7 September 1997: Mobutu, or the death of a dinosaur

By Philippe Gaillard
Posted on Wednesday, 7 September 2022 12:57

Mobutu celebrates the sixth anniversary of the country's independence in Kinshasa, 30 June 1966 ©G. Dupuy/Jeune Afrique

Megalomania, extravagant spending, collaboration with the CIA... After the death of the former president of Zaire, Philippe Gaillard retraces his career for us. With implacable lucidity.

Fallen from grace, abandoned by his courtiers, Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, the “founding president” of Zaire, died in Rabat, in a foreign land, “following a long and painful illness”, as people used to say.

The worst reproach that history will make of him will perhaps be that he refused to understand that he had to hand over the power that had been reduced to a simulacrum and to the means of exercising its munificence since he had fled the real world to take refuge in the theatrical scenery that was his palace in Gbadolite and on Kamanyola, his river yacht. That was in 1990 after a deluge of memoranda – which he had instigated in the belief that it would help channel the flood of recriminations – had revealed the extent of extreme discontent in all classes of society.

George H. Bush still held a certain fondness for him

The Berlin Wall had just fallen. This combined with that meant that the man who had ‘ruled’ Kinshasa for a quarter of a century could have also been brought down. Indeed, Mobutu had always found support in the West for his position as “the most faithful defender of democracy against communism in Africa”. With the Red Scare gone, the defender was no longer needed.

We soon saw, indeed, the three capital cities of Brussels, Paris and Washington – concerned, they said, about human rights, which had not concerned them too much until then – decreeing a new and rather ridiculous kind of boycott, banning a foreign head of state and members of his family. The retaliation had no effect.

From Scylla to Charybdis

This desire to “chase out the dictator” was not clear to those who, like French politician Jacques Foccart, believed that Mobutu’s departure would push Zaire from Scylla to Charybdis. It was even less clear to George H. Bush, US president and former head of the CIA, who retained a certain tenderness towards the commander-in-chief of the Congolese army, whom he had helped to propel to head of state in 1965.

In the summer of 1960, having decided to eliminate Patrice Lumumba, the CIA had set its sights on Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. This former accountant sergeant turned journalist, then aged 30, had been a devoted collaborator of the rising political star in the Belgian Congo.

He had briefly been a minister after independence was proclaimed on 30 June, and eight days later had become a colonel and chief of staff of an army in the grip of mutiny. In the mess of the nascent state, he had changed tack on the advice of his American and Belgian friends, ‘neutralised’ the competing prime ministers Lumumba and Iléo – in reality mainly Lumumba – and set up a ‘college’ of students who had been urgently repatriated from Brussels. Then he left politics to the politicians, devoting himself to the urgent task of pacification.

First episode of violence: the public hanging of former PM Evariste Kimba in 1966

Five years of civil war and political ups and downs later, Mobutu’s seizure of power, the first military putsch in Africa, was rather well received by a population to which the general promised peace and order. Roughly speaking, he kept his word for ten years, making his authority felt through violence, the first episode of which was the public hanging of former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba and three members of his government on 1 June 1966.

Until 1975, stewardship followed. Then the fall in copper prices was combined with the consequences of Zairianisation, i.e. the plundering of the treasury of the nationalised companies by the head of state’s protégés, who had been handed its management. Zaire became poorer.

Briefcases of banknotes

At the same time, Mobutu appeared to be seized by a galloping and expensive megalomania. The “authenticity” established in 1962 degenerated into an extravagant liturgy copied from the cult of Kim Il-sung in North Korea. The country’s government and diplomacy were based on the circulation of suitcases of dollars. The splendour of the monarch was spread out in the acquisition and decoration of residences and in incalculable expenditure on goldsmiths, caterers and wine merchants.

The democratisation granted took the form of what was called “multi-Mobutism”, an opportunity to start up the waltz of briefcases full of banknotes once again, while the courtiers, seeing that their time was running out, filled their pockets to overflowing. The descent into hell lasted seven years.

And if the neocolonialist explanation for Zaire’s history needed any additional corroboration, the Americans could be seen pushing for Laurent-Désiré Kabila against Mobutu in 1997, just as they had pushed for Joseph-Désiré Mobutu against Lumumba in 1960 and against Kasavubu in 1965.

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