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Congolese Lake Town Recalls Despot Fondly

After Years of Turmoil, Residents Yearn for Predictability of Mobutu's Reign

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A22

GOMA, Congo -- Here on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu, Mobutu Sese Seko, the country's onetime dictator, often repaired to his sprawling villa, relaxing with a glass of pink champagne or fishing for succulent tilapia. He even doffed his trademark Big Man's leopard-skin cap for a more casual cowboy hat.

Mobutu's affection for Goma, residents say, was often reciprocated by a populace that reveled in the presence of their charismatic leader, who visited regularly in the 1970s and 1980s, before this picturesque town near the Rwandan border became the scene of massacres, pillaging and civil wars.

Mobutu wears his traditional leopard-skin cap at a gathering of leaders in May 1997. He often traded the cap for a cowboy hat on visits to Goma. (Enric Marti -- AP)

Even though Mobutu, who was driven from power in 1997 and died soon afterward, came to be viewed as one of the world's most corrupt leaders, there is a certain nostalgia here for the days when Goma was a favored presidential tourist spot in Zaire instead of a trouble spot in Congo.

"If you ask the people today, they will tell you they prefer Mobutu to what they have today," said Albert Prigogine, 63. At least then, he added, "they had something to eat. They had jobs."

Prigogine, who has an outdoorsman's husky voice and steady gaze, enjoyed an especially close connection to Mobutu. For more than 20 years, he was the president's personal safari and fishing guide. They traveled north together into Virunga National Park to observe lions, and Prigogine said he introduced Mobutu to cowboy hats, which they often wore together.

Conversations with more than two dozen residents supported Prigogine's contention that the much-vilified Mobutu enjoys a substantial residue of affection here. Many said they could recall him walking happily through town, grasping hands or chatting with elders. His speeches were thrilling, his presence formidable, they said.

The nostalgia is not without caveats, however. Mobutu, a favored ally of Cold War-era American presidents who feared the spread of communism in Africa, reportedly stole billions of dollars from Congo's treasury and used its vast natural wealth to bankroll a lavish lifestyle while the vast, central African country grew increasingly poor.

Along with the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti, Mobutu's regime became synonymous with a new political term -- kleptocracy -- while his reign was marred by persistent reports of human rights violations.

While Mobutu was enjoying the high life, government workers and soldiers sometimes went years without getting paid. The national currency collapsed in a morass of hyperinflation. Even Prigogine said he had trouble collecting his salary, while Mobutu's soldiers ran up $5 million in unpaid bills at his hotel. After the president bought a lakeside home from Prigogine, he said, Mobutu never finished paying for it.

As he stole, Mobutu built a cult of personality wrapped in the cloak of Africanism, dropping his Westernized birth name, Joseph Desire Mobutu, and adopting an eight-word tribal name that translated as "The all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake." He also liked to be called "Papa."

But the stability, safety and unity that Mobutu delivered during his 32-year presidency were more important than his flaws, said Prigogine and others in Goma. That has become even clearer, they say, as Mobutu's rule has been followed by conflicts that cost the lives of nearly 4 million Congolese, according to the most widely cited estimates, and impoverished millions of others.

Since Mobutu stopped coming here regularly, Goma has endured looting, rape, murder and bombing raids. The roads have crumbled and the health care system has collapsed. During the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, mutilated bodies floated to the lake shore.

In 2002, the towering Nyiragongo volcano suddenly erupted, spewing lava across much of the town, destroying hundreds of buildings, and leaving tens of thousands homeless and dozens dead.

Set against these tragedies, Mobutu's failings are seen here in a gentler light, and his virtues appear enhanced. Many residents say they find themselves longing for the predictability of the Mobutu era.

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