An African Big Man In Trouble

It is truly a floating palace. Aboard the yacht Kamanyola, President Mobutu Sese Seko had everything he needed to run the sprawling country he named Zaire. Dignitaries such as Henry Kissinger and FranCois Mitterrand once alighted on the fantail hel ipad as officers in dress whites stood at attention; those were the days when Mobutu was the West's bulwark against communism in Central Africa. In the aft salon, places for 40 are set in rose crystal, as if the fine French champagne still flowed. The pr esident's pink bed is neatly made; two Bibles and a pair of crucifixes rest on the end tables. Adjoining are two single cabins--one for the first lady, Boby Ladawa, the other for her twin sister, Kossia, Mobutu's mistress. A leopard-skin cap lies on the desk of the private study. In the top drawer: a bottle of patent medicine for ""rheumatism and syphilis" and two 1990 bank receipts, each documenting the withdrawal of $500,000 from a Belgian bank.

Apart from the ruins in which Mobutu left his sprawling nation, the yacht may be the last monument to his grandiose reign. After he was driven from power last May to exile in Morocco, where he died of cancer in September, Mobutu's own soldiers and those of the new regime of Laurent Kabila ransacked his other palaces. But the boat's captain, Bokamano Ilinga, 57, welded the Kamanyola's doors shut and ""guarded it jealously," he said. Today the boat sits idle at the end of a decrepit government pier. It's now called the Lemera, after the small town, 1,000 miles to the east, that first fell to Kabila's troops just over a year ago. But Kabila doesn't use it. ""He doesn't want to look like he's copying Mobutu," Ilinga said.

In truth, the similarities are all too real. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits Kabila this week during a tour of Central and Southern Africa, she will find an edgy, subdued capital, where people stay in at night. The new leader has checked inflation but has slipped behind on his timetable for paying public employees and moving to democracy, obstructed a U.N. investigation into alleged genocide by his rebel alliance and had his critics jailed or beaten at will. His security for ces, mostly ethnic Tutsis from eastern Zaire and Rwanda, are increasingly prone to robbery. The new regime shows a growing aptitude for graft on a grand scale. And recently Kabila has crossed both the foreign interests that helped finance his revolution and oil-rich Angola, the rising regional power whose troops propelled him to the capital. Even some of his friends are now saying he can't be trusted. Kabila is weak, and regional struggles, combined with great-power rivalry, are going to bedevil Congo f or years.

Desperation could explain Kabila's most recent strong-arm tactics. ""It's getting impossible to do business here," said one visiting executive. ""They're going to kill the goose before it lays the golden egg." In recent weeks government officials h ave begun demanding big additional payments from foreign mineral firms that had already signed deals with the government and, in some cases, made substantial investments. The major shareholder of one U.S. mining concern told associates last month that a landmark deal he'd secured last April with a ""loan" of $100 million is being held up until he can produce another $100 million. A Canadian firm reports an additional demand of $5 million. American Mineral Fields of Hope, Ark., has reportedly complained that major mining concessions it obtained in the copper belt before Kabila took Kinshasa have now been offered to South African mining giant Anglo American.

There's more evidence of graft. Executives say they're required to make deposits using a bank widely reported in the local press to be owned by associates of Kabila's. Meanwhile, an African source with intimate knowledge of the country's official d iamond production says that officials from Kabila's party have already skimmed $20 million from official receipts. ""Who can say no?" he said. And tax demands can be ludicrous. One businessman says he was presented with a personal tax bill for more than $60 million, calculated down to the penny. After he protested, the tax officials left empty-handed, saying, ""Can you at least give us cab fare?"

Speculation about a coup attempt is rampant. Two weeks ago rival army factions battled in the downtown streets after a top military official was arrested; at least 17 died. Kabila recently expelled a top French diplomat for ""activities incompatibl e with his duties," and the local press called him a spy who'd been plotting with former Mobutists. Washington holds Kabila at arm's length. ""Our goal is to look beyond the immediate present and try to find ways to support, in the wake of Mobutu's death , the successful transformation of that country which, frankly, could go either way," said one U.S. official.

The stakes are huge. The eastern half of Congo remains a land of fabulous potential mineral wealth--not only in diamonds, gold, copper and cobalt but also such strategically important materials as magnesium. To the west, the country touches the Gul f of Guinea, a major source of crude oil for France and, increasingly, the United States. Oilfields off the Angolan enclave of Cabinda and the Republic of the Congo, Kabila's neighbor to the north, could put the region on a par with the rich Arabian Gulf sheikdoms, analysts say. Rich new finds have provoked intense rivalry between French and American oil companies for unallocated oil blocks.

Given what's known about Kabila's past, it's no wonder he's struggling to navigate these rapids. A contemporary of the Congolese revolutionary leader Patrice Lumumba, Kabila for years financed a sputtering Marxist-Leninist rebellion by trafficking in gold from an enclave in eastern Zaire. On a visit, Che Guevara wrote him off as a womanizer and a drunk. In 1975 his forces held three young Stanford University researchers and a Dutch academic for ransom in a remote jungle camp. The victims' families paid $500,000 for their freedom. In the 1980s, Kabila ran a seedy bar in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, according to U.S. sources. How he got from there to the October 1996 press conference at which he declared himself head of the four-party rebel coalition r emains a mystery, and Western reporters were kept off the battlefield. But it later became clear that he had been backed by an assertive new coalition: Tanzania, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola.

On the ground, the Angolan role was critical. NEWSWEEK has learned that the Luanda government established an air bridge to Rwanda and eastern Zaire within the first month of the rebellion. Using chartered transports flown by foreign pilots, Angolan President JosE Eduardo dos Santos sent in more than 3,000 men with heavy weapons. They were decisive in the battle for Kisangani, the only real confrontation of the war. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has since publicly claimed credit for putting Kabila in power. But on the political level, according to U.S. sources, Eritreans have been quietly influential. With so many cooks, it's no wonder that the Kabila team mixes free-market technocrats with old-line communists and officials startlingly unqualified to help lead a country of 55 million people.

If Kabila had enjoyed a period of stability in the region, he might well have been better able to consolidate his power. But his brief honeymoon was almost immediately interrupted by violence next door. Just across the wide point in the Congo River known as ""the pool," pre-election political skirmishing in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, escalated into a full-scale civil war in July. Kinshasa, the city many had feared would go up in flames on Mobutu's departure, instead became the refuge of choice for the privileged citizens of Brazzaville.

To people on both sides of the river, the roots of the Brazzaville conflict seemed clear. In 1993 the most doctrinaire communist leader in Africa, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, had been defeated in the country's first free elections. And the winner, Pascal Lissouba, soon ended an oil monopoly by Elf Aquitaine, the biggest French business in Africa. He brought in an American firm, Occidental Petroleum, which offered his government a higher share of oil revenues. It was a direct threat to French economic he gemony in the former colony where Charles de Gaulle in 1940 ousted a Vichy government and issued his first manifesto of resistance against the Nazis.

The month after the fighting began, Angola moved to settle the conflict in favor of the former communist. Diplomatic sources and eyewitnesses say that Kabila agreed to let Angola ship arms and troops to the former president through Kinshasa. Kabila even visited the Kinshasa airport on Aug. 23, after a big transport filled with arms arrived from Angola. Using a cell phone, he wished the former president ""bon courage." He waived the $15,000 landing fee. But airport officials later refused to allow the plane to be unloaded--even after dos Santos sent his defense minister to investigate, according to these sources. Instead, Angola shipped the arms via Franceville, Gabon and an airfield near Sassou-Nguesso's home village of Oyo, 220 miles north of Br azzaville. In October Sassou-Nguesso retook the utterly wrecked center of Brazzaville. Angolan troops from Cabinda also entered the port of Pointe-Noire. Lissouba fled into a gilded exile in Paris. And Kabila had a bitter new neighbor.

The strain seems to be telling on Kabila. Never svelte, he has bulked up noticeably during his six months in power. If he has any leisure, he's not spending it on the river. Aboard the yacht Lemera, Ilinga hopes instead to begin taking tourists out into the swift water, where the main traffic now is bare-chested men in dugout canoes, netting small fish. If someone would pay the arrears on the satellite telephone bill, he says, the Lemera would make a great meeting place for foreign businessmen try ing to cut deals with the new regime. ""We can make money from this," he said. More likely, he's in for a long wait.