Monday, May 4, 2015

Dangerous Dictators: Mobutu Sese Seko

Mobutu Sese Seko
If someone made a list of worst dictators in history, Mobutu Sese Seko would always be a part of the list. A man who ruined his country, Mobutu ruled with brutality, corruption, and extreme case of narcissism. Served initially as a soldier in the Belgian colonial army, he became journalist and an active participant in politics. When he returned to the military, he became widely involve in the politics of the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo. So much his involvement, he launched a coup that marked the start of his 32 year reign of terror.

Mobutu was born as Joseph Desire Mobutu on October 14, 1930 in Lisala in the Belgian Congo. He had education under Belgian missionaries until 1950, when he entered the colonial army and served under non-combat situation for six years. In 1956, he became a journalist for the journal L’Avenir. Alongside his profession, he also joined the Mouvement National Congolais or MNC, the pro-independence party under Patrice Lumumba. He later served as Lumuba’s representative and took part in the negotiation for Congo’s independence.

In June 1960, Congo achieved its independence and became known as the Republic of Congo (otherwise known as Congo-Leopoldville in order not to be confused with the other Republic of Congo known as Congo-Brazzaville). Patrice Lumumba became its first Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu as its first President. Lumumba rewarded Mobutu for his role in the negotiations and made colonel and gave him the position of army chief-of-staff. Mobutu in turn led the defeat of several coup attempts made after the independence.

However, Mobutu’s loyalty seemed to be only an initial appearance. After the June declaration of independence. Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasavubu had a power struggle. Lumumba wanted to oust Kasavubu and Kasavubu wanted to remove Lumumba. In addition, Lumumba had many enemies, including western countries like the United States and Belgium, for his nationalist and pro-Soviet stance that threatened foreign interest in the Congolese economy, specifically, diamond, cobalt, and copper. On September, Kasavubu and Lumumba’s rivalry reached in its apex. Mobutu saw a chance to gain power and so with the pretext of imposing political stability, launched a coup. But Mobutu knew that he did not had the power base to rule the country directly and securely, so he decided to make his short for the mean time. He established a commission which would rule the country temporarily. Kasavubu cooperated with Mobutu. On the other hand, Lumumba negatively reacted on the coup and became furious to what it seemed betrayal of Mobutu. Allegedly, Mobutu took part in the eventual killing of Prime Minister Lumumba. In January of 1961, a firing squad executed Lumumba, allegation of foreign involvement surfaced later on.  After the demise of Lumumba, Mobutu restored Kasavubu to his position. But political instability continued especially in 1964. In order to lessen the call for independence of those in the Katanga region, President Kasavubu made the secessionist leader Moise Tshombe as his new Prime Minister. But once again, the situation of 1961 repeated again. By October 1965, the two politicians clashed, one trying to remove the other.

Meanwhile, as President Kasvubu and Prime Minister Tshombe fought each other, Mobutu had gained significant influence and power. With his role in the coup of 1961, the United States and Belgium took notice of him. People in Congo also learned more about him for his role in 1961 and the restoration of political stability, at least for a moment. He later became the commander-in-chief of the army after his actions in crushing rebellions and preventing coups. By 1965, Mobutu became one of the most influential figure in Congolese politics.

And so, with confidence of having enough influence and a good situation, on November 25, 1965, Mobutu launched another coup with his 25,000 troops. He installed himself as the president of a transitional government that would only stay for five years, which he broke later on. People supported him after they saw him as the way towards stability and progress. The United States and western countries supported him for his friendly posture towards them and his anti-communist stand.

When the coup happened, Congo was chaotic. The country was one of the poorest in the world, even though it was naturally rich of resources. Years of political struggle led to the decline of the situation in the provinces. Ethnic tensions between in this culturally diverse country exacerbated the political situation and rebellions were common and widespread. Banditry and crime was rampant. Many people then saw Mobutu as a way out of the chaotic situation.

After the coup, Mobutu consolidated his power. He reduced the powers of the parliament and local assemblies. He outlawed political parties. In May of 1967, he abolished the Office of Prime Minister, in the process, he became the head of the state and the head of the government, and crushed any chance of political struggle. He also arrested and killed rivals and political opponents. One of his victims was the last Prime Minister Evariste Kimba who was publicly tried and executed. In 1966, rebellions decreased thanks to his army and an agreement between African leaders not to allow any rebels from other countries to operate within their territories. With the sigh of relief, Mobutu used the improving situation in order to gain more power and stay longer in power. In 1967, he issued a new constitution which centered all powers on the President and started a one-party rule under his newly established Popular Movement of the Revolution or MPR. A presidential election was to be held for every 7 years, in which case, Mobutu ran in the 1970, 1977, and 1984 elections and unbelievably won with 99% of the votes. Obviously, the elections were rigged. By 1982, he consolidated his power even more by making himself a field marshal by December 1982.

In May 1967, Mobutu launched one of his well-known policy known as Authenticity Campaign. Mobutu issued the Le Retour a Authenticite or The Return to Authenticity. It meant a return to everything African and rejecting and changing everything that had colonial influences. The authenticity campaign only took full swing in 1971 when Mobutu followed up the Authenticity Campaign with Zairinazation. On that year, Mobutu changed the name of Congo to Zaire, from the Kikongo word Nzere meaning the river that swallows all rivers. With the change of the name, the flag design also changed. In addition to the name of the country, Mobutu also renamed the Congo River to Zaire and also changed the currency from Francs to Zaire as well. In the following year, he followed through with the return to the authentic African culture by changing the European names of every single citizens of Zaire. Any priest who would Baptist with European names would face 5 year imprisonment. In order to demonstrate his determination to change Africanize names, he dropped Joseph Desire in his name and changed it to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wazabanga or “the almighty conqueror who goes conquest after conquest leaving fire in his wake.” However, its earthly meaning meant “the cock that covers all hens.” Africanization of names also included names of towns and cities. For example, he change the name of Leopoldville to Kinhasa, Stanleyville to Kisangani, and Katanga to Shaba. This aroused nationalistic sentiments and led also to the toppling down of statues of the Henry Stanley and the notorious and hated King Leopold II. It also encouraged the embrace of African culture. A positive effect of the Mobutu’s Authenticity Campaign and Zairinazation led to the creation of a national culture that unified an ethnically diverse Zaire.

Mobutu’s “nationalism” also covered the economy. In 1971, Mobutu began to nationalize many foreign own companies, especially in the mining sector. It aimed for the state to direct the economy and lead it towards progress and development or so he said. Many foreigners had to leave the country after Mobutu’s government ceased their businesses.

But Mobutu’s nationalization of foreign own companies revealed the dark side of his rule. Most of the taken business, which include mines, plantations, and industries, went either to Mobutu’s cronies or to himself. Much of the foreign wealth in the country that his government took channeled to his pockets. From more than 2,000 foreign-owned business, Mobutu managed to take as much as a billion dollar. In one province, Mobutu took 14 plantations and formed the Cultures et Elevages du Zaire or CELZA, a huge conglomerate that ranked as the third largest employer in Zaire. And Mobutu owned the conglomerate and much of the profits went to his coffers. He also squandered profits from his country’s exports. He sold Zaire’s huge diamond, cobalt, and copper to western countries and kept much if not all proceeds. He became a major shareholder in many banks in Zaire, which meant he had access in its finance, which helped to increase his assets further.

Instead of giving the benefits or profits of his economic policies to his impoverished people, he funneled it to his own bank accounts. His graft and corruption allowed Mobutu to build a huge opulent palace in Gbadolite, his ancestral home. The town itself benefited from the palace and Mobutu built a TV station and established several plantations and ranches. Mobutu also managed to buy a luxury yacht that sailed in the Congo or Zaire River. His corruption also allowed him to purchase a huge fleet of imported Mercedes Benz and rented a Concorde to go to Paris for shopping and built a special airport in Gbadolite for it. In addition, his huge wealth went to real estate. He bought several mansions in many European countries, like Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and Belgium, and African countries. All in all, Mobutu’s wealth amounted to over $5 billion that made many call him one of the richest man in the world.

Mobutu’s corruption, however, did not had monopoly on graft and corruption. He made corruption a part of everyday life in Zaire. In the highest level, Mobutu had cronies who were close to him and joined him in exploiting their country’s wealth for their own personal gains. In lower levels, Mobutu saw leniency to corruption as a way to keep his officials and public workers well-paid and loyal. The result, massive case of bribery, extortion, fraud, and plunder. No official could advance without bribery. Foreigners and locals alike had to pay bribes to officials in order to approve contracts, licenses, and other government permits. Even in admission in universities and schools, young adults had to pay bribes in order to be admitted. Patronage became rampant and necessary in order to make a career advance or to secure permits or licenses. In the military, worst happened. Many troops became wild and looting, rape, and killing became usual. Mobutu’s government caused a huge moral degeneration in Zaire. He made corruption, bribery, patronage, and cronyism a culture in his country.

In addition to being lenient in corruption, Mobutu used sheer brutality and ruthlessness in order to maintain control over the government, military, and his people. Mobutu excelled highly in executing brutality towards his opponents. Since his coup in 1965, he exercised his ruthlessness by executing the late Prime Minister publicly. Many more followed the footsteps of the former Prime Minister. Officers in the army whom he suspected of brewing a coup plot faced public execution. During Mobutu’s rule, he faced many coup attempts and each led to a purge within the military. In 1975, Mobutu prevented a coup, which according to him, orchestrated by the CIA. He ordered the arrest of several military officers and executed them. Another coup failed in 1978 by lower ranking officers. Many of the 67 officers faced execution. Mobutu used his Division Speciale Presidentielle (DSP) to serve as his private army and the Service National d’Intelligence et de Protection (SNIP) to serve as his spying and secret police agency. Both became instrument of his control over Zaire.

On the other hand, rebel leaders faced worse faith. An example happened In 1968, the rebel leader Pierre Mulele went out of the jungles to Leopoldville, the capital, under the impression that Mobutu promised to give him amnesty. However, Mobutu lied. He had Mulele arrested, tortured, and hacked off into pieces.

Co-option also became a practice of Mobutu. He liked officials to be dismissed, humiliated, arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and left to rot in prison before releasing them, giving them high positions and welcoming them back with open arms. It served to show that Mobutu had the power over life, death, and their careers. Nguz a Karl-i-Bond felt the full wrath of this tactic of Mobutu. He served as a foreign minister during the 1970’s until 1977 when he was dismissed, arrested, and tried for treason, which were trumped up charges. Courts unsurprisingly sentenced him to death but Mobutu kept him in prison alive. While in prison he suffered horrific torture by electrocution. A year later, after his hellish experience in captivity, Mobutu suddenly released him and gave him the position of Prime Minister.

Mobutu also liked to play trip to Jerusalem in his cabinet in order to exercised power. His cabinet faced constant reshuffling. No cabinet went unshuffled for more than five years. Many officials might suddenly be transferred to another agency in short notice and to the pleasure of President Mobutu. By 1975, since Mobutu rose to power, only less than 50 high ranking officials from 200 stayed in their positions for five years. In doing this, Mobutu destroyed any chance of familiarity and complacency on the side of his officials. On the administrative level, the lack of security of tenure led eventually to a more chaotic governance of Zaire.

Other brutality and theft, Mobutu joined the list of many leaders who established their own personality cult. With a huge ego and a case of serious narcissism, Mobutu launched a campaign to make his presence everywhere and make his image create an impact. Mobutu had a trademark attire that made him stand out. He made his leopard-printed toque made in France, abacost, thick framed glasses, and an ornately decorated silver-tipped ebony cane as his trademark. From this trademarks he made up rules and stories that made his trademark create an impact. He made a story about his cane by saying that no man could carry his cane but himself. One time, he made his officials wear a toque similar to his. He also made men in his country to abandoned western style suites and wear suite he wore, a Mao-style suite that in Zaire became known as abacost. Mobutu highly regard for rich and affluent men to wear a darker shade of abacost, which by the way inappropriate and hot to wear under a sultry heat of the tropical climate of Zaire. Mobutu also gave titles to himself. He wanted to be called “the leopard” because the leopard invoke power and dominance in African culture. Officials and the people called him “Father of the Nation,” Savior of the People,” “the Messiah,” “the Guide,” and “the Helmsman.” To strengthen his image further. Mobutu also made his image appear almost everywhere. He made officials and public workers to wear a lapel bearing his image. His image also appear in Zaire’s banknotes, public places, and official letterheads. Mobutu made any place related to life as pilgrimage sites where people could reflect and meditate. He also used the media to promote his image. At the start of the evening news, his image appeared descending over clouds, giving the impression that Mobutu was Messiah, a saint and a God sent to Zaire. He also made himself glorified in many songs and dances. In 1974, he hosted a boxing match between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman called Rumble in the Jungle. In the telecast of the match, he made cameramen to show many images of himself. Because of this, many people, especially in the United States, came to known Zaire’s Leopard. Mobutu felt jealous of other dictators having their own ideology; Mao, Maoism; Stalin, Stalinism. So, he created his own called Mobutuism. It revolved around nationalism and extreme devotion and obedience to Mobutu.

He showed his power even to his family. When his first wife, Marie Antoinette, passed away, he married his mistress, Bobi Ladawa. In turn, he made Bobi Ladawa’s twin sister, Kosia, as her new mistress whom he treated well. He joked on diplomats on asking whether they have met his wife only to say when they said yes that they met his mistress and twin of his wife.

With his outrageous narcissism, attitude, and brutality, Mobutu still received support from western countries.  Mobutu took advantage of the Cold War to his advantage. After his 1965 coup, in order to gain the recognition of the United States and other Western countries, he stood as an anti-communist. In doing so, he gained the support of the United States and legitimized his regime regardless of his record for violation of human rights. Although Mobutu nationalized many foreign-owned business in Zaire, he paid little compensation in order not to antagonize his Western backers.

In the African stage, Mobutu showed himself as a strongman. He actively pushed in 1966 an agreement between African nations not to allow rebel groups of other countries to operate within their respective territory. Mobutu also actively participated in the Central African region. In Angola, he showed his anti-communism by supporting the enemies of the communist leader Agostinho Neto of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola or MPLA. When Neto rose to power in Angola, retaliated to Mobutu by allowing Shaba secessionist rebels to use his country as a base for invasion of the Shaba province in 1977 and 1978. Mobutu accused the Cubans and Russians for supporting the rebels and in response, he asked military aids from western countries as well as from other African countries. Many countries responded positively and sent weapons and later, even troops to help Mobutu’s forces. Eventually, Mobutu succeeded in defeating the rebels. Mobutu also enjoyed good relations with his fellow mass murdering dictators in Africa. For example, he shared relation with the President and later Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokasssa of the Central African Republic. Zairian troops participated in crushing the riots in Bangui in 1979. He also had a pleasant relation with Uganda’s strongman, Idi Amin, who helped Zaire during the Shaba Invasions from 1978 to 1979. Mobutu made himself significant to Africa and the west.

However, changes in the world economy and politics led to his eventual downfall. In the 1970’s prices of copper, a major Zairian export, fell dramatically. It brought a huge slump in the economy of Zaire. Adding more to the slump, corruption and mismanagement in the economy led to negative image for foreign investors. Industries and infrastructure decayed because of Mobutu’s mishandling of the country. As a result the hardship the people felt continued and became worst in the 1980’s. Inflation skyrocketed and Mobutu had to reduce payment of external debt, which damaged relations with European countries, like Belgium. Eventually, Zaire defaulted in some of its debts, which infuriated creditors. In the 1990, the Cold War, one of Mobutu’s reason for his western support, seemed to have ended. And so, the United States began to disassociate themselves with tyrannical and despotic leaders like Mobutu. The United States made Mobutu to initiate reforms and liberalizing the economy and politics. Mobutu obliged the request and brought the country into a multi-party democracy, which only brought in political chaos. Mobutu power declined along with his health, deteriorating for years because of his prostate cancer. In 1996, he left Zaire and sought medical attention abroad at which time, rebel forces under the Alliance des Force Democratique Pour la Liberation of Congo (ADFL) under Laurent-Desire Kabila made huge gains and aimed in marching to Kinshasa and finally oust Mobutu. Eventually, a year later, on May 1997, the aging and ailing Mobutu Sese Seko decided to leave his country for Togo and sought asylum to Morocco. Meanwhile, Kabila’s forces took the capital Kinshasa and started his rule of the country. Kabila changed the country’s name back from Zaire to Democratic Republic of Congo. Mobutu on the other continued to suffer from his prostate cancer and on September 7, 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko passed away in Rabat, Morocco.

Mobutu embodied what his Africanized name truly meant. His rule saw the further decline of his already impoverished country. He terrorized his people, his officials, and his opponents. He used his image and ruthlessness as instrument to maintain his power. Indeed, Mobutu truly left nothing but fire, blood, and destruction in his wake.

See also:

Namikas, Lise. “Mobutu Sese Seko (1930 – 1997).” In Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Alexander Mikaberidze. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013.

“Mobutu Sese Seko”. In Dictionary of African Historical Biography. Edited by Mark Lipschutz & R. Kent Rasmussen. Los Angeles, California: University of California, 1989.

“Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga” in Historical Dictionary of Democratic Republic of the Congo by Emizet Francois Kisangani & F. Scott Bobb. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

Edgerton, Robert. The Torubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.

Gondola, Ch. Didier. The History of Congo. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Meredith, Martin. The Sate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence. London: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

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