Mobutu Sese Seko
Mobutu at the Pentagon on 5 August 1983
|President of Zaire|
24 November 1965 – 16 May 1997
|Preceded by||Joseph Kasa-Vubu|
|Succeeded by||Laurent-Désiré Kabila|
14 October 1930
Lisala, Belgian Congo
|Died||7 September 1997 (aged 66)|
|Political party||Popular Movement of the Revolution|
|Years of service||1949–1965|
|Unit||Commander in Chief of the Army|
Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga[a] (/
During the Congo Crisis, Mobutu, serving as chief of staff of the army and supported by Belgium and the United States, deposed the nationalist democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba in 1960. Mobutu installed a government that arranged for Lumumba's execution in 1961. Mobutu continued to lead the country's armed forces until he took power directly in a second coup in 1965. As part of his program of "national authenticity", he changed the Congo's name to Zaire in 1971, and his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko in 1972.
Mobutu developed a totalitarian regime, amassed vast personal wealth, and attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence. At the same time, he was given considerable support by the West and China, owing to his strong anti-Soviet stance. He was the object of a pervasive cult of personality. During his reign, Mobutu amassed a large personal fortune through economic exploitation and corruption, leading some to call his rule a "kleptocracy". The nation suffered from uncontrolled inflation, a large debt, and massive currency devaluations. By 1991, economic deterioration and unrest led him to agree to share power with opposition leaders, but he used the army to thwart change until May 1997, when rebel forces led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila expelled him from the country. Already suffering from advanced prostate cancer, he died three months later in Morocco.
Marshal Mobutu became notorious for corruption, nepotism, and the embezzlement of between US$4 billion and $15 billion during his reign. He was known for extravagances such as shopping trips to Paris via the supersonic and expensive Concorde. He presided over the country for more than three decades, a period of widespread human rights violations.
Mobutu, a member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, was born in 1930 in Lisala, Belgian Congo. Mobutu's mother, Marie Madeleine Yemo, was a hotel maid who fled to Lisala to escape the harem of a local village chief. There she met and married Albéric Gbemani, a cook for a Belgian judge. Shortly afterward she gave birth to Mobutu. The name "Mobutu" was selected by an uncle.
Gbemani died when Mobutu was eight. Thereafter he was raised by an uncle and a grandfather.
The wife of the Belgian judge took a liking to Mobutu and taught him to speak, read, and write fluently in the French language. Yemo relied on the help of relatives to support her four children, and the family moved often. Mobutu's earliest education took place in Léopoldville, but his mother eventually sent him to an uncle in Coquilhatville, where he attended the Christian Brothers School, a Catholic-mission boarding school. A physically imposing figure, Mobutu dominated school sports. He also excelled in academic subjects and ran the class newspaper. He was known for his pranks and impish sense of humor. A classmate recalled that when the Belgian priests, whose first language was Dutch, made an error in French, Mobutu would leap to his feet in class and point out the mistake. Mobutu stowed away aboard a boat to Léopoldville in 1949, where he met a girl. The priests found him several weeks later. At the end of the school year, in lieu of being sent to prison, he was ordered to serve seven years in the colonial army, the Force Publique (FP). This was the usual punishment for rebellious students.
Mobutu found discipline in army life, as well as a father figure in Sergeant Louis Bobozo. Mobutu kept up his studies by borrowing European newspapers from the Belgian officers and books from wherever he could find them, reading them on sentry duty and whenever he had a spare moment. His favorites were the writings of French president Charles de Gaulle, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. After passing a course in accounting, Mobutu began to dabble professionally in journalism. Still angry after his clashes with the school priests, he did not marry in a church. His contribution to the wedding festivities was a crate of beer, all his army salary could afford.
As a soldier, Mobutu wrote pseudonymously on contemporary politics for Actualités Africaines (African News), a magazine set up by a Belgian colonial. In 1956, he quit the army and became a full-time journalist, writing for the Léopoldville daily L'Avenir.
Two years later, he went to Belgium to cover the 1958 World Exposition and stayed to receive training in journalism. By this time, Mobutu had met many of the young Congolese intellectuals who were challenging colonial rule. He became friendly with Patrice Lumumba and joined Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). Mobutu eventually became Lumumba's personal aide. Several contemporaries indicate that Belgian intelligence had recruited Mobutu to be an informer to the government.
During the 1960 talks in Brussels on Congolese independence, the US embassy held a reception for the Congolese delegation. Embassy staff were each assigned a list of delegation members to meet, and discussed their impressions afterward. The ambassador noted, "One name kept coming up. But it wasn't on anyone's list because he wasn't an official delegation member, he was Lumumba's secretary. But everyone agreed that this was an extremely intelligent man, very young, perhaps immature, but a man with great potential."
Following the general election, Lumumba was tasked with creating a government. He gave Mobutu the office of Secretary of State to the Presidency. Mobutu held much influence in the final determination of the rest of the government.
On 5 July soldiers of the Force Publique stationed at Camp Léopold II in Léopoldville, dissatisfied with their all-white leadership and working conditions, mutinied. The revolt spread across the region in the following days. Mobutu assisted other officials in negotiating with the mutineers to secure the release of the officers and their families. On 8 July the full Council of Ministers convened in an extraordinary session under the chairmanship of President Joseph Kasa-Vubu at Camp Léopold II to address the task of Africanising the garrison.
After allowing for the election of a new commandant for the garrison, the ministers debated over who would make a suitable army chief of staff. The two main candidates for the post were Maurice Mpolo and Mobutu. The former had shown some influence over the mutinying troops, but Kasa-Vubu and the Bakongo ministers feared that he would enact a coup d'état if he were given power. The latter was perceived as calmer and more thoughtful. Lumumba saw Mpolo as courageous, but favored Mobutu's prudence. As the discussions continued, the cabinet began to divide according to who they preferred to serve as chief of staff. Lumumba wanted to keep both men in his government and wished to avoid upsetting one of their camps of supporters. In the end Mobutu was given the role and awarded the rank of colonel. The following day government delegations left the capital to oversee the Africanisation of the army; Mobutu was sent to Équateur.
Encouraged by a Belgian government intent on maintaining its access to rich Congolese mines, secessionist violence erupted in the south. Concerned that the United Nations force sent to help restore order was not helping to crush the secessionists, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. He received massive military aid and about a thousand Soviet technical advisers within six weeks. As this was during the Cold War, the US government feared that the Soviet activity was a maneuver to spread communist influence in Central Africa. Kasa-Vubu was encouraged by the US and Belgium to dismiss Lumumba, which he did on 5 September. An outraged Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed. Parliament refused to recognise the dismissals and urged reconciliation, but no agreement was reached.
Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu each ordered Mobutu to arrest the other. As Army Chief of Staff, Mobutu came under great pressure from multiple sources. The embassies of Western nations, which helped pay the soldiers' salaries, as well as Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu's subordinates, all favored getting rid of the Soviet presence. On 14 September Mobutu launched a bloodless coup, declaring both Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba to be "neutralised" and establishing a new government of university graduates, the College of Commissioners-General. Lumumba rejected this action but was forced to retire to his residence, where UN peacekeepers prevented Mobutu's soldiers from arresting him.
Losing confidence that the international community would support his reinstatement, Lumumba fled in late November to join his supporters in Stanleyville to establish a new government. He was captured by Mobutu's troops in early December, and incarcerated at his headquarters in Thysville. However, Mobutu still considered him a threat, and transferred him to the rebelling State of Katanga on 17 January 1961. Lumumba disappeared from public view. It was later discovered that he was murdered the same day by the secessionist forces of Moise Tshombe, after Mobutu's government turned him over.
On 23 January 1961, Kasa-Vubu promoted Mobutu to major-general. Historian De Witte argues that this was a political action, "aimed to strengthen the army, the president's sole support, and Mobutu's position within the army."
In 1964, Pierre Mulele led partisans in another rebellion. They quickly occupied two-thirds of the Congo. But the Congolese army, led by Mobutu, reconquered the entire territory through 1965.
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Prime Minister Moise Tshombe's Congolese National Convention had won a large majority in the March 1965 elections, but Kasa-Vubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him. With the government in near-paralysis, Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup on 25 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier.
Under the auspices of a regime d'exception (the equivalent of a state of emergency), Mobutu assumed sweeping—almost absolute—powers for five years. In his first speech upon taking power, Mobutu told a large crowd at Léopoldville's main stadium that, since politicians had brought the country to ruin in five years, it would take him at least that long to set things right again. Therefore, he announced, "for five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country." Parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp before being abolished altogether, but it was later revived. The number of provinces was reduced, and their autonomy curtailed, resulting in a highly centralized state.
Initially, Mobutu's government was decidedly apolitical, even anti-political. The word "politician" carried negative connotations, and became almost synonymous with someone who was wicked or corrupt. In 1966 the Corps of Volunteers of the Republic was established, a vanguard movement designed to mobilize popular support behind Mobutu, who was proclaimed the nation's "Second National Hero" after Lumumba. Despite the role he played in Lumumba's ouster, Mobutu worked to present himself as a successor to Lumumba's legacy. One of his key tenets early in his rule was "authentic Congolese nationalism."
1967 marked the debut of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), which until 1990 was the nation's only legal political party. It was officially defined as "the nation politically organized"—in essence, the state was a transmission belt for the party. All citizens automatically became members of the MPR from birth. Among the themes advanced by the MPR in its doctrine, the Manifesto of N'Sele, were nationalism, revolution, and "authenticity". Revolution was described as a "truly national revolution, essentially pragmatic", which called for "the repudiation of both capitalism and communism." One of the MPR's slogans was "Neither left nor right", to which would be added "nor even center" in later years. The MPR elected its president every seven years at its national convention. At the same time, the party president was automatically nominated as the sole candidate for a seven-year term as president of the republic; he was confirmed in office by a referendum. A single list of MPR candidates was returned to the legislature every five years. In practice, this gave the party president—Mobutu—all governing power in the nation.
That same year, all trade unions were consolidated into a single union, the National Union of Zairian Workers, and brought under government control. Mobutu intended for the union to serve as an instrument of support for government policy, rather than as an independent group. Independent trade unions were illegal until 1991.
Facing many challenges early in his rule, Mobutu converted much opposition into submission through patronage; those he could not co-opt, he dealt with forcefully. In 1966, four cabinet members were arrested on charges of complicity in an attempted coup, tried by a military tribunal, and publicly executed in an open-air spectacle witnessed by over 50,000 people. Uprisings by former Katangan gendarmeries were crushed, as were the Stanleyville mutinies of 1967 led by white mercenaries. By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and for the most part, law and order was brought to nearly all parts of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu's legitimacy and power.
In 1970 His Majesty King Baudouin of the Belgians made a highly successful state visit to Kinshasa. That same year legislative and presidential elections were held. The MPR was the only party allowed to run, although the constitution stated that at least two parties were authorized. According to official figures, an implausible 98.33% of voters voted in favor of the MPR list. For the presidential election, Mobutu was the only candidate. Voting was not secret; voters chose a green paper if they supported Mobutu's candidacy, and a red paper if they opposed his candidacy. Casting a green ballot was deemed a vote for hope, while a red ballot was deemed a vote for chaos. Under the circumstances, the result was inevitable–Mobutu won with a vote of 10,131,669 to 157. It later emerged that almost 30,500 more votes were cast than the actual number of registered voters.
As he consolidated power, Mobutu set up several military forces whose sole purpose was to protect him. These included the Special Presidential Division, Civil Guard and Service for Action, and Military Intelligence (SNIP).
Embarking on a campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness, or authenticité, Mobutu began renaming cities that reflected the colonial past, starting on 1 June 1966: Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the country as the Republic of Zaire. He ordered the people to change their European names to African ones, and priests were warned that they would face five years' imprisonment if they were caught baptizing a Zairean child with a European name. Western attire and ties were banned, and men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume--"down with the suit").
In 1972, in accordance with his own decree of a year earlier, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (in Congolese, meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake."), or Mobutu Sese Seko for short. Around this time, he eschewed his military uniform in favor of what would become his classic image—the tall, imposing man wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses, and leopard-skin toque, and carrying a walking stick.
Early in his rule, Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. To set an example, many were hanged before large audiences. Such victims included former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba, who, with three cabinet members—Jérôme Anany (Defense Minister), Emmanuel Bamba (Finance Minister), and Alexandre Mahamba (Minister of Mines and Energy)—was tried in May 1966, and sent to the gallows on 30 May, before an audience of 50,000 spectators. The men were executed on charges of being in contact with Colonel Alphonse Bangala and Major Pierre Efomi, for the purpose of planning a coup. Mobutu explained the executions as follows: "One had to strike through a spectacular example, and create the conditions of regime discipline. When a chief takes a decision, he decides – period."
In 1968, Pierre Mulele, Lumumba's Minister of Education and a rebel leader during the 1964 Simba Rebellion, was lured out of exile in Brazzaville on the belief that he would receive amnesty. Instead, he was tortured and killed by Mobutu's forces. While Mulele was still alive, his eyes were gouged out, his genitals were ripped off, and his limbs were amputated one by one.
Mobutu later gave up torture and murder, and switched to a new tactic, buying off political rivals. He used the slogan "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still" to describe his tactic of co-opting political opponents through bribery. A favorite Mobutu tactic was to play "musical chairs", rotating members of his government, switching the cabinet roster constantly to ensure that no one would pose a threat to his rule. Another tactic was to arrest and sometimes torture dissident members of the government, only to later pardon them and reward them with high office.
In 1972, Mobutu tried unsuccessfully to have himself named president for life. In May 1983 he raised himself to the rank of Marshal; the order was signed by General Likulia Bolongo. Victor Nendaka Bika, in his capacity as Vice-President of the Bureau of the Central Committee, second authority in the land, addressed a speech filled with praise for President Mobutu.
To gain the revenues of Congolese resources, Mobutu initially nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country. But in many cases he handed the management of these firms to relatives and close associates, who quickly exercised their own corruption and stole the companies' assets. By 1977, this had precipitated such an economic slump that Mobutu was forced to try to woo foreign investors back. Katangan rebels based in Angola invaded Zaire that year, in retaliation for Mobutu's support for anti-MPLA rebels. France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan paratroopers into the country and repulsed the rebels, ending Shaba I. The rebels attacked Zaire again, in greater numbers, in the Shaba II invasion of 1978. The governments of Belgium and France deployed troops with logistical support from the United States and defeated the rebels again.
Mobutu was re-elected in single-candidate elections in 1977 and 1984. He spent most of his time increasing his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion. He held most of it out of the country in Swiss banks (however, a comparatively small $3.4 million was declared found in Swiss banks after he was outsted.). This was almost equivalent to the amount of the country's foreign debt at the time. By 1989, the government was forced to default on international loans from Belgium.
Mobutu owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation's roads deteriorated and many of his people starved. The infrastructure virtually collapsed, and many public service workers went months without being paid. Most of the money was siphoned off to Mobutu, his family, and top political and military leaders. Only the Special Presidential Division – on whom his physical safety depended – was paid adequately or regularly. A popular saying that "the civil servants pretended to work while the state pretended to pay them" expressed this grim reality.
Another feature of Mobutu's economic mismanagement, directly linked to the way he and his friends siphoned off so much of the country's wealth, was rampant inflation. The rapid decline in the real value of salaries strongly encouraged a culture of corruption and dishonesty among public servants of all kinds.
Mobutu was known for his opulent lifestyle. He cruised on the Congo on his yacht Kamanyola. In Gbadolite he erected a palace, the "Versailles of the jungle". For shopping trips to Paris, he would charter a Concorde from Air France; he had the Gbadolite Airport constructed with a runway long enough to accommodate the Concorde's extended take-off and landing requirements. In 1989, Mobutu chartered Concorde aircraft F-BTSD for a 26 June – 5 July trip to give a speech at the United Nations in New York City, 16 July for French bicentennial celebrations in Paris (where he was a guest of President François Mitterrand), on 19 September for a flight from Paris to Gbadolite, and another nonstop flight from Gbadolite to Marseille with the youth choir of Zaire.
Mobutu's rule earned a reputation as one of the world's foremost examples of kleptocracy and nepotism. Close relatives and fellow members of the Ngbandi tribe were awarded with high positions in the military and government, and he groomed his eldest son, Nyiwa, to succeed him as president; however, Nyiwa died from AIDS in 1994.
Mobutu led one of the most enduring dictatorial regimes in Africa and amassed a personal fortune estimated to be over US$5 billion by selling his nation's rich natural resources while his nation's people lived in poverty. While in office, he formed an authoritarian regime responsible for numerous human rights violations, attempted to purge the country of all Belgian cultural influences, and maintained an anti-communist stance to gain positive international support.
Mobutu was the subject of one of the most pervasive personality cults of the 20th century. The evening news on television was preceded by an image of him descending through clouds like a god. His portraits were hung in many public places, and government officials wore lapels bearing his portrait. He held such titles as "Father of the Nation", "Messiah", "Guide of the Revolution", "Helmsman", "Founder", "Savior of the People", and "Supreme Combatant". In the 1996 documentary of the 1974 Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire, dancers receiving the fighters can be heard chanting "Sese Seko, Sese Seko." At one point, in early 1975, the media was forbidden from referring to anyone by name other than Mobutu; others were referred to only by the positions they held.
Mobutu successfully capitalized on Cold War tensions among European nations and the United States. He gained significant support from the West and its international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund.
Relations between Zaire and Belgium wavered between close intimacy and open hostility during the Mobutu years. Relations soured early in Mobutu's rule over disputes involving the substantial Belgian commercial and industrial holdings in the country, but relations warmed soon afterwards. Mobutu and his family were received as personal guests of the Belgian monarch in 1968, and a convention for scientific and technical cooperation was signed that same year. During King Baudouin's highly successful visit to Kinshasa in 1970, a treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries was signed. However, Mobutu tore up the treaty in 1974 in protest at Belgium's refusal to ban an anti-Mobutu book written by left-wing lawyer Jules Chomé. Mobutu's "Zairianization" policy, which expropriated foreign-held businesses and transferred their ownership to Zairians, added to the strain. Mobutu maintained several personal contacts with prominent Belgians. Edmond Leburton, Belgian prime minister between 1973 and 1974, was someone greatly admired by the President. Alfred Cahen, career diplomat and chef de cabinet of minister Henri Simonet, became a personal friend of Mobutu when he was a student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Relations with King Baudouin were mostly cordial, until Mobutu released a bold statement about the Belgian royal family. Prime Minister Wilfried Martens recalled in his memoirs that the palace gates closed completely after Mobutu published a handwritten letter of the King. Next to friendly ties with Belgians residing in Belgium, Mobutu had a great deal of Belgian advisors at his disposal. Some of them, such as Hugues Leclercq and Colonel Willy Mallants, were interviewed in Thierry Michel's documentary Mobutu, King of Zaire.
As what was then the second most populous French-speaking country in the world (it has subsequently come to have a larger population than France) and the most populous one in sub-Saharan Africa Zaire was of great strategic interest to France. During the First Republic era, France tended to side with the conservative and federalist forces, as opposed to unitarists such as Lumumba. Shortly after the Katangan secession was successfully crushed, Zaire (then called the Republic of the Congo), signed a treaty of technical and cultural cooperation with France. During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, relations with the two countries gradually grew stronger and closer. In 1971, Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d'Estaing paid a visit to Zaire; later, after becoming President, he would develop a close personal relationship with President Mobutu, and became one of the regime's closest foreign allies. During the Shaba invasions, France sided firmly with Mobutu: during the first Shaba invasion, France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan troops to Zaire, and the rebels were repulsed; a year later, during the second Shaba invasion, France itself would send French Foreign Legion paratroopers (2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment) to aid Mobutu (along with Belgium).
Initially, Zaire's relationship with the People's Republic of China was no better than its relationship with the Soviet Union. Memories of Chinese aid to Mulele and other Maoist rebels in Kwilu province during the ill-fated Simba Rebellion remained fresh in Mobutu's mind. He also opposed seating the PRC at the United Nations. However, by 1972, he began to see the Chinese in a different light, as a counterbalance to both the Soviet Union as well as his intimate ties with the United States, Israel, and South Africa. In November 1972, Mobutu extended diplomatic recognition to the Chinese (as well as East Germany and North Korea). The following year, Mobutu paid a visit to Beijing, where he met personally with chairman Mao Zedong and received promises of $100 million in technical aid. In 1974, Mobutu made a surprise visit to both China and North Korea, during the time he was originally scheduled to visit the Soviet Union. Upon returning home, both his politics and rhetoric became markedly more radical; it was around this time that Mobutu began criticizing Belgium and the United States (the latter for not doing enough, in Mobutu's opinion, to combat white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia), introduced the "obligatory civic work" program called salongo, and initiated "radicalization" (an extension of 1973's "Zairianization" policy). Mobutu even borrowed a title – the Helmsman – from Mao. Incidentally, late 1974-early 1975 was when his personality cult reached its peak.
China and Zaire shared a common goal in central Africa, namely doing everything in their power to halt Soviet gains in the area. Accordingly, both Zaire and China covertly funneled aid to the FNLA (and later, UNITA) in order to prevent the MPLA, who were supported and augmented by Cuban forces, from coming to power. The Cubans, who exercised considerable influence in Africa in support of leftist and anti-imperialist forces, were heavily sponsored by the Soviet Union during the period. In addition to inviting Holden Roberto and his guerrillas to Beijing for training, China provided weapons and money to the rebels. Zaire itself launched an ill-fated, pre-emptive invasion of Angola in a bid to install a pro-Kinshasa government, but was repulsed by Cuban troops. The expion was a fiasco with far-reaching repercussions, most notably the Shaba I and Shaba II invasions, both of which China opposed. China sent military aid to Zaire during both invasions, and accused the Soviet Union and Cuba (who were alleged to have supported the Shaban rebels, although this was and remains speculation) of working to de-stabilize central Africa.
Mobutu's relationship with the Soviet Union was frosty and tense. A staunch anti-communist, he was not anxious to recognize the Soviets; the USSR had supported—though mostly in words—both Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu's democratically elected predecessor, and the Simba rebellion. However, to project a non-aligned image, he did renew ties in 1967; the first Soviet ambassador arrived and presented his credentials in 1968. Mobutu did, however, join the United States in condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that year. Mobutu viewed the Soviet presence as advantageous for two reasons: it allowed him to maintain an image of non-alignment, and it provided a convenient scapegoat for problems at home. For example, in 1970, he expelled four Soviet diplomats for carrying out "subversive activities", and in 1971, twenty Soviet officials were declared persona non grata for allegedly instigating student demonstrations at Lovanium University.
Moscow was the only major world capital Mobutu never visited, although he did accept an invitation to do so in 1974. For reasons unknown, he cancelled the visit at the last minute, and toured the People's Republic of China and North Korea instead.
Relations cooled further in 1975, when the two countries found themselves on opposing sides in the Angolan Civil War. This had a dramatic effect on Zairian foreign policy for the next decade; bereft of his claim to African leadership (Mobutu was one of the few leaders who refused to recognize the Marxist government of Angola), Mobutu turned increasingly to the US and its allies, adopting pro-American stances on such issues as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Israel's position in international organizations.
For the most part, Zaire enjoyed warm relations with the United States. The United States was the third largest donor of aid to Zaire (after Belgium and France), and Mobutu befriended several US presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Relations did cool significantly in 1974–1975 over Mobutu's increasingly radical rhetoric (which included his scathing denunciations of American foreign policy), and plummeted to an all-time low in the summer of 1975, when Mobutu accused the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting his overthrow and arrested eleven senior Zairian generals and several civilians, and condemned (in absentia) a former head of the Central Bank (Albert Ndele). However, many people viewed these charges with skepticism; in fact, one of Mobutu's staunchest critics, Nzongola-Ntalaja, speculated that Mobutu invented the plot as an excuse to purge the military of talented officers who might otherwise pose a threat to his rule. In spite of these hindrances, the chilly relationship quickly thawed when both countries found each other supporting the same side during the Angolan Civil War.
Because of Mobutu's poor human rights record, the Carter Administration put some distance between itself and the Kinshasa government; even so, Zaire received nearly half the foreign aid Carter allocated to sub-Saharan Africa. During the first Shaba invasion, the United States played a relatively inconsequential role; its belated intervention consisted of little more than the delivery of non-lethal supplies. But during the second Shaba invasion, the US played a much more active and decisive role by providing transportation and logistical support to the French and Belgian paratroopers that were deployed to aid Mobutu against the rebels. Carter echoed Mobutu's (unsubstantiated) charges of Soviet and Cuban aid to the rebels, until it was apparent that no hard evidence existed to verify his claims. In 1980, the US House of Representatives voted to terminate military aid to Zaire, but the US Senate reinstated the funds, in response to pressure from Carter and American business interests in Zaire.
Mobutu enjoyed a very warm relationship with the Reagan Administration, through financial donations. During Reagan's presidency, Mobutu visited the White House three times, and criticism of Zaire's human rights record by the US was effectively muted. During a state visit by Mobutu in 1983, Reagan praised the Zairian strongman as "a voice of good sense and goodwill."
Mobutu also had a cordial relationship with Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush; he was the first African head of state to visit Bush at the White House. Even so, Mobutu's relationship with the US radically changed shortly afterward with the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union gone, there was no longer any reason to support Mobutu as a bulwark against communism. Accordingly, the US and other Western powers began pressuring Mobutu to democratize the regime. Regarding the change in US attitude to his regime, Mobutu bitterly remarked: "I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the US. The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing." In 1993, Mobutu was denied a visa by the US State Department after he sought to visit Washington, DC.
In May 1990, due to the ending of the Cold War and a change in the international political climate, as well as economic problems and domestic unrest, Mobutu agreed to end the ban on other political parties. He appointed a transitional government that would lead to promised elections but he retained substantial powers. Following riots in Kinshasa by unpaid soldiers, Mobutu brought opposition figures into a coalition government but he still connived to retain control of the security services and important ministries. Factional divisions led to the creation of two governments in 1993, one pro and one anti-Mobutu. The anti-Mobutu government was headed by Laurent Monsengwo and Étienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. The economic situation was still dreadful, and, in 1994, the two groups joined as the High Council of Republic – Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT). Mobutu appointed Kengo Wa Dondo, an advocate of austerity and free-market reforms, as prime minister. Mobutu was becoming increasingly physically frail and during one of his absences for medical treatment in Europe, Tutsis captured much of eastern Zaire.
When Mobutu's government issued an order in November 1996 forcing Tutsis to leave Zaire on penalty of death, the ethnic Tutsis in Zaire, known as Banyamulenge, were the focal point of a rebellion. From eastern Zaire, the rebels and foreign government forces under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defense Paul Kagame launched an offensive to overthrow Mobutu, joining forces with locals opposed to him under Laurent-Désiré Kabila as they marched west toward Kinshasa. Burundi also supported the growing rebellion, which mushroomed into the First Congo War.
By mid-1997, Kabila's forces resumed their advance, and the remains of Mobutu's army offered almost no resistance. On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks held in Pointe-Noire on board the South African Navy ship SAS Outeniqua with Kabila and President of South Africa Nelson Mandela (who chaired the talks), Mobutu fled into exile. Kabila's forces, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), proclaimed victory the next day. The AFDL would have completely overrun the country far sooner if not for the country's decrepit infrastructure. In several areas, no paved roads existed; the only vehicle paths were irregularly used dirt roads. Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mobutu had the remains of assassinated Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana stored in a mausoleum in Gbadolite. On 12 May 1997, as Kabila's rebels were advancing on Gbadolite, Mobutu had the remains flown by cargo plane from his mausoleum to Kinshasa where they waited on the tarmac of N'djili Airport for three days. On 16 May, the day before Mobutu fled Zaire, Habyarimana's remains were burned under the supervision of an Indian Hindu leader.
Mobutu went into temporary exile in Togo but lived mostly in Morocco. He died on 7 September 1997, in Rabat, Morocco, from prostate cancer. He is buried in Rabat, in the Christian cemetery known as "Pax".
In December 2007, the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of the Congo recommended returning his remains to see the Work of the Congo and interring them in a mausoleum.
Mobutu was married twice. His first wife, Marie-Antoinette Mobutu, died of heart failure on 22 October 1977 in Genolier, Switzerland, at the age of 36. On 1 May 1980, he married his mistress, Bobi Ladawa, on the eve of a visit by Pope John Paul II, thus legitimizing his relationship in the eyes of the Church. Two of his sons from his first marriage died during his lifetime, Nyiwa (d. 16 September 1994) and Konga (d. 1992). Two more died in the years following his death: Kongulu (d. 24 September 1998), and Manda (d. 27 November 2004). His elder son from his second marriage, Nzanga Mobutu Ngbangawe, now the head of the family, was a candidate in the 2006 presidential elections and later served in the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as Minister of State for Agriculture. A daughter, Yakpwa (nicknamed Yaki), was briefly married to a Belgian man named Pierre Janssen, who later wrote a book that described Mobutu's lifestyle in vivid detail.
Altogether, Mobutu had at least twenty-one children:
Mobutu was the subject of the three-part documentary Mobutu, King of Zaire by Thierry Michel. Mobutu was also featured in the feature film Lumumba, directed by Raoul Peck, which detailed the pre-coup and coup years from the perspective of Lumumba. Mobutu featured in the documentary When We Were Kings, which centred around the famed Rumble in the Jungle boxing bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali for the 1974 heavyweight championship of the world. The bout took place in Kinshasa during Mobutu's rule. Mobutu also might be considered as the inspiration behind some of the characters in the works of the poetry of Wole Soyinka, the novel A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, and Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe. William Close, father of actress Glenn Close, was once a personal physician to Mobutu and wrote a book focusing on his service in Zaire. Barbara Kingsolver's 1998 historical novel The Poisonwood Bible depicts the events of the Congo Crisis from a fictional standpoint, featuring the role of Mobutu in the crisis.
Mobutu was infamous for embezzling the equivalent of billions of US dollars from his country. According to the most conservative estimates, he stole US$4–5 billion from his country, and some sources put the figure as high as US$15 billion. According to Mobutu's ex-son-in-law, Pierre Janssen—the ex-husband of Mobutu's daughter Yaki—Mobutu had no concern for the cost of the expensive gifts he gave away to his cronies. Janssen married Yaki in a lavish ceremony that included three orchestras, a US$65,000 wedding cake and a giant fireworks display. Yaki wore a US$70,000 wedding gown and US$3 million worth of jewels. Janssen wrote a book describing Mobutu's daily routine—which included several daily bottles of wine, retainers flown in from overseas and lavish meals.
According to Transparency International, Mobutu embezzled over US$5 billion from his country, ranking him as the third-most corrupt leader since 1984 and the most corrupt African leader during the same period. Philip Gourevitch, in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (1998), wrote:
Mobutu had really staged a funeral for a generation of African leadership of which he—the Dinosaur, as he had long been known—was the paragon: the client dictator of Cold War neocolonialism, monomaniacal, perfectly corrupt, and absolutely ruinous to his nation.
Mobutu also was one of the men who was instrumental in bringing the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to Zaire on 30 October 1974. According to the documentary When We Were Kings, promoter Don King promised each fighter US$5 million for the fight. Mobutu was the only one who was willing to fund such amounts. Mobutu, wanting to expand his country's image, put up the nation's money to do so. According to a quote in the film, Ali supposedly said: "Some countries go to war to get their names out there, and wars cost a lot more than $10 million."
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Joseph Kasa Vubu
as President of the Republic of the Congo
| President of Zaire (before 1971 President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo)
24 November 1965 – 16 May 1997
as President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo