The political demise of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko ends the rule of a man who used power so greedily and so craftily that he made himself the embodiment of his nation's sovereignty -- and turned the economy of Africa's third-largest country into his own cash drawer.
For nearly 32 years, few could challenge Mobutu's one-party state, his control of state coffers, his edicts of African authenticity, his American-conferred Cold War credentials -- or his jailing of opponents and the enshrinement of the "Mobutuist" doctrine in the nation's constitution. Violations of that doctrine were called "deviationism," punishable by law.
In the end, Mobutu's downfall was facilitated not only by Laurent Kabila's rebel movement, but also by the weary disgust with which most Zairians came to view the man who seemed detached from his nation's realities and insisted on calling himself "the Guide." The vast majority of Zairians have lived like feudal serfs while Mobutu raked off profits from Zaire's copper, gold and diamond mines, accumulated palatial real estate holdings in Africa and Europe and amassed a fortune -- perhaps now dwindled -- that has been estimated at $4 billion.
The rise and fall of Mobutu spanned the history of post-colonial Africa, beginning with the earliest waves of independence that freed the continent from European rule amid soaring hopes of renewal, development and African nationalism. With its vast mineral wealth, its pivotal location at the heart of Africa and its bodacious cultural verve, Zaire should have been an economic and political power upon gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. Instead, it became the epitome of dashed African dreams.
Mobutu's mother was a hotel maid. His father was a cook. He was born Joseph Desire Mobutu on October 14, 1930, in what was then the Belgian Congo. Belgian colonialism, brutal in the extreme, produced a nation so developmentally repressed that Zaire reached independence with fewer than 20 college graduates among the entire population.
Mobutu joined the anti-colonial fervor that gripped his nation in the late 1950s and became a close associate of the young pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist leader, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba became the country's first post-independence prime minister and made Mobutu, a young military officer, his private secretary, a move that placed Mobutu close to the levers of power.
Lumumba preached African self-reliance and an anti-imperialist creed that set him against the Western powers that sought Zaire's vast natural wealth and feared Soviet expansionism on the continent. His young government was set upon by crisis after crisis from its first days. A secessionist movement, egged on by Belgian mining interests, declared the southern provinces independent. Zairian soldiers mutinied against their Belgian officers.
Mobutu staged his first coup d'etat just three months after Congo's independence, having been promoted to colonel and named army chief of staff to quell the restive troops. The coup effectively dismissed his old friend Lumumba and presaged a political tactic of neutralization that would serve Mobutu well for more than three decades.
The coup that cemented Mobutu's power came in 1965, after the chaos of the early independence years had produced rebellions in most of the country and several foreign interventions. Among those involved in the rebellions of that era was a young Laurent Kabila, an adherent to the Lumumbist creed, who was forced into a kind of internal exile in the bush of far-eastern Zaire until he emerged from relative obscurity last year.
Mobutu's early rise was aided in great measure by support from foreign capitals, especially Washington. He was viewed by the Eisenhower administration as a force of moderation amid the dangerous scramble for power among Congo's many factions. Years later, evidence would emerge that the CIA was implicated in the January 1961 assassination of Lumumba, as was Mobutu, although no conclusive proof has emerged on either score.
In this nation of 250 ethnic groups, Mobutu's response to Congo's out-of-control factionalism and ethnic division was a despotic, unitary state. He dismantled the political institutions of the first five years, and in 1967 he presided over the adoption of a new constitution that vested all powers in the presidency and his party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution. Increasingly, though, what seemed a unifying presidency degenerated into authoritarianism.
In 1971, he ushered in a policy of "Zairianization." The country's name was changed from Congo to Zaire. All towns with old colonial names got new ones. Men were ordered to stop wearing Western-style suits; women were ordered to wear skirts, not slacks. Christian names were to be replaced by indigenous ones; Joseph Mobutu became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, officially translated as "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."
By 1974, Mobutuism was officially declared Zaire's state doctrine.
Zairianization also extended to the economic sphere. After a brief period of low inflation and economic growth, Mobutu made a U-turn and seized large commercial assets throughout the country and turned them over to his political class. While the pockets of his cronies were fattened, the commercial sector was crippled by severe mismanagement.
At the same time, Mobutu attempted some grand economic plans that were heavily dependent on foreign loans and imports of equipment to keep the mines running. As Zaire incurred a huge foreign debt in the late 1970s, the price of copper, on which the economy depended, plunged to an all-time low. By 1980, Zaire had gone into virtual receivership. Today its external debt is about $13 billion.
Where Washington was concerned, however, Mobutu had great value. In the 1980s Zaire became a way station for covert and overt U.S. aid to anti-communist rebels in neighboring Angola, whom Mobutu also supported. For his services as a good American client, Mobutu received direct payments from the CIA and American help when he was in trouble. In 1977 and 1978, when a pair of secession attempts were launched in the copper- and cobalt-rich Shaba province, French, Moroccan and American military support helped Mobutu retain control.
But Mobutu was prone to yank the American chain. In the early 1980s, upon returning from a state visit to then-President Ronald Reagan, Mobutu found that a U.S. congressional delegation was meeting with 10 former Zairian lawmakers whom Mobutu had jailed for demanding change. In front of U.S. diplomats, Mobutu's soldiers beat up the ex-legislators. They were detained, then jailed again.
Mobutu's impunity was most clear in the realm of finance. Financial experts around the globe have accused Mobutu of robbing Zaire blind by skimming off profits from the copper, diamond and gold mines. The World Bank reportedly estimated that Mobutu took in between $150 million and $400 million a year from Zaire's copper and cobalt exports throughout the 1980s.
He built a palace at Gbadolite, a town in his home region in the northern rain forest, that has been likened to Versailles, complete with a hotel for guests. He bought a castle in Spain, a palace in Switzerland and residences in Paris, on the French Riviera, in Belgium, the Ivory Coast and Portugal. He also passed his millions around generously in familial and political patronage that became the glue keeping his regime together. But the country's disastrous economic decline, coupled with his repressive human rights record and increasing domestic and foreign pressure for change -- the United States and other donor countries suspended foreign aid as leverage -- forced him in 1990 to announce the end of his one-party state and to initiate a democratization process.
Political parties proliferated, and a national conference was established to hammer out a transitional constitution. It seemed that Mobutu's days as supreme leader were numbered, especially with increasing withdrawal from the life of the capital. But Mobutu's transition to democracy never unfolded. Since 1990 he has filled and refilled the prime ministry 13 times. He reneged on transitional commitments to observe the wishes of opposition parties. He pledged that elections would occur, even as the money to fund them never materialized.
And to foreigners who sought his ouster, Mobutu offered a taunting retort in 1991: "They want my head at any price, but I cannot accept this sort of ultimatum. Nobody can dictate policy to me." CAPTION: END OF THE MOBUTU ERA Mobutu Sese Seko gave up presidential power yesterday and flew to his palace in Gbadolite. HIGHLIGHTS OF MOBUTU'S RULE June 6, 1960: Congo gains independence from Belgium. November 1965: Lt. Gen. Joseph Desire Mobutu seizes power in a CIA-backed coup, ousting Moise Tshombe. Mobutu declares himself president for five years and cancels planned elections. 1966: Mobutu declares a five-year ban on all political parties, places all power in the presidency, changes European city names back to indigenous names. 1971: Country's name changes to Republic of Zaire. 1972: Mobutu changes name to Mobutu Sese Seko and urges all Zairians to assume African names and stop wearing European-style clothing. August 1991: International pressure leads to conference to pave way for multi-party elections. Security forces crack down on opposition, leading to rioting and looting. French and Belgian paratroops restore order. 1993: Similar rioting kills 65 people. April 1994: More than a million Hutus flee Rwanda to eastern Zaire for fear of revenge for massacre of 500,000 Tutsis. July 1996: Mobutu leaves for cancer treatment in France. October 1996: Tutsi residents of eastern Zaire revolt after local officials try to expel them. Laurent Kabila, who had tried to oust Mobutu for 30 years, takes control of rebellion. 1997: Rebels sweep west, almost unopposed by Zairian army. May 4: Mobutu-Kabila peace talks fail. CAPTION: In recent years, Mobutu Sese Seko, called "the Guide," lost his followers.