Michela Wrong In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo
On April 6th, 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprian Ntayamira, was shot down outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali. This was the trigger for the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide. For years, extremists within Habyarimana's own Hutu community had been carefully planning their own Final Solution for the country's minority Tutsi community (whose rule of the region predated the Belgian colonialism that would deepen the ethnic cleavages) by radicalizing their own population through propaganda and the formation of Hutu Power ethnic militias (known as the interahamwe. Within 100 days nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus lay dead, the realization of Hutu Power's vision of their nation as a vast necropolis. At the same time a Tutsi-dominated rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was plowing across the country from their base in Uganda. Their ultimate victory sent two million Hutus over the border into Zaire, as the Hutu leaders took much of their own community with them.
The nation they arrived in, Zaire, was then in its thirty-fourth year of independence from Belgium. Its president, Mobutu Sésé Seko, had been in power for twenty-nine years at that point, a fixed constellation in the constantly shifting skies of African power. A champion of Cold War realpolitik, for decades he had been granted a free hand by outside powers to treat Congo/Zaire as his own personal piggy-bank as long as he kept his vast nation free of Communist infiltration. And there were certainly rich pickings to be had. Covering an area the size of Western Europe, encompassing vast linguistic and ethnic heterogeneity, and containing almost unimaginable natural riches, the Congo was one of the most absurdly fraudulent 'nations' to be conjured forth by the European colonial carve-up of Africa.
In the late 19th century the King of Belgium, Leopold II, was becoming increasingly concerned as his more powerful European neighbors expanded their overseas colonial empires. Despite being monarch of a small nation rent with internal divisions Leopold was a man of great ambition. Seeing the Dutch, French, Portuguese, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and, above all, British empires spread across the earth like a virus made Leopold greatly determined that the Belgians, and one Belgian in particular, himself, would not miss out on the grand feast. His eyes eventually alighted on the basin of the River Congo, the southern shore of which would ultimately form the northern boundary of his own personal colony, the Congo Free State. Through what must rank as one of history's most successful manipulations, he managed to get the other European powers to agree to him, not the Belgian state, becoming the sole owner of nearly a million square miles of land that contained around 20-30 million new 'subjects'.
What initially seemed a lunatic acquisition, a guarantee of bankrupting himself, quickly made Leopold unfathomably rich because of his ability to provide, from his new colony, enormous quantities of a substance that the industrial world was developing an insatiable appetite for: rubber. The Congo, which Leopold never personally visited, was transformed into a vast work camp by his Belgian lieutenants. With their salaries heavily weighted towards commissions these men, and their local allies in the dreaded Force Publique, unleashed a reign of terror on the land, with a final death toll from murder, starvation, disease, and over-work in the millions. Estimates on the number of Africans who died during this period range from three million up to over twenty million (Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is the finest book I've read on the Congo Free State, puts the number of dead at ten million).
It was in this apocalyptic milieu that Joseph Conrad set his novel The Heart of Darkness, his ode to the corruption wreaked by the absolute power wielded by the colonialist. News of the horrors occurring within Leopold's private domain slowly leaked out, sparking a massive outcry in the West, particularly within Britain. This reaction was a crucial milestone in the development of the modern international human rights movement. For more information on that time period, I highly recommend reading Hochschild's book. In 1908 the Belgian state officially annexed the Congo from their King. Although the most egregiously murderous practices were discontinued the Congo remained a means for Belgium to fill its pockets, with only minimal direct development and investment occurring in the territory. For decades this system continued, more or less quietly, until events in the 1950's overtook the Belgians. The 1950's saw the great flowering of African anti-imperialist movements, as Africans started to rise against European colonialism and win their independence, led by Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, which, in 1956, became the first black African state to gain its independence from European colonialism (Ethiopia and Liberia had never been colonized).
Rioting and mass protests hit the previously quiescent Congo. The Belgians, non-plussed, decided to pull the plug and get out as quickly as possible. The country they left contained, astonishingly, a mere 14 Africans with university degrees. Chaos soon engulfed the country. The black soldiers of the Force Publique rebelled against their white officers, who had stayed on after independence. With the support of Belgian mining interests the mineral-rich southern province of Katanga seceded. The Kasai province then followed their lead. UN peacekeepers and white mercenaries (hired by the mining concerns) began to pour into the country. The Congo was collapsing. The first Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, a spellbinding orator and principal hero of the independence movement, was simply overwhelmed and began casting about for help. One of the places he turned was the Soviet Union, an action that, in all likelihood, sealed his fate. The government was seized by Mobutu, head of the army, in a coup d'état and Lumumba was handed over to the Katangan rebels, who shot him, an event that, and this is a topic of great controversy, may or may not have been know about or even green lighted by the CIA.
Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, as he was known at birth, is the center of the book and, really, the center of modern Congolese history. Mercurial, brilliant, and unwaveringly venal, he relentlessly squandered the gifts given both to him and his nation. He was born in 1930 in Lisala, a river-side town in the center of the nation. A member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, who were considered sous-evolué (under-evolved) by the Belgians, he carried a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life about his humble origins. A brilliant student and athlete at the Catholic school he attended, he also showed signs of his later capacity for trouble. Kicked out of school and forced into the Force Publique, he quickly ascended the ranks, becoming the head of the army under Lumumba. Soon, though, he was in charge of the entire nation, having stabbed his increasingly erratic friend in the back.
Propped up by the United States, France, and Belgium, all with their own reasons for supporting his rule, he would be the undisputed boss for decades. During this time he would become the poster boy for the worst ills of post-colonial Africa's cult of the Big Man. The rot set in slowly, but by the time Wrong arrived as a foreign correspondent in 1993 Zaire (as Mobutu had renamed the nation) was a pariah, its people in dire straits, its economy collapsed, and all elements of normal economic life turned completely inside out by corruption. For a time though, Mobutu had been the lord of all he surveyed. For ending the civil wars and pulling the nation back from the brink of outright collapse Mobutu was considered a hero by both the Congolese people and appreciative Western business and political interests.
His star never shone brighter than in the early 1970’s, when his ‘authenticity’ campaign was in full flow. The ‘authenticity movement’, born in 1971, was, as Mobutu declared to mass rallies, an attempt to modernize the nation that was to be driven by the revival of ancestral values, not the aping of European ideas and conventions. This was when the Congo became Zaire and Leopoldville became Kinshasa, and thousands of other European-inspired place-names were Africanized. In an echo of some of the things that he had seen on his tours of North Korea and Maoist China, Mobutu declared that the Zairean people should throw off their European garments and choose more ‘authentic’ clothes. For men, this meant the ‘abacost’ (from ‘à bas le costume’ or ‘down with the suit’), a high-collared jacket that Mobutu himself created. For women, African wraps (pagnes) replaced European skirts. Quickly though, problems emerged. Without any strong voices within the government to shape authenticity into a coherent ideology, it became muddled and warped into Mobutuism, a personality cult. This is where it failed. Zaire was simply too anarchic, the government’s control of the citizenry too weak, the people themselves too cynical, to establish a personality cult on the lines of Maoism.
By the middle of the 1970’s ‘authenticity’ had failed in its goal of creating a spiritually revived Zaire, and the nation entered a period of rudderlessness and decline. This was heavily compounded by ‘Zaireanization’, as Mobutu entitled his program of nationalization of private agricultural and industrial concerns. Begun in 1973, this program promised to turn over to ‘the sons of the nation’ businesses owned and run by foreigners (mostly Belgians, Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, and Pakistanis), while fairly compensating the owners. This was the theory. In practice, it turned into a free for all for Mobutu and his cronies in the ruling Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution party.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the situation in Zimbabwe over the last five or six years can guess what happened next. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe ordered the seizure of white-owned commercial farms, the nation’s economic mainstay and the source of most of its foreign-currency, for redistribution among the black majority. In theory, some kind of redistribution of the land was probably necessary, but in practice it turned into a spoils share-out among Mugabe’s sycophants who, being city dwellers to a man, have proved signally unable, or unwilling, to run their newly acquired properties, with the result that a nation that was once called ‘the breadbasket of Southern Africa’ has seen the return of mass hunger on an enormous scale. Thirty years before a similar drama played out to the north, in Zaire, as the MPR custodians of much of the nation’s wealth, showing no interest in anything besides lining their own pockets, thieved their way to a dramatic economic collapse. By 1977 the situation was so dire that Mobutu was forced to go back to wooing international investors and paying out compensation for the seized businesses in order to slow the precipitous decline into which he had entered the nation.
For the future of the national economy, though, the most dangerous effect of Zaireanization was that it showed the average person that corruption and theft had been endorsed at the very highest level of society.
“The president himself – in a slip made during a speech transmitted live on television – even appeared to articulate the new philosophy, telling employees: ‘Go ahead and steal, as long as you don’t take too much.’ The lesson was not lost on those lower down in the hierarchy, in far greater need of cash than their superiors.” (p. 99)
The results of instilling the hustler mentality as a societal norm were apparent to Wrong in the bleak state of Zaire when she arrived as a foreign correspondent in 1993. Like a plague of Merc-driving termites Mobutu and his cronies had hollowed out the nation’s economy, leaving standing only the barest bones of an economic structure. As perhaps the purest example in history of a kleptocracy in action, the failure of the state to efficiently do much beyond steal meant that, above all else, the average Congolese suffered deeply, and Wrong writes movingly about their struggles for survival, their hustles, their joys and their sorrows. One particularly evocative example of this is the section where Wrong meets the designer fashion obsessives known as les sapeurs. A Kinshasa phenomenon, la sape is the art of male elegance and ostentation, characterized by a deep attachment to designer labels, individualism and never, but never, going un-noticed. Born from the deep frustrations of the ‘authenticity’ era, when a highly individualistic people were expected to conform to Mobutu’s vision of what the people should wear, it grew hand-in-hand with the incredible success of Congolese music throughout Africa and the African diaspora. As Wrong discovers, the devotion of the sapeur to themselves, which can at first glance seem almost unimaginably narcissistic, is, on deeper consideration, oddly heroic, as the sapeur, usually powerless in society, can prove, through his struggle to outfit himself elegantly, that he remains the master of his own destiny in at least one way.
Of course, lurking above all of this was Mobutu himself, his fetid aura of corruption slowly poisoning the country. The asceticism of his early life in the military long forgotten, he lived a life of luxury unimaginable to the average Congolese, hustling to make ends meet. His corruption found its fullest expression in the vast palace he built for himself in Gbadolite, his tiny home village deep in the jungles of the eastern Équateur province. Over seven hundred miles northeast of Kinshasa, Gbadolite was Mobutu’s true home, where he went to be himself and to be with his family. As the years progressed it was where he increasingly retreated to. Of course, a man who had become accustomed to the high life was not going to go off to the middle of the jungle and live in the sort of simple hut in which he had been born. Thus was born his palace, a sort of Versailles in the rain forest. A monumental folly to which he’d invite Western journalists and diplomats, oblivious to their horror at the realization of just where so much Western aid had gone, it was, as Wrong explains with surgical clarity in the tenth chapter, to be where the events that would lead to his final loss of power were set into motion. By the early 1990’s he was spending increasing amounts of time at Gbadolite, far away from the roiling political scene in Kinshasa, where he felt betrayed by the way in which so many people that he had nurtured were now beginning to turn against him. By removing himself from the day to day hustle his hitherto remarkable sense of self-preservation began to dull. Surrounded by a thousand-strong entourage, all greedily sucking up to him in hope of continuing the party, and lulled into relaxation by being back on familiar territory, surrounded by his family and friends, he was lulled into a complacent drift. Living a life of excess that would make Paris Hilton blush (chartering Boeings to fly in tulips from Amsterdam or mussels from Zeebrugge or hairstylists from Los Angeles was an everyday, unremarkable occurrence), he was oblivious to the storm gathering on the horizon.
The storm finally broke with the shocking events of April 1994 in Zaire’s pint-sized neighbor, Rwanda. As millions of Hutu militiamen and peasants fled across the border to the Lake Kivu region, a massive international aid operation swung into action to feed the refugees. The end result was that the Hutu extremists who had directed the genocide, and who had brought their people with them into exile, retained their power as they acted as the intermediaries through which the aid agencies went (Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest is particularly devastating on this absurd state of affairs). Well fed and clothed, the Hutu extremists began re-organizing their militias and terrorizing local Hutus as well as leading raids over the border into Rwanda itself. The new Rwandan government, dominated as it was by Tutsi members of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, was very displeased by this turn of events, especially as neither the Zairean military nor Mobutu himself seemed to have any particular interest in restraining the refugee Hutu hardliners. So, they decided to take matters into their own hands. This meant the creation of a rebel movement under the official control of the veteran Maoist revolutionary commander, Laurent Kabila, a man of serially questionable character, but armed and driven by the RPF, one of the finest guerilla forces in all of Africa.
At first it seemed to be a ridiculous proposition: who, then, could imagine that the whole of Zaire, under Mobutu, a man who had outlasted virtually every other African strongman, could be seized by a rag-tag rebel army from one of a distant and under-developed region? Yet quite quickly it became clear just how deep the rot went. The military, once Mobutu’s pride and joy, had become little more than a rabble that folded at the first sound of shots. Amazed at their luck, the rebels followed the army as it fled across the country. All the while Mobutu, increasingly wracked by prostate cancer, dithered on any kind of action. Completely cut off from events on the grand, and lied to by his generals, he ultimately found himself in the humiliating position of having to receive updates on the military situation from an American mission sent to Kinshasa by Bill Clinton. The Americans had made the decision to abandon their old Cold War protégé, and the bluntness with which they proceeded to tell Mobutu that he must step aside shocked the old warhorse. Yet they were, of course, right. The army was in full flight, and the rebels were right behind, racing all the way to Kinshasa. There could be no miraculous snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat. For Mobutu, there could be no dignified end to his decades in power. Finally, with rebel advance parties already entering the outskirts of Kinshasa, his family managed to get the old man on a plane into exile.
This, of course, was not the end. For the Congo (as it was once again known) it was merely the beginning of a new nightmare that continues to this day and has seen millions die. But that is a story that has yet to be written…