Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire for nearly 32 years with a combination of brutal repression and unbridled greed that impoverished his citizens while earning him millions, died in Morocco on Sunday, less than four months after being driven into exile by leaders of a popular rebellion.
Mobutu, who died at 66 after a long battle with prostate cancer, was for years the epitome of the African strongman. More than a dictatorship, his regime was often called a “kleptocracy.”
He strode the African and world stages dressed in a trademark leopard-skin hat and carrying an ebony, ivory-tipped walking stick. He looted the treasury of his mineral-rich country, spending some of it on European homes and fine champagne and, reportedly, socking much of it away in Swiss bank accounts. Stern and imperious, he was little loved and mostly feared. When he was deposed in May by the onrushing troops of an old foe, Laurent Kabila, Mobutu was so ill that he could barely walk. And yet only one country, Morocco, agreed to accept him.
Mobutu once bragged in an interview on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” that he was one of the world’s richest men--this as Zaire’s infrastructure crumbled. Many of the country’s paved roads had been swallowed up by the encroaching jungle, hospital patients were forced to provide their own medicine, and almost every police officer, regular army soldier and civil servant had resorted to banditry as a means to survive.
Joseph-Desire Mobutu was born Oct. 14, 1930, in Lisala, in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. The son of a cook and hotel maid, he first pursued a career in journalism before becoming a soldier. In 1960, shortly after independence from Belgium, he was named army chief of staff. When the Belgians pulled out, Mobutu was one of the country’s few literate, high-school-educated non-Europeans. Recognizing that the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, Mobutu sewed up a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency.
The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, whom the CIA suspected of Marxist tendencies, was quickly killed, and the U.S.-backed Mobutu spent the next few years maneuvering himself into position to become dictator.
On Nov. 24, 1965, he brought down the first post-colonial government--of Joseph Kasavubu--and declared himself president of the Second Republic. His hold on power remained unchallenged until the early 1990s, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe stirred winds of democracy in Africa.
He Africanized his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga--meaning “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.”
A pro-democracy movement led by the Roman Catholic Church began pressing for multi-party elections in Zaire, but the shrewd Mobutu easily sowed divisions among his opponents. The country Mobutu had renamed Zaire was never an African Arcadia. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese were worked to death by Belgian colonizers who gained international approval to create a despotic and exploitative “Free State” in the watershed of the mighty Congo River and for the next century milked it for everything it was worth.
Although the country--renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo with Mobutu’s ouster--is still considered to be fabulously wealthy, with vast timber reserves and hydroelectric potential and some of the world’s richest mineral deposits, it is in shambles politically, economically and socially.
“Mobutuism” amounted to a one-party totalitarian system melded with African symbols and calls for self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Eventually, the word simply was a synonym for graft.
Besides what Mobutu siphoned off and stole, he paid himself generously. His personal salary was 17% of the state budget. By 1989, he officially received $100 million a year to spend as he wished, more than the government spent on education, health and social services combined.
Besides his French Riviera villa and the immense palace--known as “Versailles in the Jungle"--that he built in his ancestral village, Mobutu’s properties included a 15-acre beach resort, a plantation of orchards and a huge vineyard in Portugal, a 32-room mansion in Switzerland and a 16th century castle in Spain.
In the end, it was not only Mobutu’s greed but his lifelong habit of meddling in the internal affairs of his neighbors that finally brought him down.
Mobutu had been friendly with the Hutu-led regime in Rwanda that in April 1994 unleashed a genocide against its ethnic Tutsi minority. Tutsi troops marching in from Uganda eventually drove out the Hutu government, but not before at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been slaughtered. The genocide regime decamped en masse into eastern Zaire.
Sustained by international aid agencies and rearmed with Mobutu’s help, the Hutus gained in strength and bravado until they began renewing massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda and eastern Zaire. This prompted Uganda and Rwanda to team up with Kabila, a onetime Maoist anti-Mobutu guerrilla and gold smuggler.
With the help of Rwandan arms and soldiers, Kabila’s rebel forces routed the Hutus from their camps and then turned their guns on Mobutu. In a remarkable 1,000-mile campaign that lasted from November 1996 until Mobutu’s downfall on May 16, they walked the breadth of Zaire to take the capital, Kinshasa.
By now, Mobutu was deathly ill with prostate cancer. Only a heavy regimen of painkillers made it possible for him to hold meetings with Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and South African President Nelson Mandela, who had hopes of brokering a deal to ease Mobutu out of power.
Mobutu, meanwhile, was still under the illusion that his faithful army would rise up and beat the rebels when they got to Kinshasa. Finally, when his army chief of staff told him that his troops would not allow a blood bath in Kinshasha to save one man, Mobutu realized it was time for him to go. He spent the last months of his life in Morocco, living in seclusion in different luxury hotels and villas accompanied by a huge entourage of family members, servants, bodyguards and assorted hangers-on and undergoing various operations intended to slow the relentless progress of his cancer.
The treatment failed. Racked by illness, detested by the country that once treated him as a demigod and dependent on strangers in his final hours, Africa’s last Big Man died bereft.
Daniszewski reported from Cairo, Simmons from Nairobi.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THE MOBUTU DECADES
Key events in Mobutu Sese Seko’s three-decade dictatorship in Zaire
June 30, 1960: Belgian Congo proclaimed independent Republic of the Congo. Joseph Kasavubu becomes president, Patrice Lumumba premier.
July 5, 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.
November 1960: Forces loyal to Kasavubu arrest Lumumba; two months later they hand him over to separatists who kill him.
1961: Mobutu makes deal with Kasavubu, who returns to power; Mobutu warns he will take over again if political situation is not straightened out.
July 1964: Uprising by rebels captures eastern Congo. One of the rebels is Laurent Kabila, then 23.
1965: Rebellion put down by Belgian troops and European mercenaries after tens of thousands of people are killed.
Nov. 24, 1965: Mobutu, with covert U.S. backing, ousts Kasavubu in coup and declares himself head of the Second Republic.
1966-71: Mobutu consolidates control of Zaire, winning presidential elections in which he is the only candidate and changing country’s name to Republic of Zaire.
1972: Mobutu renames himself Mobutu Sese Seko and urges all Zairians to assume African names and stop wearing European-style clothing.
1990: In attempt to shore up diminishing support, Mobutu promises presidential and legislative elections. Neither are held.
August 1991: International pressure leads to national conference to pave way for multi-party elections. Security forces crack down on opposition, leading to widespread rioting and looting. French and Belgian paratroopers move in to restore order.
1991-93: Soldiers riot when Mobutu tries to pay them with old bank notes; 65 people, including French ambassador, are killed. French and Belgian paratroopers again move in to restore order; Western backers, including U.S., shun Mobutu.
April 6, 1994: Rwandan Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, a longtime Mobutu ally, is killed in plane crash; his government sets off genocide of up to 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. Fearing retribution, more than 1 million Hutus flee, most to Zaire, where Mobutu lets them stay in refugee camps.
July 1996: Mobutu leaves for cancer treatment in Switzerland.
September 1996: Tutsis in eastern Zaire revolt after local officials try to expel them. Laurent Kabila assumes control of the rebellion; rebels attack refugee camps to flush out former Rwandan Hutu soldiers and militiamen.
Dec. 17, 1996: Mobutu returns to Zaire.
1997: Rebels sweep westward across Zaire.
May 4: Mobutu-Kabila peace talks fail.
May 16: Mobutu gives up presidential powers.
Sept 8: Mobutu dies in self-imposed exile in Morocco.