American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

Serving in Zaire, 1982-86: A Report

Congressional Delegation
In the summer of 1983, the Africa Sub-Committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee decided to visit Zaire. Howard Volpe, Democrat of Michigan, and his staff were the most vocal critics of Mobutu, largely because of the dictator's sorry record on human rights. Their visit coincided with the emergence of a weak opposition in parliament to Mobutu, called the Group of 13. They sent a fifty-two-page letter to the president denouncing one-man rule. Since the dissidents could not move about freely, and since they had no access to what media existed in the country, they had no means to create a significant opposition movement. Recognizing that a meeting of the group with the congressmen spelled trouble, Mobutu approved the congressional visit with the proviso that the Group of 13 not meet the delegation together. One did not have to be clairvoyant to see that neither the Congressmen nor the Group of 13 would find this restriction acceptable.

As a first show of defiance, the Group of 13 tried to meet the delegation's plane at the airport, but were prevented from doing so by a large contingent of security forces. In case there was any doubt about their feelings concerning the regime in power, they showed up wearing coats and ties. This was strictly forbidden by the "Maximum Leader" on the grounds that such garb was an offensive reminder of colonialist subjugation. (Only an abacoss or Mao jacket met the government's sartorial standards.) Thwarted at the airport, the Group of 13 drove to the Intercontinental Hotel, where the delegation was staying. A junior embassy officer was guarding the elevator in an attempt to comply with the government's prohibition against a meeting of the Group of 13 en masse. He was not up to the task, particularly since both sides wanted to get together.

The embassy had asked Alice to interpret for the Group; she spent the next several hours translating the group's specific charges of abuse and wrongdoing by the regime in power. When the dissidents left the hotel late in the afternoon, the Congressional delegation was eyewitness to a small riot. The 13 were beaten up by the police and, for good measure, their cars were trashed.

One of the group, Etienne Tshisekedi, continued to seek democratic reforms over the years. In an effort to win time, Mobutu appointed him prime minister in the spring of 1997. He was fired a week later (replaced by an army general close to Mobutu), but refused to step down. One hopes that he will be able to play an active political role in the post-Mobutu era.

A Misunderstanding
In contrast with the USAID mission, which featured a large resident staff of technical experts, economists, and managers in Zaire, most donors followed the principle of lean permanent offices supplemented by frequent visits from abroad. The visitors—from the World Bank, German Aid, or the UNDP, for example—would depend on their local employees to brief them on the latest developments in their field. Normally their stay in Zaire was brief and they would require extensive care and feeding, from being met at the airport and guided through customs, to appointments with government officials, transportation, and, occasionally, translation services.

Thus it was that Alice found herself with a delegation of German agriculturists at the Agricultural Credit Bank. The visitors had asked for an appointment with the Bank's director to seek his support for a dairy project in eastern Zaire. The director was new and Alice had never met him. A secretary ushered the group into a well-furnished room, where a distinguished and friendly Zairian rose from the table. Alice made the introductions and suggested a member of her delegation explain the purpose of their visit. It was rare that a German expert was not fluent in French, but this was one of those times. He struggled, but finally managed to cover the main points he wanted to make. They all then waited for the director's reaction. It was hardly what they expected. Without saying a word, he gathered up his papers, smiled, and departed. Alice was mystified and the delegation crestfallen, particularly the advisor who had made the pitch. He was convinced that a more polished exposition would have elicited a favorable response.

In any case, there was nothing more to be done. They picked up their briefcases and left the room. The secretary asked Alice where they were going. "The director has gone, so there is no reason for us to stay," she replied. "Oh, that wasn't the director," the secretary explained. "That was just a client like you. The director will be here shortly." They never did get the bank to support the project, even though the advisor did a much better job making his presentation to the actual director the second time around.

The Country Club
Kinshasa is not the kind of place that has a list of weekly events, shows, gallery openings or plays. The choices for spending leisure time were limited. That is one of the reasons why the Golf and Tennis Club, in the center of town, was so popular with the European community. For us, it presented a frighteningly accurate picture of what the country must have been like when the Congo was owned and controlled by King Leopold. Most of the members were Belgians who had been in Zaire before independence, either in the colonial administration or in private business. There was a smattering of Indian, Lebanese, and Greek members, all made to feel they were there at the sufferance of the Belgians. Many of the latter had tried to reestablish themselves in Brussels or Antwerp, but soon realized that life in the metropole was not for them. They missed the tropics, the more relaxed pace of life, and the availability of servants. This did not stop them from complaining, however. The favorite—one could say inescapable—topic of conversation over a beer after the afternoon's tennis or golf was "Paradise," otherwise known as the Belgian Congo, when they were in control.

There also were a few Zairian club members (the Belgians had no choice), although the Zairians couldn't have been too comfortable there. We got to know one well—Christophe Engombo, I'll call him. He was an excellent tennis player, a confidant of Mobutu at the time the dictator took over, and, for a time, a senior (read highly paid) part of government. He had a falling out with his patron and had to leave the country. Shortly before we arrived, he had been reinstated and had returned to Zaire with his family. We found him amazingly and dangerously outspoken about the shortcomings of the current leadership. The Belgians did not exactly extend themselves to play tennis with him (or, for that matter, any of the other first-rate black players). A loss would have shaken their most comforting conviction of white superiority in all things. A tournament, though, paired Engombo against one of the more vocal and prejudiced Belgians. The match was tense and close, but for the predominantly white crowd there appeared to be a lot more at stake than the quality of tennis. They made no effort to hide their enthusiasm each time the Belgian won a point. It was as if they were saying: "Take that, all of you Zairians, for destroying our wonderful life."

Maureen Reagan Pays a Visit
It isn't every day that a member of the President's family heads a U. S. delegation to a country where you are assigned. One person who doesn't need to be reminded about the importance of the visit is the United States ambassador, whose appointment hangs on the thin thread of continuing presidential approval. Once it had been announced that Maureen Reagan would represent the United States at the twentieth anniversary of President Mobutu's accession to power in Zaire, there was no question what part of the embassy's business demanded the highest priority. Virtually the entire staff was mobilized to ensure that, insofar as it was humanly possible, there would be no glitches during the visit. A task force was assembled, schedules drawn up, assignments of responsibility made, cables drafted, and innumerable meetings held under the ambassador's watchful and critical eye.

Maureen Reagan's modest visit involved a supporting cast of forty-six: plane crews, Secret Service agents, interpreters, and secretaries. Despite D-Day-like planning and attention to detail, the visit was not a success. Part of it was due to Ms. Reagan's conviction that Zairian sovereignty was a myth and that the U. S. State Department controlled events in Kinshasa. When she spent two hours on a reviewing stand in the fierce heat, even before Mobutu arrived to initiate the speeches and parade, it was, without any question, the embassy's fault. That was not as bad as the indignity she suffered at the official banquet that evening. Instead of being seated with the other heads of delegations, she was banished to the all-female spouse table. This was not the way to win friends with a red hot feminist. Nothing that transpired in the remaining twenty-four hours of her visit changed her thoroughly negative view of that part of the world, along with her unflattering assessment of those of us unfortunate enough to be there that weekend. As far as I know, no one's career suffered, although it would be difficult to tell for sure.

The Japanese Make a Call
Meetings, courtesy calls, and exchanges of information between the various donor organizations were a frequent and necessary part of our professional life. The Japanese aid official in Kinshasa convinced Tokyo that Zaire was a desirable spot to unload some of the country's expanding surplus of foreign exchange. A delegation of six officials from Japan called on us at USAID to explore possible joint undertakings. (Wonder of wonders, these actually came to pass a year or so later.) One of their group was passing as a French translator, but those of us on the USAID side of the table found his French not significantly more intelligible than his Japanese. Things couldn't have been much better for them. It was slow going.

Desperate to find a way out of our communication impasse, I avoided the "translator" and asked the head of the delegation, "Do you by any chance speak English?" "Of course," he replied, in a manner that chided me for even posing the question to a Japanese diplomat. Our business was concluded quickly and amicably, although the translator looked as if he missed being the crucial, albeit far from perfect, go-between.

Republished by permission of the author and publisher.

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC