Bungle in the Jungle: How Zaire's Mobutu Failed

Misjudging Western support and his own sway in the region, a despot self-destructs.

When rebels rolled into Zaire's capital Saturday, their easy victory there capped off one of the fastest military campaigns in recent African history. In eight months, they had succeeded in unseating one of the longest-ruling despots in modern memory.

President Mobutu Sese Seko's departure as the leader of Africa's third-largest country is one of the most significant events to shape the post-colonial continent. It alters the balance of power in the region and finally ends any notion of cold-war alliances in Africa.

"To talk about Zaire, you have to talk about Mobutu. Mobutu shaped the country for the past three decades. Zaire is what it is today because of Mobutu," says a Western diplomat in Kinshasa.

Analysts say that Mobutu created his own downfall with a mixture of avarice and shortsightedness in failing to realize that the Western powers that had bailed him out in the past would not do so any longer.

Mobutu is widely assumed by Western diplomats to have stolen billions of dollars of Western aid, reducing the minerals-blessed country to such a pathetic state that even his own unpaid Army did not defend him. The London-based Financial Times newspaper reported last week that officials of the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated Mobutu's personal fortune peaked at $4 billion in the mid-1980s, and included "at least 20 properties held by Mr. Mobutu and his entourage, ranging from Belgium to the Ivory Coast, from Switzerland to Morocco, with a minimum estimated value of $37 million."

It was small wonder rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila could enlist the support of many of Zaire's long-suffering 45 million people during his march.

"Nobody ever had an idea of how feeble the Zairean superstructure became under Mobutu. The termites got the door of the Mobutu government years ago. When Kabila kicked at the door, it just crumbled to dust," says another Western diplomat.

During his nearly 32 years, diplomats say, Mobutu nurtured ethnic tensions and divisions among Zaire's 250 ethnic groups to ensure no one could challenge him. When he grew ill last year, a political vacuum yawned, providing the ideal opportunity for rebellion to flourish.

Most important, Mobutu was unable to adjust to the changing reality of the post-cold-war era and regional politics. He had trouble accepting that the United States would shift its support from opponents of communism to advocates for democracy.

He also miscalculated in thinking he could gain from supporting Hutu militiamen against Tutsi rulers in neighboring Rwanda - a move that backfired.

Portrait of a despot

Mobutu, then known as Joseph Desir, declared himself president of what had been the Belgian Congo in 1965, after his second coup since independence from Belgium in 1960.

He outlawed all political parties and clamped down on any viable opposition. He shackled regional administrators and vested so much power on the presidency that he became the sole legislator.

Early on, Mobutu did much to enrich members of his minority Ngbandi tribe. In the late 1970s, he suppressed rebellions in Shaba Province with foreign help, and stymied the opposition by creating a monopoly for his own party. Three times he was elected unopposed - in 1970, 1977, and 1984 - in elections widely regarded as shams.

Despite this disregard for democracy and proven human rights abuses, Mobutu enjoyed US support. He served as its bulwark against communism in the region, supporting UNITA rebels in Angola.

The unraveling of Mobutu's power began in the late 1970s, when the economy began to decline with falling world commodity prices. Public-works projects and nationalizations further served as opportunities - not for improving the country - but for his inner clique to get rich.

The economic deterioration was such that civil servants struggling to survive on pittances turned to extortion, contributing further to a system of corruption so ingrained that it became known as a kleptocracy.

The economic erosion fueled the growth of a credible opposition in the early 1980s, which saw the beginning of a halfhearted transition into pluralism as a sop to foreign and domestic pressure.

But although he legalized opposition parties, Mobutu cleverly played the hundreds of new parties against each other to maintain his grip on power.

Seven prime ministers came and went during what became a seven-year transition, and many of the opposition parties were actually pro-Mobutu fronts. In the confusion, he cast himself as the only unifying political force.

He erred by assuming he could get away with violently trying to put down growing civil unrest. But with the cold war's finale, Washington lost tolerance for Mobutu's resistance to democracy, and, along with other Western countries, cut aid. In June 1994, Zaire was suspended from the IMF. The collapse deepened.

Keen survival skills

This would have ended the regime of a man less wily than Mobutu. His foreign clout was resurrected in 1994 partly due to the French, who saw him as an ally against the perceived Anglophone threat to their influence in the region. His stock also rose that year when he gave shelter to the 1.2 million Rwandan Hutus who fled to Zaire after Tutsis took power. Among the refugees: those who had killed up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

However, the refugee crisis was also the ultimate cause of his fall. The refugees fomented local ethnic strife, joining with local Hutus to drive Tutsis out of eastern Zaire and using the refugee camps as bases to attack Rwanda.

Mobutu erred by underestimating the drive for survival of Rwanda's new leaders. Retaliation was swift: Rwanda armed Tutsis in Zaire as Kabila's vanguard in the October uprising.

Mobutu lost control of the situation when he went to France for medical treatment. Ailing and weak, he was confronted with the fact he could not muster up his divided and unpaid Army to mount a credible defense against Kabila.

The final straw was Mobutu's alienation of his neighbors Burundi, Uganda, and Angola, whose own insurgents he had backed. They joined Rwanda's support of Kabila along with Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

This time, mercenaries and France could not save him. The US did not come to Mobutu's aid. Instead, it joined with new, post-apartheid South Africa to orchestrate his departure.

"It is certainly the passing of an era.... The end of Mobutu [is] a significant licking of what was one of the most egregious of the looter regimes," the second Western diplomat says.

Now that rebel leader Kabila has taken power and promised to create a transitional government, there is hope among the people of what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Mobutu has spent 32 years destroying this country.... There are no roads, there are no schools, there are no hospitals. Even if we have some apprehensions about Kabila's governing ability, we can't compare him in any way to Mobutu's corruption," says opposition figure Valentin Mubake Nombi.

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