Mobutu Sese Seko, after four months of convalescence on the French Riviera following cancer surgery, is back home, where an ethnic rebel faction controls much of Zaire's eastern region, a vocal opposition wants to oust him and a surreal spiral into anomie and anarchy continues apace. Yet, thousands welcomed him in Kinshasa, the capital, with adulation and great fanfare.
The tragic irony in all this is that Mobutu is both the root cause of his country's persistent problems and the indispensable key to its future. Few understand Mobutu's role in Zaire during the last three decades better than himself, who, when asked about his country's prospects, replies, "After me, the deluge." Indeed, Mobutu has been the glue holding the nation-state of Zaire together since the early days of its independence from Belgium and, so far, no other Zairean leader has come close to approaching his popularity.
The enduring legacy of Zaire's president is intertwined with the history of post-independence black Africa, U.S. interests in the Cold War, African nationalism and the cultural tradition of the African "big man," of which Mobutu is a paradigm. Were it not for the confluence of these factors, Mobutu would not have survived this long.
In November 1965, Mobutu, with the tacit support of the United States, overthrew a weak Congolese government in a bloodless coup and instituted his government. There was only one party, Mobutu's. Control of all state functions, including the army, the judiciary and provincial governments, was concentrated in the hands of Mobutu and a small cadre of lieutenants from his own ethnic group. He and his cohorts made a business of Zaire's abundant mineral deposits. Mobutu was on his way to becoming one of the world's richest men by systematically plundering his country's vast resources and using the proceeds to invest abroad.
In the early 1970s, Mobutu embarked upon a national campaign to transform Zairean society into an "authentic" African state. He changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga ("Mobutu the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake"). All major cities were given African names. La costume, a collarless suit worn with colorful ascots, became the national dress for men and boys; women were urged to wear native African garb to identify themselves as Zairean nationalists. The cultural and political ideology of "Mobutuism" was stamped indelibly upon Zairean society.
Mobutu's stable and compliant country became America's African partner during the Cold War. The United States needed to funnel assistance to anti-communist rebels fighting in Angola and Mozambique. Zaire was that funnel. Indeed, Mobutu offered up his country as a staging ground for U.S. military operations and as a resupply station in the heart of Africa. In exchange, Mobutu received millions in U.S. economic and military assistance, using it for personal gain.
Although Mobutu's ever-more repressive rule has been challenged from time to time, he has maintained power through his uncanny ability to co-opt and marginalize potential adversaries. One credible opposition leader after another has been invited to serve in government, then given an opportunity to either enrich himself or become tainted and, ultimately, politically emasculated. This has been the fate of such promising leaders as Etienne Tshisekedi, Nguza Karl-I-Bond and the current prime minister, Leon Kengo wa Dondo, a darling of the West and the World Bank but with little support from Zaireans. Those who have not been co-opted have been either forced into exile, jailed or killed.
In the last two years, however, political repression has given way to an outright breakdown in central-government authority. Increasingly, Mobutu has become more reclusive, retiring to his white elephant of a barge on the river or one of his safe havens in the interior of the country. Although the opposition remains fractured, Zaire's citizens desperately expect and need more from government. Because of Mobutu's "kleptocracy," international financial institutions have refused to bail out the country. Even loyal patrons such as France and Belgium are fatigued with Zaire.
Against such an ominous backdrop, Mobutu's return to Zaire not only has his country, but the international community, expectant, although no one quite knows what to expect. The military situation in the eastern province shows no signs of abating unless Mobutu can mount a counteroffensive or reach a political settlement. Given his weak physical condition and his tattered and undisciplined army, it is highly unlikely that Mobutu will respond with force. More predictably, he will seek a modus vivendi with both his internal opposition and the rebels.
Last summer, in what may have been a desperate attempt to forestall the inevitable, Mobutu unsuccessfully sought a visa to the United States. His ostensible purpose was to involve the United States in developing a framework for elections and a political transition in Zaire. Washington wanted elections first. Yet, the pace of Zaire's decline since then should prompt the administration to re-evaluate the wisdom of that decision.
More significant, the United States needs to develop a more realistic approach to Zaire, one that does not seek to ignore or circumvent Mobutu because of his checkered history. In the final analysis, Mobutu's participation in the design of Zaire's next government may be his most important contribution, and it very well could be the missing ingredient in solving the crisis in Central Africa.*