Obituary: Mobutu Sese Seko

Mobuto Sese Seko, President of Zaire for 32 years, was black Africa's longest reigning head of state. Tall, imposing, never without his trademark leopardskin hat and cane, he was the supreme example of a paramount chief. He embodied the state but was far removed from the economic disasters and political upheavals of his long-time sycophantic, eventually angry subjects.

An unwavering advocate of personal advantage at the expense of the masses, his arrogance and excessive greed expressed the worst of Africa. Yet it was these signature traits which ensured not only his own survival, but that of Zaire. His politically astute and manipulative personality dominated the 200 different ethnic groups who live in this slab of jungle and savannah the size of Western Europe. Throughout most of his regime his rule, an exercise in political cynicism, was propped up by the United States, France and Belgium.

Mobutu's chief tool for maintaining supremacy over this Conradian heart of darkness was money. He embezzled the country's coffers to the point where his unverified fortune was thought to be upwards of pounds 6.3bn, roughly equivalent to the national debt. Zaire's large reserves of copper, cobalt and diamonds should have made it one of the most prosperous African countries. Instead, because he regarded the nation's minerals as his personal property, it is ranked next to Haiti in terms of human deprivation.

Joseph-Desire Mobutu grew up poor, the son of a cook for a colonial magistrate. His mother worked as a hotel maid. He was expelled from the missionary school he attended for disciplinary problems and in 1949 was conscripted into the Force Publique, the colonial Congolese army. As blacks could not become officers, he only achieved the rank of sergeant-major, working as a clerk in the accounts department. It was a grounding which was to serve him well in later years.

At 25 he left the army to visit Belgium and, back in Kinshasa, become editor of L'Avenir and then Actualites Africaines, the radical paper launched by the pro-Soviet Patrice Lumumba.

Thanks to his impeccable networking, at the age of 29 he was appointed army chief of staff by Lumumba, who was made Prime Minister at independence from Belgium in 1960. Five years of anarchy and bloodshed ensued during which Lumumba was murdered. Mobutu survived unscathed having shrewdly judged that the Americans were interested in Zaire's copper and cobalt and were therefore worth cultivating.

The relationship was cemented in 1965 when he seized power in a CIA-backed coup. The CIA station-chief in Kinshasa, Lawrence Devlin, became his confidant and entree to Washington. From Richard Nixon through to Ronald Reagan, Mobutu was welcomed in the White House as a special friend.

He prospered at the helm of a one-party state as a result of global power play. Despite his scandalous disregard for fiscal probity, he was doggedly courted by the West, particularly the US. During the Cold War, the Americans saw Zaire as a bulwark against the spread of Communism through Africa. In return for keeping his country's strategic minerals beyond the grasp of the Soviets and providing a conduit for American weapons supplied to the Unita rebels in Angola, his pilfering ways were, for the most part, indulged. For a short period the country moved forward thanks to $2bn in foreign investment in mining and industry.

Mobutu soon established a one-party style of rule that could be likened to snakes and ladders. Government leaders were often arrested and tortured, but almost always stayed on the board. The conventional wisdom was that there were only 80 Zairians of note. Of these, 20 were ministers, 20 ambassadors, 20 in exile and 20 in jail. Yet, although he received occasional raps on the knuckles from Amnesty International, he eschewed the sickening cruelty of his fellow dictators Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

At the beginning of the 1970s, he launched Mobutisme, which was a thin disguise for a personality cult of stunning egocentricity. He gave ethnic names to the geography of Zaire and ordered Zaireans to follow suit under punishment of a jail term if they failed to do so. Joseph-Desire set the example by aggrandising his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa za Banga, "the all-powerful warrior who, because of endurance and an inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake". He collected other titles such as "The Messiah" and "The Redeemer" and was referred to as "He" - with a capital letter - in government communications. He banned Western dress in favour of the abacost (a bas le costume), a Mao-style derivation of the pinstripe, to symbolise the break with colonialism. A public service announcement preceding the evening television news broadcast depicted him descending godlike from the clouds.

In 1973 he confiscated European concerns without compensation and the economy began to crumble as the copper bonanza soured and prices tumbled to a third of their peak value. In 1976 he invited the foreigners back but few accepted.

His continuing role as pointman for Western interests in Africa proved useful in 1977 and again the following year. Rebel invasions into the copper mining province of Shaba which left thousands dead, including over a hundred Europeans, were quelled with the assistance of the US, France, Belgium and Morocco.

During the first invasion, Mobutu despatched a contingent of pygmies to the front, but they proved useless as they could not see through the tall elephant grass to shoot their poisoned arrows. His gift for showmanship came to the fore after the second invasion when he personally piloted the foreign press to the front in an airforce C-130. He posed for photographs but made sure he was never pictured next to the massacred European civilians who lay piled feet deep in the notorious House of Death. Presenting the failed rebellions as a further example of Soviet expansionism, Mobutu then managed to secure nearly half the US aid budget for black Africa.

At this point Zaire's total collapse was only stayed by foreign troops and American bankers, who injudiciously continued to lend in the hope they would eventually see their money back. Mobutu reluctantly agreed to a series of corrective fiscal measures which included giving Erwin Blumenthal, a retired West German banker, effective control of the central banking system. In 1979 Blumenthal concluded his stormy one-year tenure with the observation that, unless Mobutu ceased to use the central bank as his personal account, there was no hope for the country.

Mobutu's unceasing quest to correct the unfortunate circumstance of an impoverished childhood eclipsed any development. Malnutrition beset 40 per cent of the population, and at times inflation ran at 71,000 per cent. He presided over a kleptocracy, expecting others to live by his ethic of grab what you can where you can.

His conspicuous consumption was unparalleled even by an African yardstick. He owned a chateau in Belgium, houses in Brussels, Venice, Paris and Abidjan, a Spanish castle, a luxury yacht, a Portuguese ranch and Swiss chalet and the Villa del Mare on the Cote d'Azur which had a cellar created to store 2,500 vintage wines.

But his true home was a Versailles-like palace where he became a virtual recluse in his later years. It was sited in ornamental gardens overlooking a northern bend of the Zaire River in his native village of Gbadolite. There was a casino complex and a chapel commemorated to his mother where a choir trained by a Belgian Jesuit sang Gregorian chant.

The nine children by his two wives were ferried to school in helicopters, taking off from a runway that was large enough to accommodate the wide- bodied jets he appropriated from the national airline to go abroad on shopping sprees. On vacations in Europe and the US with an entourage of up to a hundred, he could spend at the rate of a million dollars a week.

It was in the marbled halls of Gbadolite that he held court in baroque splendour - gold cutlery, Limoges china and, of course, his favourite Taittinger champagne - making sure that dignitaries such as the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali were kept waiting for hours.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall the Americans counselled early retirement, but their advice went unheeded. Instead, he gave a token nod to the wave of multi-party democracy sweeping the continent, allowing over 100 parties to form but making it clear their existence should not challenge his power.

In 1996, while he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in Switzerland, the holocaust in neighbouring Rwanda spilled over into Zaire's eastern Kivu Province. Out of this emerged an old enemy of 30 years' standing, an ethnic Tutsi called Laurent Kabila, whose rebels moved into an administrative vacuum to seize a large swathe of territory. Apparently abandoned by his old Western allies, Mobutu used his chequebook to sign on white and black mercenaries.

When he returned to Kinshasa in December of that year, he was welcomed home by a dancing, singing crowd of more than 100,000. It was a measure of the man's majesty that, although he was so obviously the engineer of the decay and ruin around him, they greeted him as their saviour.

Mobutu fled before Kabila's tattered army in May this year, first from Kinshasa (the day before Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces marched in) and then from his Gbadolite palace. Separated from the nation he embodied, his authority evaporated and he was shunned by the rest of the world, including France. After much negotiation, King Hassan of Morocco gave Mobutu and his 50-strong entourage asylum on compassionate grounds. The health of the ailing former dictator deteriorated rapidly and he was admitted to a military hospital in Rabat on 1 July.

Vainglorious even in exile and sickness, Mobutu Sese Seko failed to live up to his boast that he would never be a former president, only a late one, even though he was ultimately felled by disease rather than the wrath of the people he had oppressed for over three decades.

Mary Anne Fitzgerald

Joseph-Desire Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko), politician: born Lisala, Belgian Congo 14 October 1930; President of Zaire 1965-97; twice married (nine children); died Rabat, Morocco 7 September 1997.

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