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Mobutu Sese Seko Biography

Showed Strength During Mutiny, Tensions Rose, First Rise to Power, Made Use of Diverse Background



Mobutu Sese Seko ruled Zaire, the former Belgian Congo that he renamed in 1971, from 1965 when he assumed power with a military coup and established the Second Republic to just months before his death in 1997. His regime was been characterized as repressive, and his critics described him in terms of his drive for power, his compulsion for personalization, and his hunger for adulation. As an effective statesman, he was considered ambitious, charming, keenly intelligent, and diversely educated. Zaire Since Independence author J.B. Wright described the "most striking feature" of Mobutu's regime as "a certain genius for survival against all the odds," noting its survival despite record indebtedness, opposition from the Catholic church, and two invasions. But opposition against Mobutu did grow, and in 1997 he was ousted from Zaire.

Mobutu Sese Seko, photograph. Jack Dabaghian/Reuters/Landov.

Showed Strength During Mutiny

When Mobutu seized power on November 24, 1965, the Belgian Congo had endured five years of virtual anarchy during which an estimated one million Congolese were killed. Independence came suddenly and abruptly to the Belgian Congo, with devastating consequences, on June 30, 1960. Fifteen political parties sprang up, primarily centered around tribal differences. While the Belgians had developed a small African elite, known as evolues, there were few college graduates or experienced administrators to rule the country. The Belgians seemed to think their advisers would effectively rule the country.

When independence was formally declared on June 30, 1960, Joseph Kasavubu was president and Patrice Lumumba served as prime minister. The two represented opposing political factions, with Kasavubu's ABAKO (Alliance des Ba-Kongo) party favoring a federation of the Congo's provinces, and Lumumba's MNC (Mouvement national congolais) supporting a unified state. The tensions between the two leaders were never resolved.

Within days, the Congo was plunged into crisis when the army mutinied. Lumumba satisfied the army's demands by appointing a new chief of staff, Col. Joseph-Desire Mobutu; and several non-commissioned officers were appointed to officer ranks from lieutenant to colonel. Mobutu had demonstrated an influence over the army during the mutiny, on several occasions confronting the mutineers and calming them. During the ensuing months of crisis, Mobutu's chief competitor for control over the army was its commander-in-chief, Victor Lundula. By August, when there was a rupture between Mobutu and Lumumba, Mobutu had virtual control over centrally located army garrisons.

Tensions Rose

In the meantime, Europeans in the Congo panicked, and Belgian civil servants fled the country. Belgian troops intervened to protect their nationals. The province of Katanga (later renamed Shaba), decided to secede under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, and South Kasai followed. Lumumba requested assistance from the United Nations and also obtained aid and advice from the Soviet Union. He also named Mobutu secretary of state for defense.

By August 1960, tensions had risen dramatically between Mobutu and Lumumba. When a political crisis erupted between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, Kasavubu used his constitutional powers to remove Lumumba from office. Refusing to accept his own dismissal, Lumumba then asked parliament to remove Kasavubu from the presidency. This political deadlock was resolved by the prompt intervention of the military under Colonel Mobutu, who staged his first coup on September 14, 1960. Mobutu immediately announced his intention to suspend all political institutions until December 31, 1960. Upon taking over, he expelled all Soviet and communist-bloc diplomats and technicians who had been invited to the Congo by Lumumba. He declared both Kasavubu and Lumumba were "neutralized," and on his own authority established an interim regime.

Following the coup, Lumumba was living in the capital under United Nations protection. Held incommunicado, he eventually tried escaping to Kisangani to join his supporters, but he was captured and delivered to his enemies in Katanga province. Lumumba was murdered on his first day there. While no one has been convicted of Lumumba's assassination, allegations have been made regarding possible CIA involvement and Mobutu's complicity, since he was in charge of the forces that arrested Lumumba and delivered him to his enemies.

Of this episode, Mobutu has said, "Kasavubu ordered Lumumba's arrest and his subsequent transfer to Lumubashi in Shaba [then Katanga] province, where he died. When Lumumba was assassinated, I was in Kinshasa [then Leopoldville, the capital], carrying out my duties as chief of staff of the army. I was as surprised as anyone when the news of his death was reported." As president of the Second Republic, Mobutu would later declare Patrice Lumumba a national hero.

First Rise to Power

Mobutu ruled briefly during the First Republic with the assistance of commissioners organized as the College of Commissioners, who were primarily young university graduates. Both a soldier and a political figure, Mobutu was not interested in becoming a military dictator. The army was his prime base, but he sustained his complex political network and was a major participant in government policymaking. He ruled until a new parliament was convened in August 1961, and a new government was formed with Cyrille Adoula as prime minister. Kasavubu remained as president.

During this period, four groups were vying for power: civilians under Kasavubu, northern provinces under Antoine Gizenga, Tshombe in Katanga, and a separatist group in Kasai led by Albert Kalonji. All except Tshombe joined to form the new government under Adoula, who ruled for two turbulent years. In July 1964, President Kasavubu invited Tshombe to assume the post of prime minister and form a new national government, the "government of national reconciliation." A new constitution of August 1, 1964, established a presidential system that incorporated a federalist structure.

At a Glance …

Born Joseph-Desire Mobutu on October 14, 1930, in Lisala, Equateur province, Belgian Congo (later Zaire, and now Democratic Republic of the Congo); died September 7, 1997, in Rabat, Morocco; son of Alberic Bemany (a cook and domestic servant) and Marie-Madeleine Yemo; adopted name/title Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga, 1972; married Bobi Ladawa; children: several. Education: Attended Catholic missionary schools.

Career: Conscripted into the colonial army for seven years for disciplinary reasons as a result of being expelled from the Catholic missionary schools, 1950; newspaper journalist, using pseudonym "de Banzy," 1956–?; colonial army, sergeant-major; promoted himself to the rank of field marshal, 1960; seized control of Zaire in military coup, 1960; returned power to civilian rule, 1961; seized control of the country in a military coup, 1965; ousted from power, 1997.

The Congo had been divided into 21 provinces under a new constitutional amendment that allowed the creation of new provinces, and the new constitution formalized the federalists' position. Elections were held in March and April 1965, but by mid-year a deadlock between Tshombe and Kasavubu occurred. Once again, the army, led by Lieutenant-General Mobutu, intervened and neutralized the two executives. On November 24, 1965, all executive powers were transferred to Mobutu.

Made Use of Diverse Background

The diversity of Mobutu's background helped bring him to power. Christened Joseph-Desire, he was born at Lisala, Equateur province, on October 14, 1930. His father, a cook and domestic servant, died in 1938, and his mother placed her family under the protection of the paternal clan of Ubangi. The "Sese Seko" of the title Mobutu adopted in 1972 are the given names of his paternal uncle, a well-known warrior-diviner from the village of Gbadolite. It is Gbadolite, rather than Lisala, that Mobutu considers his ancestral village, and he has transformed it into a model community with a well-appointed presidential palace that is often used as a rural retreat.

In his later life, Mobutu frequently referred to his humble background as the son of a cook and the victim of a difficult childhood. He finished fourth grade when his father died, then spent ten years in and out of school as his mother took the family to different villages. At Gbadolite, there was a conflict with his paternal uncles, one of whom expected a compulsory marriage to Mama Yemo, Mobutu's mother. In 1948, Mobutu was able to advance to junior high school at Mbandaka. He was subject to frequent disciplinary problems at the various Catholic missionary schools he attended, including the Capuchins, Scheutists, and Freres des Ecoles Chretiennes.

In 1950, Mobutu was definitively expelled and given a seven-year disciplinary conscription into the colonial army. His excellent command of French won him a desk job there, and he was soon sent to the Kananga military school where noncommissioned cadres were trained. At the Kananga school, he met the military generation that would seize control of the country in 1960 when the Belgian officers fled the country. In 1953, he was transferred to army headquarters in Kinshasa. At the time of his discharge in 1956, he had risen to sergeant-major in the accounting section, the highest rank open to Zairians. There were no African officers in the Belgian colonial army.

In 1956, Mobutu began to write newspaper articles under the pseudonym, "de Banzy." Through his military and journalistic careers, he found powerful European patrons, such as Pierre Davisher, a liberal Belgian editor, and Colonel Marliere, a senior Belgian officer. He also acquired visibility among the new African elite in Kinshasa. His only problem was with the Catholic Church, which considered him an intelligent but dissolute young man, lacking the proper moral qualities. Mobutu remained antagonistic to the church throughout his life. He refused to perform a Catholic marriage with his wife, and he typically aligned with anti-clerical factions as president.

In 1958, Mobutu went to Brussels with a large contingent of Zairians who were exhibited at the Brussels World Exposition as examples of Belgian colonial achievement. In 1959, he revisited Brussels and secured an apprenticeship in the colonial propaganda agency, Inforcongo. This post also gave him opportunities for advanced study in Brussels. In 1959–60, politically ambitious Zairians were busy constructing political networks.

Mobutu continued to live in Brussels and was sought out by diplomatic, intelligence, and financial interests, who were making contact with Zairian nationals in Belgium as the prospect for early independence loomed. Mobutu made contacts among financiers, the CIA, Zairian students, and Belgian security forces during this period. Mobutu attended the Round Table Conferences in Brussels that considered the coming independence for the Congo. He had developed a friendship with Lumumba that began in 1957 and was named head of the MNC/L office in Brussels. He returned to Zaire only three weeks before independence.

Led a Coup

After the five-year debacle that was the First Republic, Mobutu assumed power, declaring, "The political leaders have settled for a sterile power struggle without any regard for the well-being of the citizens of this country." Following his 1965 coup, Mobutu kept the institutional framework of the government intact and filled posts with new officials. He became head of state and his right-hand man, Colonel (later General) Leonard Mulamba, was named prime minister. Behind a constitutional facade, the army staff became the sole effective authority.

The first five years of Mobutu's presidency saw a consolidation of power into his hands and his office. After six years of virtual anarchy, Mobutu succeeded in bringing some law and order to Zaire. When he became head of state, he declared "no party politics were to be practiced in the country for five years." He became the founding president of MPR, the Mouvement populaire de la revolution, in April 1966. The MPR was the country's sole legal political party, and by law every citizen was a member. By 1970 the Congo had regular political institutions for the first time since 1965.

Mobutu described his plans at the time: "After independence, I set out to restore popular sovereignty and national unity, which was in grave jeopardy. In addition, I sought to promote economic development and to forge a national political movement." His ideological objective became known as "authenticity." By ending Zaire's multiparty system, which spawned nearly fifty political parties, Mobutu hoped to unify the country and provide for long-term political stability.

Implemented Mobutuism

After assuming power, Mobutu sought to make "authenticity" a political reality. The ideology derived its inspiration from the African experience. And Mobutu felt ideology plays a salient role in the survival and progress of a nation and that without it, a society loses its sense of direction. In line with the doctrine of authenticity, the Democratic Republic of Congo became the Republic of Zaire on October 27, 1971. Zaire is French for the Portuguese name given to the Congo River, from an approximate rendering of the Kikongo word nzadi (river). Colonial place names were Africanized, and a new flag and national anthem were adopted. Individuals were required to adopt African names in place of their Christian or other foreign names. Mobutu adopted his ancestral name—Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga—which translates as "all-conquering warrior who goes from triumph to triumph." Other European influences such as the observance of Christmas and the wearing of bow ties were also outlawed.

The official ideology became known as Mobutuism, and by 1974 it was taught in schools in place of religious instruction. Mobutu's more devoted followers referred to him as the Messiah, and the MPR was equated with the church. Following certain Maoist tendencies, Mobutu's praise was reiterated in the official media with titles like Guide of the Zairian revolution, the Helmsman, Father of the Nation, and Founding President. Mobutu also designated towns and villages associated with his career as "places of meditation." Mobutu's mother, Mama Yemo, died in 1971. Some commentators believe she exercised a restraining effect over her son. It was in the years immediately following her death that Mobutu's personality cult reached its peak. Mobutu had a new medical facility in Kinshasa named after her.

When the Mobutu personality cult was at its peak in 1974–75, the press carried a front-page photograph of him nearly every day, and other officials could only be mentioned by title, not by name. From 1969 to 1975, Mobutu enjoyed direct communion with the people of Zaire. His brand of personalism was justified on the grounds that the public could not understand power in abstract terms. To achieve full legitimacy, the state needed to be personalized, not unlike a village chief who embodies the people of that village.

Government Marked by Corruption

The unchecked concentration of power in Mobutu's hands led to corruption and an intolerance of dissent. He effectively dealt with opposition from political figures, students, labor, and the Catholic Church in the early years of his presidency. Mobutu admitted to controlling the media and flow of information in Zaire. He considered the media "an excellent vehicle for educating the masses," but "this information must reflect the genuine concerns and major aspirations of the people…. The people must not be left to the mercy of the media, which over time and without their knowledge may sow the seeds of strife and discord."

A 1985 article in Forbes estimated Mobutu's personal fortune at $5 billion, the equivalent of Zaire's national debt. Mobutu denied the charge and claimed to have about $50 million in assets. With 17-20 percent of Zaire's national budget devoted to "Presidency Services," Mobutu was able to make legal expenditures at his own discretion. He was the largest shareholder in the Banque du Kinshasa, had indirect interest in several Zairian operations of foreign-owned companies, and partially owned an agricultural conglomerate (CELZA) that was one of the country's largest employers.

After 25 years of Mobutu's regime, tensions in Zaire mounted in 1990 as democratic reforms sweeping Eastern Europe took effect in many African nations. In February, an illegal opposition party (UDPS) staged demonstrations to commemorate the death of Lumumba. Further unrest occurred in April, as students staged protests in Kinshasa. Later that month, Mobutu announced that a multi-party system allowing three parties (including the MPR) would be introduced after a transition period of one year.

Power and Popularity Waned

At that time, he also announced the inauguration of the "Third Republic" and resigned as chairman of MPR and state commissioner for national defense. He retained the office of president and set up a special commission to draft a new constitution. Presidential elections were scheduled to take place before December 1991, with legislative elections to follow in 1992. Elections named a new parliament and a prime minister, but violence perpetrated by Mobutu supporters and their opposition in the early 1990s impeded the government's effectiveness and left more than 1,000 dead by 1994. Mobutu remained very much a leader in the Congo during this time of chaos. But when he turned a blind eye to Hutus from Rwanda setting up refugee camps within the Congo from which they continued their genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, Mobutu enraged his neighbors. Rwanda and Uganda joined forces with Mobutu's opposition.

These soldiers were among the rebel movement that ousted Mobutu from the Congo on May 17, 1997. That day rebels swept Laurent Kabila to power with little resistance from Mobutu's vast military forces. Time reported the coup as an end to Mobutu's "grossly ruinous reign." But in a review of Michela Wrong's book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, African Business noted that it was not long before "Zaireans and the world at large realised that Kabila, their putative liberator, was to all intents and purposes no saviour at all. Very soon, many realised that Kabila's administration was probably as repressive and incompetent as its predecessor." (Kabila was assassinated in 2001.) Once declaring that he would never relinquish the title of president, Mobutu continued to refer to himself in this way until his death of prostate cancer, which came only months after the coup, during his exile in Morocco on September 7, 1997. Mobutu left a horrifying legacy. As the New York Times obituary noted, "He built his political longevity on three pillars: violence, cunning and the use of state funds to buy off enemies. His systematic looting of the national treasury and major industries gave birth to the term "kleptocracy" to describe a reign of official corruption that reputedly made him one of the world's wealthiest heads of state." After his death, the wealth Mobutu had diverted from his people to his own pockets over the years was estimated to be nearly $8 billion.



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