Overcoming Mobutu’s Sad Legacy

Helen Watson Winternitz is author of "East Along the Equator: A Journey Up the Congo and Into Zaire."

When Mobutu Sese Seko seized control of the Congo some three decades ago, Africa was emerging into independence with an uncertainty that made it prime territory for post-colonial exploitation. Abetted by the Central Intelligence Agency, he signed on as a Cold War client and, with the aid of the United States and former European colonialists, grew to be a ruinous dictator.

When Laurent Desiree Kabila toppled Mobutu last spring, the continent was gaining a sense of its own strength. Countries neighboring the Congo swept Kabila into power with a speed that stunned the world. They wanted an end to a dictatorship that looked first to the interests of the West, rather than Africa, and an economically viable country in their center.

The question is no longer whether the heart of Africa will go communist, but whether Kabila can resuscitate it and pump fresh economic blood into arteries of commerce long blocked by a sclerosis of corruption. The outcome will be critical in determining whether the country will become the centerpiece of a new, cooperative Africa run by a fresh generation of leaders.

The corollary is whether Kabila can fix the Congo without sacrificing human rights, those of his 45 million citizens who already have suffered long under Mobutu’s despotism and those of Hutu refugees lost or massacred in the remoteness of central Africa.


The swiftness of Kabila’s success testified both to the utter rottenness of Mobutu’s regime and to the extraordinary backing the rebels received from 10 African countries. Such unanimity in altering the course of events within Africa is unprecedented.

The rebels’ foremost backers were the Congo’s western neighbors of Uganda and Rwanda, which supplied soldiers, weapons and logistics. Unbeknownst to most of the world, Rwanda had been helping design Mobutu’s overthrow for two years. Rwanda’s defense minister and vice president, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, collaborated in this with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president and a luminary in the continent’s politics toward progress.

They were joined by other neighbors like Angola, which had suffered from the U.S. use of Mobutu as a Cold War pawn in a deadly game to destabilize its Marxist government. Political or economic backing for the rebellion also came from Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania and more distant Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Many of the governments involved in ousting Mobutu also had begun as rebel movements fighting against African proxies for the superpowers, against racism or against despots who flourished on their people’s weakness. The Eritreans ousted Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Zimbabweans dumped Ian D. Smith, the Ugandans got rid of Milton Obote.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo borders nine countries, a fact that under Mobutu created a great economic hole in the center of Africa. A functioning Congo could provide a central infrastructure for business in a large portion of sub-Saharan Africa. The country’s railways and roads, as well as its natural Congo River highway, could be the crucial link between Kinshasa and Capetown, Maputo and Luanda, Nairobi and Brazzaville, between economic centers north and south, east and west. If the Congo’s minerals, which range from diamonds to copper, could be mined efficiently again, the country could grow rich, its wealth a boon also to its trading partners. The harnessing of the rivers hydroelectric potential literally could light up the region.

Now, however, the Congo centerpiece is little more than one of the most abused sites of the former Cold War. Mobutu, who died of cancer in obscurity earlier this month, left a legacy so negative that Kabila has yet to make a significant dent in the country’s problems. The Mobutist name “Zaire” has been discarded, but the economy remains in shambles, most bureaucrats are not getting paid, a Congolese cannot mail a letter, make a trans-country telephone call or transport goods without getting mired in all-but-impassable roads.

Signs of improvement are being reported around the country, though. Efforts have begun in several provincial capitals to repair the roads. In the eastern province of Kivu, for instance, the government is trying to get a decent route through to the Ugandan border. The building of major roads through the disconnected country was a first pledge by Kabila when he took over last May, work that waits on international aid.

Kabila, generally, has been succeeding with his promise to end the corruption on which the Mobutist system malfunctioned to such a degree that an invalid had to pay a bribe for a hospital bed. Zairians can now cross the capital without being robbed by undisciplined soldiers, international travelers can pass through the airport without being shaken down. One provincial governor in the eastern Congo has reported proudly that he is actually collecting customs duties that used to end up in the pockets of border officials.


Mining companies, based in the United States, Canada and South Africa, are preparing major deals that should send money flooding into the bankrupt Congo. This is but a first step, though, by an international community still wary of central Africa’s new strongman.

Kabila has stayed largely behind the scenes. He is a tenacious strategist whose lifelong object was to overthrow Mobutu and whose goal now is to do a much better job. It seems he is doing just that, but not without difficulties that could worsen as he tries to govern the vast, fractious and ethnically divided country.

His method of dealing with the country’s pro-democracy movement, which also has long struggled against Mobutu, has been suppression. He quickly squelched demonstrations by democratic groups, his troops shooting at protesters in a few instances. Many thought the wiser tactic would have been to incorporate the movement’s popular leaders into the echelons of government, thereby neutralizing dissent and gaining a more satisfied populace in the capital where Kabila is an outsider.

Already, there is talk on the Kinshasa streets of an anti-Kabila backlash. He is called another Mobutu, for his initial nondemocratic stance, though he has sworn to hold national elections.


The tactic of Kabila’s government for handling the issue of the Hutu refugees, thousands of whom were slaughtered by Tutsi soldiers in his army or else disappeared into the central African rain forest, has been to stonewall United Nations investigators. (Insiders explain that it is some of Kabila’s ministers who are blocking the U.N. probe, rather than the president.) For this, Kabila has garnered international disapproval but has not lost the backing of African allies who collectively have accused the West of vilifying their colleague.

U.S. policy-makers have been trying to press the issue without losing Kabila and his crucial potential. They have been negotiating with him and dangling millions in much-needed aid monies as a carrot, in a way reminiscent of past decades when they tried to correct the tyrannical Mobutu while embracing him.

Meantime, Kabila is looking Africawards. He is set on imitating Uganda’s Museveni, who has changed his country from a wreck to a benign one-party state. Uganda has working roads, a sparkling economic growth rate and the praise of international lending institutions. The Ugandan is pushing the idea of African common markets as part of a post post-colonial independence in which the continent is on a more equal footing with its former masters.

“Africa is neither Anglophone nor Francophone . . . but Bantuphone,” Museveni said at Kabila’s inauguration in Kinshasa, “because from Cameroon all the way to South Africa, we speak Bantu languages.” Kabila cheered the idea of a cohesive Africa, but the task of helping create it will be a lot tougher and more complicated than riding the rebellion.