Mobutu and Leopold’s Shadow
"This is why on Nov. 24, 1965, the stupid struggle for influence in which political parties were engaged was ended… For five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country."
Those were the words dictated by General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Sese Seko) after he seized control of the country via a coup, bringing an end to the Congo Crisis. Mobutu remained resolute in his words, for, a year later, the Congo parliament would be permanently suspended with political activity concentrated within Mobutu and his loyal allies (French).
Mobutu advertised his regime as a reshaping of the Congo, as he fiercely stated that the country would no longer be controlled in accordance to foreign schemes (French). Yet, his policies further entrenched Western interests within the politics and economy of the Congo and, despite his disdain for the trauma that Belgium’s avarice engendered, his reign became a frightening parallel to that of King Leopold II, the original tyrant of the Congo.
A major aspect of Mobutu’s reign was the extreme brutality that he displayed. Those perceived as threats to the regime were often murdered: for example, the four former Cabinet ministers whom “Mobutu had publicly hanged before 50,000 spectators six months after he took office” (French). Ruthless tortures were common (some survivors reported being beaten with a stick with nails protruding out of it until they were nearly dead), and Mobutu utilized his security force to exacerbate tensions between different ethinic groups, resulting in savage killings (Dellios).
Mobutu initiated his reign with two main policies: Goal 80 and “authenticity.” Goal 80 was an economic initiative to exploit the country's rich minerals (something which had already been done before by Belgium). Copper and steel production became an irresistible lure for foreign countries to continuously invest in the country and his regime (French).
“Authenticity” was Mobutu’s rejection of the West. He renamed the country to “Zaire,” ordered citizens to adopt traditional African names, and renamed major cities such as Léopoldville (Howe). Suits were banned and replaced with the abacost—a kind of button-up shirt/jacket hybrid whose name means “down with the [Western-style] suit” (Borman).
In 1973, Mobutu expanded “Authenticity” with his "Zairianization” program, which expropriated land, businesses, and capital from foreigners residing in the Congo and gave them to native Congolese people. Belgians, Greeks, Jews, and many more who were a part of the middle-class found their livelihoods swiftly purloined. In addition, many of the recipients were ill-prepared for this, and either sold their businesses back to foreigners or had their businesses devoured by large corporations. Quickly, Zairianization proved to be an economic disaster (French).
What Zairianization managed to achieve, however, was great wealth for Mobutu and his intimate circle of cronies. With this vacuum in the economy, many large corporations, which were now owned by Mobutu’s inner circle, were able to acquire these businesses. It was estimated in 1978 that fifty Congo companies “had illegally secreted some $300 million abroad,” with eight of the largest of those corporations being owned by Mobutu or his family (French).
The kleptocratic nature of Mobutu’s dictatorship spilled from the economy to politics, as Mobutu would frequently pay off political opponents and buy allies to maintain his grip on power. The economic wealth of the country was therefore used by Mobutu to maintain his status or squandered in personal ventures. Politics thus became a rat's nest of insipid schemes and corruption, and it is for this reason why Mobutu’s reign has become synonymous with “kleptocracy” (Loffman).
The other way Mobutu maintained power was through foreign support. Mobutu advertised himself to the United States as a staunch ally. Therefore, not only was there foreign interest in Congo mines, but in the Cold War era, the Congo served as a perfect launchpad for the United States with which it could interlope in the affairs of other countries (Kissinger). Mobutu would meddle in Angola, Chad, Uganda, and Sudan, all with the support of the United States in an supposed attempt to defeat communism. In return, Mobutu received foreign aid and political support (French).
What this paints is a contradiction: a man who publicly rejected the oppression of Europe, and yet constructed a regime mirroring his oppressive European predecessors. The changes that were made were mostly cosmetic, and he heavily relied on Western aid to maintain his strangling hold on power. Once again, it was a return to the kind of state that Leopold had constructed all those years ago: a single man enriching himself and his cronies through extractive means and brutality at the expense of the nation. Yet, this crux that Mobutu relied on would eventually be his downfall. With the Cold War coming to a close, U.S. support for foreign dictators became less appealing and acceptable. Democratization became an inevitability for Mobutu, and soon he saw little choice and attempted to introduce multiparty politics, lest he lose his best allies (French).
Mobutu’s reign quickly collapsed afterwards: the election of his rival Etienne Tshisekedi as prime minister and Tshisekedi’s subsequent removal from office by Mobutu set off a crisis that resulted in outbreaks of killing and looting by government soldiers (French).
He soon experienced what he had enacted on neighboring states, as the Rwandan government sponsored Tutsi uprisings within vital regions of the Congo. The uprisings morphed into a full-blown rebellion led by Mobutu’s future successor: Joseph Kabila. A coalition of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola came together against him (French). He first fled to his palace in Gbadolite, known as his “Versailles of the Jungle,” but was soon forced into complete exile and abdicated his power.
In this series of articles covering the Congo from Leopold to Mobutu, a remarkable continuation is revealed. Although changes occurred, the core state structure envisioned by Leopold all those years ago remained and were reinforced any time they were challenged. The shadow of Leopold that E.D. Morel saw looming over the Congo remained through Belgian rule, survived the Congo Crisis, and manifested into Mobutu Sese Seko (Hochschild 271).
The Congo, like many colonized countries, is still healing from the more-than-a-century-long pain inflicted on it. The curse did not die with Mobutu either: his successor Kabila, despite initial optimism surrounding him, continued the kleptocratic state of his predecessors (Loffman). The Congo can most certainly break this destructive cycle. However, whether it will in the coming future remains to be seen.
Borman, David. "Acting Authentically: Performance and Transnational Authenticity in Tchicaya U Tam’si’s The Glorious Destiny of Marshall Nnikon Nniku." Research in African Literatures, vol. 44, no. 3, 2013, p. 87-100. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/513972.
Hall, Frank. U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger meets with President Mobutu of Zaire in his Pentagon office. 1983. Photograph. U.S. federal government.
Delios, Hugh. VICTIMS DESCRIBE MOBUTU'S LONG REIGN OF TORTURE. Chicago Tribune, Chicago, April 1997, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1997-04-29-9704290128-story.html. Accessed 4 January, 2022.
French, Howard. Anatomy of an Autocracy: Mobutu's 32-Year Reign. New York Times, New York, May 1997, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/world/africa/051797zaire-mobutu.html. Accessed 4 January, 2022.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York, Mariner Books, 1998.
Howe, Marvin. Mobutu Is Building an ‘Authentic’ Zaire. The New York Times, New York, June 1972,https://www.nytimes.com/1972/06/23/archives/mobutu-is-building-an-authentic-zaire.html. Accessed 4 January, 2022.
Loffman, Reuben. In the Shadow of the ‘Great Helmsman’: Mobutu Sese Seko’s Life and Legacy in the DR Congo. Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa, London. 7 September 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2017/09/07/in-the-shadow-of-the-great-helmsman-mobutu-sese-sekos-life-and-legacy-in-the-dr-congo/. Accessed 4 January, 2022.
Kightlinger, Jack E. Meeting in the Oval Office between Nixon and President Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire.
1973. Photograph. U.S. federal government.
Kissinger, Henry. “Memorandum for the President’s File.” October 1973,