4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A grimly entertaining account of an African kleptocrat,
This review is from: In The Footsteps Of Mr Kurtz. Living On The Brink Of Disaster In The Congo (Hardcover)
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...