Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairian leader toppled in May after nearly 32 years of despotic rule that enriched him and his friends but left his country in shambles, has died in Morocco, Radio France Info reported early today. He was 66.
Mobutu had been suffering from prostate cancer. There was no immediate word on the cause of his death.
The billionaire leader fled Zaire on May 16, surrendering power to rebels led by longtime opponent Laurent Kabila, who then renamed the nation the Democratic Republic of Congo and made himself president. Mobutu was accompanied by an entourage of hundreds to the West African nation of Togo and then to Morocco in North Africa.
Long a U.S. ally and aid recipient, Mobutu became a symbol of excess during his reign strewn with broken promises and bloody revolts.
Mobutu left his resource-rich country of 45 million in economic and political chaos. Rebels who had begun their campaign to topple him last September finally deposed him after a nearly eight-month offensive across the vast Central African nation.
Mobutu was out of Zaire during most of the rebel advance, in his palatial homes in Switzerland and the south of France, recovering from cancer surgery.
He stunned people by leaving the country again May 7 for a summit in neighboring Gabon when the rebels claimed to be less than 40 miles from the capital, Kinshasa.
Though Mobutu returned to the city several days later, his long goodbye finally came to an end May 16.
Mobutu was the last of Africa’s Cold War relics, an autocrat who lived like a king while leading his mineral-rich and potentially magnificent country down a ruinous path.
He was born Oct. 14, 1930, as Joseph Desire Mobutu in what was then the Belgian Congo. The son of a maid and a cook, he attended Roman Catholic schools until he was expelled at 19 for stealing.
Mobutu joined the colonial army and rose quickly to sergeant major, the highest rank then available to an African. When the colony gained independence from Belgium in 1960, the new nation’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, named Mobutu army chief of staff.
Mobutu soon betrayed his sponsor, declaring military rule in September 1960. Civilian authority was restored the following February--but Lumumba was slain in the ensuing chaos.
As chief of staff, Mobutu earned his soldiers’ loyalty by building up the military forces and crushing secessionist revolts that grew to encompass nearly half the country.
Mobutu seized full power Nov. 24, 1965. At the time, the coup by an avowed anti-Communist was welcomed in the West, which was vying with the Soviets for influence on the continent, and by Zairians weary of a bickering civilian government that couldn’t decide how best to share power in the ethnically diverse new nation. Mobutu promised to preserve democratic institutions and eventually return the country to civilian rule.
Instead, he declared himself head of state, founded the Popular Movement of the Revolution party, banned all other political parties and embarked on a decades-long pursuit of absolute power.
To cement his dictatorship and keep potential rivals at bay, senior politicians from the previous government were appointed to overseas diplomatic posts, where most were then accused of anti-Mobutu activities and dismissed or arrested.
Powerful opponents who remained in Zaire eventually fled into exile or were imprisoned or publicly executed after sham trials. Those who remained were co-opted by Mobutu, seduced with gifts of limousines and luxurious villas, and kept loyal by becoming entwined in his net of corruption.
Mobutu sought to shake off the remnants of colonial rule with a fierce policy of “Zairianization,” which included nationalization of mining and other major industries. He ordered government workers and ministers to wear Mao-style jackets and outlawed Christian names.
Donning his trademark leopard-skin cap, he changed his own Christian name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, which loosely 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.”
In a 1980 speech, Mobutu dashed any hopes of allowing Zaire to become a democracy. “As long as I live, I will not authorize the creation of another party,” he said.
The last presidential election was held in July 1984, with Mobutu the sole candidate. Those who endorsed him voted on green ballots, those against him on red ones; the red forms were unavailable at many polls. He was reelected to a further seven-year term by 99% of the vote.
Through it all, Mobutu maintained Western support because of the region’s strategic importance as a Cold War battlefield. In return for arms and aid, he allowed the United States to use Zaire as a conduit for sending arms to rebels fighting Angola’s Soviet-backed government.
But as the Cold War waned, so too did Mobutu’s glory days. Human rights groups began denouncing his excesses, including the May 1990 killings of student demonstrators by presidential troops at Lubumbashi University.