Thursday, July 19, 2007

Just the tip of the iceberg: part II

Last week, I posted a story about how the government of Indonesia is seeking to retrieve $420 million of the money looted by their former dictator, Suharto. Now it appears that the government of Switzerland announced it would be returning $6.6 million dollars of money stolen by the late dictator Mobuto Sese Seko to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As before, the proportion of loot returned is a pitiful fraction of the estimated $5 billion Mobutu is thought to have looted from the treasure of the country then known as Zaïre. How does Congo's current autocrat, Joseph Kabila, feel about his diminished windfall? Well. Kabila's spokeswoman diplomatically described Kabila as being "disappointed" at hearing that the Swiss only found $6.6 million dollars, but frankly, I can imagine his actual emotions were probably a little more intense. This $6.6 million appears to be the last remnants of the billions looted by Mobutu, as Mobutu's tangible real estate and other assets in Europe and Congo have long since been auctioned off - albeit for dimes and pennies on the dollar. So where the hell did the money go?

While Mobutu certainly was one of history's greatest kleptocrats, efforts to find out where he's stashed the money have been time consuming and fruitless. Part of the problem, of course, is that while the sums looted by Mobutu were impressive, much of the money passed through his fingers almost as fast as he stole it. His fortune, mostly from assistance provided by the United States for Zaïre's development, bought the usual trinkets dictators waste their money. There was the luxury jumbo jet, lavish vacation homes in Europe, the usual fleet of pricey cars, and even an opulent palace with its own international airport deep in the heart of the jungle.

Time and money are fleeting, however, and nobody seems to have realized this more than Mobutu. The majority of the money was spent buying the loyalty of Mobutu's political enemies, most of whom forgot whatever grievances they had when a manila folder stuffed with $100 bills arrived mysteriously at their house. Under Mobutu, a ruling clique of kleptocrats nicknamed "les gros legumes" ("the big vegetables") emerged, all bought off with a steady stream of looted cash.

After all, Mobutu reasoned, why use violence when bribery will suffice?