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Mobutu: Autocrat, Kleptocrat, and Friend of the West
on 16 December 2012
Mobutu Sese Seko Ngbendu Kuku Wa Za Banga, Zaire's strongman for thirty years was a larger-than-life autocrat. His name, which means 'the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake', struck fear into the hearts of his enemies. He was charismatic leader, student of Machiavelli, wily politician and kleptocrat per excellence. I have always been fascinated by this dictator who hosted the famous 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. I bought 'In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz' as an introduction to Mobutu. Who was he? How did he rise to power? And how did he maintain power for so long? Thankfully, Michela Wrong did not disappoint in answering these questions.
Wrong's account of the times of 'The Leopard' (as Mobutu liked to be addressed) is thoroughly enjoyable. She provides a detailed narrative - based on interviews with Mobutu's allies. The plot of the book is straight forward. She argues that while Mobutu robbed his country blind, it would be amiss to blame only Mobutu for the state of Zaire. Other important dramatis personae in Zaire's saga are Belgium, the United States, France and the venal Zairean elite.
1. BELGIUM. 'A none-too-impressive European nation' (pg. 196) with pretensions to empire, seeking to maintain a toe-hold of influence in a former colony. Before Mobutu, Belgium had pillaged and raped the Congo. Belgium's embrace of Congo had started with the ambitions of Leopold II. This corrupt, contemptible brute had instituted near industrial scale torture and brutality in his bid to extract the country's resources. He so thoroughly mistreated native Congolese in his quest for lucre that - even by the standards of the 1900s - he was forced to cede control of Congo to the Belgian State. Belgium then continued where Leopold II had left off. They refused to develop a cadre of administrators that could run the country. At independence, therefore, Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, had only 17 university graduates. According to Ms. Wrong, we cannot understand Mobutu without understanding Congo's deplorable colonial heritage. Belgium had prepared the stage well before Mobutu made his entrance.
2. WESTERN(U.S., French and Belgian) COLD WAR MACHINATIONS. Where did Mobutu get money from? The answer, mostly from Western allies.The United States and France were all too happy to lend Mobutu hundreds of millions of dollars as long as they were assured that he would be a bulwark against the spread of Communism on the Continent. Mobutu, the wily politician, became adept at extracting money from anxious Western powers, playing them off against one another. Did the Western powers know that Mobutu was pilfering the money while indebting his country? Of course. When interviewed by Ms. Wrong, many former IMF and World Bank staffers said everyone (Mobutu, the Western governments) had agreed to play the I-will-pretend-not-to-notice-as-long-as-you-don't-blush game. Funny, sad, but true.
3. A VENAL ZAIREAN ELITE. What did Mobutu do with all that stolen wealth? He bought houses, lived lavishly and greased a patronage system that makes the Nigerian system look amateurish in comparison. It is easy to blame Mobutu now, but Mobutu distributed the spoils quite liberally to a rapacious, venal Zairean elite.
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is a sympathetic portrayal of Mobutu. Her disdain for the former colonial power, U.S. policies and the Zairean elite are palpable. Mobutu comes across as the muscular leopard who did not notice the world change around him and who was finally devoured by the pack of ferile dogs, whom he had once protected. Her narrative is refreshing and engaging. It is a corrective to the voices that portray Congo as 'The Heart of Darkness'; a place were humanity is in the state of nature and incorrigibly destined to exercise its basest instincts. Ms. Wrong contends that such generalisations - common in popular press accounts - are shallow, self-serving and ignorant. My main criticism of the book is that it is 'expatriatist'; the views and complexities of Mobutu's rule as experienced by Zaireans is largely missing. Nevertheless, it is a well-written book. If you are looking for an introduction to the times of Mobutu, then 'In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz' is a good place to start. As such, it deserves three stars.