A nation in his hands

He abused and impoverished Zaire but his people want him back. profile; Mobutu Sese Seko

David Orr
Sunday 17 November 1996 00:02

In a sumptuous villa on the Cote d'Azur, an old man of unimaginable wealth enjoys a peaceful convalescence after surgery in Switzerland for prostate cancer. Nurses tend to his every medical need while a regiment of flunkeys are on hand to do his bidding. Bottles of his favourite Taittinger champagne are permanently on ice.

Far away in his native country chaos rules, with mob violence in the capital and open rebellion and warfare in the scattered regions. No prospect seems too grim or far-fetched, not an army coup, not even the dismemberment of the state.

On one thing the great majority of observers and participants in this drama are agreed: they urgently want the return of that old man in the Villa del Mar. He is Mobutu Sese Seko, President, Marshal and self-styled Guide and Helmsman of Zaire.

The street protesters in Kinshasa are clamouring to have him back, and to be rid of the Prime Minister, Kengo wa Dondo. The generals are warning that only Mobutu can restore stability. Opposition politicians wish no more than to have their old persecutor back in charge. Even Western diplomats will tell you that the only hope for this stricken country is the immediate homecoming of the 66-year-old Mobutu and his trademark leopardskin hat.

Yet this man has been, by most estimates, Africa's ultimate kleptocrat, plundering and prostituting his country for three decades while he bought a string of palaces in Europe and stuffed billions in Swiss bank accounts. Tales of his excesses are legion, and only months ago his people, weary of all the fear and hunger, were on the streets demanding his head on a plate.

Not any more. Now that the state is threatened, most immediately by the overspill of violence from Rwanda, it seems that what Mobutu always presented as a truth is accepted more widely than ever: he is Zaire, and after him comes the deluge.

THIS man whose fate has become so closely bound up with his country's was born Joseph-Desire Mobutu, the son of a hotel cook. He was a member of a minority ethnic group not known for its influence and he grew up in Gbadolite, an impoverished village perched on the northernmost stretch of the River Congo. After a mission school education, he was by turns a soldier and a journalist and worked for a while in Belgium, the colonial power. As independence approached, he enjoyed an almost meteoric rise, playing a part in the negotiations with the colonists and when the Belgians left in June 1960 becoming a government minister under Patrice Lumumba.

In the growing chaos, he thrived. Within months of independence he was at the forefront of an army coup and soon became commander-in-chief. From then on, through several years of crisis, he ensured that the centre held. His political opponents and rivals were exiled, imprisoned or executed until, in 1965, Mobutu made himself head of state with full executive powers.

The country he now ruled was and is an unlikely rag-bag of 200 and more ethnic groups scattered over an area equivalent to most of Western Europe. Largely fertile, with great mineral wealth and a population that, at 35 million today, is not over-large, it has the potential to be wealthy by African standards.

Over 31 years, Mobutu's achievement has been to hold the powerful centrifugal forces in check while he personally stole the nation's wealth. For the sheer scale of his theft, he can scarcely have a rival in history. That Zaire today is a sink of poverty, squalor, disease and violence it owes to its Helmsman, just as much as it owes him its survival as a single patch on the map.

Having declared his Popular Revolutionary Movement the sole legal party in 1967, he went on to remake the country. He called it Zaire, and renamed its great river, too. He introduced a doctrine of "authenticity" which included the discouragement of Western suits and the introduction of a new outfit of his own design, known as "abacos", short for a bas la costume, or "down with suits".

He also renamed himself. Joseph-Desire became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngebendu wa za Banga, "the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win sweeps from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake".

A cult of personality rarely rivalled in Africa placed his face, bespectacled and with leopardskin hat, on billboards and banknotes, T-shirts and dresses, even in churches. Mystical properties were ascribed to him; in particular a legend was created that no bullet could kill him. "Authenticity" gave way to "Mobutism", which in turn became indistinguishable from imperial whim.

In the meantime, millions of pounds were spent transforming his native village into a city: an ostentatious palace was built with a casino and ornamental gardens. Next to be carved out of the bush was an airport with a runway large enough to accommodate the Concorde which he would lease from Air France to take his family shopping in Europe, or to pay a fraternal visit to a neighbouring tyrant.

Little or nothing was spent on maintaining ports, roads, railways, riverboats, schools, hospitals and mines. Today the roads in much of the country are so inadequate that the simplest journey can take days. And in Kinshasa there is not even a pretence of proper governance or fiscal accountability: to get anywhere, be you businessman or tourist, you pay a bribe and the money goes straight into the pocket of an official.

All this was made possible by Western support. Mobutu was a master of the Cold War game, and extracted the absolute maximum of aid and indulgence from his backers. In exchange he kept the Russians and the Cubans out, maintained a certain stability in his huge domain and produced valuable copper, cobalt and other minerals for the factories of the West.

The CIA, which helped put him in power in 1965, remained a particular friend. As the country's economy started its decline during the early 1970s, Mobutu took the CIA's dollar and allowed his country to be used as a base for US-sponsored raids against Angola and other Communist outposts in Africa.

The Western alliances proved their value when Zaire's provinces tried to break away: France, Belgium and Morocco intervened to crush secessionist rebels and an array of nations, led by the US, provided military hardware. The World Bank lent generously to Zaire and, as ever, Mobutu generously rewarded himself and his acolytes.

As for human rights, Mobutu knew nothing of them. He was routinely elected by 98 per cent of the country and his critics were either bribed, driven abroad or imprisoned. Occasionally it went further: he is capable of cruelty and ruthlessness, although perhaps not on an Idi Amin scale.

The end of the Cold War marked the end of the good days. Suddenly the West was not prepared to pay for what he offered, and a belated rigour entered discussions of aid. For many years his personal fortune and the national debt had moved in step - both reaching around $6bn in the 1980s - but now the debt ran away.

As foreign pressure grew to stamp out corruption and human rights abuses, so his grip on internal politics weakened. Again and again the Helmsman found himself isolated aboard his luxury riverboat as protesters ransacked Kinshasa. The army, unpaid, slipped into lawlessness and the regions passed out of central control.

Still the old man clung on, obstructing and subverting every step towards democracy that was forced on the country by the aid-givers. He dipped into his ample coffers to buy off critics and exploited ethnic rivalries to split opposition parties. Elections were constantly promised, but somehow they never materialised - some are due to be held next year but Zaireans are not holding their breath.

If the fall of the Berlin Wall left Mobutu struggling, however, the 1994 Rwanda genocide gave him a new lease of life. The forgotten east of his country suddenly became a flashpoint for Central Africa, with tribal, regional and international stresses at work. Once again, the West needed him.

TODAY Zaire's plight could hardly be more grave. The army has been routed and humiliated in the east by a rebel force of whom few had heard until a month ago. Disgruntled and hungry, the defeated troops are looting and killing as they retreat from the war zone. Many thousands of refugees and Zairean citizens are facing disease in the remote interior. Students in the capital have been rampaging through the city, hijacking vehicles and besieging the parliament.

Yet for months the old man has been abroad, first in hospital, then at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva and now at his villa on the Riviera. By turns conceited and charming, he is said to talk openly of the ecstatic crowds that will line the roadside for his triumphant drive from Kinshasa airport. He says he cannot bear to keep his countrymen waiting much longer.

The cynics, however, suggest that whatever he may promise he has no intention of leaving the comfort of his European exile, of swapping his quiet glass of port in the morning and champagne at dusk for the turbulent uncertainties of a country that is falling apart. Will he go, or not? In the end his health, like everything else the subject of contradictory rumours, may make the decision for him.

Whether he spends his final years in Europe or Africa he will have the extraordinary satisfaction that the country he humiliated and impoverished for decades, and the foreign powers whom he cheated and who eventually condemned him, ultimately came begging for his help. And he did not need them at all.

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