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on 19 December 2000
Congo is possibly the hardest country in the world to write about, and Michela Wrong has spoken to hundreds of people across the world as well as living in the place for years and come up with an account that isn't sentimental or finger-wagging or scornful. It's fascinating, moving and often funny. It's about everything in the Congo: the craze for Western fashions among very poor men, how the super-rich live, how Mobuto could hang on for 35 years and why there doesn't seem any hope of improvement. Books on Africa are rare nowadays, but perhaps because they demand so much effort to write, they tend to be labours of love and thus excellent.
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on 18 September 2012
Interesting book. The body of the book creates a pretty harsh (but realistic) image of what Mobutu was, only for Michela to make a somewhat contradictory analysis of the man's billions and who is responsible for the pillage of the Congo over Mobutu's 32 year rule.

I found the similarities of Mobutu's past regime and Mugabe (of Zimbabwe)'s regime fascinating. Mobutu's drive for indigenization constituting little more than approval to loot the country by politicians and their families and being of little benefit to the average Zairean in the street. The need for constant access to easy funds to keep a corrupt system running - starting off with the looting of the central bank by printing of money (resulting in hyperinflation) & the following of absurd economic policies. Another tool which Mobutu used to fund his regime was the looting of state mining companies such as Gecamines & MIBA, which the Zimbabwean government now seems to do through the Zimbabwean Mining Development Corporation and the exploitation of the Marange diamond fields.

This book also highlights the amazing phenomenon of how previously oppressed liberation leaders seem to mimic the characteristics and attributes of their previous oppressors. Most important lesson from this book is that it shows that not even the Papa of the most African of African countries was immune from facing justice. Mobutu may have never been held to account through a court but he died an undignified death, is buried in an alien land, his family living as exiles relying on the hospitality of a foreign government & the only people who truly seem to have profited from his corruption were his political associates who betrayed & criticized him in his moment of need. I wonder, if the young Mobutu who was initially reluctant to take the presidency, would have declined the 32 years of excessive power & wealth if he knew how his reign, life and legacy would end.

This book would be of great use to the current Big Vegetables in regimes across Africa (such as Zimbabwe). As Michela points out, the blame for the state of these countries no longer solely lies in their colonial past and in Western powers - it is time for Africans to start taking responsibility for their own country's destiny and for them to start shaping their own future or else they will continue to exist in a constant state of national underachievement.

Again, fantastic reading. Insightful book - would recommend to anyone interested in reading about a fascinating chapter in Africa's recent history.
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on 3 May 2006
The Congo basin is the most cruelly raped part of Africa. It and its immediate northern and southern neighbors were the principal source of slaves for the American plantations. In colonial times, Belgian Congo suffered more than all the other African territories from the harshness of colonialism, a legacy that was carried over to the 1960s when efforts at liberation led to the independence of many African countries. That contemporary legacy of misrule, the fomentation of ethnic strife and genocide is what is haunting the land today, and the Belgian king Leopold played a crucial role in bequeathing that horrible legacy. The genocide in Rwanda and the strife in Burundi are all parts of the legacy. French genocidal legacy abound in Cameroon, Algeria etc. German legacy is felt in Namibia. DISCIPLES OF FORTUNE, LE GENOCIDE FRANCO-AFRICAIN,WHEN VICTIMS BECOME KILLERS, THE HERERO REBELLION IN SOUTH WEST AFRICA , THE TROUBLED HEART OF AFRICA are some of the books that provide an insight into the plague.

Who should be blamed for seed of ethnic strife and genocidal tendencies that has been planted in Africa? Is it the fault of some of those former colonial masters who have not changed their ways and support the African leaders with the evil disposition who have hijacked their nations? On the other hand, is it the inherent fault of the Africans who fail as masses to liberate themselves from the horrible legacies?
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There are two names that the mention of ‘The Congo’ might conjure. One is the fictional Kurtz, the renegade colonial administrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the other, the all too real and much larger than life character, Mobutu Seke Seso, or just ‘Mobutu’, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1997. The book is mostly about life in the shadow of the man who styled himself on the leopard and how ordinary people were forced to cope. But it is also interested in the character of the man himself. It wants to get beyond denunciations and try to understand what made him tick.

In dealing with ordinary life, it presents some fine, compelling accounts. Portraits that struck me were of paraplegic entrepreneurs and the hard-up dandies, the Sapeurs (featured in a recent ad for Guinness beer), men who spend an inordinate sum of money to dress well and look good. The paraplegic entrepreneurs can count on no support from the state or public sympathy but this does not diminish their inventiveness. They invented tricycles that can be steered with hands alone. The Sapeurs show that they are not indulging in extravagance; their need to stand out from the crowd is not an expression of self-centred egocentrism but an assertion of dignity.

This is not trotting out old clichés to suggest straightened circumstances are great to bring out the best in people. There is the tale of the hospital that charges patients to be treated and forces them to stay in the hospital until they pay the charges. But, as the medical director explains, there is little choice in a country with no properly funded healthcare system. What else can they do? The country is not governed. It is not, in a sense, even ruled. To be ruled suggests at least some sort of bureaucratic predictability and rationality but such features are non-existent. So groups like the paraplegic entrepreneurs have to devise their own rules. This is what it means when there is no politics in the normal sense of peaceful if messy and imperfect trade-offs between competing interests. It should put our own governance failures like the parliamentary expenses scandal into some sort of perspective.

But it is also a fascinating portrait of Mobutu, constructed from his son and others who knew him. He was no psychopath and could form attachments to people he cared about. It hardly excuses him for the damage he did to his own country but it is too easy to write a book collecting examples of how egregiously awful he was. His extravagance was outlandish, grotesquely so, but, traces of the fortune he had amassed could not be found after his death. Not, contrary to what had been believed, because he had squirreled it away but because he had spent much of it greasing the wheels of rule, appeasing the various regional strongmen with largess, in order to keep the country together. It was a rickety, rotten sort of order but it was a kind of order nonetheless.

The question is why the country produced such a ruler. Perhaps habits of indifference and apathy learned during a particularly brutal colonial history can be fingered, or Western support for Mobutu, or cultural acceptance of rule by the big men, or maybe a combination of these things. There are no easy answers, not ones that can enable us to draw universally applicable rules as to why some countries sloughed off colonialism and thrive and others stagnate or even regress. After all, despite the undoubted brutality of Belgian rule, the colonialists bequeathed to the Congo, at independence, some foundations for post-colonial success, like decent infrastructure. The new rulers might have built upon these but did not. Why, one wonders, do countries like Vietnam, a victim of imperialism if there ever was one, enjoy at least some degree of success in raising living standards and some fair measure of effective governance, achievements that seem beyond the reach of the DRC? Like the man and the predator he compared himself to, the country cannot seem to change its spots. The answer eludes the author. Still, for all that, it is a very readable and compelling portrait of the life and times of the man and the country he ruled.
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on 2 January 2002
This brilliantly written, easy to understand account of life in the Congo, is a must for anybody interested in African politics. The book goes way back into the Congo's history, accurately describing the colonnial days in which King Leopold of Belgium presided over the country up to the rise and fall of Mobutu.
Laced with humour, wit, elegance, conspiracy and treachery, it is and interesting read throughout. Not a single page does not have its own little story to tell.
Particularly powerful are the insights into Mobutu's personality and the birth of the leopard and later on his paranoia. Additionally the political intervention from the CIA and other interested parties that would like a hand in the Congo's resources is revealing and the extreme lengths to which they protected their interest is both clever and frightening.
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on 19 September 2000
I was goig to write a review of this most amusing book, but found that Mr. Brokesley had beaten me to it. Following his cogent and penetrating review I find there isn't much left to say. However, in the best tradition of reviewers everywhere, I would like to refer to other parts of the book, which I found to be very entertaining. In the Constitution of a region of Zaire that wanted to secede from Mobutu's Kinshasa government there was an article (article 15) suggesting to anyone who wanted the government's protection or support to "take care of your own business" ("debrouillez-vous"), which essentially the legal form of Mobutu's dictum that corruption was OK so long as it wasn't excessive (President Turbay of Colombia said the same thing in 1978, although he didn't manage to hang around as long as Mobutu did). There is an operating nuclear reactor in Zaire. An enriched uranium core disappeared recently, only to resurface in the hands of the Sicilian mafia. A profet jailed by the Belgians who believed himself to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost created a church complete with hierarchy and miracles and Holy Writ. Mobutu kept twins as lovers, to ward off malignant influences from his defunct first wife's spirit. I agree with Mr. Brokesley that the soul of the story is Mr. Mobutu. A cunning man, he had that rare combination of shamelessness and grandeur. One would need to go back to Mussolini or Napoleon III to find a similar European mindset. He wasn't a psycopath like other African leaders (such as Francisco Macias NGuema, Idi Amin Dada or Jean-Bedel Bokassa), and while he robbed the country of its lifeblood, bringing it back into the middle ages, he did it much more amusingly than other leaders ever did (who ever heard of a good anecdote about Robert Mugabe or Daniel Arap Moi, who are just as big crooks as Mobutu ever was?). Mobutu shared in the spoils of corruption, and allowed even non-family members to take part in the feast. This is much more than other tyrants (such as Somoza, Trujillo, Khadaffi, Saddam Husseim or Suharto) ever did. So, if you ever want to see what happens when the rule of law is absent and all social constraints implode, this is the book for you.
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Michela Wrong has written a very good study of General Mobuto's place in Congolese/Zairois history. Her analysis is as good as that of Frederick Cooper in AFRICA SINCE 1940 and she writes as well as (if not better than) Bill Berkeley in THE GRAVES ARE NOT FULL YET. The mixture of good political reporting and the anecdotes of the impact events have on individuals reminds me of the sort of radio journalism in which Radio 4 specialised. Since Mobuto is generally portrayed as a complete rotter I found her closing section where she talks to one of his sons and to his ex-security adviser provided an excellent counter-point.
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on 7 March 2007
An interesting and well treated story, but what makes me write a review here is the beauty of the sentences which Wrong produces. It's highly unusual in a non-fiction book to see such well crafted language, which simply adds to the enjoyment of a well told history.
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on 9 September 2000
After three decades in power, Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic president of Zaire who died in exile three years ago this month (September 1997), came to personify corruption. And his country - now called the Democratic Republic of Congo - remains synonymous with Africa's malaise. Yet as Michela Wrong shows in this vivid and engrossing account of a nation's collapse, the roots of this tragedy lie in its colonial past. "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz", along with Adam Hochschild's masterly and compelling account of Belgium's brutal rule - "King Leopold's Ghost", (Papermac, 2000) provides an engrossing insight into why Africa failed to live up to the hopes that accompanied the start of the post-colonial era. Ms Wrong, who began her reporting career with Reuters, served as the international news agency's correspondent in Zaire for a year before joining the Financial Times as the paper's Africa correspondent, covering the collapse and flight of Mobutu. But for all her acerbic comments about the role of the United States and its poodles at the time - the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both ever obliging in providing the loans that helped buy Mobutu's loyalty during the Cold War - Ms Wrong has not written a handwringing account of the evils of the West. Nor is she ever patronising about the continent, or sanctimonious about its shortcomings. Instead she has written a balanced and sharply observant portrait of a society and a system in which a host a characters demonstrate an indominatable capacity to survive. The book is studded with deft, often grimly amusing accounts of this daily battle, at almost every level of humanity apart from Mobutu himself and the country's elite, known as the Grandes Legumes (Big Vegetables). Enterprising cripples turn their status as social outcasts to their advantage, operating as malodorous smugglers on the river ferry between Kinshasa and Brazzaville whom customs officers shrink from searching; valiant, hardpressed and hardheaded staff at Kinshasa's desperately under-funded hospital imprison patients - and hold on to their cadavers if they die - as security against unpaid medical bills; and then there are the "sapeurs", the followers of high fashion, who scorn authority and assert their individuality, strutting across makeshift stages to the rhythm of some of Africa's greatest musicians. It is the charismatic and complex Mobutu, however, who dominates and ruins their lives. His search for what he called African "authenticity" was driven by an instinctive understanding of the need to repair the psychological damage done to the continent by successive traumas - the slave trade, the carve up of Africa at the Berlin Conference, and the impact of the colonial era. Instinct was not enough. He invited ridicule with the imposition of an absurd dress code - suits were abolished and replaced by a collarless ersatz outfit, while Citizen and Citoyenne became the required form of address under a spurious egalitarian regime. But it was Mobutu's nationalisation of the economy in the mid-1970s that became a catastrophe from which the country never recovered. For me, the abiding image of Mobutu is not the conventional one: the dark-glassed dictator with his leopard-skin hat, ornately carved walking stick, chartered Concordes, chateaux in France and bank accounts in Switzerland - drained by the cost of running a system based on presidential patronage. Instead the image that prevails is that of an ageing and isolated figure, wracked by cancer, marooned in his extravagant palace in his home vilage of Gbadolite. It was here that he sought solace, brooding over his failure, living in a monument to bad taste. He furnished the palace with the kitsch of Europe, banishing the culture of the Africa he once proclaimed and e championed. Mobutu ended his 32 years in power behind a facade as phoney as his elaborate cravats, which as Ms Wrong reveals, were prefolded concoctions with Velcro attachments. Today Gbadolite is occupied by rebel soldiers, attempting to overthrow his successor, Laurent Kabila, a political pygmy following in the footsteps of a deeply flawed giant. But it nevertheless still stands as a symbol of Mobutu Sese Seko's devasating diservice to Africa...
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on 30 August 2000
Michela has done an outstanding job of Mobutu's downfall. "On the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz" is written with grace, humour and a passion for the absurd detail of Zairean life. This is the book to read as a modern complement to "King Leopold's Ghost". One wishes Michela now got an assignment in Angola.
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