The single-minded pursuit of wealth
MOBUTU SESE SEKO, who has died in Morocco of prostate cancer, aged 66, will go down in history as one of the most destructive tyrants of the African independence era. As President of Zaire for over three decades from 1965 until his ignominious fall last May, he ruthlessly weeded out opponents to his rule, and pursued wealth single-mindedly.
He used corruption and repression to maintain his hold over a country that was brought so far to its knees that it scarcely qualified to be a state at all. When he left power he was universally excoriated as Africa's greatest kleptocrat.
In his early years in power, he had been commended for ending the chaos with which the Congo, after independence from Belgium in 1960, had become synonymous - one reason the name was changed to Zaire. His own name, however, soon became synonymous with self-enrichment. He amassed a personal fortune, ranked in billions of dollars, which could repay his country's foreign debt several times over. The theft at the top percolated through the system.
By the 1980s, the informal economy was three times larger than the official one. By the mid-1990s, the Zairean state had become a shell, with a worthless currency, a decomposed civil service, and a president indifferent to the hollow nature of his power or to the fact that he symbolised grotesque theft.
Mobutu was born in Lisala, a town on the northernmost bend on the Zaire river, and baptised Joseph-Desire. He spent his early years there, although his father's village, Gbadolite, is the place on which he lavished funding.
The intelligent but undisciplined child was sent at the age of eight, when his father died, to mission-school in Coqmilhatville. After he threw an inkwell at a teacher, the priests packed him off as a conscript to the Force Publique, the Belgian Congo's colonial army.
He spent a year in training school, reaching the rank of sergeant and was noted as an "excellent secretary, accounts clerk, typist", but he wanted to be a journalist and started writing under the pseudonym of Jose de Banzy. A Belgian journalist working in the Congo, Pierre Davister, took him as protege, and he left the army to work as a full-time journalist in the capital Leopoldville (later Kinshasa). There he was plunged into a highly political atmosphere, as the desire for independence was growing.
Mobutu first went to Europe, as did many other Congolese, for the Brussels Exhibition of 1958, returning next year on a journalism course. He was in Brussels during the round-table conference of January 1960, which prepared for the rushed independence in June that year.
Mobutu sought to be in the thick of events and was a member of the leftist Patrice Lumumba's National Congolese Movement. When Lumumba became prime minister, he made Mobutu secretary for defence, allowing him to forge links with Western intelligence services which later served him well.
Immediately after independence, all hell broke loose, with the mutiny of the Force Publique, and the succession of Katanga. It was a time of chaos and opportunity. Mobutu became the first Congolese chief of staff (number two) of the new national army and stepped in from this strategic point when a political deadlock arose between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasavubu, On September 14, he staged the first of his two coups d'etat, suspending all political institutions and assuming power to rule with a non-political college of commissioners.
Mobutu's coup was successful because of its well-paid soldiers. Financial backing was channelled through Andrew Cordier, a senior United States official in the United Nations secretariat, and it was widely believed that the funding came from the CIA.
Mobutu was certainly close to Lawrence Devlin, the CIA's Leopoldville station chief, and Mobutu, after his early flirtation with Lumumba, was keen to present himself as an anti-communist. In 1984, William Colby, then boss of the CIA, admitted that Mobutu had been "chosen" because he came from the middle ground between Lumumba - thought by the US to be a communist - and Moise Tshombe, who had extreme right-wing backing.
Mobutu handed back power to Kasavubu in February 1961, but by then Lumumba had been murdered. Lumumba had escaped from detention, and when he was recaptured it was Mobutu and a few colleagues who decided to send the deposed premier to certain death in the rebel province of Katanga. Other political murders were later laid at Mobutu's door, but none echoes like that of Lumumba.
For the Americans it was more important that he was holding the line against communism in Africa. Even when he gave up power in 1961, and elected government under Premier Adoula was installed, he remained the card in reserve, as head of an army over which he had consolidated his hold. He was also a nationalist, against Katanga secession: this was crushed in 1963 with the backing of the Kennedy administration.
The crisis came in 1964, with the success of the Stanleyville Simba rebellion in the north and east of the country. Mobutu was by now a general and commander-in -chief, and he found accepted the European mercenaries who had been supporting Tshombe's secession. The mercenaries were crucial in turning the tide.
By now Tshombe was in power at the centre, helped there by Mobutu, though the ravages of the rebellion made the west realise that Tsombe was not the answer. He was not acceptable to Africa nor to his domestic opponents. When political manoeuvring unseated Tshombe in l965, and new instability loomed, Mobutu stepped in again.
On November 24, 1965 he staged a bloodless coup, and suspended all institutions. Political parties were banned, until he established his own Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR), which became the model for military-led single-party states in other African countries.
The new regime was initally seen as radical. It nationalised the Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga, the powerful mining conglomerate behind Katanga secession in 1968 and changed place names (Congo to Zaire, Katanga to Shaba, Leopoldville to Kinshasa) to provide a cultural agenda and an ideology for the regime. Any initial enthusiasm for "Mobutism" was soon destroyed by the greed of the ruling elite.
Initially the corruption and absurdities of the Mobutu personality cult did not worry his Western backers. But gradually, as Mobutu grabbed more of the country's wealth, the effects were felt on the morale and morals of Zaire. By the late 1970s, the international community had begun to notice the ill-effects of a president who consumed half his country's national income.
The most damning indictment came from unlikely source, an austere International Monetary Fund official, Erwin Blumenthal, whose report caused much donor alarm. The earliest to go cold on Mobutu were the Americans. Attempts by the liberal wing of the CIA to have Mobutu removed were foiled by French president Valery Giscard D'Estaing.
The Belgians were, from the start, ambivalent about the monster they had helped to create. But Mobutu had the measure of his former colonial masters, and became one of the first African heads of state successfully to manipulate European politicians.
Mobutu also knew how to use the Cold war to rally the West to his side. During the Shaba crises of 1977 and 1978, the French, Belgians and US all rallied to his support when Zaire was threatened by invasion from Marxist Angola, headed by ex-Katangese gendarmes. For two weeks in 1978, Shaba became a pretext for a bizarre episode of Cold war hysteria - reds were taking over Africa and grabbing strategic minerals - which left Mobutu looking indispensable.
That continued until May. However healthy the prospect of Zaire without Mobutu might seem to Zaireans, the idea always caused panic in western chanceries. Even in the 1980s, when economic reform became international policy, he made token concessions but carried on with business as usual, only more of it. His beloved first wife died in 1977, and with his remarriage he found he had two expensive families to support, doubling of his insatiable needs.
With the end of the superpower rivalries in 1990, and the wave of democracy which swept Africa, Mobutu could no longer ignore multi-party democracy, as he had done when Jimmy Carter had first suggested it to him 1980. The demands and the demonstrations which led to his bitter speech in 1990 accepting multi-party democracy as a necessary evil, were followed by one of those visceral acts of violence which punctuated his regime: the brutal massacre of university students at Lubumbashi by government troops.
Mobutu was obliged to accept a national conference and even, for a time, as prime minister, Etienne Tshisekedi, originally one of Mobutu's commissioners, but by then the one opposition leader he had been unable to buy off. It seemed as if the great dictator was finally to be defeated.
Mobutu rarely visited the capital, dividing his time between his luxury cruiser on the river and his gilded retreat at Gbadolite, where farms, chapels, factories and an airstrip were built around a palace modelled on the Belgian royal residence at Laeken. All he had to do to remain in power was to pay those soldiers who still carried arms. He was even refused a visa to France.
But by the mid-1990s, as democracy faltered, the genocide in Rwanda and the influx of refugees into Zaire gave Mobutu the opportunity to re-establish himself with the west. His expertise in playing one power off against another was now deployed on humanitarian issues.
But in September, 1996, Mobutu was operated on for prostate cancer in Switzerland, which plunged the country into a succession crisis, even though he recovered enough to return to Zaire in December, gaunt and frail.
A rebellion broke out in eastern Zaire in October, which seemed to be a spill -over from the Rwanda cauldron, as Zairean Tutsis (Banyamulenge) were fighting the refugee remnants of the Hutu army and militias. It soon developed as a home -grown Zairean rebellion, led by 1960s throwback Laurent Kabila, with discreet backing from Rwanda and Uganda, and, to a lesser extent, Burundi. This made steady headway in territory along the east Zaire border, and the demoralised, loot-minded Zaire army retreated in chaos.
Mobutu tried to recover the situation on his return by changing the army top brass, recruiting mercenaries, and buying more arms, but this was neither 1964 or 1978. His international support - with the exception of perhaps France and Belgium - was no longer there. After another desperate visit to his French doctors, he went home in January to his Gbadolite retreat, ever nearer the rebellion's front line. The brief revival of pro-Mobutu spirit in the capital (he created the problem, let him sort it out), when it looked as if he might be able to turn the tables on the rebellion, had evaporated.
As Kabila captured first Kisangani, then Kasai and Shaba, giving him control of eastern Zaire, and crucially, the country's mineral wealth, Mobutu's attempts to cling to power looked hopeless. After another medical visit to France, and a futile attempt to deploy Serbian mercenaries, he succumbed to pressure - coming particularly from the US and South Africa - and agreed to meet Kabila in the presence of President Mandela on the South African ship, the Outeniqua, offshore from the Congo Republic.
Although little happened, the meeting had all the trappings of a symbolic surrender, a slipping-away of power.
While those like Ambassador Richardson had done their best to tell Mobutu this bitter truth, his entourage and family still bolstered him with fantasies that he could somehow reverse the tide, or cling to some nominal form of power. Hence the fanciful idea of handing over to Archbishop Mosengwo, still allowing Mobutu and the Mobutists to ororganise elections.
But Kabila, with the military momentum in his favour, had no interest in compromise. The final victory of Kabila's troops east of Kinshasa at Kenge, dashed any remaining illusions, and the generals of Mobutu's own shell of an army told him the situation was lost.
Reportedly in a state of indecision, he fled without warning or conditions on the night of May 15-16, going first to Gbadolite - reportedly to remove the bones of his mother and his first wife from their mausoleum - then to Togo, before finding a further temporary base as a guest of King Hassan of Morocco, with a limited number of his entourage.
Requests for asylum in a number of European countries, such as Spain and Portugal met with no response, and even France, with its new socialist government co-habiting with Mobutu's erstwhile friend Chirac, proved unwilling to have him. Meanwhile, his health was deteriorating. Destiny had caught up with him.
Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire, born October 14, 1930; died September 7, 1997 -- (c) THE GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE, September 9, 1997.
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