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Congo Ex-Ruler Mobutu Dies
Special to The Post
Mon., Sept. 8, 1997;
Mobutu Sese Seko, 66, whose despotic and corrupt regime ruled Congo -- the country he called Zaire -- for 32 years before he was toppled in a civil war last May, died last night in Rabat, Morocco, where he had lived in exile since his ouster.
Mobutu, who had long suffered from prostate cancer, was admitted to Mohamed V military hospital in late June for treatment of internal bleeding and never left; the official Moroccan news agency said Mobutu died there "after a long illness" but gave no further details. He had spent most of the final year of his rule in Switzerland and France, where he underwent surgery and intensive therapy in an effort to arrest the advancing disease.
The Reuter news agency quoted diplomatic sources in Rabat as saying the former ruler's second wife, Bobi Ladawa, and other family members were at his bedside when he died and that Mobutu, a Roman Catholic, would be buried in Rabat's Christian cemetery.
At the same time, however, the new Congo government did not rule out burial in the country of his birth. "Why shouldn't the body be repatriated?" Reuter quoted Information Minister Raphael Ghenda as saying. "While he was alive, we said we would be happy for him to return."
Mobutu fled his capital, Kinshasa, on May 16, one day before a powerful rebel force led by Laurent Kabila marched into the city to claim victory in a seven-month civil war and supplant a reign of corruption that had made Mobutu a billionaire and left Africa's third-largest country and its 48 million people in poverty and chaos.
France, a country he considered his second home, and several other nations in Africa and Europe refused to grant him political refuge before Morocco's King Hassan II agreed to give him asylum.
Mobutu, a former army sergeant who rose to become commander in chief, president and one of Africa's patriarchal "big men," seized power in the former Belgian Congo by means of a coup in 1965. At the time, the country was reeling from almost continuous bloody strife that began when it gained independence five years earlier.
Although over the years he had to contend with periodic insurgencies at home and invasions from abroad, Mobutu was credited with providing his mineral-rich and strategically placed homeland with a measure of peace and stability. During the Cold War, he was hailed in the West as a bulwark against communism.
Mobutu stayed in office through political guile, the sharing of graft with colleagues and potential enemies, outright oppression -- including torture and murder -- and a marked ability for making himself seem indispensable. Twice during the civil war that brought about his downfall, he returned from France to a hero's welcome, assuring his people that his stature and presence alone would be enough to restore peace in the land -- a pledge the millions pinned their hopes on. Each time time he failed, and the war went on, ultimately to his eclipse.
Throughout most of his career, Mobutu received crucial aid from foreign allies with varying strategic, economic, political and commercial interests in West Africa. His chief patron for much of that time was the United States, which provided about $2 billion in foreign assistance. In return, Washington got a secure base for operations in neighboring Angola, where Western-backed UNITA rebels were locked in a long civil war with a Marxist government supported by Cuban troops and Soviet arms.
France and Belgium were key Mobutu allies in Europe. At crucial points, both sent paratroops to help him quell disturbances. So did Morocco. France was granted a base in his country for operations in Chad and elsewhere in its former African empire. At stake was a country that covers half the area of the United States, shares borders with nine other African nations and holds vast potential wealth. Its mineral resources include 65 percent of the world's known reserves of cobalt and large deposits of copper, tin, uranium, gold, oil and diamonds.
The nation also was subject to enormous centrifugal forces that threatened to tear it apart since the day it gained independence. Its borders were drawn to settle rivalries between colonial powers without respect for ethnicity, language, culture, natural features or other factors that go into making a nation. With no tradition of statehood or economic reason to look to the central government, its regions tended toward autonomy.
Mobutu sought to hold the nation together by making it more "authentically" African and by presenting himself as its creator and savior. In 1971, he changed its name, and that of the great river that runs through it, from Congo to Zaire. The following year, he changed his own name. The former Joseph-Desire Mobutu became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, which, according to an official translation, means, "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."
Mobutu also made himself the object of a personality cult that would have done credit to any dictator. In the controlled news media he was referred to by such names as the Guide, the Father of the Nation, the Messiah. Television pictured him descending god-like from the clouds. His mother was compared to the Virgin Mary.
His picture was everywhere. Always he was shown wearing his sartorial signature -- a leopard-skin hat and a high-collared, shirt-like jacket similar to those favored by China's Mao Zedong. Mobutu designed it himself to replace the Western jacket and tie with a garment he said was African, and he directed that Zairian men wear it on formal occasions.
His hold over Zairians was almost mystical. In a land where superstition is an important part of the culture, it was rumored, for example, that the carved black walking stick he always carried in public had magical powers and was so heavy a normal person could not lift it. While deifying himself, Mobutu closed off avenues that might permit rivals to challenge him. The army was purposely kept weak, although there was a well-paid, well-armed military auxiliary called the Presidential Division. Until 1990, the only political party that was allowed to exist was the Popular Movement of the Revolution, described officially as "the nation politically organized."
Politics aside, the defining characteristic of Mobutu's rule was corruption, and he was the chief beneficiary, gaining a fortune estimated at anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion. Stealing was so widespread that the word "kleptocracy" was coined to describe the regime.
In a speech in 1977, Mobutu described his country in terms that might have been taken from a World Bank report. "Everything is for sale, anything can be bought in our country," he said. "And in this flow, he who holds the slightest cover of public authority uses it illegally to acquire money, goods, prestige, or to avoid obligations."
Graft was Mobutu's first choice as a way of rewarding friends and disarming foes. He suggested only that it be done discreetly. "If you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way," he once said. "But if you steal too much to get rich overnight, you'll be caught."
Mobutu had extensive holdings in Zaire, as well as deposits and estates in Europe. For visits abroad, he sometimes chartered a Concorde. In the 1980s, he imported 5,000 sheep from Venezuela for one of his ranches; he did it by ordering a government-owned DC-8 to make 32 round trips between Caracas and Zaire.
His most ambitious project was the rebuilding of Gbadolite, his ancestral village. In 1965 it had a population of 1,700; by the 1980s it was a city of 37,000, complete with modern water and sewage systems, street lights, telephones that worked and a palace, a luxury hotel and an airport capable of handling large jet aircraft.
Mobutu often was compared to King Leopold II of Belgium, who in 1876 claimed the Congo as private property to be exploited for his private gain. The king extracted an enormous fortune in rubber and ivory while leaving a record of brutality that was virtually unmatched in the colonial era -- severed heads to quell any idea of resistance, severed hands as the penalty for failing to meet production targets. In 1904, Leopold was forced by outraged world opinion to abdicate, and the colony was annexed by the Belgian government.
Nearly a century later, Zairians barely eked out an existence as they coped with the consequences of Mobutu's misrule. Under his leadership, a nation with seemingly unlimited prospects became one of the poorest in the world. By the late 1980s, per capita income was less than a tenth of what it had been at independence. In the 1990s, the degree of poverty dropped below measurable levels. Hyperinflation rendered the currency worthless. Barter was the usual means of exchange.
The country's infrastructure collapsed. Only one paved road in 10 that existed at independence survived into the 1990s. There was no way to get the products of the country's once thriving farms to market. The Zaire River became virtually the only form of surface transportation, but there were few boats to ply it. Fifty percent of the country's children died by age 5. Schools and hospitals closed.
But in the context of the Cold War, Mobutu's peculation and abuse of human rights counted for less in Washington than his anticommunist credentials. Mobutu first became an "asset" of the CIA in 1959 during a meeting in Brussels. He made his first visit to the White House in 1963, when he was still chief of staff of his nation's army, as a guest of President John F. Kennedy. President Ronald Reagan twice welcomed him to Washington and called him "a voice of good sense and goodwill." President George Bush entertained him at his summer retreat in Maine.
By the early 1990s, however, the conditions that had made him a valuable ally had changed. The great rivalry between Washington and Moscow had been settled in Washington's favor. U.S. diplomats began to suggest that the time had come for Mobutu to step aside. But Washington also had to acknowledge that while it had done much to advance Mobutu's career, it could not bring it to an end when it wished.
Mobutu was born in Lisala, in the Congo's Equateur Province, on Oct. 30, 1930. His father was a cook, his mother a hotel maid. He attended a Catholic school and then was selected by Belgian colonial authorities to go to the Institut d'Etudes Sociales de l'Etat in Brussels.
In 1949, after a year of study, he returned home and joined the Force Publique, the colonial army. He rose to the rank of sergeant major, the highest available to a Congolese. In 1956, he turned to journalism and politics, working on newspapers and magazines in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa.
In 1958, he joined the Mouvement Nationale Congolais, a political party founded by Patrice Lumumba, a left-leaning nationalist; the party's program was independence for the Congo. A year later, rioting broke out in the colony, and the Brussels government abruptly decided to grant independence. Little had been done to prepare for it -- out of a population of about 15 million at the time there were only 16 university graduates.
In January 1960, a conference met in Brussels to work out details. The question of independence having been decided beforehand, the most difficult issue facing the conference was the form of the new state -- a strong central government or broad regional autonomy. Lumumba favored the former; representatives of the copper-rich province of Katanga, now called Shaba, favored the latter.
Having been jailed for agitation, Lumumba could not attend the meeting. Mobutu went as his chief representative and successfully argued for a centralized regime. On June 20, 1960, Belgium transferred power to a coalition government in which Joseph Kasavubu was president, Lumumba premier and Mobutu defense minister.
Eight days later, the army revolted and turned on its Belgian officers. On July 11, Katanga seceded under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. Subsequently, secessionist movements arose in Kasai and Orientale provinces, and the Congo was plunged into a crisis that seemed to confirm the worst fears of Africa's friends about the continent's ability to govern itself.
For Mobutu, the situation provided a road to power. He gained it by exploiting disputes among his rivals. His first opportunity came less than three months after independence and involved Kasavubu and Lumumba. Over the president's objections, the premier appealed to the United States for help in ending the Katangan revolt; when he was refused, he turned to the Soviet Union. Moscow responded with arms and money.
Meanwhile, the CIA station chief in Leopoldville cabled Washington that the Congo was "experiencing classic communist effort takeover government. Whether or not Lumumba actually commie or just playing commie game to assist solidifying power, anti-West forces rapidly increasing power Congo and there may be little time left in which take action avoid another Cuba." He was authorized to take steps to protect U.S. interests.
In August 1960, the United Nations sent a military force to the Congo. European mercenaries assisted Katanga and Tshombe, while the Congolese army, brought under control by Mobutu after its mutiny in June, made up yet another force. As the summer wore on, Lumumba prepared to oust Kasavubu; on Sept. 14, before he could act, Mobutu staged a coup and announced that all politicians had been "neutralized."
Lumumba fled the capital. Two months later, he was caught and turned over to Tshombe in Katanga, and, in February 1961, he was killed. In the communist world he was revered as a martyr; Mobutu and the CIA were implicated in his death. With Lumumba out of the way, Mobutu turned the government over to Kasavubu, who installed Cyrille Adoula as premier. The secession in Katanga lasted until 1963 and ended only after a war between U.N. and Katangese forces during which Tshombe fled to Spain.
In 1964, however, Kasavubu fired Adoula and persuaded Tshombe to return to the Congo and take the premiership. The former leader of Katangese independence now became a champion of the central government with the responsibility of ending revolts in the eastern Congo. But he soon found himself at loggerheads with Kasavubu and was dismissed in 1965.
On Nov. 25, 1965, Mobutu intervened again and led the bloodless coup that put him in power for nearly the rest of his life in the country he renamed Zaire. In 1966 and 1967, Mobutu had to put down revolts by Tshombe's former gendarmes in Shaba, and between 1975 and 1978, he was threatened by invasions of the region by forces of the opposition Congolese National Liberation Front, then based in Angola. In the same period, he sent Congolese troops to support the UNITA rebel movement in Angola.
In the end, however, he began to lose his grip as a result of mismanagement and graft. As the economy declined, opposition increased. And as unrest grew, the regime cracked down harder and harder. In one incident, students were killed during a demonstration in Lubumbashi, the capital of Shaba. The United States responded by cutting off all aid except humanitarian assistance.
As Cold War-era leaders around him began to fall, Mobutu hung on with promises of reform, but his vow in 1990 to hold multi-party elections was never fulfilled, and opposition marches were met with military force. In 1991 and 1993, riots by the Zairian army, which had not been paid, tipped the situation into free-fall crisis. Kinshasa and other cities were looted with heavy loss of life. As he grew ever more isolated, Mobutu spent most of his time in Gbadolite or living on a yacht on the Zaire River.
In 1994, however, he regained a measure of support when he allowed international aid organizations into the country to care for more than 1 million refugees who had fled tribal warfare in Rwanda. The exodus began when extremists among Rwanda's Hutu majority went on a killing rampage against the Tutsi minority and massacred hundreds of thousands of them. A Tutsi-led rebel force then seized power, triggering a flood of Hutu refugees who feared Tutsi reprisal.
Although many refugees returned home in 1996, an estimated 350,000 Hutus, uncertain of the fate awaiting them at home, remained in Zaire. There they exacerbated Kinshasa's relations with Zairian Tutsis, who joined forces with Laurent Kabila when he began his rebellion last October.
Mobutu vowed again early this year to hold elections and said he would ask the voters to retain him in power -- determined, as he said, never to be called "the ex-president of Zaire." But the civil war and the relentless advance of Kabila's troops made the issue moot.
On March 23 of this year, Mobutu met with reporters for the first time since returning to Zaire two days earlier with the promise that he would bring peace and order out of the chaos -- even as Kabila's forces were marching almost unopposed toward Kinshasa.
"I am Mobutu, I am Mobutu," he intoned as he stood outside his mansion in a garden in which peacocks strutted. "I didn't come back to busy myself with my own interests and my own future, as you have been writing from time to time. I am here to concentrate on the higher interests of Zaire -- this is to say, our unity and out territorial integrity."
It was a familiar refrain, but by the time he was driven into his final exile just weeks later, it was clear that few people were listening.
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