Mobutu Sese Seko
Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (14 October 1930-7 September 1997), born Joseph-Desire Mobutu, was President of Zaire from 24 November 1965 to 16 May 1997, succeeding Joseph Kasa-Vubu and preceding Laurent-Desire Kabila. Mobutu seized power in a military coup in 1965 after previously leading a coup against Patrice Lumumba in 1961 during the Congo Crisis, and he renamed Congo-Leopoldville to Zaire in 1971 and embarked on a campaign of "Authenticite", removing colonial/European influences from his country and returning it to an "authentic" African culture. Mobutu was a brutal dictator during his long reign, and he was deposed during the First Congo War in 1997.


Early life

Joseph-Desire Mobutu was born in Lisala, Belgian Congo on 14 October 1930 to an Ngbandi family. Mobutu's mother was a hotel maid who fled a harem to marry the African cook for a Belgian judge, and Mobutu was educated by the Belgian judge after his father's death. Mobutu learned to speak French fluently, and he always jumped to his feet and corrected Belgian missionaries whenever they made a grammatical mistake (their first language was Dutch) while teaching French at his Catholic school. In 1949, he was ordered to serve seven years in the military for attempting to stow away on a boat to meet a girl, and he found discipline in army life. Mobutu became a part-time journalist after reading the writings of Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Niccolo Machiavelli in the army, and he later became friendly with Patrice Lumumba and joined his Congolese National Movement party before becoming his aide. However, he was believed to have been hired by Belgian intelligence as an informer within Lumumba's nationalist movement.

Congo Crisis

Mobutu officer

Mobutu as an army officer, 1960

Mobutu was appointed Army Chief-of-Staff when the Congo Crisis began in 1960, leading the army of Congo-Leopoldville against the secessionists. Mobutu successfully encouraged many mutinying soldiers to return to their barracks, and he proved to be an able general. However, Mobutu faced a crisis when Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba - a Soviet-aligned politician - and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu - a US-aligned politician - each ordered Mobutu to arrest the other one. Mobutu came under immense pressure, but his subordinates convinced him to side with Kasa-Vubu, as the USA and other Western nations helped to pay the soldiers' and officers' salaries. In November 1960, Mobutu's soldiers arrested Lumumba after accusing him of being a communist, and the Belgian government persuaded the Congolese government to hand Lumumba over to a Katangese firing squad in January 1961. On 23 January 1961, Kasa-Vubu promoted Mobutu to Major-General, aiming to strengthen the army, the president's sole support, and Mobutu's position within the military. In 1964, when Pierre Mulele led another partisan rebellion, Mobutu responded to it by crushing the rebels in 1965.

Rise to power

Mobutu general

Mobutu in a general's uniform

In 1965, the country was once again caught up in a political deadlock as President Kasa-Vubu failed to designate Evariste Kimba as the new Prime Minister and successor to Moise Tshombe. Mobutu, who had finally decided that Kasa-Vubu was an ineffective ruler, seized power in a military coup on 25 November 1965 and declared a state of emergency. Mobutu banned political party activity in the country for five years, and he reduced the Parliament's powers, reduced the number of provinces, and centralized the government. In 1967, Mobutu founded the Popular Movement of the Revolution, which was the only legal party in Mobutu's single-party state until 1990. He advanced revolution, nationalism, and authenticite, repudiating capitalism and communism in favor of political pragmatim. Mobutu created a nationwide labor union to unite all smaller unions, using it to control all labor in the country; he outlawed all independent unions. Mobutu brutally suppressed opposition in his country, crushing former Katangese gendarmeries as well as the Kisangani mutiny by white mercenaries in 1967. Mobutu executed political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other opponents of his regime, and he decided to turn Zaire into an "authentic" African country. Mobutu's authenticite movement banned Western clothing, threatened to impose five-year prison sentences on couples who gave their children European names, and forced men to wear abacost tunics (similar to Mao Zedong's suit). By 1970, law and order had been brought to all parts of his country, and he established friendly relations with the Belgian government. In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself to "Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga", and he assumed a classic image: his abacost, thick-framed glasses, walking stick, and leopard-skin toque.

Dictatorial rule

Mobutu baton

Mobutu with a baton

Mobutu nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country, but he formed alliances with France, Belgium, the United States, and China, in addition to fomenting good relations with African nations such as Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan. In 1977, he managed to defeat the Shaba I uprising by the Soviet-backed Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC), using Belgian and French troops and US logistical support. Mobutu enjoyed an opulent lifestyle, flying on Concorde turbojets for shopping trips in Paris. Mobutu allowed for corruption and nepotism to flourish under his reign, and he embezzled up to $15,000,000,000 during his reign. Mobutu retained the support of the West throughout the Cold War due to his vehement anti-communism, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1990 led to the West ending its support of Zaire. That same year, Mobutu was forced to end the ban on other political parties, and he was forced to form a coalition government with opposition parties due to popular discontent with his rule. The economic situation was dreadful, so he appointed the pro-free market Leon Kengo as Prime Minister of Zaire in 1994. Mobutu became physically frail, and he sought medical treatment in Europe. While he was gone, Tutsis from Rwanda seized control of much of eastern Zaire, pursuing Interahamwe forces fleeing the Rwandan Civil War. The spillover of the conflict would lead to his downfall.

Fall from power

Mobutu mural

A soldier standing in front of a mural of Mobutu

In November 1996, Mobutu ordered for the Tutsis to leave Zaire on penalty of death. The Tutsi rebels instead allied with Uganda and Rwanda, and the First Congo War broke out. The Allied forces marched on Kinshasa, and the sickly Mobutu was unable to coordinate resistance against the invading armies. On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks, Mobutu fled to Togo, allowing for Laurent-Desire Kabila and his forces to take over the country. Mobutu then fled to Morocco, and he died of cancer in Rabat on 7 September 1997 at the age of 66.

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