The days of the 'Messiah' may be numbered

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WHEN Joseph Desire sought to Africanise his name in 1972 he wanted a moniker to suit his position as absolute ruler of Zaire. He chose Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu Waza Banga.

It translates as '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 often refers to himself more simply as Le Timonier, the helmsman; Le Redempteur, the redeemer and Le Messie, the Messiah. His opponents call him 'the human monster'. No matter what he is called, President Mobutu is the undisputed strongman of Zaire, ruling the country for 27 years by decree, patronage and, when necessary, brutal repression.

He was born in 1930 to a mission cook and an escaped harem girl in the Belgian Congo province of Equateur. Thrown out of a mission school for spraying a teacher with ink, he was recruited into the Force Publique, Belgium's colonial army, where he reached the highest permitted rank, senior sergeant. In 1958 he joined the Congo Freedom Movement and launched his political career.

By 1960 he was the head of the army, a position from which he dismissed both the prime minister and president of the newly independent state. After the murder of the prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in which Mr Mobutu's involvement has always been open to question, he handed power back to a civilian government. In 1965 he seized power again and announced 'this time I shall not give it up'. All 14 officers with whom he staged the 1965 coup have been killed, jailed or driven into exile, a pattern of dealing with rivals he has repeated throughout his rule.

In 1978, Albert Ndele, a long- serving governor of Zaire's central bank who fell foul of Mr Mobutu, tried to paint a fair picture of the man who had become his enemy: 'It would be dishonest to say that the president has done nothing but evil. In the beginning he made a notable contribution by creating a real sense of national unity. But after a time power went to his head, like alcohol, and he thought of himself as some kind of supreme being. He then began to confuse the riches of the country with his own and he now acts as though everything that belongs to the state belongs to him.'

The West has often watched in amazement the economic and political mismanagement that reduced Zaire to wretched, grinding poverty. While his people clamour for bread, President Mobutu washes mouthfuls of roast quail down with Taittinger champagne. He has found many imaginative ways to spend the pounds 3.5bn he has salted away during his reign.

It is rumoured that every other week he flies his hairdresser from New York to Kinshasa to give him a trim. At one time or another he has owned 11 chateaux in Belgium, a building on the Avenue Foch in Paris, a residence in Nice, a villa in Switzerland and a Spanish castle.

When not holed up in Gbadolite, the sleepy village of his birth which he has transformed into the 'Versailles' of the jungle, he spends his time incommunicado, steaming up and down the Zaire river in a colonial riverboat.

President Mobutu was considered a bulwark against Communism and it suited Washington to turn a blind eye to his excesses. But, sadly for Mr Mobutu, those days may be over. With the end of the Cold War, Mr Mobutu has outlasted his usefulness and the United States no longer appears willing to indulge him.

(Photograph omitted)