LAST week Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko pulled a diplomatic rabbit out of a hat, brokering in one day a cease-fire in neighboring Angola's 14-year civil war. This week he expects his reward when he comes to see his friends in Washington. Zaire's ambassador here says his impoverished country deserves more aid. Bush administration officials say there is not much they can do for the flamboyant central African potentate. Translation: Zaire has already gotten all the help available, given the limited foreign aid budget and opposition from Congress fueled by reported Zairian corruption and human rights abuses. For fiscal year 1989, Zaire is slated to receive $60 million worth of development assistance (most of it in-kind aid) and $3 million in military aid.
But President Mobutu is about to get something money cannot buy: the honor of being the first African head of state to make an official visit to Washington during George Bush's presidency. News coverage will also likely focus largely on how he accomplished the Angola cease-fire, rather than the usual questions about his allegedly fantastic personal wealth.
Mobutu's visit may not be big news in the US, but it is back home. News photos of him shaking hands with President Bush will be front-page stuff in Zaire, helping to reinforce his already solid position as absolute ruler with friends in high places, says Michael Schatzberg, an assistant professor of African studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
State Department officials say they were surprised by the speed with which Mobutu organized the 18-nation summit of African leaders and the subsequent cease-fire. On the other hand, a US official says, if any African leader could pull it off, it was Mobutu. ``He's practically a genius when it comes to politics,'' the official says. ``We just wish he could manage his economy better.''
The US helped pave the way for the Angola accord by brokering last December's regional agreement that provided for the independence of Namibia, which borders on Angola. But the US was on the sidelines for last week's agreement on Angola and will stay there during future negotiations to iron out the agreement, US officials say. For now, the US will continue to send arms to the guerrilla forces of Jonas Savimbi, who has been fighting Angola's Marxist government. The US has also made known its desire that Mr. Savimbi not be sent into exile.
If the Angolan rivals do succeed in permanently ending their civil war, the calculus of US-Zairian relations will change. Zaire has been widely reported to be the main conduit for US aid to Savimbi's force, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (a point Mobutu denies). With no war, Zaire will become less important to the US.
``For years, the US has had two competing sets of interests in Zaire: one, the East-West struggle, and two, the commitment to democracy and human rights,'' Dr. Schatzberg says. ``As long as the Soviet threat was perceived as real, the US could say he was helping the fight, so human rights will have to be sacrificed. Now ... if the perception of a Soviet threat is gone, the US will have to focus on the lamentable record on human rights.'' US officials accept the basic premise of that remark, though, one says that ``we can lean on Mobutu to clean up his act, but it doesn't mean it will work.''
Schatzberg agrees that the US does not have much leverage in Zaire. Over the years, Zaire has diversified its ties to other countries. Aside from its close (and sometimes volatile) relationship with its former colonial ruler Belgium, Zaire has developed ties with France, Israel, Italy, West Germany, and China, and eventually can be expected to establish relations with the Soviet Union, Schatzberg says. Still, the US can influence decisions on Zaire in the multilateral banks and has the overall carrot of continued close ties with a superpower, he says.
US officials acknowledge that Mobutu's open displays of wealth - frequent and luxurious travel, lavish gifts for friends, expensive homes around the world - are unseemly given his country's poverty. But they argue that compared with other African countries, Zaire is not doing that much worse. They take issue with allegations, documented by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, of systematic torture in Zaire.
``Human rights is always a part of the dialogue with Mobutu, and we will say something'' in meetings with Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III, a State Department official says.
``But the problem is exaggerated in Zaire. Mobutu doesn't need to kill his enemies - he buys them off.'' A case in point is Nguza Karl I Bond, a former rival to Mobutu now Zaire's foreign minister.
Even with no war in Angola, Zaire would remain an important ally for the US in Africa. Of the sub-Saharan nations, it is second in land mass and population, and is strategically located. It has more nations on its border - nine - than any other African country. The Central Intelligence Agency is assumed to have a significant presence there, and with the political situation of southern Africa expected to a key global hot spot for years to come, Zaire will remain an important US listening post.