Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents


Theft and Bribery

The widely used Lingala phrase, yiba moke, meaning "steal just a little," did not originate in popular conversation but in the text of a speech by President Mobutu in 1977. He was speaking out against runaway corruption and advised his countrymen that they should "steal just a little" or, perhaps, "steal wisely" and that they should invest the proceeds inside the country rather than stowing it abroad. Intended as a moderating counsel, Mobutu's words have come to epitomize the scale of corruption under his rule, corruption so commonplace as to command public presidential acquiescence so long as its practice remained "moderate." Some analysts, notably David Gould, have identified this massive corruption as the essential grease that has served to lubricate the machinery of state and without which it might cease to function.

Corruption is extremely widespread. A survey of government personnel in Lubumbashi in 1982 documented the variety of means by which state employees supplemented their irregular and inadequate salaries. These means included embezzlement (including direct payroll theft, often through the padding of payrolls with fictitious names), payoffs, forgeries of official signatures and seals, sale of false documents of certification, illegal taxation, second jobs, and foodstuff production and sale. Other analysts have added to the above false bills and profit-margin cheating on the allowed rate of profit for business; import, export, and excise stamp fraud; sale of merchandise quotas; postal and judicial fraud; and extortion at military barricades.

Bribery, too, is commonplace. A rich vocabulary for bribes is one index of its ubiquity. Anthropologist Janet MacGaffey has cited as examples in Lingala, madesu ya bana (beans for the children) and tia ngai mbeli (stab me); in Swahili, kuposa koo (refresh the throat) and kulowanish a ndebu (moisten the beard); and in French, comprendre, s'arranger, and coopérer (to understand, to come to terms, and to cooperate), which may be used by a speaker to indicate that a bribe is appropriate. Sometimes a gesture may be used, such as stroking under the chin, to signal that a bribe is expected. Although analysts debate whether the term bribery is an appropriate characterization of these exchanges, the scale of the phenomenon and the bottom-to-top direction of the flow of resources has not been contested.

The sense that public and commercial coffers are prizes to be won may be found in conversational phrases and in popular music. Adults knowingly speak of the avantages de la caisse (the advantages of the cashbox) in discussing a chief's economic position. Children in the early and mid-1970s would frequently shout out to passing expatriates a phrase from a popular song mondele, donnez-moi la caisse (white man, give me the cashbox), showing not only an appreciation of the continuing economic power of the first estate but also the sense of treasury as trophy. This sense extends to the upper reaches of society; university students in Kisangani would at times exonerate those responsible for thefts of public funds with the phrase s'il y a l'anarchie, profitez-en, (if there's anarchy, profit from it).

Data as of December 1993