Born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, and later changed to Mobutu Sese Seko was the President of Zaire from 1965 to 1997.
During the Congo crisis, Mobutu, serving as Chief of Staff of the Army and supported by Belgium and the United States, he deposed the democratically elected government of Nationalist Patrice Lumumba in 1960.
Mobutu installed a government that arranged for Lumumba’s execution in 1961, and continued to lead the country’s armed forces until he took power directly in a second coup in 1965.
To consolidate his power, he established the Popular Movement of the Revolution as the sole legal political party in 1967, changed the Congo’s name to Zaire in 1971, and his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko in 1972.
Mobutu claimed that his political ideology was “neither left nor right, nor even centre” but in practice he developed a regime that was rigidly authoritarian even by African standards of his time. He attempted to purge the country of all colonial culture influence through his program of “national authenticity”.
Mobutu was the object of a pervasive cult of personality. During his rule, he amassed a large personal fortune through economic exploitation and corruption, leading some to call his rule a “kleptocracy”. He presided over a period of widespread human rights violations. Under his rule, the nation also suffered from uncontrolled inflation, a large debt, and massive currency devaluation.
Mobutu received strong support (Military, Diplomatic and Economic) from the United State, France and Belgium, who believed he was a strong opponent of communism in Francophone Africa. He also built close ties with the governments of apartheid South Africa, Israel and the Greek military junta.
From 1972 onward, he was also supported by Mao Zedong of China, mainly due to his anti-Soviet stance, but also as part of Mao’s attempts to create a bloc of Afro-Asian nations led by him. The massive Chinese economic aid that flowed into Zaire gave Mobutu more flexibility in his dealings with Western governments, allowed him to identify as an “anti-capitalist revolutionary”, and enabled him to avoid going to the IMF for assistance.
In 1966 the Corps of Volunteers of the Republic was established, a vanguard movement designed to mobilize popular support behind Mobutu, who was proclaimed the nation’s “Second National Hero” after Lumumba. Despite the role he played in Lumumba’s ousting, Mobutu worked to present himself as a successor to Lumumba’s legacy. One of his key tenets early in his rule was “authentic Congolese nationalism”.
1967 marked the debut of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), which until 1990 was the nation’s only legal political party. Among the themes advanced by the MPR in its doctrine, the Manifesto of N’Sele, were nationalism, revolution, and “authenticity”. Revolution was described as a “truly national revolution, essentially pragmatic”, which called for “the repudiation of both capitalism and communism”. One of the MPR’s slogans was “Neither left nor right”, to which would be added “nor even center” in later years.
That same year, all trade unions were consolidated into a single union, the National Union of Zairian Workers, and brought under government control.
Mobutu intended for the union to serve as an instrument of support for government policy, rather than as an independent group. Independent trade unions were illegal until 1991.
Facing many challenges early in his rule, Mobutu converted much opposition into submission through patronage; those he could not co-opt, he dealt with forcefully. In 1966, four cabinet members were arrested on charges of complicity in an attempted coup, tried by a military tribunal, and publicly executed in an open-air spectacle witnessed by over 50,000 people.
Uprisings by former Katangan gendarmeries were crushed, as were the Stanleyville mutinies of 1967 led by white mercenaries. By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and for the most part, law and order was brought to nearly all parts of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu’s legitimacy and power.
In 1970 Presidential and Legislative elections were held. Although the constitution allowed for the existence of two parties, the NPR was the only party allowed to nominate candidates. For the presidential election, Mobutu was the only candidate. Voting was not secret; voters chose a green paper if they supported Mobutu’s candidacy, and a red paper if they opposed his candidacy. Casting a green ballot was deemed a vote for hope, while a red ballot was deemed a vote for chaos. Under the circumstances, the result was inevitable–according to official figures, Mobutu was confirmed in office with near-unanimous support, garnering 10,131,669 votes to only 157 “no” votes.
It later emerged that almost 30,500 more votes were cast than the actual number of registered voters. The legislative elections were held in a similar fashion. Voters were presented with a single list from the MPR; according to official figures, an implausible 98.33% of voters voted in favour of the MPR list.
As he consolidated power, Mobutu set up several military forces whose sole purpose was to protect him. These included the Special Presidential Division, Civil Guard and Service for Action, and Military Intelligence (SNIP). Authenticity Campaign.
In 1972, in accordance with his own decree of a year earlier, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”), or Mobutu Sese Seko for short.
Around this time, he eschewed his military uniform in favour of what would become his classic image—the tall, imposing man carrying a walking stick while wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses, and leopard-skin toque.
In 1974, a new constitution consolidated Mobutu’s grip on the country. It defined the MPR as the “single institution” in the country. It was officially defined as “the nation politically organized”—in essence, the state was a transmission belt for the party. All citizens automatically became members of the MPR from birth. The constitution stated that the MPR was embodied by the party’s President, who was elected every seven years at its national convention.
At the same time, the party President was automatically nominated as the sole candidate for a seven-year term as President of the republic; he was confirmed in office by a referendum. The document codified the emergency powers Mobutu had exercised since 1965; it vested the party President–Mobutu–with “plentitude of power exercise,” effectively concentrating all governing power in his hands.
Mobutu was re-elected three times under this system, each time by implausibly high margins of 98 percent or more. A single list of MPR candidates was returned to the legislature every five years with equally implausible margins; official figures gave the MPR list unanimous or near-unanimous support. At one of those elections, in 1975, formal voting was dispensed with altogether. Instead, the election took place by “acclaim”; candidates were presented at public locations around the country where they could be applauded.
Early in his rule, Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. To set an example, many were hanged before large audiences. Such victims included former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba, who, with three cabinet members—Jérôme Anany (Defense Minister), Emmanuel Bamba (Finance Minister), and Alexandre Mahamba (Minister of Mines and Energy)—was tried in May 1966, and sent to the gallows on 30 May, before an audience of 50,000 spectators. The men were executed on charges of being in contact with Colonel Alphonse Bangala and Major Pierre Efomi, for the purpose of planning a coup.
Mobutu explained the executions as follows: “One had to strike through a spectacular example, and create the conditions of regime discipline. When a chief takes a decision, he decides – period.”
In 1968, Pierre Mulele, Lumumba’s Minister of Education and a rebel leader during the 1964 Simba Rebellion, was lured out of exile in Brazzaville on the belief that he would receive amnesty. Instead, he was tortured and killed by Mobutu’s forces.
While Mulele was still alive, his eyes were gouged out, his genitals were ripped off, and his limbs were amputated one by one.
Mobutu later gave up torture and murder, and switched to a new tactic, buying off political rivals. He used the slogan “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still” to describe his tactic of co-opting political opponents through bribery. A favourite Mobutu tactic was to play “musical chairs”, rotating members of his government, switching the cabinet roster constantly to ensure that no one would pose a threat to his rule. Another tactic was to arrest and sometimes torture dissident members of the government, only to later pardon them and reward them with high office.
In 1972, Mobutu tried unsuccessfully to have himself named President for life.
In June 1983, he raised himself to the rank of Field Marshal; the order was signed by General Likulia Bolongo. Victor Nendaka Bika, in his capacity as Vice-President of the Bureau of the Central Committee, second authority in the land, addressed a speech filled with praise for President Mobutu.
To gain the revenues of Congolese resources, Mobutu initially nationalize foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country. But in many cases he handed the management of these firms to relatives and close associates, who quickly exercised their own corruption and stole the companies’ assets.
By 1977, this had precipitated such an economic slump that Mobutu was forced to try to woo foreign investors back.
Katangan rebels based in Angola invaded Zaire that year, in retaliation for Mobutu’s support for anti-MPLA rebels. France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan paratroopers into the country and repulsed the rebels, ending Shaba I.
The rebels attacked Zaire again, in greater numbers, in the Shaba II invasion of 1978. The governments of Belgium and France deployed troops with logistical support from the United States and defeated the rebels again.
Mobutu was re-elected in single-candidate elections in 1977 and 1984. He spent most of his time increasing his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion, richer than his country.
He held most of it out of the country in Swiss Banks (however, a comparatively small $3.4 million was declared found in Swiss banks after he was ousted).
This was almost equivalent to the amount of the country’s foreign debt at the time. By 1989, the government was forced to default on international loans from Belgium.
Mobutu owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation’s roads deteriorated and many of his people starved.
The infrastructure virtually collapsed, and many public service workers went months without being paid.
Most of the money was siphoned off to Mobutu, his family and top political and military leaders. Only the Special Presidential Division on whom his physical safety depended was paid adequately or regularly.
Mobutu was known for his opulent lifestyle. He cruised on the Congo on his yacht Kamanyola.
In Gbadolite, he erected a palace, the “Versaille of the jungle”.
He was known for extravagant shopping trips to France. For shopping trips to Paris, he would charter a Concorde from Air France; he had the Gbadolite Airport constructed with a runway long enough to accommodate the Concorde’s extended take-off and landing requirements.
In 1989, Mobutu chartered Concorde aircraft F-BTSD for a 26 June – 5 July trip to give a speech at the United Nations in New York City, then again on 16 July for French Bicentennial celebrations in Paris (where he was a guest of President Francois Mitterrand), and on 19 September for a flight from Paris to Gbadolite, and another nonstop flight from Gbadolite to Marseille with the youth choir of Zaire.
Mobutu’s rule earned a reputation as one of the world’s foremost examples of kleptocracy and nepotism.
Close relatives and fellow members of the Ngbandi tribe were awarded high positions in the military and government, and he groomed his eldest son, Nyiwa, to succeed him as president; however, Nyiwa died from AIDS in 1994.
Mobutu was the subject of one of the most pervasive personality cults of the twentieth century. The evening newscast opened with image of him descending through clouds like a god. His portraits were hung in many public places, and government officials wore lapel pins bearing his portrait. He held such titles as “Father of the Nation”, “Messiah”, “Guide of the Revolution”, “Helmsman”, “Founder”, “Savior of the People”, and “Supreme Combatant”.
MOBUTU’S RELATIONSHIP WITH US
For the most part, Zaire enjoyed warm relations with the United States. The United States was the third largest donor of aid to Zaire (after Belgium and France).
Relations did cool significantly in 1974–1975 over Mobutu’s increasingly radical rhetoric (which included his scathing denunciations of American foreign policy) and plummeted to an all-time low in the summer of 1975, when Mobutu accused the CIA of plotting his overthrow and arrested eleven senior Zairian generals and several civilians, and condemned (in absentia) a former head of the Central Bank Albert Ndele.
However, many people viewed these charges with scepticism; in fact, one of Mobutu’s staunchest critics, Nzongola-Ntalaja, speculated that Mobutu invented the plot as an excuse to purge the military of talented officers who might otherwise pose a threat to his rule. In spite of these hindrances, the chilly relationship quickly thawed when both countries found each other supporting the same side during the Angolan Civil War.
Because of Mobutu’s poor human rights record, the Carter Administration put some distance between itself and the Kinshasha government; even so, Zaire received nearly half the foreign aid Carter allocated to Sub-Saharan Africa.
During the first Shaba invasion, the United States played a relatively inconsequential role; its belated intervention consisted of little more than the delivery of non-lethal supplies. But during the second Shaba invasion, the US played a much more active and decisive role by providing transportation and logistical support to the French and Belgian paratroopers that were deployed to aid Mobutu against the rebels. Carter echoed Mobutu’s (unsubstantiated) charges of Soviet and Cuban aid to the rebels, until it was apparent that no hard evidence existed to verify his claims.
In 1980, the US House of Representatives voted to terminate military aid to Zaire, but the US Senate reinstated the funds, in response to pressure from Carter and American business interests in Zaire.
Mobutu enjoyed a very warm relationship with the Reagan Administration, through financial donations.
During Reagan’s presidency, Mobutu visited the White House three times, and criticism of Zaire’s human rights record by the US was effectively muted. During a state visit by Mobutu in 1983, Reagan praised the Zairian strongman as “a voice of good sense and goodwill”.
Mobutu also had a cordial relationship with Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush; he was the first African head of state to visit Bush at the White House.
Mobutu’s relationship with the US radically changed shortly afterward with the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union gone, there was no longer any reason to support Mobutu as a bulwark against communism. Accordingly, the US and other Western powers began pressuring Mobutu to democratize the regime. Regarding the change in US attitude to his regime, Mobutu bitterly remarked: “I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the US. The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing.
In 1993, Mobutu was denied a visa by the US State Department after he sought to visit Washington, D.C.
In 2011, Time Magazine described him as the “Archetypal African dictator”.
In May 1990, due to the ending of the Cold War and a change in the international political climate, as well as economic problems and domestic unrest, Mobutu agreed to give up the MPR’s monopoly of power. He appointed a transitional government that would lead to promised elections but he retained substantial powers.
Following riots in Kinshasa by unpaid soldiers, Mobutu brought opposition figures into a coalition government, but still connived to retain control of the security services and important ministries. Factional divisions led to the creation of two governments in 1993, one pro and one anti-Mobutu. The anti-Mobutu government was headed by Laurent Monsengwo and Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union of Democacy and Social Progress.
The economic situation was still dismal; in 1994 the two groups joined as the High Council of Republic – Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT). Mobutu appointed Kengo Wa Dondo, an advocate of austerity and free-market reforms, as Prime Minister.
Mobutu was becoming increasingly physically frail and during one of his absences for medical treatment in Europe, Tutsis captured much of eastern Zaire.
When Mobutu’s government issued an order in November 1996 forcing Tutsis to leave Zaire on penalty of death, the ethnic Tutsis in Zaire, known as Banyamulenge, were the focal point of a rebellion.
From eastern Zaire, the rebels, aided by foreign government forces under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defence, Paul Kegame launched an offensive to overthrow Mobutu, joining forces with locals opposed to him under Laurent-Desire Kabila as they marched west toward Kinshasa. Burundi and Angola also supported the growing rebellion, which mushroomed into the First Congo War.
Ailing with cancer, Mobutu was in Switzerland for treatment and he was unable to coordinate the resistance which crumbled in front of the march.
By mid-1997, Kabila’s forces resumed their advance, and the remains of Mobutu’s army offered almost no resistance.
On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks held in Pointe-Noire on board the South African Navy ship SAS Outeniqua with Kabila and President of South Africa Nelson Mandela (who chaired the talks), Mobutu fled into exile.
Kabila’s forces, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), proclaimed victory the next day.
The AFDL would have completely overrun the country far sooner if not for the country’s decrepit infrastructure. In most areas, no paved roads existed; the only vehicle paths were irregularly used dirt roads. Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By 1990, economic deterioration and unrest led Mobutu to agree to share power with opposition leaders, but he used the army to thwart change until May 1997, when rebel forces led by Laurent Desire Kabila overran the country and forced him into exile.
Mobutu went into temporary exile in Togo, until President Gnassingbe Eyadama insisted that Mobutu leave the country a few days later.
From 23 May 1997 he lived mostly in Rabat Morocco.
Already suffering from advanced prostate cancer, on 7 September 1997, at the age of 66 in Morocco.
He was buried in an above ground mausoleum at Rabat-Sale-Zemmour-Zaer, in the Christian cemetery known as Cimetière Européen.
On the same day Mobutu fled into exile, Laurent-Desire Kabila became the new president of Congo. He was assassinated in 2001, and succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila.
According to Mobutu’s New York Times obituary: “He built his political longevity on three pillars: violence, cunning and the use of state funds to buy off enemies. His systematic looting of the national treasury and major industries gave birth to the term ‘kleptocracy’ to describe a rule of official corruption that reputedly made him one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.”
Mobutu was infamous for embezzling the equivalent of billions of US dollars from his country. According to the most conservative estimates, he stole US$4–5 billion from his country, and some sources put the figure as high as US$15 billion.
According to Pierre Janssen, the ex-husband of Mobutu’s daughter Yaki, Mobutu had no concern for the cost of the expensive gifts he gave away to his cronies. Janssen married Yaki in a lavish ceremony that included three orchestras, a US$65,000 wedding cake, and a giant fireworks display. Yaki wore a US$70,000 wedding gown and US$3 million worth of jewels. Janssen wrote a book describing Mobutu’s daily routine, which included several daily bottles of wine, retainers flown in from overseas and lavish meals.
Philip Gourevitch, in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (1998), wrote:
“Mobutu had really staged a funeral for a generation of African leadership of which he the Dinosaur, as he had long been known was the paragon: the client dictator of Cold War neo-colonialism, monomaniacal, perfectly corrupt, and absolutely ruinous to his nation.