Michela Wrong’s In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo is an investigative journalist’s take on the thirty-two year reign of Mobutu Sese Seko as the president of Zaire.
In a continent dominated by “Big Man” rule, Mobutu Sese Seko was the biggest man in Africa, the Louis XIV of the Congo. He was idolized by the people as “The Great Helmsman,” “The Guide,” “The Leopard,” “Founding President,” “Field Marshal,” and “The Father of the Nation.”
Mobutu’s face was on the cover of almost every newspaper. It was on the currency, ashtrays, and official letterhead. The daily television news broadcast would begin with Mobutu emerging godlike from the clouds to be greeted by dancing and singing Zaireans.
Arguably, Mobutu’s ascent to greatness was the most remarkable black story of the twentieth century, as was his tragic downfall.
Joseph-Désiré Mobutu was born the son of a cook and a hotel maid in Équateur province in the Belgian Congo. He was from the Ngbandi ethnic group, a warlike Central Sudanese tribe, that had settled along the Ubangi River in the far rural north of Congo and the Central African Republic.
After a brief stint in the Force Publique, Mobutu became a journalist in Léopoldville where he became acquainted with the Congolese évolués who were active in cercles opposed to colonial rule. He met Patrice Lumumba there and joined his Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) which was one of the largest nationalist parties clamoring for independence.
By 1960, Britain and France had thrown in the towel and were launching their African colonies as independent states. Belgium was left in an untenable position and fearing an Algerian-style war and under pressure from the United States and the NATO allies was forced to grant independence to the Congo.
Patrice Lumumba and other Congolese nationalist leaders were invited to Brussels for a “roundtable conference” on independence. Mobutu attended the meeting as Lumumba’s personal secretary where he seems to have been recruited by Belgian intelligence.
In Black History Month 2012: Review: Lumumba, we saw how Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minster of the Republic of Congo, how Lumumba’s brief rule was a total disaster, and how Lumumba stirred up a proxy war between the United States and Soviet Union which brought about his gruesome murder.
In Black History Month 2012: Review: Africa Addio, we saw how the five years of chaos known as the Congo Crisis followed Lumumba’s assassination. The Simba cannibals took over the Eastern Congo and held 1,300 European and American hostages. Belgian paratroopers rescued the hostages and White mercenaries were hired to fight the Simbas and reconquer the country.
In 1965, Mobutu (who Lumumba had made head of the armed forces in 1960) seized power in a military coup d’état on the grounds that the politicians had spent five years ruining the country and would be given a five year time out. Both the Western powers and the Congolese people were relieved that stability had been restored and the chaos had subsided.
So what happened when a native African was given absolute power in Africa’s richest country? I won’t spoil this delightful book for you (one of my personal favorites), but here are some highlights that might arouse your interest:
(1) Mobutu’s consolidation of a one party state based on a cult of personality with fabulous titles like “Great Helmsman” and “The Guide.” Ideologically, his revolutionary movement was “the repudiation of capitalism and communism” and was “neither right nor left nor center.”
(2) Mobutu’s “authenticité” campaign which involved tearing down the European statues of Stanley and King Leopold II, renaming the country and its major waterway “Zaire,” renaming the major cities to Kinshasa, Kisangani, and Lumumbashi, banning Christian and European names and finally renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga or “head rooster with access to all the hens in the henhouse.”
“Authenticité is the realization by the Zairean people that it must return to its origins, seek out the values of its ancestors, to discover those which contribute to harmonious and natural development. It is the refusal to blindly embrace imported ideologies. It is, in short, the affirmation of mankind, in its place, with its mental and social structures.”
“Zaireans” were forbidden to wear Western clothing. Men were required to wear an abacost uniform (French for “down with the suit”) that resembles a Maoist tunic. Zaire’s new flag was a black fist grasping a flaming torch.
(3) Mobutu’s “Zairianization” program, the economic counterpart to “authenticité,” which involved nationalizing European owned businesses and seizing European owned assets in Zaire, and redistributing them to a new social class in Zaire that came to be known as the “Grosses Legumes,” or the “Big Vegetables.”
The “Big Vegetables” were given plantations, businesses, and industries built by Europeans and Asians. They had no idea how to manage them and from that point forward Zaire’s economy fell off a cliff from which it never recovered. Zairianization and Authenticité were followed by Zaire setting an African record for the importation of Mercedes Benz cars.
(4) Mobutu’s construction of a $500 million dollar palace in his ancestral village of Gbadolite that has been called the “Versailles of the Jungle.” His son-in-law estimated that Mobutu and his entourage would run through 10,000 bottles of Laurent Perrier pink champagne a year.
Gbadolite was one of two international sized airports in sub-Saharan Africa (Le Vieux’s Yamoussoukro was the other) that could accommodate the supersonic Concorde jet that Mobutu and family would charter for shopping trips in Europe and America. Mobutu would charter Concordes and Boeings to Gbadolite like a normal person would order pizza from Papa John’s. He would have a hair stylist flown in from New York. His daughter’s wedding cake was flown in from France.
(5) Mobutu’s extortion of $9 billion dollars in foreign aid from the IMF and World Bank which was stolen and redistributed in all sorts of ingenious ways to his own family and the Big Vegetables. There is a discussion of how Erwin Blumenthal, a German banker from the Deutsche Bundesbank, was put in charge of the Bank of Zaire and resigned in exasperation with the systematic corruption, fraud and embezzlement.
(6) Mobutu’s plundering and destruction of Belgian copper mining industry in Katanga and the diamond mining industry in Kasai.
(7) Mobutu’s creation of a “kleptocracy,” the institutionalization of a government based on theft, that came to pervade the whole culture and was known by the euphemism “Article 15,” or “help yourself.”
(8) Michela Wrong tours Congo and interviews all kinds of people that adapted to life under Mobutu: a social class called “sapuers” that retreated from the world of politics to become the world’s most unlikely fashionistas, gangs of polio victims that scamper about Kinshasa like spiders and dominate the river trade, the Kimbanguists who are the Congolese version of the Mormons, a fantasist who lives in his house in Bas-Congo and gathered a mass following by proclaiming himself King of the Kongo.
(9) In the early 1990s, Zaire’s economy deteriorated to the point where there were two mass riots by the army that were so destructive that they came to be historical mile marker known as “avant le premier pillage” and “après le deuxième pillage.” When there was nothing left to steal and the IMF and World Bank finally cut him off, Mobutu inflated the currency to the point where 50,000 zaire notes were being issued the year before his downfall.
(10) In the end, Laurent Kabila’s rebels are advancing from the east and taking over Kinshasa, The Leopard is dying from prostate cancer, lifting off from Gbadolite as his own private security force tries to shoot him down, and the rebels sack Gbadolite and his villa in Kinshasa where thousands of pampers for incontinent men were found floating among the ruins.
Michela Wrong closes the book by gawking at a recently published photo album of Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo in 1956. When I first bought this book while at Auburn in 2003, her description of the Black Undertow in Kin La Poubelle was forever etched into my mind because I knew places like that in Alabama … the battlefields of the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Tuskegee.
“Flicking through the pages was like travelling to another world. Blessed with the glorious unselfconsciousness of a time when colonial shame seemed inconceivable, the author proudly paraded a port full of cranes, factories turning out cloth, a modern railway network and ‘one of only two gyrobus transport systems in the world’. Kinshasa, it was clearly, had once been a veritable Milton Keynes. If it was only four years before independence, there was little sense of a nation being prepared to take destiny into its own hands. Instead there were photos of Congolese obediently bowed over lathes, typewriters and microscopes as white tutors gave them instructions. On one page a Belgian housewife taught local women how to run a kitchen, on another, black chefs in white aprons demonstrated their skill in producing Belgian patisserie.
Before and after … the photographs showed jungle bulldozed to form a city street, oxen making way for cars of the 1950s, a model Congolese family relaxing in a spotless lounge, sipping tea as they listened to the radio. But a vital chapter was missing. Now. That would reveal the wheel turning full circle: the jungle growing back through the potholed tarmac, running water tainted with sewage, neighbourhoods without electricity, walking replacing the car.
I knew these streets, these roundabouts, these buildings. But I had never seen them so tidy. Here was the high-rise building now converted into the Memling Hotel. But where were the streetsellers who usually gathered outside it, with their selections of cigarettes, boiled eggs and cola nuts? Where were the house high piles of rubbish, the polio victims in their tricycles, the begging albinos blistering in the sun? Could this really be the same city?
Feeling lost in this unfamiliar world of order, symmetry and seemingly unquenchable hope, I pored over each photograph, looking for some hint of the chaos to come. And then, halfway through my perusal, I was pulled up short. There, on page 144, was a photograph of a policeman directing traffic on one of the boulevards. His uniform looked neat, his gauntlets were a spotless white. But looking closely at his face, I could swear he was wearing gold-rimmed, slanting sunglasses – pimp’s sunglasses, sinister trademark of the secret policeman and presidential guard, the torturer possessed of arbitrary undefined powers. Now there, in that tiny, telling detail, was the country I had come to know and love.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo now ranks dead last in the U.N. Human Development Index.
How do we explain this catastrophe? Is it due to King Leopold II and the legacy of Belgian colonialism? No, the Belgian Congo was a pacified and modern industrialized state with a growth rate on par with China when it became the Republic of Congo in June 1960.
Is it due to the unique evil of the kleptocracy that emerged under Mobutu and the Big Vegetables? No, the decline began under Patrice Lumumba, continued under Mobutu, and has accelerated under Laurent and Joseph Kabila.
Is it due to a lack of foreign aid from the West? The IMF and World Bank loaned $9 billion dollars to Zaire in the 1970s and 1980s. Just as Erwin Blumenthal predicted, the foreign aid succeeded in propping up the Mobutu regime, but failed to arrest the catastrophic decline of Zaire’s economy.
Is it due to a lack of liberal democracy? No, the decline of the Congo began with the introduction of liberal democracy in May 1960, when Joseph Kasu-Vubu and Patrice Lumumba won the first Congolese national elections, and when all hell broke loose following independence from Belgium in June 1960.
Is it due to American and Belgian intervention in the Congo? This seems unlikely given the swift decline of every other neighboring state. The brief experiment with democracy, the collapse into “Big Man” rule, the emergence of a kleptocracy, followed by more democracy, civil wars, and retreat to “Big Man” rule is the wider regional pattern.
So what explains the relative prosperity of the Belgian Congo in the early twentieth century, which was unquestionably on an upward trajectory, and the subsequent collapse under the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late twentieth century?
Quite simply, it was the end of “white supremacy” in June 1960 and the transfer of political power to “the blacks” that began the destruction of civilization in the Congo at that particular moment in time.
It was that particular moment in history under Dwight Eisenhower, Charles De Gaulle, and Harold Macmillan that the Western powers – in the context of the Cold War with the Soviet Union – made the foolish decision to commit themselves to decolonization, independence, and liberal democracy in Black Africa.
Ignoring the precedents of Haiti and Liberia, one independent black republic after another was launched on the basis of the wisdom of anti-racism, and freedom failed in every one of them in more or less the same way. There is nothing really unique about the Democratic Republic of Congo. The failure was just more spectacular there because no other African state was launched with more natural mineral wealth.
OD celebrates Black History Month 2012 by honoring the legacy of Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, the Great Helmsman of Zaire, who transformed the Congo through the magic of “Authenticité” and “Zairianization” into the biggest eyesore in the world.
Note: If you have ever felt the urge to send me a gift or donate to this website, I would be more than happy to accept a 50,000 zaire note or a Zaire flag with a black fist grasping a flaming torch. I have always wanted to mount that inspirational flag above my desk.
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