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Foreign Service Life

March 2002

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Serving in Zaire, 1982-86: A Repor

In 1997, Arthur Lezin, a retired senior U. S. AID officer, published a book titled Afghanistan to Zaire: Reflections on a Foreign Service Life. (The nation of Zaire in 1997 had been named once again the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Segments of his volume were republished in the Foreign Service Journal, but not the following excerpt. It documents well Foreign Service life in a Third World underdeveloped country. —Ed.

I first learned of my assignment as deputy director of the USAID mission to Zaire in the fall of 1982. The reaction of my Africa-wise colleagues was, "Better luck next time." In their view, hardship pay—reserved for posts that were dangerous or unhealthy—was fully justified. Further, the government of Zaire had a reputation for corruption, deviousness, and indifference to the plight of its people that was unusual even by African standards. Rumor had it that the State Department and USAID were so anxious to fill long-vacant positions in Kinshasa, the capital, that the usual rigorous physical examination for assignment to tropical Africa was waived. I found this rumor not completely divorced from reality.

What my consoling friends could not have predicted was that a change in the political climate at home did wondrous things for U. S. economic assistance to Zaire. The Carter Administration's critical view of Zaire was based on the dictatorship's unquestioned human rights abuses. For the Reagan White House, however, Zaire was uniquely and strategically placed to support U. S. interests in the Cold War. The second largest country in Africa borders nine other states. It was useful to have a base in the center of Africa to deal with rebel movements and unrest in Angola and Mozambique. To show our appreciation, U. S. economic aid expanded many fold during the 1980s. The USAID mission had the pleasant task of carrying out projects that could make a lasting impact in the lives of Zairian citizens. Sadly, much of what we accomplished has been obliterated in the breakdown of order and the ongoing civil war.

I was accompanied to Zaire in February 1983 by Alice and our fifteen-year-old son, Benjamin. Katya, our middle child, was studying at a Lycee in Valenciennes, France, and planned to join us in the summer before going to college. Nicole, our oldest, was a sophomore at Yale.

Prepared for the worst, we were amazed to find that life in the American or European enclave of Kinshasa was not hard to take. We opted for a modern apartment in the center of town and lived there quite happily for the rest of our four-year assignment. Food prices were high, but the assortment of French cheeses and charcuterie flown in almost daily from Europe was mind-boggling. The official exchange rate was something like six zaires to the dollar, but everything for sale reflected the black market rate of thirty zaires to the dollar. Forcing American embassy staff to trade at the official rate would have meant living under house arrest and a likely mutiny. The solution, worked out by a wise and understanding ambassador, was this: employees paid in dollars had to exchange a minimum of $150 per month at the official rate. For the balance, discrete trading for exclusively personal use was allowed. We were lucky enough to work for the ambassador in question, Peter Constable, at two posts, Pakistan (where he was the deputy chief of mission) and Zaire. He took his work seriously, but not himself—this a style and philosophy that is all too rare.

Most of what we had been told about the government was true. Nevertheless, we and other donors were able to accomplish a great deal by working outside the official structure. Hundreds of private entities were scattered throughout the country providing health care, teaching classes, growing food, even building roads. Many of these voluntary groups were supported from abroad and had been in place for a generation or more. They needed the kinds of resources that USAID could make available.

A word about the USAID mission: As mentioned above, Zaire was not a sought-after post for USAID employees in the early 1980s. One consequence was that there were unusual opportunities for younger, less experienced individuals. Many of these were ex-Peace Corps volunteers who wanted to stay in Zaire. They were led by a small but competent USAID senior staff. I thought this was a highly desirable state of affairs. It was a pleasure to be part of a working environment where the watchwords were hard work, good humor, informality, and enthusiasm.

Finally, our stay in Zaire was dominated by an amazing stroke of good fortune. Alice had some misgivings about giving up a good job in Washington, but little did she know. Shortly after we arrived, she applied for and was hired as the secretary/administrative assistant to the head of the German Technical Aid program (GTZ) in Zaire. Germany was a major donor in Zaire by virtue of President Mobutu's friendship with Franz Joseph Strauss and succeeding administrations in Bonn. Alice's boss was more interested in collecting ivory and sampling expensive restaurants than in running a large aid program. He left under fire. It was no secret that Alice had been doing his work; the German Ambassador urged her to apply even though she was not a German citizen. A few months later she was officially appointed directrice of GTZ, a wonderfully interesting and challenging job. For the next three years in Zaire, the term "donor collaboration" took on new meaning.

Here are some of the people and events that made our assignment memorable. First, a brief look at recent history.

From Stanley to Mobutu
Not counting Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen, Henry Morton Stanley, journalist and explorer extraordinaire, brought the Congo to the world's attention. His momentous meeting with David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871 was followed by his exploration of the Congo River from its head waters, the Lualaba. In the annals of Africa exploration this ranks as a monumental, not to say heroic, accomplishment. In February 1877, he made this diary entry:

Livingstone called floating down the Lualaba a foolhardy feat. So it is, and were I to do it again. I would not attempt it without two hundred guns. The natives, besides being savage, ferocious, to an extreme degree, are powerful and have means by land and water to exercise to great lengths their ferocity. I pen these lines with a half feeling that they never will be read by another white person. . . .

King Leopold of Belgium then entered the scene, personally assuming control and the rights of exploitation for this huge part of central Africa. The brutality of his overseers in extracting the country's wealth led to world-wide condemnation. In 1905, Mark Twain did his part to publicize the atrocities by writing a satirical defense by King Leopold of his Congo stewardship, "King Leopold's Soliloquy." The Belgian government then took over, but there was little cause for rejoicing in the Congo. Belgium ruled with a mixture of paternalism, rigid authority, and force. When the pressures mounted for an end to colonialism in Africa after the Second World War, the Belgian Congo was totally unprepared. Educated and skilled Africans were in extremely short supply. Education and training of the local populace definitely were not priorities of the colonial administration. Predictably, independence in 1960 was followed by chaos. Colonel Mobutu vanquished his rivals and emerged as Zaire's strong man.

The author and his wife, Alice, at the equator in Zaire, 1986..

Few dictators manage to stay firmly in control for a quarter of a century. [Note: Mobutu remained in power until ousted in a coup in 1997.] The accomplishment is particularly notable when one takes into account Zaire's volatile mix of tribal, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Mobutu was the son of a cook. Expelled from school at age nineteen, he joined the notorious, repressive Force Publique. This was a white-officered, black army the Belgians used to intimidate the natives. In the early years of the Cold War, Zaire's location and mineral wealth got the attention of both East and West. The infighting was murderous, but our man, Mobutu, emerged on top. The United States supported him over the years with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on who was in charge in Washington. The low point was the Carter administration, given that president's emphasis on human rights. (One did not mention Amnesty International in official Zairian company). The Reagan State Department took a different view of that part of the world. They believed Zaire was an excellent place to prevent further communist inroads in Africa. Ambassador Oakley, a holdover from the Carter years, was taking a hard line on the Zairian Government's non-compliance with agreements to restructure and reform the economy. He was replaced. Even the highly-skilled public relations firms working for the Reagan White House could not portray Zaire as a bastion of the free world. Nevertheless, Mobutu was invited to meet Reagan on several highly publicized occasions in the middle ‘80s. U.S. aid levels shot up dramatically.

How did Mobutu, self proclaimed father of the country, manage to stay on top of the tiger all these years? (His official name, repeated ad nauseam on radio and TV, is Mobutu Sese Seko Nkoku was a Banga. A literal translation in the local patois is: "All conquering warrior who goes from conquest to conquest.") He did it by brilliantly orchestrating rewards and punishments for his friends and enemies. Jail, exile, and a large security apparatus to keep tabs on all those of questionable allegiance reflected the down side of the regime. As for the carrot, licenses, import permits, foreign exchange—largely under his direct control—offered huge money-making possibilities to the lucky recipients. Appointment to the senior levels of government could also represent a windfall of bribes. However, selection for a cabinet-level position was no reason to relax or rejoice. The favor of the maximum leader was a sometime thing. Every few months the international community buzzed with rumors of which ministers were about to be replaced. The remaniement or restructuring was then announced with great fanfare. One consequence was that donor-financed activities dependent on top level Zairian involvement came to a halt.

Zaire is a country where the average, annual, per-capita income for roughly forty-five million people is under $200. The government has been either unwilling or unable to provide even the most basic health care, education or roads for most of its citizens. Why, one asks, did they tolerate Mobutu's incredibly luxurious life style? Certainly there was no secret about his countless villas and chateaux in Europe and in the city where he was born (modernized at great cost), and his frequent parties for hundreds where the food and chefs were flown in from Belgium. On the contrary, his trips and parties received maximum publicity. (His visit to Disneyland with an entourage of eighty and a tab of a million dollars did not sit well with the U. S. press.)

Perhaps the explanation could have been traced to the Africans' view of their tribal leader or chief. They expected such an exalted person to live it up. They may even have derived satisfaction from the demonstration of Mobutu's enormous wealth in comparison with other European or African heads of state. A related argument was that since Mobutu already had siphoned off billions, any replacement would have to start from scratch. University students and other Zairians who did not share these views expressed their dissent at their own peril. The security police kept close tabs on "agitators".

Mobutu's reign came to an end in May 1997. Laurent Kabila, head of the Angola-Rwanda-Uganda backed rebels, succeeded in toppling the dictator. Mobutu's prostate cancer certainly played a role in his decision to leave the country rather than fight to the finish. Historians will not treat his thirty-plus years of absolute control kindly. The country is in shambles: the economy is near bankruptcy, the transport and communications system is beyond dysfunctional, and the basic institutions of government are either weak or non-existent. There is nothing in Kabila's background that inspires confidence he will be able to deal with these monumental problems. A new chapter is about to begin in Zaire, but it is clear that the ordeal for its long-suffering citizens will not end soon.


Republished by permission of the author and publisher.

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March 20, 2002


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