THE United States this week plays host to a leader who former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance described as ``a source of consistent if sometimes embarrassing political support'' for US goals in Africa. That man is President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who comes to Washington today fresh from hosting a triumphant regional peace summit and negotiating a new economic reform deal with the International Monetary Fund.
The Zairian strong man is seeking new respectability as peacemaker and responsible manager of his country's vast and underdeveloped resources. But this may not be easy, as he has been dogged by allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses during his nearly 24-year presidency.
According to former CIA official John Stockwell, President Mobutu pocketed $1.37 million in the mid-1970s from a Central Intelligence Agency fund meant for Angolan rebels. (Zaire provided crucial logistical support and a base for the US-backed Angolan rebels.) Just last Friday, Mobutu successfully concluded a summit in Gbadolite, Zaire, that brought about an agreement to end Angola's 14-year civil war in Angola. As a tribute, President Bush will host a luncheon tomorrow in honor of the Zairian leader.
Statistics pieced together from confidential documents and dozens of interviews in Belgium (Zaire's former colonial ruler), Washington, and Zaire, with international finance experts, World Bank and IMF insiders, Western diplomats and Zairian officials belie the new image. They lend credence to views of critics who see Mobutu as the last survivor - after Marcos, Somoza, and the Shah of Iran - of a generation of wealthy and corrupt third-world autocrats with close ties to Washington.
Critics estimate Mobutu's fortune at $5 billion, and say he amassed his wealth largely by misappropriating the products of Zaire's mines and lush farmland.
Mobutu puts the figure much lower. ``I would estimate it to total less than $50 million,'' he said last year when asked by US Rep. Merwyn Dymally (D) of California, one of his congressional defenders. ``What is that after 22 years as head of state of such a big country?'' Mobutu asked.
Repeated requests for a Zairian response to charges of profligacy and corruption have been to no avail. Mobutu initially agreed through a US official to be interviewed, but later withdrew the offer. ``No one but the President himself,'' can respond to questions about alleged financial irregularities, a Zairian spokesman said.
In interviews elsewhere, however, Mobutu has angrily dismissed corruption charges. ``Treating me as a thief is a grave, unacceptable, intolerable insult which stems from contempt and racist condescension,'' he told a Belgian publication this year.
Yet World Bank and IMF sources say that Zairian government officials, when questioned during the investigations preceding the latest IMF deal, were unable to account for $300 million to $400 million which disappeared last year from Zaire's foreign-exchange reserves. Most of this money came from the exports of Zaire's biggest business, the state mining company Gecamines.
Sources at the IMF, speaking on condition that they not be identified, allege that the US used its influence as the largest IMF shareholder to press for favorable treatment of Zaire despite the irregularities. A senior US State Department official, requesting anonymity, denies the charge.
IMF officials issued a brief press release on the new agreement June 9 but declined to comment further. Under the deal, Mobutu has agreed to tighten the money supply in a bid to hold down the 100 percent annual inflation rate. In February, under IMF and US pressure to roll back consumer subsidies, his government doubled the price of gasoline.
According to a World Bank study of Zaire's so-called underground economy, ``some of the most powerful individuals in the country'' have been involved in stealing and illegally exporting Zairian cobalt. The study, distributed at a World Bank seminar last July, also reports that well over half the country's gold and 30 percent to 60 percent of coffee production are smuggled out.
Confidential Zairian Central Bank figures, provided by an IMF official, show that the government spends more money on Mobutu's ``presidency'' than for schools, hospitals, road building, and all other social services combined.
The presidency is one of a group of government-funded ``political institutions'' controlled by Mobutu. Others include the Mama Mobutu Foundation and the Popular Revolutionary Movement, the ruling party.
The same Central Bank statistics reveal massive overspending by these political bodies. In 1986, the last year for which detailed figures could be obtained, the political institutions spent at least $150 million - almost three times the money officially allocated to them and more than 20 times the government's education outlays.
Both the governor of the Central Bank, Pay Pay wa Syakassighe, and Zaire's Washington ambassador have not responded to repeated requests for interviews.
In short, alleges an IMF official who has examined these and other recent Zairian financial documents, ``the budget and the mining revenues are really the private pool of funds for Mobutu and his friends.'' He says that ``if Mobutu decides to load a plane with cobalt to sell in Europe, nobody knows about it.''
Sources familiar with the IMF agreement say it includes provisions for a monthly monitoring of Zaire's finances in an effort to stem illegal outflow of money from the treasury. But tracking the money may not be easy. Some goes into lavish personal expenditures, like the fees for a Concorde Mobutu often leases from Air France for foreign trips.
He also spends extensively on gifts to friends and political allies.
At the suggestion of Representative Dymally, Mobutu gave $250,000 to a charity run by one of the congressman's closest political associates, Los Angeles businessman Dick Griffey. Both men confirmed the gift, but insisted that it had no effect on Dymally's political actions, and praised the Zairian President for his generosity.
And in February, Mobutu gave 5 million French francs ($789,000) to his long-time friend, King Hassan II of Morocco. The check, drawn on Mobutu's personal account at Bank Indosuez in Paris,