Part II...The Rise of Mobutu
As we pick up the story of Congo, it is now 1959 and the
"elites," the evolues, were expecting a wider role in the
government that was still under the control of Belgium.
Riots broke out in the capital of Leopoldville
(today, Kinshasa) and the Belgians were overwhelmed.
But instead of seeking a negotiated settlement with a
lengthy schedule for granting independence, the Belgians
shocked the world by granting Congo their wish in
just 6 months time.
Of course you can just imagine how chaos ruled. In May
1960, the first elections were held with nearly 40 parties
fielding candidates. But despite the unwieldy nature of the
vote, a coalition was formed with Patrice Lumumba''s
Congolese National Movement and Joseph Kasavuba''s
Bakango Alliance. Kasavuba was named president and
Lumumba prime minister. On June 30, 1960 Belgium
declared the Republic of the Congo independent.
Within days, there was rioting. And it was all so predictable.
The nations of the world had warned Belgium this would occur
but they went ahead with the incredibly quick schedule. So
violent conflicts erupted between Belgians and Congolese, as
well as between the various ethnic groups. And within weeks,
there were secessionist movements.
In July, Katanga province (Shaba) was declared to be
an independent state by Moise Tshomba. Belgium sent
in troops to protect its citizens. Lumumba then asked
the UN for help and the UN authorized a military force,
made up mainly of African troops, to restore order.
But when the UN troops arrived on the scene, they had
trouble removing the Belgians and Lumumba then accused
the UN of shilling for the imperialist West. So Lumumba sought
the aid of the USSR. Dag Hammerskjold, the heroic UN secretary
general, then attempted to defuse the situation through his
considerable influence, but he died in a plane crash en route to
[He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961.]
Well, all of this activity ticked off Congo''s president, Kasavubu,
who then fired Lumumba and replaced him with Joseph Ileo.
But before Ileo could take over, Colonel Joseph Mobutu (later
Mobutu Sese Seko) seized power through a military coup.
Yup, Congo was a happenin'' place in those days.
Glad I wasn''t there.
Mobutu then arrested Lumumba for inciting a mutiny within the
military ranks and Lumumba was killed in January 1961, allegedly
after being tortured by Mobutu''s thugs. Then, strangely, Mobutu
returned power to Kasavubu and Ileo that February.
For 3 years, the UN and Congolese forces tried to reunite the
gigantic, fragmented country. Tshomba, the fellow who declared
Shaba to be an independent state, surrendered the province and
then became prime minister, replacing Ileo. But all hell really broke
loose again in 1965, with Mobutu returning to seize power and
naming himself president on November 25.
Mobutu then sought to consolidate his control and he was
successful in crushing rebellions across the nation. Any dissidents
were summarily executed. And then in 1970, he held elections which
were rigged to gain him a 7-year term. It was at this point that
the real rule of Joseph Mobutu began, or rather, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Actually, all the names were changed. Congo became the Republic
of Zaire and Mobutu required that all Christians Africanize their
names and adopt only African dress. [No Dockers.] He then
nationalized all foreign-owned businesses, like the copper and
Thanks to the trade in diamonds, copper, uranium, and other
resources, Mobutu quickly became one of the world''s wealthiest
men. He even had an airstrip built at his home that was long
enough for the Concorde to use (which it did). It was just a
time of incredible excess and all the while his people were living
in poverty. [Today, the per capita income of the nation is just
$110...the situation wasn''t any better back then.]
Mobutu worked on building a cult of personality, calling himself
the founder of the nation and claiming absolute power to rule
over his "children," as the people were called. Amazingly, no one
put a bullet to his head, probably because his secret police force
was so effective in perpetuating a reign of terror. By the 1980s,
Mobutu was diverting all state funds into his private bank accounts.
Of course, the economy imploded.
As for the West, they saw Mobutu as a staunch anti-Communist
and he was given generous financial aid (which he then funneled
right back into those bank accounts of his). The U.S. and France
were major supporters. They both look like idiots today.
The West would say they had good reason to ply Mobutu with
riches. The hope was to stabilize Central Africa (and hold the
USSR at bay), but instead, Mobutu was aiding insurrection
movements in countries such as Angola, Chad and Sudan.
When the Cold War ended, the flow of aid stopped as well. Believe it
or not, Zaire''s economy worsened even further. The family now living
on $20 received $10, I guess. Actually, there was another legitimate
reason for the economic troubles; copper prices plummeted.
Soon, civil unrest spread once again across the country.
Suffering from prostate cancer, Mobutu began to make
concessions, allowing for the development of a multiparty
system, though elections were never held.
At the same time, in 1994 the Hutus were carrying out genocide
against the Tutsis in Rwanda, resulting in the death of at least
500,000 of the latter. About one million Hutus then had to flee
to escape the Tutsi rebels who took control of Rwanda. This is
where the story begins to get real complicated.
But with Mobutu still in control back in Kinshasa, we will resume
our tragic tale next week.
*Unlike Part I, I relied heavily on "Africana," by Gates and
Appiah for this section, as well as Ian Fisher / New York Times.