Zaire: how to do business in Africa's "wild west" state.

Author:Misser, Francois
Position:Cover Story

Special correspondent Francois Misser has just returned from a journey through deepest, darkest Zaire. He has witnessed both the disasters created by the collapse of the state, and the vitality of those who have to suffer the consequences, Zaire's real businessmen - its people.

As soon you arrive at Kinshasa's Ndjili's International Airport, you receive a sobering lesson in the rules of survival in modern Zaire. Bear in mind that almost anyone in authority - military officers and civil guard; health, state security, immigration, and customs officials, get around $4 a week salary. Unless you are President Mobutu's own special guest, you will expected to "contribute" to the upkeep of the officials' families. A Japanese lady in floods of tears had obviously not come to terms with the unofficial rules.

More clued up visitors, like regular businessmen or those working for NGO's, have a special protocol ready and waiting at the airport. It is someone's job to meet them on the tarmac, lead them through the airport and out to safety with a minimum of fuss. It took us only half an hour to exit and it also cost us 'only' NZ 240,000 ($15), but then money is not precisely the object. A Belgian NGO involved in agricultural projects regularly gives bag-fulls of cassava flour to airport staff to ensure a trouble-free passage for its team.

Once one learns the ropes, things get easier. Sometimes a little too easy Sabena's security staff do all the security checks over again before letting passengers board their plane, just in case the Zairean security "forgot" to check that special parcel...


Once you leave the airport, the unofficial taxation becomes more frequent and sometimes heavier. On Kinshasa's sun-drenched streets, thirsty traffic gendarmes regularly stop vehicles and demand a "little something to quench the thirst with". "Tariffs" range from NZ 15,000, about one dollar for a taxi, to NZ 50,000 for a truck. For those in a hurry, a delivery of food bags every month (or cash equivalent) suffices. However, in order to "buy the road" properly, one must make sure that all gendarmes working on three separate shifts are satisfied.

But thirsty gendarmes are not the only obstacles to one's progress on the roads. Zairean businessman often find that they have to pay a great deal more in order to almost literally "buy the road". The "Roads Office" company, theoretically the state road repair department, is so useless that people call it the "hole office". Facing it sit the offices of Societe Textile de Kisangani, or Sotexki. Sotexki was recently forced to finance the reconstruction of a bridge over the river Lindi, by providing caterpillar trucks while peasants helped rebuild the road so they could finally evacuate their cotton crop. Sotexki (and the peasants) simply could not survive any other way. Over the last decade, hundreds of Sotexki...

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