Zaire's Mobutu rules through balance of respect and repression

Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko starts a new seven-year term of office Dec. 5, showing remarkably few signs of wear after 19 years in charge of one of Africa's largest and, some say, least governable countries.

Mobutu seems prepared to rule this sprawling nation, set like a stone in the heart of Africa, for another 20 years. In presidential elections last July, Mobutu - the only candidate - received 99.2 percent of the votes cast.

Nearly five months later, the huge election posters of the President still decorate spacious streets of the capital city, Kinshasa. Although they are starting to peel at the edges, no one dares to take them down, locals say.

Wearing a leopard skin hat with matching cravate and a self-styled ''abatcost'' suit, Mobutu stares down on passersby through thick, black horn-rim spectacles. His image is stamped everywhere, even on the garish green patterned shirts and dresses of television newscasters.

An important part of the image is to create a sense of national dignity and to shake off holdovers from Belgian colonialism. The ''authenticity'' campaign, as it is called here, remains strong many years after it was introduced.

Abatcost is a French abbreviation of ''a bas le costume,'' meaning ''down with Western-style suits.'' It resembles a Mao-style tunic with a butterfly collar and is worn without a tie. Zairian women are expected to wear dresses made from local cloth and pants are discouraged.

Zairians are called citoyen or citoyenne - citizen - rather than the French-style monsieur or madame.

In the early 1970s, Mobutu changed all the Belgian colonial names: the Belgian Congo became Zaire, which was also the name given to the majestic river running through it. And he changed his own name and title to President Fondateur du Mouvement Populaire Revolutionaire Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa za Banga President de la Republique de Zaire. The citizens of Zaire were also encouraged to adopt local names.

This process of Zairianization was extended in 1973 to the taking over of Belgian and other foreign-owned businesses. But this policy only speeded up the country's economic disintegration and President Mobutu has since been obliged to backtrack.

He has managed, through the respect he is accorded and through threat of force, to impose a considerable degree of peace and unity on this patchwork country of some 250 tribes and at least six major languages. But he has so far failed to bring prosperity despite abundant mineral and agricultural wealth.

When Mobutu seized power in 1965, Zaire was weakened and divided after the five years of civil war that followed the Belgians' withdrawal in 1960. The country, say most analysts, was left unprepared for independence. Zairians were not well educated; they were without administrative skills necessary to run a government.

Since then Mobutu has become, according to his own claims, the world's second-wealthiest person. But little of this vast wealth has filtered beyond his own large and demanding family and the ruling elite, analysts say.

Mobutu suffers a poor international image characterized, analysts say, characterized by corruption, mismanagement, and human-rights abuse.

But he continues to be in firm control through a delicate balance of popular respect and repression. Africans generally respect the absolute power and authority of a tribal chief as portrayed in Zaire by the President. They expect the President to be the wealthiest person and think his family, tribe, and region should benefit as a result. Mobutu has also built up a certain mystique, even a personality cult, among his people. Beyond this they know he will use force to put down dissent, and by nature Zairians are a fairly passive people. They did not strongly protest even when their currency was devalued by 80 percent in September 1983. Mobutu saw to it the Zairians had enough food, at least, to scrape by.

Democracy is poorly understood and often seen as a destabilizing influence. The banning of opposition parties and beating up, imprisonment, and even execution of opponents is greeted with popular indifference.

Mobutu has usually tried to coopt rather than crush opponents and many think he compares favorably with Jean-Bedel Bokassa or Idi Amin, former rulers of the neighboring Central African Republic and Uganda.

Mobutu scored a spectacular public relations coup on a visit to Brussels last July. When questioned about the fate of 13 members of Parliament who tried to form an opposition party, he replied that five had joined the ruling party and were with him in Brussels.

As a former Army sergeant, Mobutu understands the threat posed by a large but poorly paid Army. When he heard of Army unrest recently, he toured garrisons to hear troops' grievances. After fighting broke out again in the Shaba Province, he flew to Moba, which was briefly captured by rebels, and offered compensation to citizens.

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