CAN sanctions influence a despot who doesn't care if his people suffer? That's the question facing the United States, France, and Belgium as they belatedly try to help the central African nation of Zaire escape the grip of one of the world's most successful embezzlers, President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Diplomats from these three traditional Mobutu allies are already discussing ways to leverage a transfer of power to Zaire's transitional parliament. Regrettably, the tactics receiving most serious consideration - such as a freeze on Mr. Mobutu's vast foreign financial holdings - won't do the trick.
To act effectively, the West needs sophisticated understanding of Mobutu's system of "kleptocracy," government by theft. Throughout his 28-year reign, Mobutu has treated the Zairian state as if it were his personal business.
A former accounting clerk for the Belgian colonial army, Mobutu became army chief soon after independence in 1960. He soon made himself a millionaire by diverting funds donated by the US and United Nations to pay his army. My own research, which draws on confidential World Bank studies and other highly credible information sources, suggests that Mobutu has diverted several hundred million dollars a year from Zaire's treasury, foreign-aid receipts, and mineral-export revenues.
Past attempts to restrain Mobutu ended in utter failure. The last serious fiscal crackdown came in the late 1970s, during the human rights-minded Carter era. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) sent a strict German banker, Erwin Blumenthal, to oversee the Zairian Central Bank. Mr. Blumenthal could not stop Mobutu's illegal diversions of Central Bank funds to overseas personal bank accounts. He left in frustration, declaring that "the corruptive system in Zaire, with all its wicked and ugly manifestatio ns, its mismanagement and fraud, will destroy all endeavors" for change.
The most likely future gambit was spelled out in late February by US Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He urged a US freeze on Mobutu's personal bank accounts, Zaire's suspension from the IMF, an arms embargo, and an embargo on Zairian copper and cobalt. But these proposals will fail unless modified and broadened.
Freezing Mobutu's personal bank accounts will have little impact. At minimum, he has transferred tens of millions of dollars to the foreign bank accounts of his friends and family. The freeze will be useless unless these individuals also are targeted. An effective freeze must also encompass real estate holdings in more than a half-dozen countries; equity investments in banks, resorts and other business ventures; the suspected safe deposit boxes full of diamonds; and a host of other assets.
Moreover, an ill-conceived freeze might keep Mobutu in power by denying him an exit route. Mobutu confidantes say he is haunted by the prospect of a Marcos-like unhappy exile, hounded to the grave and beyond by a new government bent on suing him and his family to recapture ill-gotten wealth.
A FREEZE on bank accounts is thus both too weak and too strong. To speed Mobutu's departure from Zaire, Belgium, France, Portugal, and other nations where Mobutu holds property should begin legal proceedings to seize his ill-gotten holdings. To that stick, however, they should tie a carrot: limited immunity from prosecution if Mobutu relinquishes power and accepts permanent exile.
Suspending Zaire from the IMF could be a very slow process. Far swifter action is needed to stop the cash flows that sustain Mobutu's day-to-day grip on power.
The world banking community must awaken to the fact that Zaire's Central Bank, illegally occupied by a Mobutu appointee in defiance of the transitional parliament, is a rogue institution that currently serves largely to launder diamond-smuggling proceeds. Instead of waiting for formal IMF suspension, all international funds transfer systems should immediately sever all links to the Central Bank. In addition, a global embargo should be imposed on delivery to Zaire of the currency notes, printed abroad, wh ich Mobutu uses to pay his army. These two simple financial maneuvers could instantly cut Mobutu's control over Zairian state purse strings.
An arms embargo is useful but insufficient, because Mobutu's power rests on weapons already in Zaire. Mobutu controls the soldiers, defying parliament's assertion of military primacy, only to the extent that he pays their salaries. If some Western nation gave Zaire's parliament enough funds to meet the army payroll, most soldiers would speedily switch their allegiance.
Because Mobutu's destructive regime has already brought the copper and cobalt mines to a virtual standstill, diamonds are the commodity to embargo. This won't be easy, since any smuggler can carry several hundred thousand dollars worth in his or her pocket. Nonetheless, authorities in Antwerp, Tel Aviv, New York, and other major diamond cutting centers should have relatively little difficulty pinpointing the major buyers and sellers of Zairian precious stones. If an embargo were coupled with close ob servation of Mobutu's customers and harsh prosecution when violators are caught, they will quickly turn to other diamond sources.
These proposals lack precedent in the history of international economic sanctions. Yet nothing less will succeed if the world really wants to help the Zairian people escape Mobutu's grip. Nothing less can save Zaire from the murderous civil war that will soon begin if Mobutu cannot be removed by peaceful means.