —
those institutions knew full well that Mr. Mobutu was stripping the state
coffers not just of aid income but also of receipts from Zaire's fabled
riches in copper, cobalt and diamonds. Mr. Blumenthal subsequently reported
ample evidence of corruption, but any effort to restrain Mr. Mobutu was
thwarted by bigger geopolitical considerations. In the thinking of the
time, Ms. Wrong writes, "No one wants to be the official remembered as
having `lost' Zaire, Kenya, Zambia or Tanzania."

Only in recent years have those same international institutions come to
acknowledge that aid and other forms of assistance are inseparable from
"governance issues" — meaning that there is no point in trying to help
people who are, literally, helping themselves to the state's riches. But,
of course, the damage has been done. Debts have piled up, but forgiveness
is hard to come by, usually involving wrenching economic reforms that look
for signs of macroeconomic health long before they benefit ordinary people.
And, in the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, it is the ordinary people who have
become more and more destitute.

Not all of their leaders were corrupt. Often enough, in nations like Zambia
and Tanzania, misguided economic stewardship did almost as much damage as
Mr. Mobutu's kleptocracy — the term that came to be applied to the robber

That, of course, is where the protesters in Seattle and Prague come into
the picture, taking up the cudgels — it could be argued as uninvited
champions — on behalf of those millions in many parts of Africa who have
neither voice nor prospects.

Ms. Wrong does not, however, oversimplify or sentimentalize the argument.
Her account of Mr. Mobutu's interaction with wealth is far more nuanced,
pointing out, for instance, that state corruption is an expensive business.
Anyone looking for Mr. Mobutu's rumored hidden stash of looted billions,
she suggests, will be disappointed: if he stole from the state, he did so
in part to finance a network of complicit and equally corrupt lieutenants,
ready to repay largess with loyalty.

Neither is the issue made any simpler by the post-Mobutu regime of Laurent
Kabila that seems a continuation of rather than a break with the history of
venality. The protesters in Seattle and Prague might take note or, at
least, cast a more searching look over those who lead the people that they

Louis Proyect
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