On November 24th, 1965 General Joseph Mobutu formally seized power in the Republic of Congo. Mobutu was a member of the Ngbandi people, long looked down upon by Congolese as a backward agrarian people. During the ’50s, he served the personal secretary to Patrice Lumumba, the left-wing nationalist who became the Congo’s first president after Belgium’s sudden withdraw from the country. At the same time, he was also on the payroll of Belgian military intelligence and played an ignominious role in the downfall of his friend and patron.
In July 1960, an army mutiny triggered a civil war in the country. The turmoil triggered the secession of Katanga, a mineral-rich province heavily exploited by foreign capitalists, and an ill-timed intervention by UN peacekeepers. In turn, this triggered an internal power struggle which resulted in Lumumba’s downfall. Mobutu was reluctant to turn against his old friend, but encouragement from the CIA – and Lumumba’s efforts to rally his supporters – persuaded him to authorize the ex-President’s death. Lumumba’s execution in January 1961 was carried about by Katangan separatists, but there’s little doubt that Mobutu played a central role.
Afterwards, Mobutu initially deferred to President Joseph Kasa-Vubu, a vacillating figure who struggled to contain uprisings against his government, including both Katangan secessionists and the leftist Simba rebellion based in Stanleyville. But it became clear to all that Mobutu, once dubbed “the smiling soldier behind the glasses” was the power behind the thrown. Certainly Congo’s foreign benefactors thought so; in May 1963 he visited the White House at the behest of John F. Kennedy, who soon afterwards authorized a shipment of arms and military material to the Congo.
Finally, a power struggle between Kasa-Vubu and Prime Minister Moise Tshombe (former President of Katanga) drove Mobutu to act. Deploring what he called “the stupid struggle for influence in which political parties were engaged,” Mobutu dissolved the government and declared himself head of state. Mendaciously, Mobutu declared himself the heir to Lumumba’s legacy despite engineering his mentor’s death. He outlawed all political parties, offered privileged positions to his fellow Ngbandi, and turned the government into a massive cult of personality, dedicated less to ideology than ego.
“There are no opponents in Zaire,” Mobutu insisted, “because the notion of opposition has no place in our mental universe.” He made it so with a series of ghastly purges. Most spectacular was the public hanging of three cabinet ministers on May 30th, 1966 in Kinshasa before a crowd of 50,000. Even more gruesome was the fate of Pierre Mulele, a leader of the Simbas who was lured out of hiding by a promise of clemency. Instead, Mobutu’s soldiers had Mulele arrested, then “publicly tortured and executed: his eyes were pulled from their sockets, his genitals were ripped off, and his limbs were amputated one by one, all while he was alive.”
Like many despots, Mobutu used nationalism to legitimize his government. In 1971 he renamed the country Zaire and enforced a program of authenticitie, rendered as Zairianization in the West. Congolese were forced to address each other as Citizen, forbidden from giving their children Western names on pain of imprisonment, and subjected to strict dress codes. Men wore the abacost, a simple mono-colored tunic patterned after Mao Zedong’s outfits (which one unimpressed observer described as “nylon bibs held in place with Velcro”); women were required to wear traditional African outfits.
For his part, Mobutu shed his military uniform for a gray abacost with a leopard-spotted cap; in accordance with his edicts, he renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko. At first, these decisons afforded Zairians some national pride after a century of Belgian misrule, steeled by Mobutu’s charisma. One Congolese student, witnessing a rally held by the President, called Mobutu “a speaker of genius…as soon as he’d begin speaking, we’d be swept away.” He impressed foreign visitors with his ingratiating charm and puckish sense of humor. But Mobutu mated his charm with a nebulous ideology dubbed “Mobutism,” turning Zaire into a massive cult of personality.
What Mobutism meant in practice wasn’t entirely clear, beyond enrichment of Mobutu. “If you steal,” he advised, “do not steal too much at a time or you will be arrested.” Instead, “steal cleverly, little by little.” He skimmed aid from private donors and foreign governments, amassing a fortune estimated at $5 billion US by the 1980s. He also nationalized the country’s minerals (cobalt, copper, diamonds and uranium) which antagonized his Western backers but brought tens of millions into Mobutu’s treasury while his subjects starved and struggled with inadequate electricity, infrastructure and medical care. Mobutu’s control extended into his inner circle: he rotated ministers in and out of government (and sometimes prison), while demanding the right to sleep with their wives.
Mobutu’s avarice peaked in the construction of his “African Versailles,” a lavish palace built outside the remote village of Gbadolite complete with private restaurants, hotels, a collection of Mercedes and an airstrip for his personal Concorde Jet. This palace (destroyed by angry Congolese after his downfall) served as an ideal refuge during Mobutu’s occasional fits of Caligulan madness. In 1975, he accused his cabinet ministers of collaborating with the CIA, having eleven of them imprisoned and tortured. In characteristic fashion, Mobutu eventually released his victims and even invited several back into his government.
“His private palace…brimmed with paintings, sculptures, stained glass, ersatz Louis XIV furniture, marble from Carrara in Italy and two swimming pools surrounded by loudspeakers playing his beloved Gregorian chants or classical music,” one writer recalls. “It hosted countless gaudy nights with Taittinger champagne, salmon and other food served on moving conveyor belts by Congolese and European chefs.” Mobutu enticed no shortage of foreign dignitaries to visit, from Kings of Belgium and Presidents of France to Pope John Paul II, to American evangelist Pat Robertson and David Rockefeller.
Mobutu scored his greatest public relations coup in 1974. He invited boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for a boxing match dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Mobutu paid both men $5,000,000 for their participation, directly out of the government treasury, even inviting Ali to train at his compound. The result was an epic bout on October 30th, watched by 50 million people worldwide, in which Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round. Afterwards, Ali was philosophical about his role in burnishing a dictator’s image. “Some countries go to war to get their names out there,” the boxer said, “and wars cost a lot more than $10 million.”
Indeed, Mobutu’s gift for manipulating foreigners proved his greatest asset. He exploited the Angolan Civil War, sending troops to support the FNLA rebels against the leftist government in a disastrous 1975 expedition. Then came the Shaba Crisis, a rebellion in 1977-1978 of disaffected soldiers, mercenaries and Lunda peoples who formed the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC). Fear that Shaba’s (formerly Kantanga) mineral reserves might fall into hostile hands concerned western powers, which seemed plausible. Because in the early fighting, Mobutu’s army (whose “level of professionalism and preparedness” the CIA judged “abysmal”) collapsed before FNLC’s onslaught.
So Mobutu claimed, without evidence, that Cuba and the USSR backed the rebels, recasting a failed uprising as a Cold War confrontation. The United States orchestrated an airlift of military supplies. French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a longtime friend of Mobutu, went further; he dispatched the Foreign Legion to crush the rebels (which they did, fighting the decisive Battle of Kolwezi in May 1978), along with selling him Mirage jets which Mobutu used to bomb the rebels. A grateful Mobutu reportedly repaid d’Estaing with diamonds from his private stash. By June 1978, the FNLC had been crushed, with thousands killed and up to 50,000 civilians displaced.
The Shaba Crisis strengthened Zaire’s alliance with the West, even as Western activists, from human rights groups to Erwin Blumenthal of the International Monetary Fund, denounced Mobutu’s atrocities. In the United States, Jimmy Carter initially distanced his administration from Mobutu, who exemplified for Carter the kind of dictator America shouldn’t deal with. At one point, the CIA even contemplated overthrowing Mobutu with Carter’s discreet blessing. Congress passed a resolution in 1980 blocking military aid to Zaire, inflamed by the story of an IMF official who was beaten, and his wife raped by Mobutu’s security forces.
By then, the Shaba Crisis changed everything: now Mobutu’s value as an anticommunist outweighed his amorality. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski insisted that “Mobutu is the only leader in Zaire who seems able to provide, leadership, no matter how imperfect, to the entire country.” So Carter invited Mobutu to the White House on September 11th, 1979 and satisfied himself that Mobutu was still America’s Man in Zaire. “We are determined to support Mobutu,” Carter assured President d’Estaing before vetoing Congress’s funding freeze. Whatever his conservative critics said, Nancy Miller notes, “when push came to shove…Jimmy Carter was a Cold Warrior.”
Ronald Reagan lacked Carter’s qualms about supporting Mobutu. Reagan invited Mobutu to the White House three times, fulsomely praising him as “a voice of good sense and good will” and “a darn good leader and friend of the US.” Reagan viewed the dictator as a partner in his efforts to escalate the Angolan Civil War. He sent CIA Director William Casey to persuade Mobutu to grant the Agency use of a runway outside Kamina; Mobutu readily agreed, despite his country’s non-aggression pact with Angola. From here, American supply planes dropped arms and supplies to Joseph Savimbi’s FNLA, further prolonging Angola’s already decade-long civil war.
Reagan proved extremely pleased with the arrangement. He authorized Vernon Walters, a former CIA chief, to give Mobutu a personal message, president to president. “Our two countries have been steady, constructive and even courageous partners in Africa,” Reagan gushed, assuring the dictator that “I value your friendship greatly.” One intelligence official agreed, deeming Mobutu America’s “indispensable partner” in Africa. In return, Mobutu received not only praise but military hardware and trade deals, the proceeds of which he inevitably pocketed.
Mobutu, like many Third World clients, only remained useful to the West until the Cold War ended. In April 1990, facing domestic protests and an army mutiny over poor pay, Mobutu reluctantly authorized the creation of opposition parties and free elections. Even as he granted these concessions, Mobutu unleashed the worst atrocities of his regime, besting even the grisly executions of his early years. In May 1990, loyal soldiers massacred dozens of students at the University of Lubumbashi; the following September, the so-called “Pillage” of Shaba by government troops resulted in over 200 deaths. The violence halted only when France and Belgium dispatched troops to restrain their ally.
As a coda to these atrocities, opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi was elected Prime Minister in October 1991, soon after the Pillage subsided. Arriving at his office in Kinshasa, he found the doors were locked and security forces refused to let him in. Tshisekedi was forced the leave the capital; waiting until he departed, Mobutu then invited the loyal Nguza Karl-i-Bond to form a new government. Over the next few years, Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress formed a separate government-in-exile, while Mobutu retained a sham regime in Kinshasa propped up by bayonets. Thus Mobutu demonstrated how seriously he took democracy.
Still, a combination of protests, international pressure and rebellion rendered Mobutu’s position untenable. Attempts to burnish his reputation by aiding refugees from the Rwandan genocide availed Mobutu little; deeming the Army unreliable, he recruited European mercenaries (many veterans of Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in the Balkans) to sustain his regime, further eroding his support. He grew increasingly paranoid, spending more and more time at Gbadolite with his ever-shrinking circle of loyalists as an opposition army formed in the eastern provinces.
Finally, in October 1996 Mobutu ordered the expulsion of all ethnic Tutsis from Zaire. This triggered a full-scale revolution, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila and backed by the Angolan, Rwandan and Ugandese armies. Mobutu, despite appeals to France and Belgium for aid, watched his support evaporate; health weakened by prostate cancer, he lost the will to fight. In May 1997 Mobutu was forced to flee the country; he took up residence in Morocco, dying there in September. Kabila took over, vacillating between reform and repression until his assassination in 2001.
“No other [African] president,” biographer Michela Wong writes, “had been presented with a country of such potential, yet achieved so little.” Surely Mobutu, like all post-independence rulers, had many factors weighing against him; yet he used Zaire’s vast resources purely to enrich himself and leverage his global reputation. Large portions of his country starved while he constructed massive palaces; his favoritism inflamed ethnic tensions. While Mobutu deserves the principal blame, we must recall the support he received from America, France and other Western powers – ensuring that imperialism’s legacy reverberates in the Congo through the present.
Note: besides the linked articles, this piece relies on Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (2013) and Michela Wrong, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo (2001).