Onetime Kingdom Now a Ghost Town of Excesses Past
Like its former master, this city of jungle palaces has died.
The dinner parties, drenched in pink champagne and filled with shady millionaires, are no more. The fake Louis XIV furniture has been looted. The dictator, who transformed his ancestral village into a monument to kleptocratic kitsch, lies buried in Morocco.
Hand-painted scenes of African rain forests, meticulously crafted on the outdoor walkways of a Chinese-style palace, now compete with the reality: the jungle that is slowly consuming Gbadolite.
Still, in this once-tiny village marooned amid the wilderness of northern Congo, no one has forgotten the man who built it all: the Founder, the Guide, the Father of the Nation--former President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga.
In Gbadolite, if nowhere else, Mobutu is still a hero.
Wistful for Wealth
“When Mobutu was here, everyone was rich,” said Zanza Ngubanda, stopping his bright green bicycle outside the gate of the late leader’s main palace. “He brought us jobs. He brought us money. He brought us electricity.”
All that ended abruptly on May 17, 1997, when Mobutu was forced from power by a rebel army led by Laurent Kabila. Ravaged by prostate cancer, Mobutu fled Gbadolite in a mercenary cargo plane, his once-loyal presidential guard firing at him from below. He died in Morocco just four months later.
It had started so much sweeter.
Starting in the 1970s, Mobutu had turned Gbadolite (pronounced ba-doe-LEE-tay), his home village, into a showpiece of what shamelessly corrupt rule could buy.
He built one palace that sprawled across whole acres, and when that seemed too big he built another, slightly smaller. In the 1990s, he started his third Gbadolite mansion, the ornate Chinese palace with its maze of fountains, elaborate Asian carvings and sweeping views of the jungle.
Eventually, what had been a village of 1,500 people living in mud-walled huts exploded into a town of 35,000, with regular flights to Kinshasa, the capital, 700 miles to the south. The town’s one real street--Boulevard Mobutu Sese Seko, of course--was lined with banks, office buildings and hotels.
It was a world of Las Vegas-style glitz, a city awash with marble inlays, thousands of mirrors and fleets of black Mercedes. The Concorde was chartered for Mobutu family shopping trips, and entire symphony orchestras were flown in from Europe.
Always, the jungle remained just a few dozen feet away, its advance held in check by an army of workers who kept this one sliver of the nation well-tended.
These days, the opulence is long gone, looted by rebels in 1997, and then by soldiers in 1998. The palaces are empty, except for a few leopard statues too heavy to cart away and chandeliers too high to pull down. The looters ripped down silk wallpaper, tore up marble floor tiles and smashed through every door, looking for whatever treasures they could find.
Except in parts of the Chinese palace--where some graceful wooden carvings and scenic murals apparently did not seem worth tearing off the walls--much of Mobutu’s world has been stripped to concrete shells. The walls are scrawled with graffiti in a half-dozen languages and filled with crude drawings of naked women.
The jungle is winning. Ribbons of green sprout from tiny cracks in concrete and marble. Vines creep across floors where presidents and kings once walked. Thick layers of algae coat once-ornate fountains.
The residents of Gbadolite lived off Mobutu’s largess. And those still here remember him with loyalty.
“It was so much better then,” said Ngubanda. “But he fled and everything fell apart. . . . He was a good man, certainly.”
But for the rest of Congo--or Zaire, as Mobutu had renamed it--the dictator brought little but misery.
Four years after he fled, the effects of his calamitous 32-year dictatorship are seen across this Western Europe-size nation.
Outside the largest cities, and even in some of them, many roads remain impassable, electricity is a rarity, and decent medical care is virtually nonexistent.
Only a small percentage of Congo’s people actually earn a salary. Most survive on whatever they can grow in tiny gardens.
Mobutu bled his nation dry, helping himself to the profits of its enormous gold, cobalt and diamond reserves, dipping into major business deals, and often simply stealing Western aid money for himself.
He renamed himself as well as his country, and vaingloriously: Translated in its entirety, his chosen name boasts, “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.”
For decades, Mobutu’s Cold War allies in the West ignored his crimes, seeing him as a bulwark against communist expansion in Africa. He dined at the White House and chatted with French presidents. He received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, with few questions asked, or answered.
It was how things worked in Cold War days. Across the continent, dictators turned home villages into showplaces, spreading the wealth among family and friends--as tradition demands of successful men in most African cultures--and making it absolutely clear who controlled their nations’ resources.
Politically, Mobutu left Congo in chaos. Throughout his rule, he hobbled any attempt at serious democratic change, alternating between buying off and locking up his opponents.
While promising democracy and peace, the rebellion that forced Mobutu into exile brought neither.
Laurent Kabila, the dictatorial rebel leader who succeeded him, saw Congo fracture into independent territories when his Ugandan and Rwandan allies turned against him, backing yet more rebel armies. In January, Kabila was assassinated in a still-unexplained shooting, and his son, Joseph, now 30, was thrust into the presidency.
New Hopes and Dreams
And now, for a second time, Gbadolite is home to a man with dreams of shaping Congo.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, the son of a close Mobutu friend and scion of one of Zaire’s wealthiest families, broke with his father to become the leader of a Ugandan-backed rebel movement that now controls a large swath of northern Congo.
He’s set up his headquarters in an old office building in the center of town. The former dry cleaner next door is his protocol office.
There are few cars these days in Gbadolite--perhaps a few dozen at the most--but Bemba has dispatched an employee with a brand-new lawn mower to keep the grass out front well-tended.
He insists he’s not trying to draw comparisons to Mobutu by moving here. He says he’s come to Gbadolite simply because it has a good airport and electricity from a Mobutu-era hydroelectric plant.
“If I had another city, I’d set up there,” he said.
You couldn’t blame him.
There’s little left here now. The streets are quiet, the restaurants closed, the once well-tended roads are sprouting potholes.
The palaces are empty, except for occasional soldiers passing through, crunching across oceans of broken glass.