ZAIRE has one of the largest foreign debts in sub-Saharan Africa. But it has been something of a model debtor when it comes to writing checks and tightening its belt. President Mobuto Sese Seko has largely met the repayment schedule by whittling the size of his government, allowing the currency to take a deep fall, and lifting import restrictions under a four-year agreement with the International Monetary Fund. But the austerity moves have taken a heavy domestic toll. Since 1983 Zaire has paid out $800 million to $900 million more than it received in new foreign help. Prices on key mineral exports, from copper to cobalt, are down; foreign-exchange earnings slid 17 percent in 1985.
But to get the ease-up on paybacks and increases in foreign aid which he argues Zaire must have to survive, Mr. Mobutu may have to improve strongly his regime's human rights record.
Some Western aid already in the pipeline should improve Zaire's economic balance in the year ahead. And an estimated $70 million in United States aid for the current fiscal year is on its way. But some in Congress want to hold back or at least reduce next year's allotment. They contend that human rights abuses in Zaire, well documented by Amnesty International and even by the State Department's annual report, are the ``gross and systematic'' kind banned by US foreign aid legislation.
Such threats pose a delicate problem for the Reagan administration as well as Mobutu. Zaire's President runs a one-party state but is a dedicated anticommunist. Though Mobutu denies it, Zaire reportedly serves as a key channel for covert US aid to rebels in Angola. Mobutu has been hailed by President Reagan as an important ally and voice of ``good sense.''
The State Department insists that human rights abuse in Zaire exists but is not official government policy and thus does not violate the law. The department insists that Zaire's rights record is improving; it points to Mobutu's recent creation of a Cabinet position to receive rights complaints and recommend redress.
US foreign aid has been denied nations in the past for human rights reasons. But in each case it has been a determination of the administration in power; it has never been judged consistent enough to constitute a violation of the aid law. Rep. John Conyers, who has taken the lead in Congress on the Zaire issue, contends that Mobutu's failure to correct the abuse does violate the law.
Every nation, just as each individual, deserves an opportunity to show it can do better. Keeping the heat on Mobutu, whose 21-year-old regime has long been accused of corruption and mismanagement, could be the best route to change. Mobutu has made a number of difficult economic decisions because the IMF, in effect, has forced him to. Let him now continue that record by diversifying the sources of Zaire's economic strength, opening his government to wider political participation, and by making it clear to his security and armed forces that the torture of anyone, including his political opponents, will not be condoned.