Sese Mobutu - History

Sese Mobutu - History

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Sese Mobutu


Zairean Politician

Sese Mobutu was educated in African missionary schools. He studied at the Institute of Journalism in Brussels. He also served in the Congolese Army, achieving the rank of Colonel.

During the 1960 crisis between Lumamba and Joseph Kasaavyuba, Mobutu seized power in the name of the army. He relinquished power after an election.

In November 1965, he again seized control and remained in power until 1998. Congo, once called Zaire, has recently been renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Where Concorde once flew: the story of President Mobutu's ➯rican Versailles'

For posturing dictators, only putting a new city on the map will do. Fifty years on from Mobutu Sese Seko’s ascent to the presidency of Congo, David Smith explores what’s left of his personal Xanadu, Gbadolite

Last modified on Thu 15 Oct 2020 14.34 BST

“O ne hundred thousand trees, 20,000 tons of marble are the ingredients of Xanadu’s mountain. Contents of Xanadu’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace — a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised enough for 10 museums the loot of the world . Since the pyramids, Xanadu is the costliest monument a man has built to himself.”

So trumpets a voiceover in the opening scenes of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the story of a plutocratic newspaper baron and empire-builder: “America’s Kubla Khan”. But we have already seen that Kane is dead and his Florida folly slowly turning into a dilapidated ruin. The same fate has befallen the grandiloquent mansions of other men before and since. But never, perhaps, quite so violently and definitively as that of another journalist turned billionaire with passions for art and politics: Mobutu Sese Seko.

President Mobutu’s personal Xanadu was his birthplace, deep in the jungle of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the biggest country in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the world’s poorest and longest-suffering. In the early 1970s, Gbadolite was a remote village of 1,500 people living in mudbrick huts and not even marked on maps. But thanks to unlimited hubris and riches, a new town was hacked out of the tropical rainforest, with houses, schools, hospitals, municipal buildings, a five-star hotel, a 3,200m runway for the supersonic Concorde and – the pièce de résistance – three palaces of kleptocratic kitsch.

Gbadolite remains the vision of a totalitarian master builder, like Astana in Kazakhstan, Naypyidaw in Myanmar, Oyala in Equatorial Guinea and one that never got off the drawing board: Adolf Hitler’s Germania. For posturing dictators it seems the transience of power and wealth is not enough. Only putting a new city on the map, shaped in their own image, will do. Each seems determined to take the inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb at St Paul’s Cathedral to a new level: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” (If you are seeking his monument, look around you.)

This year’s 50th anniversary of Mobutu’s ascent to the presidency of Congo will be no cause for celebration. Congo had just emerged from the catastrophe of Belgian rule: King Leopold II, arguably the most egregious of all colonialists, turned it into a personal fiefdom, killing and enslaving the population to enrich himself with ivory and rubber. But when the CIA helped Belgium assassinate independence prime minister Patrice Lumumba, opportunity knocked for Joseph Desire Mobutu, who had worked as a reporter and editor before returning to the army and climbing the ranks.

In 1963 he was invited by president John F Kennedy to the White House and effectively recruited to the capitalist side in the cold war’s African battleground. Two years later he declared himself head of state, renamed his country Zaire, renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa za Banga (meaning “the all-powerful warrior who, because of endurance and an inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”) and adopted his infamous leopard-skin hat.

The ‘African Versailles’ emerged from the remote jungle village where President Mobutu was born. Photograph: Sean Smith

America, his patron, appeared willing to bankroll or turn a blind eye to any excess. Mobutu rapidly set the tone for his rule by ordering the public hanging of four former ministers at a sports stadium for an alleged coup plot. He continued with a Machiavellian combination of murder, detention and torture on the one hand and bribery, corruption and patronage on the other. The mineral-rich nation’s coffers were looted on a mind-bending scale as Mobutu amassed an estimated fortune of $5bn and lavish properties around the world. “When he left power he was universally excoriated as Africa’s greatest kleptocrat,” noted Mobutu’s obituary in the Guardian in 1997.

Government soldiers inside Mobutu’s Gbadolite palace in 2001. Photograph: Saurabh Das/AP

There was no greater symbol of excess than Gbadolite and its palaces, for which he hired the Tunisian-born French architect Olivier Clement Cacoub and Senegal’s Pierre Goudiaby Atépa. His private palace, seven miles outside town in Kawele, brimmed with paintings, sculptures, stained glass, ersatz Louis XIV furniture, marble from Carrara in Italy and two swimming pools surrounded by loudspeakers playing his beloved Gregorian chants or classical music. It hosted countless gaudy nights with Taittinger champagne, salmon and other food served on moving conveyer belts by Congolese and European chefs.

Visiting in 1988, a New York Times journalist recorded: “At a marble-tiled terrace, voices rose from banquet tables set against a backdrop of illuminated fountains. Liveried waiters served roast quail on Limoges china and poured Loire Valley wines, properly chilled against the equatorial heat. ‘Bon appetit,’ said the 58-year-old president.”

Guests over the years reputedly included Pope John Paul II, the king of Belgium, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali, self-declared emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, American televangelist Pat Robertson, oil scion David Rockefeller, businessman Maurice Tempelsman and William Casey, director of the CIA.

“It was an African Versailles,” says politician Albert Moleka, who reckons $400m was spent and recalls how in 1985 France’s Gaston Lenôtre, the leading pastry chef in the world, flew in on Concorde with a birthday cake for Mobutu. “It was a big decorated cake with white cream. Another time he invited Paul Bocuse and other top chefs from Europe for a special occasion. Normally Mobutu liked traditional local food, like antelope, and fish and eels. He also had one of the best wine cellars in the world.”

Mobutu once presented Moleka, now a senior member of the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress, with a bottle of Cheval Blanc of 1928 vintage. He lost it when the president was toppled by rebel Laurent Kabila and Moleka’s home was ransacked.

The end of the cold war had left Mobutu living on borrowed time and, suffering from prostate cancer, he fled the country when Kabila’s troops marched a thousand miles to Kinshasa, the capital, in 1997. He died in Morocco shortly after, aged 66. The home of the looter-in-chief was now itself stripped bare by soldiers who smashed furniture, tore down silk wallpaper and stole everything down to the last bauble in an orgy of pillaging.

A decaying brown-and-gold gateway still marks the edge of Mobutu’s former estate. Photograph: Sean Smith

Just 18 years later, this Xanadu is a pathetic and pitiful shell, a mockery of Mobutu’s insane opulence. A decaying brown and gold gateway still stands on the edge of the grand estate opposite a cluster of small homes made from mud, wood and dried grass. Mami Yonou, 26, who lives among them, comments: “We are not happy how much Mobutu spent while local people were suffering, although he brought us gifts and clothes and money.”

Children heave rusting pieces of scrap metal to allow vehicles access, past vegetation and anthills and the control box where security staff would once have vetted visitors, up a winding drive of nearly 3km – doubtless once intended to intimidate or awe those in each Mercedes back seat. Finally, through a tunnel clad with rough red bricks, there it is: a tiered fountain in the style of Versailles that used to play instrumental music. Now the giant circular bay that once held water is dry, cracked and sprouting weeds.

Beyond it is the imposing entrance arch and, up four steps, what was once the atrium with a dozen marble-clad pillars and what was presumably another fountain with statues of lions on each corner. Only two of the forlorn big cats are still in position. Slightly off centre is a long corridor that leads to Mobutu’s old bedroom. Here the showman could proudly flick a switch and, through a hidden mechanism, panels would slide apart to reveal his bed, rising from the floor as if by magic, flanked by bronze sculptures of females named “The Sleep” and “The Wake”. Now that same alcove contains a pond of green slime.

A bed would rise up through the floor of Mobutu’s palace bedroom. Photograph: Sean Smith

The entire roof of the palace has gone, leaving only a skeleton of red steel girders punctuated by tall trees. Mattress foam, smashed marble and slivers of glass crunch underfoot. Slowly but surely, the palace is being reclaimed by the jungle. Bushes, flowers, vines, weeds, even trees shoot up through every available crevice in a living testimony to the fragility of civilisation. Hives and nests cling to the walls. From a winding marble staircase springs a single pink flower. In what is said to have been the bedroom of one of Mobutu’s sons, who was nicknamed “Saddam”, a spiky tree trunk rises higher than what used to be the ceiling.

At the back of the palace is a veranda where, in a screenwipe of imagination, one can picture dapper-suited diplomats sitting on sultry evenings, making smalltalk over a gin and tonic and watching the setting sun amid a chorus of crickets. One thing remains unchanged – the vista is stupendous: the green, tree-dotted, hilly landscape of an Africa seen in so many nature documentaries and tourist fantasies.

The old kitchens lie empty save for graffiti and ominously hanging insects. In other rooms are the twisted remnants of chandeliers, four cables dangling at crazy angles, and two shards of an Asian vase portraying a red fish. The surrounding terrain includes a toilet bowl discarded in thick grass and the rusting skeleton of a burned-out car succumbing to the embrace of a tree.

Down an overgrown staircase at one side are two swimming pools, their crumbling blue tiles again yielding to multiple flora and long grass, with algae dominating the little vestige of water. Bees buzz and make honey above the bigger one. The former garage has been gutted and coated with sharp-edged rubbish, but above, sections of a faux-classical ornamental wall are still intact.

Francois Kosia Ngama in the dried-up swimming pool at the president’s palace. His grandmother taught Mobutu’s mother. Photograph: Sean Smith

Yet the shattered palace is not quite deserted. It is still haunted by a handful of Mobutu loyalists whose parents or grandparents used to work here. They charge visitors $20 for a tour, carry out routine maintenance to prevent it turning to dust, and hope that one day the old autocrat’s children, who continue to dabble in politics, will restore it for the nation. Among them is Francois Kosia Ngama, 30, whose grandmother was a teacher to Mobutu’s mother. In its heyday, he recalls, the palace employed 700 to 800 chauffeurs, chefs, servants and other staff, plus more than 300 soldiers. There are many more rooms underground that can now longer be accessed, he says. “When I used to come here, I would feel I was in paradise. It was wonderful. Everyone would eat according to his wish.”

Remembering the days when Concorde came to town, he beams and stretches his arms wide. “It was this big. Its nose pointed up. Before it arrived, Mobutu informed everyone and sent lorries to take them to the airport.

“People were poor but at the time we couldn’t see it. We thought everyone was OK. The army was organised and well paid. There were clothes from the Netherlands and women had money to buy them. In education, teachers were on good salaries and couldn’t complain too much. Some needed big bags to carry all the money each time they were paid. Most teachers had their own means of transport but now it is not the case. Coca-Cola employed 7,000 people but now they are unemployed.”

The decline of Mobutu’s palace fills the jobless Ngama, who has been caring for it for 10 years, with sadness. “A white man from France came here and when he saw it, he wept. I take care of this place because it’s from one of our own. Although Mobutu died, he left it for us.”

This palace and two others in Gbadolite – one designed as a cluster of Chinese pagodas, the other for state business and now occupied by the military – are in terminal decline, but the town itself survives with a population of 159,000, a bustling marketplace and a sprinkling of bars and restaurants. It has more night-time brightness than many remote parts of Africa thanks to a hydro-electric dam that Mobutu built on the Ubangui river in 1989.

Gbadolite’s water ministry building was halted mid-construction and now serves as a school. Photograph: Sean Smith

Without presidential patronage, however, Gbadolite too has seen better days. The Coca-Cola bottling plant shut down and was turned into a UN logistics base. Concrete multi-storey municipal buildings were halted mid-construction and became improvised schools, breaking every health-and-safety rule in the book as they throng with children in blue and white uniforms. The once pristine Boulevard Mobutu has lost its lustre.

The compound that oversaw industry during the boom years now has a fading, almost unreadable sign and a deathly hush. Jean-Nestor Abia, 50, who has worked here since 1984, says: “We are weeping because Mobutu is no longer alive. He was like my father. I loved and worshipped him. He was not a dictator – he was a good man who wanted to unify people.

“At the palace I was at ease, I was happy. He would hold my hand and say, ‘You are a good friend of mine.’ I thought, how could I be with the president of the republic? It was exciting. He would joke with me: when I was eating, he would take my spoon and eat with it. At that time we thought Mobutu would never die. We thought he was eternal.”

Gustave Nbangu, coordinator of the once five-star Motel Nzekele. Photograph: Sean Smith

The five-star Motel Nzekele, opened in 1979 with decor to match, still has an image of Mobutu at the front gate but can only offer ghosts in its shabby reception, arid fountains and pools, red-walled bar and nightclub with exotic paintings of bare-breasted women. The empty cinema has ripped seats and holes where the projector used to be. To stay in one of the hundred rooms costs $50 a night.

The pope, the Belgian king and French president François Mitterrand all stayed here, says coordinator Gustave Nbangu, 49, explaining: “It was a beautiful hotel, five stars. It was a great centre of development. Remember this was once a jungle, a forest, with nothing here. But Mobutu was born here and when he became president he decided to build this and settle his people. He was like the father of the family.”

No one could accuse Mobutu, who brought Muhammad Ali and the eyes of the world to Kinshasa for “the rumble in the jungle”, of failing to think big. Gbadolite airport enabled him to charter Concorde, the fastest passenger plane in the world, for extravagant trips to Europe. In 2015 the vast runway, bordered by wild growing grass, welcomes only two or three tiny aircraft a week from the UN and one commercial operator. Most of the portable staircases lie idle and broken near the remnant of a helicopter engine and a row of flagless poles while, at the top of the defunct control tower, two windows lie shattered on the floor.

The mural of President Mobutu outside the mayor’s office in Gbadolite. Photograph: Sean Smith

At the check-in desk a luggage conveyor belt appears long dead, while wall paintings of topless women and muscle-bound men are peeling away. Up a stairway that lacks bannister or handrail, 25-year-old mosaics of African villages are surrounded by graffiti. At the nearby VIP arrivals lounge, uniformed soldiers camp out with music pounding from a stereo. The airport office has no record of Concorde’s flights here. The paperwork was lost for ever when the town fell and, like so much else in Gbadolite, that moment in the sun is fading into mythology.

But Mobutu survives in another image outside the mayor’s office. The painting depicts him in crisp white military tunic with cap, spectacles and green sash, his hands gripping a rail as if surveying an adoring public. Egide Nyikpingo, who has been mayor for seven years, says industry died out with Mobutu. “When I arrived in 2008 I was sad at the way the airport looked. When I drove from the airport to downtown, I felt very sick. We destroyed our most beautiful town. I still feel sad about it.”

Nyikpingo, 42, is aware of the ambiguities around Mobutu’s legacy. “He was a dictator. Everybody knows that. But the local people don’t mind the way he was behaving. They still like him. He did well when he decided to build this town, but the social conditions were not equal for everyone.”

Sculptor Alfred Liyolo sold several bronzes to the president. Photograph: Sean Smith

Seven hundred miles to the south, in Kinshasa, there are still some who remember Xanadu’s landlord fondly. Alfred Liyolo, 71, one of Congo’s leading sculptors, sold several bronzes to the palace in Gbadolite and designed a church and tomb for Mobutu’s first wife all were lost or destroyed in the looting. “He was a dictator, that’s right, but he was also a builder,” Liyolo insists. “He was a man of culture who wanted his home furnished by local artists. He was generous and allowed local artists to be known throughout the world and immortalised.

“But after his death, people destroy and don’t preserve. Today the town is just a shadow and nature has taken back its right. If I went back there today, I would feel desolation.”

Elias Mulungula, who was Mobutu’s interpreter for four years, echoes the sentiment: “If I go to Gbadolite today, I can’t avoid crying just as Jesus cried when he beheld Jerusalem.”

‘Mr Interpreter’: Mobutu’s translator Elias Mulungula, who went on to become a government minister.

Mulungula, 52, went on to become a government minister but admits: “I always feel more proud when people greet me as ‘Mr Interpreter’ than when they say ‘former minister’. Being interpreter for Mobutu was a privilege. He was a very kind leader, a gentleman. He couldn’t eat without making sure other people had eaten already. He was open and liked making jokes.”

Unswervingly devoted, Mulungula adds: “President Mobutu was a positive dictator, not a negative one. He knew what methods to use to preserve unity, security and peace for his people. You could feel at home anywhere in the Congo under Mobutu’s regime. There is no freedom without security. He understood what the people needed at the time.”

Even Mobutu’s long-time foes suggest that he was preferable to the current president, Kabila’s son Joseph, whom they accuse of corruption, human rights abuses and attempting to cling to power beyond his term limit. Joseph Olenghankoy, arrested 45 times by Mobutu’s regime and subjected to electric shocks in prison, argues: “With Mobutu we had a state, but he was a dictator. Today we don’t have a state – it’s a jungle. Kabila is killing more than Mobutu. Kabila is three times richer than Mobutu. Mobutu was respected in the international community Kabila is doing things in a wild and brutal manner.”

Olenghankoy, president of the opposition Forces for Union and Solidarity party, also expresses sorrow at the decline of Gbadolite. “Mobutu is a man, he is gone, but all these things should remain state property. The mistake of this country is they have destroyed and looted everything. They were doing that to rub out Mobutu’s memory, but the history should be preserved. The history might be positive or negative but it remains our history and we should pass it from one generation to another.”

The palace at Gbadolite is testament to the death of memory. In the final scenes of Citizen Kane, the protagonist’s childhood sledge, “Rosebud”, is thrown on a fire and lost. For Mobutu, the final surrender is to flowers, leaves and the African wilderness.

The Politics of Legitimation under Mobutu

After coming to power in the second coup of 1965, Mobutu entered into a period of consolidation as he eliminated his rivals and entrenched his position. Key to this first phase of his rule was the claim to a non-political, or even anti-political politics, in which the supposed chaos of the first republic was to be replaced with orderly, militaristic stability. Political parties were banned, initially for five years, and many of the major figures of the parliamentary era were removed from public life, with Kasavubu retreating into internal exile and Moise Tshombe dying under suspicious circumstances while imprisoned in Morocco. The politics of the first republic had been defined by a split between the Westward-leaning ‘Moderate Nationalists’ of Kasavubu and the more radical, in some ways left-leaning radical nationalists of Lumumba (who would, after his death, increasingly identify as ‘Lumumbist’), and though Mobutu had been publicly somewhat removed from this conflict his association with the Binza group put him clearly in the former camp. It was thus necessary for him to dismantle and disperse the group, appointing several of them to distant ambassadorial posts and encouraging others to abandon politics. By 1970 the once powerful clique had been neutralised (Young & Turner, 1985, p.60).

Perhaps the most difficult opponent for Mobutu to neutralise and absorb was Lumumba himself. But by 1966 he felt confident enough to effectively co-opt his former rival, renaming Leopold II Boulevard after him and taking the visit of Julius Nyerere as an opportunity to declare Lumumba a national hero, the ‘first martyr of our economic independence’ (Michel, 1999, 28:10). Mobutu now comfortably associated with the man he had helped to murder, absorbing his radical legacy into the new corporatist regime. Such is the power of apolitical politics it was possible to take a position so vague that all sides of the first republic’s divide could be absorbed into it. It is reminiscent of King Henry Christophe of Haiti, who named his great fortress of Sans Souci after a rival revolutionary leader whose murder he had been complicit in (Truoillot, 1995, p.44). By taking on the very name of his dead enemy, he absorbed him, disempowered his memory and subjugated his enemy’s legacy to his own. Mobutu follows the same pattern Lumumba becomes a national martyr, but who killed him? And what did he die for? It is notable that the National Sovereign Conference in 1990 would mirror Mobutu’s choice of phrase 30 years earlier by calling Lumumba’s assassination the ‘original murder’ (‘le meurtre originel’) of the Congo’s independent history. But in 1966 Mobutu seemed to have effectively silenced the remaining questions about this original sin.

Figure 1: Banner depicting Mobutu and Lumumba, from Nyerere’s visit in 1966.

Certainly the most shocking and brutal assertion of Mobutu’s power came on June 2 nd , 1966, when the four men accused of orchestrating the ‘Pentecost Plot’ against him were publicly executed in Kinshasa’s football stadium. The men, all of them political figures of the first republic, included Évariste Kimba who had been the last sitting Prime Minister before Mobutu’s coup. The men were accused of plotting to overthrow the government on Pentecost Sunday, which had been on the 29 th of May, and were arrested on May 30 th . Their ‘trials’ were essentially speedy court martials, in which they were denied even the right to speak in their own defence (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.336), another aspect of the militarisation of politics in Mobutu’s early years. The executions were opposed by the Congo’s Bishops, the Pope and supposedly Mobutu’s wife Marie Antoinette, and many wondered if Mobutu was overreaching all of these men had supporters or kinsmen in the army, who was to say they would not intervene? The hangings were a major test of Mobutu’s ability to defy civil society and to control the army, but he was determined to go ahead. The public spectacle was watched by a crowd of around 300,000 people. Kinois had not seen a scene like this since the colonial government had stopped holding public executions in the 1930s. As the final man was executed, panic broke out amongst the crowd and a minor riot ensued as people fled from the gallows (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.337-340). Mobutu’s point was clear. The pluralistic chaos of the First Republic was over the leadership that brought about independence was politically and in many cases literally, dead. This new system was to be militaristic, ordered, corporatist, centralised. The Congo’s 21 provinces were reduced to 9, and Mobutu loyalists were placed in control. The role of Prime Minister was abolished and absorbed into the presidency. As Mobutu was fond of saying, ‘in our African tradition, there are never two chiefs’ (Mobutu Sese Seko, 1971).

For the first few years, the point was that Mobutu would govern without a clear ideology or political position, but as he eliminated or co-opted his opposition it became necessary to begin articulating some kind of ideology that could be presented as an actual vision of how society would be under his rule. This began in earnest in 1967 with the publication of the N’Sele Manifesto and the formation of the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR), which would respectively become the catechism and the church of Mobutisme. The N’Sele Manifesto outlined a political philosophy that fused the fervent nationalism and anti-separatism of Lumumba with the ‘third way’ approach of the contemporary non-aligned movement, seeking to articulate an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist position without specifically aligning with either the political left or right. As the document itself said

“The Congolese Revolution has nothing to do with that of Peking, Moscow or Cuba. It is not based on pre-fabricated theories or borrowed doctrines. It is revolutionary in its will to base itself upon the population, and its goal, which is to change the former state of affairs. But it is a truly national revolution, essentially pragmatic… but it repudiates both capitalism and communism..’ (Quoted in, Young and Turner, 1985, 210)”

The two touchstones of the MPR’s foundation document were to be nationalism, and a ‘revolutionary’ approach to the nation’s problems. But this was a revolutionary doctrine that specifically repudiated the Marxist path ‘more than class struggle, the union of all is the guarantee of progress’ (quoted in Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.343). None the less, the manifesto talked of ending the Congo’s ‘economic colonisation’, and Mobutu was fond of referring to exploitative ‘financiers’ in reference to continued western interests in the country (Michel, 1999, 27:30). But this was class struggle in a global sense, in which the entirety of the Congo as a nation struggled against an oppressive, international class of exploitative capitalist powers in this formulation, class struggle between the Congolese themselves was undesirable and semantically impossible. There could be no room for opposition because the Congo was itself in a state of permanent, collective revolution against the colonial legacy and the international system. Though of course, a distinction was drawn between the previous oppressive influence of the western powers and the new influx of foreign capital that was to be seen as a victory, which would now underwrite the manifesto’s third key tenant grandeur. The MPR promised great infrastructure projects and fine new services, including ambitious hydro-electric dams and a series of stately new buildings for Kinshasa. The Congolese citizen was expected to take nationalistic pride in the achievement of national grandeur, thus, even if they did not personally reap the rewards of the nation’s success, it was still theoretically apparent to them. In homage to Mao, the N’Sele Manifesto was printed and distributed as a little green book, to be studied by all citizens. All citizens were automatically enrolled in the MPR.

Key to the consolidation period was the gradual replacement of politics with a single, monolithic bureaucracy, similar to the colonial government of the Belgians. It followed that all civil organisations should also be absorbed under Mobutu’s leadership. Labour unions were absorbed, and when the students resisted in 1969 they were massacred, and their organisations were consumed into the MPR’s youth wing. By this point the MPR had become the single most powerful organisation in the country, only the Catholic Church stood as an alternative power structure, arguable the only one that could not be co-opted or destroyed. As the first decade of the Congo’s independence came to a close, Mobutu for the first time appeared in public without a military uniform, instead now sporting his iconic leopard skin hat and ebony walking stick (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.341). Symbolically, he was now transforming himself from a military ruler into a true dictator. He was no longer simply an alternative to political and ideological chaos, he could now claimed to represent an increasingly coherent political and ideological position of his own. This was to reach its peak in the early 1970s.

2. 1971-1974 Authenticité and the Birth of Zaire.

Mobutu’s great ideological innovation, the concept of Authenticité, was unveiled not in Kinshasa but in Dakar, at the 1971 congress of Léopold Senghor’s UPS party (Young & Turner, 1985, p.210). While this may seem like an unusual move, it must be seen in the context of a major international push by Mobutu’s government as it sought to build up its credibility in Africa and further afield. In the spirit of Senghor’s Negritude and the Pan-African sentiments of contemporary leaders like Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, Mobutu now sought a more coherent anti-colonial position that would reject Marxism while still giving voice and form to the national rejection of the colonial past in favour of ‘the return to ancestral heritage as a spiritual resource’ (Ibid, p.210). In 1971 the country was renamed Zaire, a name taken from one of the earliest European maps of the Congo River. The literal word Zaire is something of a mongrel it apparently derives from a Portuguese phonetic approximation of a Kikongo word ndazi, meaning simply ‘river’. In some accounts Mobutu only learned of this after choosing it as a name for the country (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.332), but whether or not it was a mistake the confused origins of the word served a useful purpose since, unlike the word Congo, it was not derived directly from any specific tribal or language group, and could not be construed as favouring any particular group over another. This points to another key goal of the authenticité project the erosion of tribal power structures, and the transformation of ethnic loyalty and solidarity to a singular, homogenised national identity Zairian.

The architect of this ambitious project was Sakombi Inongo (born Dominique Sakombi), the eloquent young state commissioner of information who oversaw a sweeping cultural revolution in the early 1970s. Inongo described the overall philosophy of the project with the slogan ‘Recours á l’authenticité’, by which he specifically meant the resumption of, not the retreat to, authentic culture. Putting it another way, he said that the new art of Zaire would aim to ‘respond as our forefathers would have done, had their culture not been interrupted by colonial acculturation’ (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.352). This was not, in his formulation, to be a regressive, conservative development, but rather the employment of a rich cultural heritage in the forming of a new identity, a new Zairian world. The ideal Zairian was explicitly the inverse of the colonial évolué, it entailed the specific rejection of all foreign and alien habits and aesthetics. In practice, the colonial legacy in the form of names like ‘Leopoldville’ or ‘Stanleyville’ was eradicated in favour of traditional names like Kinshasa and Lumumbashi. Western clothing was banned, especially neckties and suits, as were wigs and hair straightening products, and as were any products that promised to lighten skin tone. Women were now prescribed the pagne, an elegant, flowing traditional outfit, while men faired a little less well with the newly imported ‘abacost’ (derived from á bas le costume, or ‘down with the suit!’), a high necked outfit imported from Mao by way of Nyerere, pioneered by Mobutu himself and usually worn with a cravat. Christian names were also banned, and all citizens were instructed to abandon forenames altogether and adopt an African style. Joseph Désiré Mobutu himself became Mobutu Sésé Seko kuku ngbendu wa za Banga. People were encouraged to eat traditional food, and Kinshasa’s internationally famous music scene was given significant state patronage, with the legendary musician Franco at the head of a new government agency dedicated to supporting musicians. And while the music of groups like African Jazz and singers like Tabu Ley may have sounded ‘western’, Sakombi quite reasonably pointed out that since all these genres had been so heavily inspired by the traditional music spread around the world through the African diaspora, there was no contradiction in absorbing it under the label of authenticité.

The same applied to public art. Across the country statues of figures like Leopold, Stanley and Albert I came down to be replaced by highly modernistic depictions of workers, peasants, and abstract monuments that seemed to suggest an African response to the likes of Picasso or Zadkine, with Kinshasa eventually acquiring its own highly modernistic answer to the Eiffel tower in the borough of Limete, which stood within view of the new memorial to Lumumba that replaced a statue of Leopold II. This project fuelled artistic growth on a huge scale, with over 200 sculptors working in Kinshasa alone (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.352).

Figure 2: Lumumba’s statue today, with Limete tower in the background.

Sakombi and Mobutu’s goals were deeply anti-tribalist their ultimate project was to create a new, broad-church tribe of Zaire and to force the people to transfer their loyalty from tribe and family to the state. In the early years especially ministers would be often chosen from the smallest tribes in the country, including long time politician Bisangimana Rwemi from the tiny Tutsi minority of the Lake Kivu region. Army units were required to be mixed, simultaneously inculcating a sense of unified national identity while limiting the ability of tribal groups within the army to gain too much power (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.341). They faced opposition from the church, who perceived an anti-Christian subtext in the project, particularly in the banning of Christian names, but also from intellectuals and academics that criticised the philosophy as vague and in some ways artificial. After all, the abacost was not really a traditional African garment, and was at any rate, along with the finest pagnes, produced largely in Europe and imported. On a theoretical level, Authenticité drew heavily on the work of two Belgian theorists, Fr. Placide Tempels and Jan Vansina, who had both attempted to define what they called ‘Bantu philosophy’, to demonstrate that the worldview and traditions of the Congolese people, far from being simply ‘naïve’, were in fact based on a coherent philosophical outlook on the world. Tempels work largely aimed to study the philosophical underpinnings of the societies he interacted with, while Vansen went further and attempted to illustrate that the Congo as a whole, while populated by many diverse and unique peoples, nonetheless possessed an innate identity that was definable and distinct from those around it. As he put it in 1966, ‘the cultures of the Congo resemble each other strongly when one compares them with other African cultures, and even more if they are compared with other cultures around the world’ (Young & Turner, 1985, p.214). Both became required reading for the Zairian intelligentsia, and while neither work was entirely wrong or inherently problematic, the theories were adapted for the benefit of the regime. Specifically, the MPR mandarins spoke of an inherent bias in African culture towards a strong, singular ruler, a chief, who could not be questioned and whose word was by definition law. This notion, often repeated for international journalists by Mobutu himself, was extremely useful for a party increasingly defined by the personality of their singular leader.

At the height of the authenticité project, the average Zairian could wake up in the morning and put on authentic, state designed clothing. They could then head to work, passing political posters and statues demonstrating the latest authentic art styles, through streets and neighbourhoods with newly minted authentic names, all while sporting a new, authentic name themselves. On their return home they could eat an authentic meal, perhaps manioc loaf and few pilipili peppers for seasoning. On TV they could watch some of the famous animation politique performances that were frequently broadcast, in which legions of brightly clad dancers (often wearing images of Mobutu or the MPR logo) danced in unison in joyous, aesthetic displays of national pride (or perhaps they would watch the Congo’s national football side, who shared their nickname with Mobutu ‘The Leopards’). If the news came on it would be preceded by one of Sakombi’s most famous innovations a short clip of Mobutu descending from the clouds, his piercing eyes staring the viewer down, in Sakombi’s own words, like a god (Michel, 1999, 35:50-40:20). If they were an able-bodied man they might spend a few hours of their day off taking part in a local salongo, cleaning streets or repairing roads on a volunteer basis. Authenticité was in many ways a huge success it had an impact on almost every aspect of daily life in Zaire, and it truly nurtured a sense of nationalism and unity of identity that could have laid the groundwork for a major national rejuvenation. It was in many ways totalitarian the state took it upon itself to determine countless aspects of its citizens personal, private lives, and it sought to reshape the country in the image of an idealised, constructed past. If we acknowledge that the project brought about a new sense of unified identity in a country still dealing with a traumatic colonial legacy and a half decade of separatist violence, we must also acknowledge that it involved the mass curtailing of citizen’s rights with regard to personal expression and self-determination. It should not, therefore, be surprising, that by the time of Mobutu’s fall in 1997 the necktie, once a symbol of westernisation and colonialism, had become a potent symbol of political protest against the regime (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.394).

But authenticité served the regime in more insidious ways too. At a time when the country was still grappling with massive inequality and heroic levels of corruption in government and business, Sakombi’s work aimed to convince the population that the basic problems of society were largely cultural, rather than economic. In other words, it convinced people that there was no class struggle in Zaire, there was only struggle against the outside forces of alien cultures and colonisation (discussed by Nzongola, 1970, p.529). This coincided with the rise of a new politico-economic state bourgeoisie, a class of wealthy politicians/business tycoons who were gaining ever more power through Mobutu’s expansive client/patron system. Between 1965 and 1990, Mobutu appointed 51 cabinets, each with around 40 ministers who all received substantial bonuses and perks, ranging from huge travel allowances to personal cars that routinely went missing with each outgoing administration (Wrong, 2001 ,p.101). These so-called grosse legumes were the primary benefactors of the disastrous Zairianisation policies later in the decade, at the cost of the nation’s poor and workers. Authenticité sold an idea that was explicitly anti-class struggle, it assured its audience that inequality between Zairians was never a problem, only inequality between Zaire and others was a problem. By encouraging the people to take pride in the opulence of their leaders, the idea sought to convince people that as long as the corrupt elites ruling them were also Zairians there was nothing to worry about. By portraying every problem as essentially a cultural issue, it hoped to distract people from the increasing corruption and inequality arising in the kleptocratic regime under which they lived. In this way, it could be viewed cynically as an example of circuses being deployed in place of rapidly dwindling bread.

3. 1974 Mobutisme.

As the golden era of Mobutu’s rule, fuelled by high copper prices and the Vietnam War, came to an end, the state ideology of legitimation became ever more personalised, less Zairian and more Mobutist. This culminated in the new constitution introduced in 1974 which embedded the new ideology of Mobutisme at the heart of the state’s identity. There was no singular clear definition of this ideology, it was simply understood to be the cumulative lessons of the statements and actions of the president as communicated to the people through the MPR. All the actions of the Mobutu government were retro-actively brought under this new umbrella through the concept of ‘Mobutian pragmatism’, which was understood to mean simply working with what was available, whether in terms of resources (the concept of ‘salongo’, self-reliance and duty to do one’s part) or in cultural terms (the harnessing of past traditions as a resource) (Young & Turner, 1985, p.215-216). Even in speeches Mobutu never really clearly defined what Mobutisme was, it only had meaning in relation to himself and to his actions and thoughts. It represented in many ways the final marriage of the people to the leader, the subordination of national identity to Mobutu’s identity, the shaping of the country in his image. The analogy to religion that Tshibumba would so evocatively explore was made explicit:

“When one speaks of Christianity, one understands by it the teachings, the thought and actions of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth…Such an idea could not long subsist if it was not conceived and expressed through a solid organisation and structure. This structure, for Christianity, is the church and for Mobutisme is the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution’” (Kasenda, 1975, p.8-10)

The concept drew on other one party states, and it may have been influenced by his visits to North Korea and China, and his supposed admiration for Kim Il Sung. The state’s philosophy was Mobutisme, and Mobutisme was simply Mobutu, so the state became equated to a remarkable degree with the individual personality of the leader.

Mobutisme , in many ways, remained a vague and unfinished ideology. Planned conferences to discuss and define the idea never came about, and in the years to come it was overshadowed by the growing economic crises triggered by the collapse in the price of copper and the rise in oil prices. But in other ways, Mobutu did succeed in encouraging his people to mirror his thoughts and actions. Those around him, the massive network of clients and dependants, learned from Mobutu how to bend the state to their personal benefit and obscene enrichment. When the president treated the national bank and the state owned companies like Gécamines as personal bank accounts then what reason was there for his acolytes to show any greater discretion? As the country’s immense mineral resources became less and less reliable as a source of revenue, those in power stole more and those at the bottom got less. By the time the state went into rapid decline in the 1980s it became commonplace for teachers, civil servants and soldiers, up till then some of the most stable jobs in the country, to go unpaid, and in turn these people were forced to do what they could to survive. Military pilots would sell fuel, teachers would be forced to charge their students in order to eat, civil servants would spend their nights selling whatever they could get to supplement meagre or non-existent pay checks (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.371). By the time Mobutu gave his famous ‘if you want to steal, steal a little’ speech the lesson had already been well learned. Ill-conceived IMF mandated currency devaluations only made things worse, wiping out the savings of millions overnight. The zaire, which had been introduced in 1966 at a value of 100 Belgian francs, or 2 US dollars, was now almost worthless (Ibid, p.346). Mobutu’s people were becomingly increasingly self-reliant, as the salongo campaign had promised, but out of brutal necessity. People started talking of a fabled Article 15 of the constitution of the short-lived Luba Empire, ‘Vous etes chez vous, débrouillez-vous’, ‘this is your home, so fend for yourselves’ (Wrong, 2001, p.151). In the 1980s Article 15 became the ironic philosophy of the streets as people did what they could to survive under a government that had become little more than a parasite. It is easy to detect an echo of Mobutian pragmatism and authentic self-reliance in such responses.

When reading the history of Mobutu’s long reign it can sometimes feel as if the people living within the system of his power are absent from the story. Beyond the military resistance to Mobutu like the Shaba uprisings, the average Zairian/Congolese man or woman responded to and resisted Mobutu’s cultural revolution in countless ways, small and big. On the lighter side, there were those who subverted the state in their own quiet way. When Oscar Kisema was told to drop his Christian name in favour of an authentic one, he chose to go by Kisema Kinzundi, which though harmless sounding to a Lingala speaker translates from Swahili to mean ‘Big Vagina’. Similarly one Gérard Ekwalanga chose to take the name Ekwalanga Abomasoda, meaning roughly ‘he who kills soldiers’. In Kinshasa, the famous ‘sapeurs’ of Central Africa took on a special significance. Famed around the world for their devotion to fine, extravagant clothes and a generally elegant style of life, the young men who defined themselves as la Sape disregarded the state sanctioned abacost and put the évolué suit to shame in their innovative appropriation of western fashion (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.388). Under Mobutu this was more than a matter of style, it entailed the rejection of the authenticité project in favour of a dynamically individualistic approach to style. As the famous Kinois Sape Colonel Jagger put it:

“For twenty years people here wore a uniform…We were the only ones who refused to do so. At concerts sapeurs would be beaten up for wearing suits. It was a way of saying ‘no’ to the system, of showing there’s a difference between us and everyone else. A way of feeling good about ourselves.” (Wrong, 2001, p.182)

On the more overtly political side, we have already mentioned the student resistance that was brutally crushed in 1969, but the scale of this rebellion is often not realised. It began in earnest in 1968 when students from Lovanium stoned the motorcade of American Vice-President Hubert Humphreys as he attempted to lay a wreath at the memorial to Lumumba (an obviously provocative act, given his own government’s role in his downfall and murder). Other than the Catholic Church, the student organisations like the Union Générale des Étudients du Congo (UGEC) represented some of the most powerful and organised civil society resistance to Mobutu’s entrenchment in the late 1960s. In 1969 they demanded a greater say in university governance, the inclusion of African staff in the administration and an increase in student bursaries to keep up with rising prices in the cities. In their letter to the government they promised to defend their rights ‘by any means necessary, including revolutionary violence’ (Young & Turner, 1985, p.62). On the 4 th of June their march was violently dispersed by the police and military, with a disputed death toll believed to be at least several dozen. But the students persevered after another clash with the police in 1971, the leaders of the movement were rounded up and conscripted into the army, dispersed across the country. After this, the weakened UGEC was forcibly absorbed into the new youth branch of the MPR. The students had shown a determination and courage in the face of incredible state violence that put contemporary European and American student revolts to shame. And their spirit was not totally crushed either. A survey in 1974 found that when asked to define their political position, 22.9% of students defined themselves as ‘nationalist’ (which can here be taken as supportive of the government) and 36.7% defined themselves as ‘socialist’ (implying a critical position towards the government). A massive 51.5% said that student organisations should devote themselves equally to student and national issues, illustrating their continued sense of civic responsibility under intense coercion (Payanzo, 1974, p.245). Their bravery has been explored in another of Sapin’s paintings and a documentary about his work, Les Fantômes de Lovanium .

As has been mentioned, the Catholic Church also became a focus of peaceful resistance to the regime, particularly over the abolishment of Christian names. In 1972 Cardinal Malula delivered a stinging critique of the government’s policies and corruption, a speech that earned him a temporary exile and expulsion from the Order of the Leopard (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.355). After this Mobutu attempted to limit the churches power by banning their youth organisations, conscripting seminarians into the MPR Youth, and revoking the status of Christmas as a national holiday, but he still had to contend with the fact that around 60% of all primary school students and 42% of all secondary students were being taught in some form of Catholic school (Young & Turner, 1985, p.67). This gave the church a huge influence over the people that Mobutu could never really break. In much the same way that the home grown Christian denomination of Kimbanguism had served as a lightning rod for resistance to colonial oppression, the Catholic Church became one of the few civil society organisations to retain its independence through Mobutu’s long reign. This was seen when the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Monsengwo, was elected to chair the National Sovereign Conference of 1991, after the original crony put in place by Mobutu was ousted. We have seen the powerful role of the church once again in the recent elections in the Congo. Many analysts believe that by threatening to release their own exit poll data the Church may have prevented Joseph Kabila from rigging the election in favour of his chosen successor. In another connection to ’91, the disputed winner of the elections at the time of writing is none other than the son of the other major personality of the CNS, Etienne Tshisekedi. The ascendancy of Felix Tshisikedi to the presidency, and the role played by the church in his election, illustrated the on-going legacy of those who resisted Mobutu in today’s democratic Congolese opposition.

(1971) Sese Seko Mobutu, “Address to the Conseil Nationale Extraordinaire, Dakar, 14 February 1971”

Sese Seko Ngbendu Waza Banga Mobutu, originally known as Joseph Desire Mobutu, served as Patrice Lumumba’s private secretary before being appointed Chief of Staff and second in command of the army when the Congo received its independence in 1960. In November 1965 Mobuto led a coup which made him President of the Congo. In the address below, given at Dakar, Senegal on February 14, 1971, Mobutu described his rule in the Congo.


He combats a plague which has spread to all African countries: the absence of national consciousness—

The Secretary General of the U.P.S., my dear brother Members of the Bureau Politique, my comrades in the Conseil national,

Dear Friends,
Some of you may be surprised that the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo leaves his country so frequently to visit his brothers elsewhere in Africa. One could even ask if we really like our own country… The answer, as you suspected, is positive. We like our beautiful country a lot but, if we have set our hearts on visiting all our brothers in independent Africa, if we consider it to be a sacred duty to commit ourselves, body and soul, to this genuine crusade of friendship, it is not only because we must maintain the links which unite our states and peoples, but also because we are inspired by the will to restore to our country the place that it had in the heart of the African community which it lost through the policies of the leaders who were in power before us from 1960 to 1965.

Since 24 November 1965, I have had to carry both within the interior of my country and abroad innumerable messages of peace and fraternity to the Congolese people and our African brothers. I have also had to dispel the distrust which for a long time has surrounded a country which some people like to refer to as ‘the sick man’ of Africa. Today we can legitimately be proud of the esteem and friendship which we are happy to find everywhere: on the banks of the Nile, Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria, around the Ubangui, the Niger, the Chari and the Sénégal, or on the shores of the Atlantic sea, which bathes your coast as it does our own.

But this sacred duty of visiting our beloved African brothers enables us, throughout the five years of our mandate, to discover from the wise men of our continent knowledge that we could never have learnt from the industrially developed countries—And I have always set my heart on taking note of the experiences that each of my brothers have promoted through the spirit of their people, by endeavouring to apply them to enhance our development through our own methods.

Our experience was at first based on the search for a method, which I believe we have now found. We certainly do not intend to make this method into a recipe that we expect to see everyone adopting, we would not presume to make this claim. But we feel we have the right to explain to our African brothers the way in which we have organised the life and development of our country. And it is this that I would like to talk about today with the militants of our brother party: the Union Progressiste Sénégalaise.

In the Congo, we have always been convinced that to have any real experience of work in a developing country, one should look first of all within the developing country, and not import such methods which work in countries benefiting from a long period of technical development.

The complete significance behind our quest, our effort and our pilgrimage on this African continent is that we are in search of our authenticity, which we shall find because we wish, through every fibre of our inner being, to discover more about it each day. In a word, we other Congolese wish to become authentic Congolese people.

Who can understand better than you, Mr. Secretary General, the importance that we attach to the search for our authenticity this discovery of the true African spirit, such as it was fashioned day after day by the ancestors to whom we owe the noble heritage of our great African fatherland?

If we wish to hope that international organisations, created to defend the interests of the Third World, whether they are purely African, or Afro-Asiatic, may be inspired by true, cohesive forces, each of the countries of which it is constituted must victoriously accomplish the return to their authenticity.

This seems to me to be a fundamental condition to which we should pay a lot of attention in the struggle for development.

For it is useless to compare what happens in our country, for example, with situations in South Africa, under the single pretext that South Africa and Black Africa are both parts of what has been called the Third World: the Third World being, if I may draw attention to this piece of terminology, an expression invented not by the inhabitants of the Third World, but by more or less well meaning experts of a certain industrialised world which they hope we shall one day resemble.

Thus the theorists of the old and new world are accustomed to passing definitive judgments on the standard of living of the Third World countries through references to the criterion of per capita income. It comes, however, to mind—is this not indeed proof?—that this criterion is far from being absolute, that no one obliges us to accept it as the only yardstick enabling one to say that a certain country is developed or underdeveloped.

No, it seems that we should consider the experiences of people who have had the same difficulties as us. And there it is easy for us to recognise that these difficulties are very little more than the same from one end of our dear continent to the other, in so far as we Africans have usually experienced the same basic situations. We were born into a family which is the core of our society. We have grown up in a village under the direction of a village chief, we have been colonised at about the same time by Europeans with roughly the same good and bad qualities. We experienced decolonisation at practically the same time. And we have simultaneously seen the dawn of neo-colonialism breaking, so as to speak. The consequences of all this are that in each of the new states, with few variations, we have been able to discern the same difficulties after independence, difficulties that each of us has tried to overcome in his own way, in most cases more or less successfully (though sometimes not at all).

For us, the Congolese people, it is enough to believe that if we have lessons to draw from somewhere, we should look towards our African counterparts. In one place they have a good understanding of agricultural problems, but in another why haven’t they? In one place they have succeeded in establishing a framework for the masses through a national party, and in another this has been a failure. Everywhere each of us has something to learn from each other, and this, in my opinion, is essential.

First of all the Congolese experience since 24 November 1965 bears deep reflection.
Perhaps some African countries exist which have reached independence in trains which ran quite well, but which were at least in working order. They were shown how they worked, and, after a certain time, they were left with directions, along with best wishes for the journey.

But if trains of this kind have existed, we, for our part, did not find them when we became independent, and I can admit today that my companions and I did not embark on this kind of train in the early morning of 24 November 1965.

We unfortunately have not found our poor Congolese train in the ravine. But for us it was even more serious than that. It was not the rails which were in bad condition, nor the mechanic who was drunk, nor the carriages badly maintained, but in our trains of 1965 everything was in pieces, scattered here and there on the line and we had to put these pieces together in order to get this train into working order again.

And so we have dared to take this in hand, and, let me tell you, this called for a lot of courage! We found ourselves faced with a different situation from many others and so our method consisted in dividing up the problem into sectors. This led to an initial commitment to resolve our problem of internal policies, then of foreign policies, the economic sector, and finally the social sector, of course.

In the field of internal policies we have done the opposite, I admit, to that which others had done previously and which I believe to be rather fashionable. Indeed, decentralisation and regionalisation are talked about a lot nowadays. A policy of decentralisation or regionalisation is good in so far as each of the entities that have been created are viable, or can be made viable. But in so far as we were concerned, we found ourselves faced with a Congo which had been divided into twenty- two little provinces which were not viable, even if, from a geographical point of view, each of these entities (that are referred to locally as ‘provincettes’) represented a geographical area comparable to that of certain states which we know, but which are themselves perfectly capable of existing on their own.

It therefore very quickly dawned on us that we should rebuild national unity, through cutting down our provinces from twenty- two to eight, a figure which corresponds to our economic as much as our sociological realities.

Following our analysis of the problem with which we were confronted, we saw that one of the plagues of our community life, and the principal cause of anarchy, was the freedom which had been left to any of the twenty-one million Congolese citizens to form a political party.

This policy of allowing parties to be formed, from which each of us has suffered, was promoted by people from developed countries on the basis of what they call individual rights.

It is in the name of these rights that forty-seven political parties were created in our country of which a certain number being born in the night did not see the end of the following day, because they did not reach beyond the confines of their ethnic group or family.

But having examined the question meticulously, we have been able to comment that the harbingers of the developed countries, who like to speak about the plurality of parties and individual rights, are much less generous when they have to face up to the flowering of parties in their own national sphere.

And it is thus that the Anglo-Saxons, most of the time—and who can claim that Anglo-Saxon democracy is not true democracy?—the Anglo-Saxons, therefore, frequently show us the spectacle in their own country of only two parties. Hasn’t it ever struck you, for example, that the United States of America, who pass in the eyes of the whole world as the model of democracy, has only two political parties?

And then, doesn’t it come to mind that in our African tradition, there are never two chiefs? There is sometimes a natural heir to the chief, but can anyone tell me if he has ever known an African village where there were two chiefs?

This is the reason why, we Congolese, in our concern to conform to the traditions of our continent, have resolved to group together the energies of the citizens of our country under the banner of a single national party.

It is the same concern for authenticity which has prevented us from forming our policies according to orders from any foreign interest. In the Congo, a chief must, and this is a necessity, seek council from the wise men. He must be informed, but after taking advice and getting information, he must make up his own mind and settle the question alone, in full knowledge of the facts. For it is up to the chief to make his own decisions, to evaluate the situation and to suffer the consequences. He will only be able to do this because he himself will have given the problem due consideration It is on this condition alone—because he will have weighed up the consequences in advance and accepted full responsibility for all the risks of his choice—that the decision he takes will be honest, hence in the interests of his people and authentically democratic, according to his interpretation.

But if the chief lets a solution be imposed by someone else, this solution will always be suspect because this adviser will not have to live through nor give due consideration to the chief’s decision, and he will not, in any event, have to pay for the damage. Above all, you can always, on looking closely at this solution (which suggests a prompter), expose a personal interest, that is consequently not your own, and even less that of the people whom you have set your heart on guiding towards happiness. In other words, you will have been a marionette controlled by the strings which prompt you.

In the Congo whatever one thinks, and even if it annoys some people, we have always refused to lend ourselves to the system of marionettes, because we are, in all circumstances, guided by a single concern for the search for authenticity
In our choice of internal policies adapted to the needs of our people, we have always realised that our masses needed to have certain information relevant to their situation and a genuine social infrastructure, and that it was impossible to govern a state without the existence of one party.

We have therefore formed a national party. We have called this a ‘movement’ rather than a party because it was designed to sustain the movement of ideas drawn from our commitment to permanent action.

We have used the word ‘popular’ to qualify this movement to show our concern that it should involve the entire population. And finally, we wanted this popular movement to be the ‘popular movement of the revolution’, M.P.R.* so as to immediately publicise the new significance that we want to give to our actions, which imply a break and a change, a total break and a radical change in relation to preconceived ideas and methods, which had failed before we came to lead the Congo.

It is significant to note that even the method adopted for the creation of this movement is revolutionary.

Indeed the M.P.R. is not an amalgamation of two or more political parties, but an original movement created from the Congolese experience, this experience drawn from the anarchy caused by the plurality of political parties and by the ascendancy of imported ideologies, spread through empty slogans. We have had to wipe the slate clean of all previously existing parties.

The M.P.R. is a movement for action.

However, we have stated that unity for this action must be guaranteed, that we should make principles and hard and fast rules.

We have elaborated our doctrine from our experience, a doctrine which should respond to our concern for authenticity: we have adopted the doctrine of authentic Congolese nationalism.

Our nationalism, which is centered on the Congolese man, is an aggressive humanism, a communal humanism, an effort, even a sacrifice, in order that the national community may flourish.

This doctrine should provide for us an effective arm for fighting this plague which has spread to all African countries: the absence of national consciousness.

This difficulty for our people to feel part of a single nation is indeed understandable: national boundaries, delineated in the nineteenth century by our colonisers only respond to their own interests and did not correspond to the logic and feelings of our populations. And it is in this way that a population was often cut in two, and it was not unusual to find families divided into two different linguistic zones on both sides of the frontier. Nor was it unusual to find a mixture of ethnic groups, who did not necessarily get on well together, limited by the same frontiers. In consequence, it sometimes needed a trivial incident for problems to appear, problems which in certain situations took on the dimension of actual bloody secessions, only to the advantage of neo-colonialists.

We have, we Congolese, suffered too much from this to run such risks again: this is why we have, without the slightest delay, consecrated all our strength in forging national consciousness. And we can state that this national consciousness is today spread throughout the expanse of our vast territory.

Having resolved our problem of internal politics in this way, we undertook to define and apply a foreign policy which was and is marked with the stamp of the same realism. For these reasons, our foreign policy will have been above all a crusade of friendship. And because we are realists, our crusade of friendship has lead us first of all towards our African neighbours and brothers.

We have considered that we could not like the Chinese before liking the Central Africans, the Brazzavillians, the Sudanese, the Ugandans, the Rwandans, the Burundians, the Tanzanians, the Zambians and the Angolans. We have thus searched for a good understanding with the countries bordering our own. And these countries have, without exception, become the Congo’s friends. This is the true significance which we have always wanted to give to the idea of African brotherhood. And this significance has, happily enough, found its justification in the reciprocal attitude that our initial step has aroused among others.

We have also taken care that our foreign policy does not involve the slightest interference in the policies of others and it should be said that we were the first to understand this concern for noninterference. Indeed, we have suffered more than any other nation from outside interference in our own affairs.

Proceeding in this way, we have discovered that our policy of good neighbourliness and good relations inevitably leads to an active policy of cooperation. For how could we admit, for example, that the eighteen African and Malagasy countries associated with the European Common Market do not meet among themselves and only have provision for co-operation in the framework of this single community, unless there exists relations and markets between them?

We have therefore equally made this priority of inter-African relations the ‘leitmotiv’ of our economic contact. Obeying this principle, it seemed to us that we could only aim to have a genuine feeling of ‘African-ness’ in our contact with brother countries if we first of all became masters of our own destinies in the economic field. We therefore had to have absolute responsibility for our economy, which unfortunately had not been the case up to 1965.

We have always considered that political independence has no true content without economic independence. And I repeat, this economic independence doesn’t wish to imply living in a vacuum or retiring within oneself or even shutting the door on others, but only to live as master of the orientation of one’s economic policy. In this sense, we can say with complete modesty that we have succeeded: this economic independence exists in the Congo. The scepticism, or even pessimism engendered by our struggle for economic independence has been dispelled by the expansion that we are experiencing at the moment in all sectors of our economy, something which appeared to be unthinkable until now.

We believe then that we can say, from now on justifying ourselves through the experience acquired in the five years’ struggle for our independence of mind and economic expansion, that it would be very wrong for us Africans to consider ourselves as unfortunate men because we do not see the appendages of the notion of the so-called developed countries around us. And this is a question that I should like before ending to consider for a moment with you.

We have given ourselves the task of harmoniously achieving our development. But this concern for harmony forces us, as I interpret it, not always to follow those for whom development and happiness consist in having a television today, a colour television tomorrow, and in believing themselves obliged the day after tomorrow to curse and swear because they do not possess the latest television model, whether it be in black and white or colour, with an electronic operating system.

If these fruits of the technological age are nice to taste, they are not sufficient in themselves for our happiness. Is it not striking that precisely the most aware of the thinkers in those countries which are currently the best equipped concentrate their interest on denouncing the dangers and crimes of a technological civilisation which no longer allows man, the human, or humanism, the role which is his in a harmonious society?

One of these thinkers, the American writer Alvin Toffler,—and it’s not just by chance that he belongs to the most technologically advanced country of the modern world—has just dedicated a complete book warning his contemporaries to be on guard against what he calls the ‘shock of the future’. And he gives us Africans, through this, the opportunity to rejoice at living until now sheltered from such excesses, from these hypertrophies of material progress without any parallel spiritual development.

This shock of the future can take on the appearance of riches which leads the nouveaux riches to suicide because their lack of preparation does not allow them to see any meaning in their money. In a general manner we could say that we feel threatened each time that a change in our way of living finds us without any preliminary defence.

We do not need extensive developments to realise that I have put my finger on the danger which threatens us and our developing country, if we are not concerned to prepare our populations to assimilate the fruits of material progress, through the preservation of the spiritual heritage which we have inherited from our ancestors.

It is this concern that we are nurturing in our national Congolese party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution, through action orientated precisely towards helping our citizens to assimilate innovations quickly and t& welcome the achievements of material progress painlessly.

This sensible and objective information system, systematically renouncing illusions, depends at first on the wisdom which consists in satisfying oneself with what one has, without however abandoning the desire to increase one’s belongings. While it may be true that we have not always the means to travel at supersonic speeds, it is no less true that we have not got to suffer from the harmful effects of eternal pollution!

I wish to show through this illustration that our situation in a so-called underdeveloped or developing country often carries worthwhile advantages.

We therefore have to take these things into consideration and to prepare ourselves for the twenty-first century. In choosing from among the benefits of progress, our actions call for those things which will not destroy our art of living, this way of being African that the whole world envies.

Thus we have no hesitation in Kinshasa in soon inaugurating a station for communication by satellite, because we know that it will enable us to instantly communicate with the world, without generating at the same time this atmospheric pollution which for years has been in the headlines of the newspapers of the industrialised world.

1930: Mobutu Sese Seko: African Leader who Rented a Concorde for his Visits to Paris

One of the best-known dictators of the 20 th century, African leader Mobutu Sese Seko, was born on this day in 1930. He ruled the large African country of Congo/Zaire for over 30 years. It was he who enacted the decision to rename the Democratic Republic of Congo into Zaire in 1971. This was in accordance with his policy of introducing “authentic” African names and abolishing the “colonial” ones. Thus the capital city of his state was renamed from Léopoldville to Kinshasa.

Mobutu’s plan had an even greater effect on the people of his state, who had to change their Christian names into “African” ones. Mobutu himself changed his name from Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (usually shortened to Mobutu Sese Seko).

In accordance with Mobutu’s policy of removing “colonialist” attributes, the people were forbidden from wearing western-style suits and ties. Mobutu became known throughout the world for wearing a leopard skin hat.

He was also known for his extravagant behavior. For example, he rented a French supersonic Concorde jet for his personal use. He even used the Concorde for shopping in Paris, and at one point flew to New York, to hold a speech at the UN, using the same plane.

His portrait was depicted on all of Zaire’s banknotes, and some estimate that he “redirected” billions of dollars from the state treasury into his own pocket. In northern Zaire, near his family’s hometown of Gbadolite, Mobutu built magnificent jungle palaces, so that some people called the place the “Versailles of the Jungle”. He also built a large airport nearby, where even Concorde jets could land.

Marie-Antoinette was born in Banzyville (modern-day Mobayi-Mbongo) in Équateur Province in c. 1941 while the Congo was still under Belgian colonial rule. She was an ethnic Ngbandi. She met and married Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, a member of the same ethnic group and then a non-commissioned officer in the Force Publique, in 1955 at the age of 14. [1] That same year, she gave birth to their first son, Jean-Paul "Nyiwa". She attended Catholic mission schools and had supported the Roman Catholic Church despite her husband's later struggle with the Catholic clergy. [2] [1] [3]

Some claimed Marie-Antoinette was actually younger than fourteen when she was married and that her official age was changed to avoid a scandal although there has not been any proof to defy this. [3] In the mid-1970s, she was tasked with overseeing all ministries relating to social welfare. She also refused to adopt an "authentic" African name, as required by her husband's regime in 1972, preferring instead to keep the name Marie-Antoinette. [3]

Children Edit

Marie Antoinette bore the most out of all of Mobutu's wives, a total of nine children:

  • Jean-Paul "Nyiwa"
  • Ngombo
  • Manda
  • Konga
  • Ngawali
  • Yango
  • Yakpwa
  • and Ndagbia.

Death Edit

Marie-Antoinette died of heart failure on 22 October 1977 in Genolier, Switzerland, at the age of 36. A vast mausoleum was raised in her honor. She is buried in the Gombe commune in Kinshasa, where the president's residence is placed.

Sese Seko Mobutu

Sese Seko Mobutu was born in Lisala, Congo, in 1930. Educated at a Catholic mission school he served in the Belgian colonial army. By 1960 he had reached the rank of colonel and was chief of staff to the Congolese Army.

After parliamentary elections in May 1960 Patrice Lumumba became the new prime minister of the Congo and immediately talked about the need for social and economic changes in the country. His decision to adopt a non-aligned foreign policy resulted in the CIA becoming interested in the developments in the Congo.

The country was governed from Leopoldville (Kinshasa). In Kantanga, a rich mining province, was very much under the control of Moise Tshombe. In July 1960, Tshombe, supported by white mercenaries and the Belgian mining company Union Minière, declared Katanga independent. Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for help and Dag Hammarskjold agreed to send in a peace-keeping force to restore order.

The following month Colonel Mobutu, with the support of the United States and Belgium, led a military coup and ousted Patrice Lumumba from power. Lumumba was arrested by Mobutu's soldiers and transferred to Elizabethville, Katanga, where he was murdered on 17th January, 1961.

In September 1961 fighting erupted between Katanga troops and the noncombatant forces of the UN. In an effort to secure a cease-fire he arranged to meet President Moise Tshombe. On 17th September 1961 Dag Hammarskjold was killed when his plane crashed close to Ndola airport.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding an inquiry into the circumstances of his death. This was rejected by Moise Tshombe but evidence emerged later that the Belgian government was behind the events in Katanga.

The fighting continued and independent regimes were established at different times in Katanga, Stanleyville and Kasai. For a while Tshombe lived in Europe but returned to become prime minister of the Congo Republic in July 1964. After holding corrupt elections he was forced to flee and went to live in Spain.

General Mobutu staged another military coup in November 1965. He placed Moise Tshombe on trial for treason in his absence and was condemned to death. In July 1967 Tshombe was kidnapped and taken to Algeria. Moise Tshombe died in prison of a heart-attack on 29th June 1969.

Mobutu decided on a policy of Africanization and in October 1971 he changed the name of the country back to Zaire (the name of the country in the 14th century). Three months later a Nationality Law decreed the abolition of all European names for persons and places.

Despite this action Mobutu continued to arrange trading agreements with foreign companies engaged in exploiting the country's valuable copper deposits. He also received support from the United States who helped him develop a one party, anti-Communist, dictatorship.

Two further revolts took place in 1977 and 1978 and was only put down with the help of the French Army. Zaire continued to suffer from economic problems and in May 1997 rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila forced him to flee the country.


Early life

Joseph-Desire Mobutu was born in Lisala, Belgian Congo on 14 October 1930 to an Ngbandi family. Mobutu's mother was a hotel maid who fled a harem to marry the African cook for a Belgian judge, and Mobutu was educated by the Belgian judge after his father's death. Mobutu learned to speak French fluently, and he always jumped to his feet and corrected Belgian missionaries whenever they made a grammatical mistake (their first language was Dutch) while teaching French at his Catholic school. In 1949, he was ordered to serve seven years in the military for attempting to stow away on a boat to meet a girl, and he found discipline in army life. Mobutu became a part-time journalist after reading the writings of Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Niccolo Machiavelli in the army, and he later became friendly with Patrice Lumumba and joined his Congolese National Movement party before becoming his aide. However, he was believed to have been hired by Belgian intelligence as an informer within Lumumba's nationalist movement.

Congo Crisis

Mobutu as an army officer, 1960

Mobutu was appointed Army Chief-of-Staff when the Congo Crisis began in 1960, leading the army of Congo-Leopoldville against the secessionists. Mobutu successfully encouraged many mutinying soldiers to return to their barracks, and he proved to be an able general. However, Mobutu faced a crisis when Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba - a Soviet-aligned politician - and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu - a US-aligned politician - each ordered Mobutu to arrest the other one. Mobutu came under immense pressure, but his subordinates convinced him to side with Kasa-Vubu, as the USA and other Western nations helped to pay the soldiers' and officers' salaries. In November 1960, Mobutu's soldiers arrested Lumumba after accusing him of being a communist, and the Belgian government persuaded the Congolese government to hand Lumumba over to a Katangese firing squad in January 1961. On 23 January 1961, Kasa-Vubu promoted Mobutu to Major-General, aiming to strengthen the army, the president's sole support, and Mobutu's position within the military. In 1964, when Pierre Mulele led another partisan rebellion, Mobutu responded to it by crushing the rebels in 1965.

Rise to power

Mobutu in a general's uniform

In 1965, the country was once again caught up in a political deadlock as President Kasa-Vubu failed to designate Evariste Kimba as the new Prime Minister and successor to Moise Tshombe. Mobutu, who had finally decided that Kasa-Vubu was an ineffective ruler, seized power in a military coup on 25 November 1965 and declared a state of emergency. Mobutu banned political party activity in the country for five years, and he reduced the Parliament's powers, reduced the number of provinces, and centralized the government. In 1967, Mobutu founded the Popular Movement of the Revolution, which was the only legal party in Mobutu's single-party state until 1990. He advanced revolution, nationalism, and authenticite, repudiating capitalism and communism in favor of political pragmatim. Mobutu created a nationwide labor union to unite all smaller unions, using it to control all labor in the country he outlawed all independent unions. Mobutu brutally suppressed opposition in his country, crushing former Katangese gendarmeries as well as the Kisangani mutiny by white mercenaries in 1967. Mobutu executed political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other opponents of his regime, and he decided to turn Zaire into an "authentic" African country. Mobutu's authenticite movement banned Western clothing, threatened to impose five-year prison sentences on couples who gave their children European names, and forced men to wear abacost tunics (similar to Mao Zedong's suit). By 1970, law and order had been brought to all parts of his country, and he established friendly relations with the Belgian government. In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself to "Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga", and he assumed a classic image: his abacost, thick-framed glasses, walking stick, and leopard-skin toque.

Dictatorial rule

Mobutu nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country, but he formed alliances with France, Belgium, the United States, and China, in addition to fomenting good relations with African nations such as Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan. In 1977, he managed to defeat the Shaba I uprising by the Soviet-backed Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC), using Belgian and French troops and US logistical support. Mobutu enjoyed an opulent lifestyle, flying on Concorde turbojets for shopping trips in Paris. Mobutu allowed for corruption and nepotism to flourish under his reign, and he embezzled up to $15,000,000,000 during his reign. Mobutu retained the support of the West throughout the Cold War due to his vehement anti-communism, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1990 led to the West ending its support of Zaire. That same year, Mobutu was forced to end the ban on other political parties, and he was forced to form a coalition government with opposition parties due to popular discontent with his rule. The economic situation was dreadful, so he appointed the pro-free market Leon Kengo as Prime Minister of Zaire in 1994. Mobutu became physically frail, and he sought medical treatment in Europe. While he was gone, Tutsis from Rwanda seized control of much of eastern Zaire, pursuing Interahamwe forces fleeing the Rwandan Civil War. The spillover of the conflict would lead to his downfall.

Fall from power

A soldier standing in front of a mural of Mobutu

In November 1996, Mobutu ordered for the Tutsis to leave Zaire on penalty of death. The Tutsi rebels instead allied with Uganda and Rwanda, and the First Congo War broke out. The Allied forces marched on Kinshasa, and the sickly Mobutu was unable to coordinate resistance against the invading armies. On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks, Mobutu fled to Togo, allowing for Laurent-Desire Kabila and his forces to take over the country. Mobutu then fled to Morocco, and he died of cancer in Rabat on 7 September 1997 at the age of 66.

In the Shadow of the ‘Great Helmsman’: Mobutu Sese Seko’s Life and Legacy in the DR Congo

Today marks twenty years since the death of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake) who ruled what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for thirty-two years.

Born Joseph Mobutu in Lisala, in the extreme north-west of the then Belgian Congo, on 14 October 1930, Mobutu went on to become a definitive figure in the DRC’s post-colonial history.

Like a number of first generation African leaders, such as Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the army made Mobutu. After he enlisted in 1949, the army provided him with a means by which he could dominate his fellow citizens. In addition to the loyal men he eventually commanded as he rose up the ranks, Mobutu eventually received training in journalism in the army. Researching for his reportage, he grew to know many of the leading Congolese politicians during the late 1950s. Eventually, he got to know Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo, and joined his Mouvement National Congolais (MNC).

Mobutu’s meteoric rise to power came during the Congo Crisis (1960-1964). The army took on an important role in the Congo as it was tasked with preventing the secession of the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasaï. Politicians struggled with governing this contested state. Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, for example, and his successors proved unable to govern the Congo. In 1965, a constitutional crisis developed in which the Prime Minister, Moïse Tshombe, and the President, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, wrestled for power. In the midst of this deadlock, Mobutu launched a successful coup-d’état.

Mobutu quickly moved to ban politics having blamed politicians for his country’s ills. Like many African leaders at the time, such as François Tombalbaye of Chad, he wanted to fashion a nationalism based on what he believed to have been authentic African traditions. In May 1967, Mobutu and a band of his followers published the N’Sele Manifesto to that effect. In the early 1970s, Mobutu intensified his authenticité campaign in which the name of the Congo was changed to Zaïre and the names of cities were changed to their supposedly original African names.

The intensification of authenticity, however, came at a time in which Zaïre’s economy was fast declining. A fall in copper prices crippled the economy. Likewise, Mobutu’s policy of nationalising industries and handing out lucrative contracts to his allies, known as ‘Zaïrianisation,’ proved catastrophic. So, in 1976, Zaïre accepted its first Structural Adjustment Package (SAP).

It was during the late 1970s that Mobutu’s policy of paying off opponents and buying allies, or ‘kleptocracy,’ would be fine-tuned. Rather than a by-word for the optimistic nationalism of the late 1960s, Mobutism became a synonym for kleptocratic rule and remains one of Mobutu’s lasting legacies to this day.

Mobutu’s regime needed patronage to survive in the face of economic collapse and he found it in the United States. With US funds, Mobutu just about managed to hold his polyglot country together.

Mobutu Sese Seko meets with Richard Nixon in Washington DC in 1973, one of a number of US Presidents whom he befriended

Yet Mobutu’s kleptocratic regime crumbled once the Cold War ended. Rather than supporting his autocratic regime, the US pressured Mobutu to democratise. In 1990, Mobutu agreed to multi-party democracy. He announced this policy during a tear-strewn address at which he told the audience to ‘comprenez mon émotion’. But the details of this new policy were delayed and the army used this power vacuum to go on a looting spree in September 1991.

In 1992, a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) was convened to decide which form the new multi-party system would take. Rather than furthering the SNC’s work, Mobutu successfully sowed division among the delegates and managed to stay in power.

Then came the Rwandan genocide in April 1994. At first, Mobutu sought to use the arrival of Rwandan Tutsi and Hutu refugees in his country to ingratiate himself once more to the international community not as a Cold War ally but as a humanitarian. Yet Mobutu’s strategy collapsed in the face of Rwandan opposition to his hosting of Hutu refugees on his eastern border. Fearing Hutu invasion, Rwandan President Paul Kagame began to plan an invasion of eastern Congo.

Kagame used Mobutu’s long-time opponent, Laurent Kabila, to front a movement called the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Zaire (ADFL-Z) that would dethrone the self-styled ‘Great Helmsman.’ On 24 October 1996, the ADFL-Z’s campaign began. On 19 April, they captured Lubumbashi. It was only a matter of time until Kinshasa fell.

Facing defeat, Mobutu fled Kinshasa on 16 May 1997 leaving the ADFL-Z to march into the capital unopposed. At first, Mobutu fled to his palace in Gbadolite, his ‘Versailles of the Jungle,’ but he later fled to Rabat, Morocco, where he died of prostate cancer on 7 September.

Laurent Kabila, or Kabila Père, promised a change from Mobutu but what was striking about his regime was its continuity with that of the deceased despot. Like Mobutu, Kabila cracked down on political opponents. And, much like the ‘Great Helmsman,’ Kabila’s regime was hardly free of the kind of rampant corruption that had preceded it even though he succeeded in establishing an anti- corruption centre.

In essence, Kabila followed the path of ‘Mobutism without Mobutu.’ He ‘spoke the language of the one-party state’ and tried to play off political opponents against one another.

Like Mobutu, Kabila Père fell due to a dispute with Rwanda after he summarily dismissed his Kagame’s handlers in July 1998. Afterwards, the newly baptised DRC was once again plunged into war.

Kabila’s army was woefully under-prepared to take on the collective might of Rwanda and its allies, Uganda and Burundi. Unlike Mobutu, however, Kabila was able to mobilise a plethora of neighbouring states to come to his aid, namely Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The bewildering array of African states involved in this conflict led some to dub it ‘Africa’s World War.’

Laurent Kabila did not live to see the end of Africa’s World War given that he was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, became the country’s fourth president shortly after he died. Joseph Kabila helped engineer a peace deal, along with the United Nations, in 2002 that led to a broad yet deeply unstable peace developing in 2003. Afterwards, the first free and fair elections since 1960 were held in the Congo in 2006 and Kabila retained his position as president after them.

There was widespread optimism that the Congo had turned a corner during the early part of Kabila’s presidency despite the flaws with the 2006 and 2011 elections. However, in recent times Joseph Kabila’s rule has looked increasingly like Mobutu’s. For one thing, Kabila and his family have amassed a huge business empire with stakes in everything from Nando’s to the state telecoms company. It is possible that Kabila has refused to step down once his mandate expired last year in part to protect these interests.

One of the most striking similarities between Kabila and Mobutu has been the former’s ability to play off rivals against each other. Kabila has used his ability to choose the Prime Minister of the DR Congo to sow division among the Congolese opposition. Rather than choosing popular opposition figures, Kabila has chosen people who have upset his opponents, such as Samy Badibanga.

Although Mobutu might be dead and buried, the lesson of his divide and rule tactics, as well as his kleptocratic tendencies, has not been lost on Joseph Kabila. And once again it is the majority of Congolese people who are paying the cost of living in Mobutu’s shadow.

Reuben Loffman (@ReubenLoffman) is a Lecturer in African History at Queen Mary University of London.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog, the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa or the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Early years and education Edit

Mobutu, a member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, [9] was born in 1930 in Lisala, Belgian Congo. [10] Mobutu's mother, Marie Madeleine Yemo, was a hotel maid who fled to Lisala to escape the harem of a local village chief. There she met and married Albéric Gbemani, a cook for a Belgian judge. [11] Shortly afterward she gave birth to Mobutu. The name "Mobutu" was selected by an uncle.

Gbemani died when Mobutu was eight. [12] Thereafter he was raised by an uncle and a grandfather.

The Belgian judge's wife took a liking to Mobutu and taught him to speak, read, and write fluently in the French language, the official language of the country in the colonial period. His widowed mother Yemo relied on the help of relatives to support her four children, and the family moved often. Mobutu's earliest education took place in the capital Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). His mother eventually sent him to an uncle in Coquilhatville, where he attended the Christian Brothers School, a Catholic-mission boarding school. A physically imposing figure (he eventually stood over six feet [two metres] tall) Mobutu dominated school sports. He also excelled in academic subjects and ran the class newspaper. He was known for his pranks and impish sense of humor.

A classmate recalled that when the Belgian priests, whose first language was Dutch, made an error in French, Mobutu would leap to his feet in class and point out the mistake. In 1949 Mobutu stowed away aboard a boat, traveling downriver to Léopoldville, where he met a girl. The priests found him several weeks later. At the end of the school year, in lieu of being sent to prison, he was ordered to serve seven years in the colonial army, the Force Publique (FP). This was a usual punishment for rebellious students. [13]

Army service Edit

Mobutu found discipline in army life, as well as a father figure in Sergeant Louis Bobozo. Mobutu kept up his studies by borrowing European newspapers from the Belgian officers and books from wherever he could find them, reading them on sentry duty and whenever he had a spare moment. His favourites were the writings of French president Charles de Gaulle, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. After passing a course in accounting, Mobutu began to dabble professionally in journalism. Still angry after his clashes with the school priests, he did not marry in a church. His contribution to the wedding festivities was a crate of beer, all his army salary could afford. [14]

Early political involvement Edit

As a soldier, Mobutu wrote pseudonymously on contemporary politics for Actualités Africaines (African News), a magazine set up by a Belgian colonial. In 1956, he quit the army and became a full-time journalist, [15] writing for the Léopoldville daily L'Avenir. [16]

Two years later, he went to Belgium to cover the 1958 World Exposition and stayed to receive training in journalism. By this time, Mobutu had met many of the young Congolese intellectuals who were challenging colonial rule. He became friendly with Patrice Lumumba and joined Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). Mobutu eventually became Lumumba's personal aide. Several contemporaries indicate that Belgian intelligence had recruited Mobutu to be an informer to the government. [17]

During the 1960 talks in Brussels on Congolese independence, the US embassy held a reception for the Congolese delegation. Embassy staff were each assigned a list of delegation members to meet, and discussed their impressions afterward. The ambassador noted, "One name kept coming up. But it wasn't on anyone's list because he wasn't an official delegation member, he was Lumumba's secretary. But everyone agreed that this was an extremely intelligent man, very young, perhaps immature, but a man with great potential." [18]

Following the general election, Lumumba was tasked with creating a government. He gave Mobutu the office of Secretary of State to the Presidency. Mobutu held much influence in the final determination of the rest of the government. [19]

Congo Crisis Edit

On 5 July 1960, soldiers of the Force Publique stationed at Camp Léopold II in Léopoldville, dissatisfied with their all-white leadership and working conditions, mutinied. The revolt spread across the region in the following days. Mobutu assisted other officials in negotiating with the mutineers to secure the release of the officers and their families. [20] On 8 July the full Council of Ministers convened in an extraordinary session under the chairmanship of President Joseph Kasa-Vubu at Camp Léopold II to address the task of Africanising the garrison. [21]

After allowing for the election of a new commandant for the garrison, the ministers debated over who would make a suitable army chief of staff. The two main candidates for the post were Maurice Mpolo and Mobutu. The former had shown some influence over the mutinying troops, but Kasa-Vubu and the Bakongo ministers feared that he would enact a coup d'état if he were given power. The latter was perceived as calmer and more thoughtful. [22] Lumumba saw Mpolo as courageous, but favored Mobutu's prudence. As the discussions continued, the cabinet began to divide according to who they preferred to serve as chief of staff. Lumumba wanted to keep both men in his government and wished to avoid upsetting one of their camps of supporters. [22] In the end Mobutu was given the role and awarded the rank of colonel. [23] The following day government delegations left the capital to oversee the Africanisation of the army Mobutu was sent to Équateur. [24]

Encouraged by a Belgian government intent on maintaining its access to rich Congolese mines, secessionist violence erupted in the south. Concerned that the United Nations force sent to help restore order was not helping to crush the secessionists, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. He received massive military aid and about a thousand Soviet technical advisers within six weeks. As this was during the Cold War, the US government feared that the Soviet activity was a maneuver to spread communist influence in Central Africa. Kasa-Vubu was encouraged by the US and Belgium to dismiss Lumumba, which he did on 5 September. An outraged Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed. Parliament refused to recognise the dismissals and urged reconciliation, but no agreement was reached.

Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu each ordered Mobutu to arrest the other. As Army Chief of Staff, Mobutu came under great pressure from multiple sources. The embassies of Western nations, which helped pay the soldiers' salaries, as well as Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu's subordinates, all favored getting rid of the Soviet presence. On 14 September Mobutu launched a bloodless coup, declaring both Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba to be "neutralised" and establishing a new government of university graduates, the College of Commissioners-General. Lumumba rejected this action but was forced to retire to his residence, where UN peacekeepers prevented Mobutu's soldiers from arresting him.

Losing confidence that the international community would support his reinstatement, Lumumba fled in late November to join his supporters in Stanleyville to establish a new government. He was captured by Mobutu's troops in early December, and incarcerated at his headquarters in Thysville. However, Mobutu still considered him a threat, and transferred him to the rebelling State of Katanga on 17 January 1961. Lumumba disappeared from public view. It was later discovered that he was executed the same day by the secessionist forces of Moise Tshombe, after Mobutu's government turned him over. [25]

On 23 January 1961, Kasa-Vubu promoted Mobutu to major-general. Historian De Witte argues that this was a political action, "aimed to strengthen the army, the president's sole support, and Mobutu's position within the army". [26]

In 1964, Pierre Mulele led partisans in another rebellion. They quickly occupied two-thirds of the Congo. In response, the Congolese army, led by Mobutu, reconquered the entire territory through 1965.

Second coup and consolidation of power Edit

Prime Minister Moise Tshombe's Congolese National Convention had won a large majority in the March 1965 elections, but Kasa-Vubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him. With the government in near-paralysis, Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup on 24 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier. [27]

Under the auspices of a state of exception (regime d'exception), Mobutu assumed sweeping—almost absolute—powers for five years. [28] In his first speech upon taking power, Mobutu told a large crowd at Léopoldville's main stadium that, since politicians had brought the Congo to ruin in five years, it would take him at least that long to set things right again. Therefore, he announced, "for five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country." [29] Parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp before being abolished altogether, but it was later revived. The number of provinces was reduced, and their autonomy curtailed, resulting in a highly centralized state.

Initially, Mobutu's government was decidedly apolitical, even anti-political. The word "politician" carried negative connotations, and became almost synonymous with someone who was wicked or corrupt. In 1966 the Corps of Volunteers of the Republic was established, a vanguard movement designed to mobilize popular support behind Mobutu, who was proclaimed the nation's "Second National Hero" after Lumumba. Despite the role he played in Lumumba's ousting, Mobutu worked to present himself as a successor to Lumumba's legacy. One of his key tenets early in his rule was "authentic Congolese nationalism".

1967 marked the debut of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), which until 1990 was the nation's only legal political party. Among the themes advanced by the MPR in its doctrine, the Manifesto of N'Sele, were nationalism, revolution, and "authenticity". Revolution was described as a "truly national revolution, essentially pragmatic", which called for "the repudiation of both capitalism and communism". One of the MPR's slogans was "Neither left nor right", to which would be added "nor even center" in later years.

That same year, all trade unions were consolidated into a single union, the National Union of Zairian Workers, and brought under government control. Mobutu intended for the union to serve as an instrument of support for government policy, rather than as an independent group. Independent trade unions were illegal until 1991.

Facing many challenges early in his rule, Mobutu converted much opposition into submission through patronage those he could not co-opt, he dealt with forcefully. In 1966, four cabinet members were arrested on charges of complicity in an attempted coup, tried by a military tribunal, and publicly executed in an open-air spectacle witnessed by over 50,000 people. Uprisings by former Katangan gendarmeries were crushed, as were the Stanleyville mutinies of 1967 led by white mercenaries. [30] By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and for the most part, law and order was brought to nearly all parts of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu's legitimacy and power.

In 1970 King Baudouin of Belgium made a highly successful state visit to Kinshasa. That same year presidential and legislative elections were held. Although the constitution allowed for the existence of two parties, the NPR was the only party allowed to nominate candidates. For the presidential election, Mobutu was the only candidate. Voting was not secret voters chose a green paper if they supported Mobutu's candidacy, and a red paper if they opposed his candidacy. Casting a green ballot was deemed a vote for hope, while a red ballot was deemed a vote for chaos. Under the circumstances, the result was inevitable–according to official figures, Mobutu was confirmed in office with near-unanimous support, garnering 10,131,669 votes to only 157 "no" votes. [31] It later emerged that almost 30,500 more votes were cast than the actual number of registered voters. [32] [33] The legislative elections were held in a similar fashion. Voters were presented with a single list from the MPR according to official figures, an implausible 98.33% of voters voted in favor of the MPR list.

As he consolidated power, Mobutu set up several military forces whose sole purpose was to protect him. These included the Special Presidential Division, Civil Guard and Service for Action, and Military Intelligence (SNIP).

Authenticity campaign Edit

Embarking on a campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness, or authenticité, Mobutu began renaming cities that reflected the colonial past, starting on 1 June 1966: Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the country as the Republic of Zaire. He ordered the people to change their European names to African ones, and priests were warned that they would face five years' imprisonment if they were caught baptizing a Zairian child with a European name. Western attire and ties were banned, and men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume, or "down with the suit"). [34]

In 1972, in accordance with his own decree of a year earlier, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake."), [35] [36] or Mobutu Sese Seko for short. Around this time, he eschewed his military uniform in favor of what would become his classic image—the tall, imposing man carrying a walking stick while wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses, and leopard-skin toque.

In 1974, a new constitution consolidated Mobutu's grip on the country. It defined the MPR as the "single institution" in the country. It was officially defined as "the nation politically organized"—in essence, the state was a transmission belt for the party. All citizens automatically became members of the MPR from birth. The constitution stated that the MPR was embodied by the party's president, who was elected every seven years at its national convention. At the same time, the party president was automatically nominated as the sole candidate for a seven-year term as president of the republic he was confirmed in office by a referendum. The document codified the emergency powers Mobutu had exercised since 1965 it vested the party president–Mobutu–with "plentitude of power exercise," effectively concentrating all governing power in his hands. Mobutu was reelected three times under this system, each time by implausibly high margins of 98 percent or more. A single list of MPR candidates was returned to the legislature every five years with equally implausible margins official figures gave the MPR list unanimous or near-unanimous support. At one of those elections, in 1975, formal voting was dispensed with altogether. Instead, the election took place by "acclaim" candidates were presented at public locations around the country where they could be applauded.

Early in his rule, Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. To set an example, many were hanged before large audiences. Such victims included former Prime Minister Évariste Kimba, who, with three cabinet members—Jérôme Anany (Defense Minister), Emmanuel Bamba (Finance Minister), and Alexandre Mahamba (Minister of Mines and Energy)—was tried in May 1966, and sent to the gallows on 30 May, before an audience of 50,000 spectators. The men were executed on charges of being in contact with Colonel Alphonse Bangala and Major Pierre Efomi, for the purpose of planning a coup. Mobutu explained the executions as follows: "One had to strike through a spectacular example, and create the conditions of regime discipline. When a chief takes a decision, he decides – period." [37]

In 1968, Pierre Mulele, Lumumba's Minister of Education and a rebel leader during the 1964 Simba Rebellion, was lured out of exile in Brazzaville on the belief that he would receive amnesty. Instead, he was tortured and killed by Mobutu's forces. While Mulele was still alive, his eyes were gouged out, his genitals were ripped off, and his limbs were amputated one by one. [38]

Mobutu later gave up torture and murder, and switched to a new tactic, buying off political rivals. He used the slogan "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still" [39] to describe his tactic of co-opting political opponents through bribery. A favorite Mobutu tactic was to play "musical chairs", rotating members of his government, switching the cabinet roster constantly to ensure that no one would pose a threat to his rule. Another tactic was to arrest and sometimes torture dissident members of the government, only to later pardon them and reward them with high office. [ citation needed ]

In 1972, Mobutu tried unsuccessfully to have himself named president for life. [40] In June 1983, he raised himself to the rank of Field Marshal [41] the order was signed by General Likulia Bolongo. Victor Nendaka Bika, in his capacity as Vice-President of the Bureau of the Central Committee, second authority in the land, addressed a speech filled with praise for President Mobutu.

To gain the revenues of Congolese resources, Mobutu initially nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country. But in many cases he handed the management of these firms to relatives and close associates, who quickly exercised their own corruption and stole the companies' assets. By 1977, this had precipitated such an economic slump that Mobutu was forced to try to woo foreign investors back. [42] Katangan rebels based in Angola invaded Zaire that year, in retaliation for Mobutu's support for anti-MPLA rebels. France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan paratroopers into the country and repulsed the rebels, ending Shaba I. The rebels attacked Zaire again, in greater numbers, in the Shaba II invasion of 1978. The governments of Belgium and France deployed troops with logistical support from the United States and defeated the rebels again.

Mobutu was re-elected in single-candidate elections in 1977 and 1984. He spent most of his time increasing his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion. [43] [44] He held most of it out of the country in Swiss banks (however, a comparatively small $3.4 million was declared found in Swiss banks after he was ousted. [45] ). This was almost equivalent to the amount of the country's foreign debt at the time. By 1989, the government was forced to default on international loans from Belgium.

Mobutu owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation's roads deteriorated and many of his people starved. The infrastructure virtually collapsed, and many public service workers went months without being paid. Most of the money was siphoned off to Mobutu, his family, and top political and military leaders. Only the Special Presidential Division – on whom his physical safety depended – was paid adequately or regularly. A popular saying that "the civil servants pretended to work while the state pretended to pay them" expressed this grim reality. [46]

Another feature of Mobutu's economic mismanagement, directly linked to the way he and his friends siphoned off so much of the country's wealth, was rampant inflation. The rapid decline in the real value of salaries strongly encouraged a culture of corruption and dishonesty among public servants of all kinds.

Mobutu was known for his opulent lifestyle. He cruised on the Congo on his yacht Kamanyola. In Gbadolite, he erected a palace, the "Versailles of the jungle". [47] For shopping trips to Paris, he would charter a Concorde from Air France he had the Gbadolite Airport constructed with a runway long enough to accommodate the Concorde's extended take-off and landing requirements. [48] In 1989, Mobutu chartered Concorde aircraft F-BTSD for a 26 June – 5 July trip to give a speech at the United Nations in New York City, then again on 16 July for French bicentennial celebrations in Paris (where he was a guest of President François Mitterrand), and on 19 September for a flight from Paris to Gbadolite, and another nonstop flight from Gbadolite to Marseille with the youth choir of Zaire. [49]

Mobutu's rule earned a reputation as one of the world's foremost examples of kleptocracy and nepotism. [50] Close relatives and fellow members of the Ngbandi tribe were awarded high positions in the military and government, and he groomed his eldest son, Nyiwa, to succeed him as president [51] however, Nyiwa died from AIDS in 1994. [52]

Mobutu led one of the most enduring dictatorships in Africa and amassed a personal fortune estimated to be over US$5 billion by selling his nation's rich natural resources while the people lived in poverty. [53] While in office, he formed a totalitarian regime responsible for numerous human rights violations, attempted to purge the country of all Belgian cultural influences, and maintained an anti-communist stance to gain positive international support. [29] [54]

Mobutu was the subject of one of the most pervasive personality cults of the twentieth century. The evening newscast opened with image of him descending through clouds like a god. His portraits were hung in many public places, and government officials wore lapel pins bearing his portrait. He held such titles as "Father of the Nation", "Messiah", "Guide of the Revolution", "Helmsman", "Founder", "Savior of the People", and "Supreme Combatant". In the 1996 documentary of the 1974 Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire, dancers receiving the fighters can be heard chanting "Sese Seko, Sese Seko". At one point, in early 1975, the media were forbidden to refer to anyone other than Mobutu by name others were referred to only by the positions they held. [55] [56]

Mobutu successfully capitalized on Cold War tensions among European nations and the United States. He gained significant support from the West and its international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund. [57]

Foreign policy Edit

Relations with Belgium Edit

Relations between Zaire and Belgium wavered between close intimacy and open hostility during the Mobutu years. More often than not, Belgian decision-makers responded in a lacklustre way when Mobutu acted against the interests of Belgium, partly explained by the highly divided Belgian political class. [58] Relations soured early in Mobutu's rule over disputes involving the substantial Belgian commercial and industrial holdings in the country, but they warmed soon afterwards. Mobutu and his family were received as personal guests of the Belgian monarch in 1968, and a convention for scientific and technical cooperation was signed that same year. During King Baudouin's highly successful visit to Kinshasa in 1970, a treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries was signed. However, Mobutu tore up the treaty in 1974 in protest at Belgium's refusal to ban an anti-Mobutu book written by left-wing lawyer Jules Chomé. [59] Mobutu's "Zairianisation" policy, which expropriated foreign-held businesses and transferred their ownership to Zairians, added to the strain. [60] Mobutu maintained several personal contacts with prominent Belgians. Edmond Leburton, Belgian prime minister between 1973 and 1974, was someone greatly admired by the President. [61] Alfred Cahen, career diplomat and chef de cabinet of minister Henri Simonet, became a personal friend of Mobutu when he was a student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. [62] Relations with King Baudouin were mostly cordial, until Mobutu released a bold statement about the Belgian royal family. Prime Minister Wilfried Martens recalled in his memoirs that the palace gates closed completely after Mobutu published a handwritten letter of the King. [63] Next to friendly ties with Belgians residing in Belgium, Mobutu had a number of Belgian advisors at his disposal. Some of them, such as Hugues Leclercq and Colonel Willy Mallants, were interviewed in Thierry Michel's documentary Mobutu, King of Zaire.

Relations with France Edit

As what was then the second most populous French-speaking country in the world (it has subsequently come to have a larger population than France) and the most populous one in sub-Saharan Africa, [64] Zaire was of great strategic interest to France. [65] During the First Republic era, France tended to side with the conservative and federalist forces, as opposed to unitarists such as Lumumba. [64] Shortly after the Katangan secession was successfully crushed, Zaire (then called the Republic of the Congo), signed a treaty of technical and cultural cooperation with France. During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, relations with the two countries gradually grew stronger and closer. In 1971, Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d'Estaing paid a visit to Zaire later, after becoming president, he would develop a close personal relationship with President Mobutu, and became one of the regime's closest foreign allies. During the Shaba invasions, France sided firmly with Mobutu: during the first Shaba invasion, France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan troops to Zaire, and the rebels were repulsed [66] a year later, during the second Shaba invasion, France itself (along with Belgium) would send French Foreign Legion paratroopers (2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment) to aid Mobutu. [67] [68] [69]

Relations with the People's Republic of China Edit

Initially, Zaire's relationship with the People's Republic of China was no better than its relationship with the Soviet Union. Memories of Chinese aid to Mulele and other Maoist rebels in Kwilu province during the ill-fated Simba Rebellion remained fresh on Mobutu's mind. He also opposed seating the PRC at the United Nations. However, by 1972, he began to see the Chinese in a different light, as a counterbalance to both the Soviet Union as well as his intimate ties with the United States, Israel, and South Africa. [70] [71] In November 1972, Mobutu extended diplomatic recognition to the Chinese (as well as East Germany and North Korea). The following year, Mobutu paid a visit to Beijing, where he met with chairman Mao Zedong and received promises of $100 million in technical aid.

In 1974, Mobutu made a surprise visit to both China and North Korea, during the time he was originally scheduled to visit the Soviet Union. Upon returning home, both his politics and rhetoric became markedly more radical it was around this time that Mobutu began criticizing Belgium and the United States (the latter for not doing enough, in Mobutu's opinion, to combat white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia), introduced the "obligatory civic work" program called salongo, and initiated "radicalization" (an extension of 1973's "Zairianization" policy). Mobutu even borrowed a title – the Helmsman – from Mao. Incidentally, late 1974-early 1975 was when his personality cult reached its peak.

China and Zaire shared a common goal in central Africa, namely doing everything in their power to halt Soviet gains in the area. Accordingly, both Zaire and China covertly funneled aid to the National Liberation Front of Angola (and later, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in order to prevent their former allies, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, who were supported and augmented by Cuban forces, from coming to power. The Cubans, who exercised considerable influence in Africa in support of leftist and anti-imperialist forces, were heavily sponsored by the Soviet Union during the period. In addition to inviting Holden Roberto, the leader of the National Liberation Front of Angola, and his guerrillas to Beijing for training, China provided weapons and money to the rebels. Zaire itself launched an ill-fated, pre-emptive invasion of Angola in a bid to install a pro-Kinshasa government, but was repulsed by Cuban troops. The expedition was a fiasco with far-reaching repercussions, most notably the Shaba I and Shaba II invasions, both of which China opposed. China sent military aid to Zaire during both invasions, and accused the Soviet Union and Cuba (who were alleged to have supported the Shaban rebels, although this was and remains speculation) of working to de-stabilize central Africa.

Relations with the Soviet Union Edit

Mobutu's relationship with the Soviet Union was frosty and tense. A staunch anti-communist, he was not anxious to recognize the Soviets the USSR had supported—though mostly in words—both Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu's democratically elected predecessor, and the Simba rebellion. However, to project a non-aligned image, he did renew ties in 1967 the first Soviet ambassador arrived and presented his credentials in 1968. [72] Mobutu did, however, join the United States in condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that year. [73] Mobutu viewed the Soviet presence as advantageous for two reasons: it allowed him to maintain an image of non-alignment, and it provided a convenient scapegoat for problems at home. For example, in 1970, he expelled four Soviet diplomats for carrying out "subversive activities", and in 1971, twenty Soviet officials were declared persona non grata for allegedly instigating student demonstrations at Lovanium University. [74]

Moscow was the only major world capital Mobutu never visited, although he did accept an invitation to do so in 1974. For reasons unknown, he cancelled the visit at the last minute, and toured the People's Republic of China and North Korea instead. [75]

Relations cooled further in 1975, when the two countries found themselves on opposing sides in the Angolan Civil War. This had a dramatic effect on Zairian foreign policy for the next decade bereft of his claim to African leadership (Mobutu was one of the few leaders who refused to recognize the Marxist government of Angola), Mobutu turned increasingly to the US and its allies, adopting pro-American stances on such issues as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Israel's position in international organizations.