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on 6 November 2017
Informative and entertaining. One of the best books I've read about Africa, and I've read quite a few. The author perfectly captures the essence of Africa, and deals with the troubled country of Congo in an engaging way. A real page turner; I'll definitely be reading more of Wrong's work!
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on 27 November 2017
Fascinating bit of history- very similar to the recent Zimbabwe saga. Well written and easy reading.
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on 6 December 2017
Definitely a recommended read.
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on 18 April 2017
To put this all in perspective we have to understand the time and place that lead to the instalment of Mobutu. In the late 50s and early 60s Americans had recently come out of a decade of feverish McCarthyism and still had the bogey man of communism looming and the possible domino effect. The Congo lies literally at the heart of Africa and has no less than nine neighbouring countries, so the Americans were thinking ahead, though probably not thinking hard enough. No doubt the country’s vast mineral wealth was also a consideration, after all over 80% of the uranium in the nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from the Congo. The thought of the USSR getting access to that alone must have caused some anxiety.

So in 1960 when the newly independent Congo had democratically elected one, Patrice Lumumba American concerns were raised. The Soviets had been trying to infiltrate the Congo for a while and Lumumba had contact with them, even though he found colonialism and communism equally deplorable, fears of Soviet influence grew stronger. After previous failed plots, the CIA eventually succeeded along with help from the Belgians in “neutralising” him. His remains were allegedly chopped up and dissolved in sulphuric acid. The killing of Lumumba paved the way for Mobutu, the CIA’s favoured candidate.

This book makes heavy reference to “King Leopold’s Ghost” and the author freely admits and credits the highly influential work. I would say that this book makes an ideal pairing with it, both of them help build quite a vivid and picture of the Congo from Free State, Zaire to the so called DRC status of today and if you are really keen, might I recommend “Radio Congo” by Ben Lawrence, which covers slightly different terrain.

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (The all powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake) as he re-named himself, in many ways was like a cartoon baddie from a far-fetched movie. He seemed just a little too outrageous to be true. “Go ahead and steal, as long as you don’t take too much.” He once said. CIA man Devlin said of him, “He was a political genius, but an economic spastic.” Mobutu claimed to have only had $6 to his name back in 1959, but by the end of his life he had stashed away between $4 billion and $14 billion, depending who we believe or as many think, he was actually close to being broke?....

In 1971 Mobutu started his process of Zaireanisation, Congo would be known as Zaire, the abacost would be chosen over a tie, Lingala the language over French. Foreign owned farms were turned over to the sons of the country, radicalisation in which the largely Belgian controlled industrial sector was confiscated. “The result was an obscene scramble for freebies by the burgeoning Zairean elite. Thousands of businesses, totalling around $1 Billion in value, were divided between top officials in the most comprehensive nationalisation seen in Africa.” The was also the era where the Congo hosted the Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight boxing tie between Foreman and Ali in 1974. It was also during this period that Mobutu went onto build the doomed Gbadolite complex, the so called Versaille of the Jungle, though today it resembles more an African Pripyat. He ploughed billions into this complex in the far north, that included a runway big enough to accommodate Concorde as well as installing a nuclear bunker amongst many other outlandish and superfluous features.

Erwin Blumenthal, a German bean counter was eventually brought into evaluate Mobutu’s financial state and he ended up sleeping with a gun beneath his pillow after uncovering the extent of the financial irregularities. At one stage inflation was at a staggering 9,800% . “Between the start of the Zairean economic crisis in 1975 and Mobutu’s departure in 1997, Zaire received a total of $9.3 billion in foreign aid.” Leading the way were the World Bank and IMF, who did what they often do in poor countries, they intervene, make reckless decisions in their single minded bid to serve US business interests and political agendas and consequently made the problem bigger and then pulled out far too late.

Mobutu consistently played the western governments of France, Belgium and US against each other to great effect and some of the stunts he pulled off in his manipulation are simply staggering. In spite of his well known grand theft Reagan received him and insisted, “A voice of good sense and good will.” George H W Bush greeted him as “One of our most valued friends.” So it is worth remembering that the scale of this kleptocracy would have not been possible if not for the sustained support of Washington financiers granting billions to a world renowned thief and the assistance of the dark and sinister Swiss banking system who helped keep it safe.

This book is prone to jumping around a bit, but these jumps can lead to some interesting asides, it allows Wrong to touch on some other aspects of life in the Congo, such as the cult of Kimbanguism, the Lingala music scene, the fashion obsessed youngsters who favour dancing and posing over politics and war, or the Kongo Kingdom movement lead by the eccentric King Mizele. In the end after all the Western parasites had ran away and left him, it took the AFDL (Coalition of four rebel movements set up in 1996 with the aim of bringing down Mobutu) to affect meaningful change in the Congo, though it was prostate cancer that ended up taking Mobutu at the age of 66.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 5 March 2016
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 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 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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VINE VOICEon 12 May 2007
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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