Don’t Give Mobutu a Safety Net : Zaire: The dictator owes his power--and bank account--to U.S. actions, mostly carried out by the CIA. The result is a country reeling from poverty.

<i> David N. Gibbs, assistant professor of political science at the University of Arizona, is author of "The Political Economy of Third World Intervention: Mines, Money and U.S. Policy in the Congo Crisis" (University of Chicago Press)</i>

When Africa is in the news these days, the news is usually depressing. Except in the case of Zaire. Political turmoil in that country is having some positive effects.

The dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko is crumbling. After weeks of riots, military mutiny, strikes, opposition agitation and intervention by French and Belgian paratroopers, ostensibly to protect European nationals, Gen.--or more recently “Marshall”--Mobutu is grudgingly ceding power. On Sept. 28, Mobutu announced that he would permit the formation of a coalition government led by an opposition figure, leaving the presidency for himself. Most observers believe it is a matter of time, now that Mobutu has fulfilled his promise, before the regime collapses.

No one should mourn the end of Mobutu. His 26 years of rule have wrecked Zaire; almost no one but Mobutu himself has benefitted. The economy barely functions, despite large mineral reserves. Living standards have dropped to a fraction of what they were 20 years ago. Inflation is as high as 3,000%. Government corruption is notorious, with Mobutu as Mr. Corruption. He is estimated to be worth about $5 billion--nearly as much as Zaire’s total foreign debt. Although economic decline has been a staple in many African countries during the 1980s, Mobutu’s Zaire stands out as one of the poorest.


It’s easy to criticize Mobutu, now that he is falling. What is not so easy is to reflect on the U.S. role in his rise and fall. It is not simply that the United States supported the Mobutu dictatorship. It practically created the dictator.

Without U.S. support, Mobutu would probably not be ceding power today. Indeed, it is doubtful that he would even have held high office. To keep Mobutu on top, the United States actively opposed democratic forces in Zaire.

The U.S. role in Zaire, then called the Congo, began in 1960. In the turmoil that followed its independence from Belgium, the Congo faced anarchy and civil war. The United States immediately intervened in the Congo crisis, seeking out Congolese leaders who were considered pro-American and “reliable.” The Central Intelligence Agency played a key, and largely secret, role in all these events. The CIA backed Mobutu, a young and ambitious army officer at the time. The agency financed him and advanced his career, often using Mobutu and his military unit as a strike force to mold pro-U.S. governments.

The prime minister of the Congo--the only democratically elected leader in the history of the country--was overthrown and later assassinated. Mobutu played a crucial part in the overthrow and seized power for himself in 1965, later abolishing the Parliament. To demonstrate his “nationalist” credentials, Mobutu Africanized all city names in the Congo and changed the country’s name to Zaire in 1971.

The United States, unfortunately, chose to support Mobutu. Worse, Washington encouraged many of his intrigues. Even the 1965 coup d’etat against a democratic leader was supported by the CIA, as several former agency officers have attested. In public, the U.S. government denied that it was intervening.

The United States continued to back the Mobutu regime for many years after the coup, its role and influence in Zaire growing by the year. By 1967, the London Daily Telegraph referred to the United States as the “caretaker power” in Zaire.


In 1975, a State Department official testified before a congressional committee that “We do have . . . a warm spot in our hearts for President Mobutu.” This intimacy continued during the Reagan Administration. Until recently, Zaire was the largest recipient of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

Little of this history is known. When the Soviet Union is facing up to its own unpleasant past, we Americans are still too inclined to block out the unpleasantness--like Mobutu--in our own.

Now that Mobutu is fading, the United States should make no effort to save Mobutu from his inevitable fall, lest it compound past failures. Perhaps more important, U.S. policy-makers should relearn from the Zaire experience the lesson that covert operations can produce unseemly results. Nearly all details of the CIA operations in Zaire, including support for Mobutu and subversion of the Congo’s first prime minister, were withheld from the American public, since it was highly unlikely that such policies would have received the voters’ approval.

If we really are serious about promoting democracy abroad, we should conduct our policies in public, eschewing secrecy as much as possible. The CIA should stick to intelligence gathering. With the Cold War over, the cloak-and-dagger stuff is irrelevant, anyway. Policy-makers should stay clear of such methods. Perhaps, then, we will not have to worry about extricating ourselves from messes created by monsters like Mobutu.