Legacy of Guile, Greed and Graft
He styled himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, a name that means “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.”
But in the end, Africa’s longest-serving dictator was powerless and conquered, his will broken by cancer and his claims to glory in shambles.
When he finally fled in humiliation Friday after 32 years in power, Mobutu left a crippling legacy of guile, greed and graft that will long hinder progress in one of the world’s poorest nations.
After a stunning seven-month rebellion, Mobutu ceded power to a lifelong foe, Laurent Kabila. Whatever the future holds, the past is agonizingly clear: Mobutu became the epitome of misrule and corruption.
Mobutu, 66, was the last of Africa’s Big Men, the omnipotent post-colonial rulers who draped themselves in nationalist rhetoric and boasted of magical powers as they plundered economies and ruthlessly crushed dissent.
He was not the worst of such megalomaniacs. He didn’t practice cannibalism, as did the late self-proclaimed “emperor” of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, or preside over mass murder and terror, as did Uganda’s exiled Idi Amin.
Mobutu was far more clever.
While his sinister security forces imprisoned and killed political enemies at home, he became Washington’s favorite African leader. He strode like a monarch across the world stage, always wearing his leopard-skin hat and waving a silver-topped ebony walking stick.
He bragged on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” that he was one of the world’s richest men as his nation--potentially wealthy from vast deposits of gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt--was driven into penury by officials’ extravagance and corruption.
“He defined the term ‘African kleptocracy,’ ” said Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. “He really has left his country as a nation only in name. There’s little semblance of governance. The basic functions of the state, tax collection and the provision of basic needs and security, are not performed. Zaire has become a national shell.”
Under Mobutu, Zaire slowly slid backward until roads disappeared in the jungle, hospital patients were forced to provide their own medicine, and the army and police turned to banditry. Many countries have multiple time zones; Zaire has six different currencies because the economy is in such chaos.
“There were no positives, only negatives,” Gabriel Ngoyi, a 32-year-old student, said at a recent protest rally here. “He is a wicked, selfish man.”
The legacy is not all bad. Analysts say Mobutu helped preserve Zaire’s territorial integrity, especially when he used foreign mercenaries to quash a series of secessionist revolts early in his reign. Even critics say Mobutu’s iron-fisted rule kept Africa’s third-largest nation from splintering.
“Zaire went through many years of stability under Mobutu,” said Vincent Farley, a former diplomat and Africa expert at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga. “I give Mobutu credit for establishing a national entity. It hasn’t split apart.”
Mobutu saw it somewhat differently.
“Democracy is not for Africa,” he once said. “There was only one African chief, and here in Zaire we must make unity.”
Mobutu’s rampant abuses were ignored or papered over by Washington and other Western governments for most of his era.
He adroitly won their support--and billions of dollars in aid--because he understood the Western fear of Communist expansion in Africa and how to exploit it.
Until the late 1980s, American taxpayers were still giving Mobutu’s regime $70 million a year in foreign aid, nearly half of all U.S. aid to sub-Saharan Africa.
President Reagan called him “a voice of good sense and goodwill.”
In exchange, the U.S. and its allies were able to mine strategic minerals, especially cobalt, and stage covert military operations from Zaire. Mobutu’s willingness to funnel arms to the UNITA rebels of Jonas Savimbi in neighboring Angola, for example, allowed Washington to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union and to bloody Cuban troops fighting for Angola’s socialist government.
“We used him, and he used us, for many years,” explained a veteran diplomat here.
Supporters portrayed Mobutu as the only man who could hold Zaire’s 250 often-competing ethnic groups together.
The United Nations, France, Belgium and Morocco all deployed troops and the U.S. sent aircraft and other help at various times to help crush his opponents and keep him in power.
But most outside support stopped with the end of the Cold War. The United States steadily cut aid in an effort to force Mobutu to create a transition to democracy. Mobutu agreed, but sabotaged all efforts to organize elections.
Increasingly isolated, Zaire went into a tailspin. Mobutu’s army, unpaid and corrupt, went on savage rampages, pillaging cities and preying on the populace. Mobutu’s power began to ebb as his health worsened.
Kabila’s forces didn’t so much beat Mobutu as move into a vacuum.
Mobutu’s long career was remarkable given his humble beginnings. Born Oct. 14, 1930, Joseph Desire Mobutu was the son of a maid and a cook. He attended Catholic missionary-run schools until he was expelled at 19 for stealing from a mission library.
Mobutu joined the colonial army and rose quickly to sergeant major, the highest rank then available to an African.
In a 1959 trip to Belgium, Mobutu befriended Lawrence Devlin, a Central Intelligence Agency operative, and persuaded Devlin of his heartfelt anti-communism.
Mobutu’s links to the CIA date from then and served him well in the first stormy post-colonial years.
Belgium had done little to develop its colony.
At independence on June 30, 1960, the new nation had only half a dozen African university graduates. Political parties had been legalized only five years earlier. A political crisis was inevitable.
After independence, the first president, Joseph Kasavubu, and the first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, a nationalist backed by Moscow, struggled for dominance.
Lumumba had made Mobutu the army chief-of-staff. But Mobutu betrayed his sponsor, using the feud with Kasavubu as the pretext for declaring military rule in September 1960 and banning all political activity. It was Mobutu’s first coup.
The ban was lifted the following February when Mobutu restored Kasavubu to the presidency. Lumumba was murdered in the ensuing turmoil. Among his fervent followers: the now-victorious rebel chief, Laurent Kabila.
From that point, through a chaotic series of armed rebellions and attempted secessions, and the first U.N. peace-keeping operation, Mobutu held the center of the vortex of power, backed by successive administrations in Washington.
He seized formal power in a CIA-backed coup on Nov. 24, 1965, and declared himself president of the “Second Republic.”
He led the only political party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution, and every citizen joined at birth.
“Zaire’s one-party state system is the most elaborate form of democracy,” he assured his people, a typical example of Mobutu-speak.
At first, Mobutu thrived.
Copper prices skyrocketed, and the wily ruler consolidated power through divide-and-rule tactics. His political style was legend: A rival might be in jail one day, named an ambassador the next. The goal was to manipulate and co-opt opponents. When all else failed, they were killed.
He held elections in 1970--but was the only candidate.
He bolstered his legitimacy with a campaign of “authenticity.” He forbade bureaucrats to wear Western attire and ordered all Zairians to replace European names with African ones.
Even the country changed: The Congo became Zaire, Leopoldville became Kinshasa and Stanleyville became Kisangani.
Mobutu also expropriated $500 million in foreign businesses and expelled Asian merchants, who dominated the economy. Not surprisingly, his family and members of his Ngbandi tribe were the chief beneficiaries.
As his power grew, Mobutu orchestrated a cult of personality.
Soon, he was also raiding the public purse and siphoning the proceeds of sales of the country’s vast mineral wealth to private Swiss bank accounts. Graft became systemic and endemic, practiced at every level.
Mobutu wasn’t concerned.
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Downfall of a Dictator
Key events in Mobutu Sese Seko’s three-decade dictatorship in Zaire:
* June 30, 1960: Belgian Congo becomes independent Republic of the Congo, with Joseph Kasavubu as president, Patrice Lumumba as prime minister.
* July 4, 1960: Army mutinies; Joseph Desire Mobutu, a former journalist and noncommissioned officer, is promoted to colonel.
* Sept. 14, 1960: Mobutu announces temporary suspension of all political institutions and assumes control of country.
* 1961: Mobutu makes deal with Kasavubu, who returns to presidency.
* Nov. 24, 1965: Mobutu, with covert U.S. backing, ousts Kasavubu and declares himself president
* 1966: Mobutu declares five-year ban on all political parties, abolishes office of prime minister--placing all power in the presidency.
* November 1984: Laurent Kabila launches rebellion and seizes city of Moba; army stamps out revolt and cracks down on dissidents.
* 1990: In attempt to shore up diminishing support, Mobutu promises presidential and legislative elections. Neither are held.
* 1991-93: Soldiers riot when Mobutu tries to pay them with old bank notes; 65 people, including French ambassador, are killed.
* April 6, 1994: Rwandan Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, longtime Mobutu ally, is killed in plane crash; his government sets off genocide of 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis. More than 1 million Hutus flee, most to Zaire.
* July 1996: Mobutu leaves for cancer treatment in Switzerland.
* September 1996: Tutsis in eastern Zaire revolt after local officials try to expel them. Kabila assumes control of the rebellion.
* Dec. 17, 1996: Mobutu returns to Zaire.
* 1997: Rebels sweep westward across Zaire.
* May 4: Mobutu-Kabila peace talks fail.
* May 16: Mobutu relinquishes presidential powers.