Mobutu Sese Seko (1930-1997) was the second president of the Congo (at one time called Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), taking office in late 1965.
Mobutu Sese Seko was born Joseph Désiré Mobutu on Oct. 14, 1930, at Lisala. (He later abandoned those names in favor of African names.) Although his ascendancy was Ngbandi (a non-Bantu tribe of Sudanese origin), he grew up among the Bantu-speaking riverine peoples of the Congo who are commonly referred to as Bangala. He attended a secondary school run by Catholic missionaries at Coquilhatville (later Mbandaka) and after being dismissed for insubordination was drafted into the Force Publique in 1950.
Because of his educational qualifications, Mobutu was trained as a noncommissioned officer and given a desk job as an accountant. He also tried his hand at journalism by writing a few pieces for army periodicals, and when he left the Force Publique in 1956, he became a stringer and then a regular staffer in Léopoldville, rising to the post of editor of the weekly Actualités Africaines. He received further training at the official Congo Information Office and then at a Brussels school of journalism.
During that period, Mobutu met Patrice Lumumba and became his representative in Belgium, while reportedly serving as an informer for the Belgian security police. Lumumba brought him back to the Congo in 1960, made him a presidential aide, and raised him to the rank of colonel and chief of staff of the Congolese army.
Within 2 months of his appointment, Mobutu used his position to unseat Lumumba and to install the College of Commissioners, made up of graduate students (Sept. 20, 1960). Mobutu consolidated his hold over a segment of the army, particularly over a commando battalion which he organized with the help of a right-wing Moroccan general serving in the UN force, turning it into a praetorian guard to control the capital city. He was instrumental in the decision to turn Lumumba over to the Katanga regime and thus bears a major responsibility for the death of the man who had been his political protector.
Thereafter, Mobutu concentrated his efforts on reunifying the fragmented army under his command and even managed to have Moïse Tshombe subscribe to his nominal paramountcy over Katanga forces after securing his release from the brief captivity into which the secessionist leader had allowed himself to be ensnared (June-July 1961).
Although civilian rule was officially restored in August 1961 under Premier Cyrille Adoula, Mobutu remained a major power broker. The army's position—and indirectly that of Mobutu—became seriously weakened as a result of its disastrous performance in attempting to control the Congo rebellion in 1963-1965. When Tshombe returned to the Congo as prime minister, Mobutu supported his decision to make use of foreign military support (foreign technicians had in any case been working with the Congolese army since 1960); and he maintained this position when Joseph Kasavubu, sensing international hostility to the presence of white mercenaries in the Congo, announced his intention to dismiss them in October 1965.
On Nov. 25, 1965, the army took power (officially for a period of 5 years), and Mobutu became president. Rather than follow Tshombe's policy of open subservience to Western interests, however, Mobutu assumed—at least initially—a nationalistic pose, rehabilitated Lumumba's memory, and challenged Belgian economic control of the Katanga mining industry. His confrontation with the Union Minière eventually led to a face-saving compromise, and his attempts to organize a mass party under the name of MPR (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution) turned out to be somewhat less than impressive, but he was successful in beating back all attempts to unseat him.
Two such attempts (aiming at Tshombe's restoration) took the form of mutiny by Katanga forces and white mercenaries, leading to the latter group's final expulsion from the Congo at the end of 1967. Thereafter, the Mobutu regime gradually inflected its course in a conservative direction (as witnessed by the October 1968 execution of rebel leader Pierre Mulele, who had returned to the Congo following assurances of amnesty) and had to face growing disaffection and unrest on the part of student circles.
Diplomatically, Mobutu tried to strengthen the Congo's influence on the African scene. He was consistently favorable to the United States and indeed was often accused of rising to power with CIA help and of being a Trojan horse for American influence in central Africa. In December 1971 he changed his country's name to Zaïre.
Like Stalin in the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Mobutu consolidated his power by developing a cult of his own personality. Pictures of him were printed by the tens of thousands and sent to every part of the country. His every word was recorded; his was the only official voice to speak for Zaire; orchestrated crowds cheered his speeches; and the Zairian media, all of it state censored, sang his praises and enlarged his stature in an unceasing bombardment. As historian Michael Schatzberg noted, "Scarcely a day passed when the press did not hail even his most banal activities as the magnanimous paternal gestures of a man intent only on the well being of his children, the people of Zaire. Zairian television began its broadcasts with a surrealistic vision of Mobutu descending from the cloud-filled heavens."
Mobutu beat back threats from outside Zaire in the 1970s that took the form of invasions from Shaba (formerly Katanga) Province by rebels, some of whom were former Tshombe supporters from the independence era; others were refugees from Mobutu's terror. Mobutu almost lost control of the mining districts for a while in 1978 during a second rebel offensive, and again was forced to offer vocal anti-Communist sentiments in order to obtain aid from American President Jimmy Carter, who was repelled by Mobutu's cynical approach to human rights.
Mobutu mishandled his nation's economy almost from the beginning. Once secure in power, he tried to exploit Zaire's natural mineral riches, but he and his backers lacked the personnel, infrastructure, and business ethos to make it work. Even worse, his decision in 1973 to nationalize all other economic assets owned by foreigners led to a catastrophic decline in national productivity and wealth. Humiliated by his financial woes, Mobutu returned farms and factories to their original owners, but a fall in the world price of copper further devasted the Zairian economy.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Mobutu grew ever more entrenched and corrupt and ever more suspicious of attempts to liberalize his rule. He made some halfhearted concessions toward free speech and democracy in the early '90s, but was unable to yield any real power.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the breakdown of order in Burundi that began in 1993 indirectly helped cause Mobutu's final downfall. More than one million refugees fled into Zaire's eastern border regions, unsettling the local population and reviving dormant feuds. Out of this uncertainty another rebellion emerged led by the enigmatic Laurent Kabila. This rebel movement proved surprisingly successful and in mid-1997 succeeded in pushing to the outskirts of the capital. Kabila became president and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mobutu, ailing with prostate cancer (he had undergone surgery on August 22, 1996) fled with his family and close supporters to Togo. On September 7, 1997, about four months after he left the Congo, Mobutu died in Morocco.
Mobutu's long hold on power had disastrous consequences for his people. The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka referred to Mobutu as Africa's leading "toad king," a monarchical ruler who lived in grotesque splendor while his people starved. Mobutu's Zaire was also the distressing model for novelist V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River (1979), a chilling account of life in an African dictatorship. Indeed, it would be hard to think of Zaire under Mobutu as a developing country. Rather, it was a deteriorating society held together only by the iron-fisted and corrupt rule of its dictator.
Further Reading on Mobutu Sese Seko
Studies of Motubu and his place in Congolese politics and history are in Michael Schatzberg, Mobuto or Chaos? The United States & Zaire, 1960-1990 (1991); Alan P. Merriam, Congo: Background of Conflict (1961); Catherine Hoskyns, The Congo since Independence, January 1960-December 1961 (1965); and Crawford Young, Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence (1965). Events surrounding Mobutu's fall are covered in Peter Rosemblum, "Endgame in Zaire," Current History, May 1997; R.W. Apple Jr., "U.S. Influence Over Zaire Appears Limited," the New York Times (May 17, 1997); and "How New a Man is Kabila?," the Economist (May 24, 1997).