Today we take a journey to the world’s richest country in terms of unexploited minerals, The Democratic Republic of Congo. Fresh from independence, the nation faced several problems from the assassination of leader Patrice Lumumba to secession attempts by mineral-rich provinces and power struggles. Amidst all this chaos rose Mobutu Sese Seko.
On 25 November 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko assumed power in a coup d’etat with the help of the army and external support from the CIA. Soon after capturing power, Mobutu outlawed all political parties in his country except his own popular revolutionary movement.
To further tighten his grip on power, Mobutu then moved on to his political opponents. He started by ordering the hanging of some at a stadium in the capital Kinshasa. He posted others to foreign missions, while those who remained in the country were constantly tortured and imprisoned. On the other hand, those who kept quiet were awarded for their silence.
In 1970, he organised his first of the three national elections in which he was the national sole candidate. In what would be campaigning for these elections, Mobutu always went on party tours around the country.
He would organize festivities instead of campaigns and together with his entourage and the locals, they would drown in alcohol and music until he moved on to the next place. In the aftermath of such elections, many critics including military officers were usually arrested and killed under doctored charges of treason and destabilizing the country.
Mobutu’s next move was the national authenticity which he announced in 1972, under this program he changed the country’s official name to Zaire and all citizens were obliged to drop their European names. He changed his name from Joseph-Desire Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, (“The all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”). And just like in any other dictatorial government where policies are implemented with a lot of violation, many were beaten, arrested and killed to implement this policy.
Under this policy, he also nationalized the national economy. His government took over all key enterprises from mining to industry. Through this same policy, Mobutu and his allies accumulated vast amounts of wealth earned from the mismanagement of these enterprises.
Mobutu Sese Seko alongside his allies stole and amassed wealth from the country’s mineral industry.
During his rule, all the earnings from the rich mining sector went directly into the pockets of the selected few. At one point, Mobutu was quoted saying, “If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly in a nice way. Only if you steal so much as to become rich overnight, you will be caught.”
The dictator, his family, cronies and allies spent the majority of the wealth on leaving lavish lives both at home and abroad with little fed back into the national economy to boost it. Throughout his military rule over Zaire, the national economy was crumbling at a very drastic rate.
As it is a common syndrome among dictatorships to always try and please their foreign emissaries and dignitaries, Mobutu usually hosted other Heads of State and also in 1974 paid George Foreman and Muhammad Ali $5 million each for the famous, “Rumble In The Jungle” to take place in Kinshasa, a move Ali later mocked.
In the late 1980s, due to the weak economy, lack of modern infrastructure to fully exploit the country’s minerals potential and several secession riots, Mobutu’s government was losing popularity among the citizens and also declining in power.
In a bid to regain popularity, Mobutu gave back some the nationalized assets to former owners due to pressure from Western powers, and also freed some political party members in 1990. This, however, later marked the beginning of the end of the Mobutu regime.
In the 1990s, the dictator was battling both ill-health and fresh military revolt from the rebels in the Eastern part of the country led by Laurent Kabila. In May 1997, the rebels finally ousted Mobutu’s government leading him to flee first to the capital and later his home in Gbadolite only for then to continue to exile into Morocco. Due to the fact that dictators rarely live long without power, Mobutu died on 7th September 1997.
More than 20 years after his death, Mobutu is infamously remembered for his deeds by most of the countrymen and abroad but that is not the case for the people living in his jungle hometown of Gbadolite. By the time he came to power, Gbadolite was a small town of less than 2000 living in absolute poverty in their mud bricked grass-thatched small huts but Mobutu became their saviour after leading them to prosperity using his loot from across the country.
In the jungle town rose mega structures for hospitals, schools, administrative structures, factories including one for soft drinks and another for beer. The town also had its own Hydro Power generation plant, expensive night clubs, a five-star hotel, a world-class airport and three palaces including his famous Gbadolite “African Versailles” Palace which reportedly cost $400 million.
When he was ousted from power, the town became a shadow of its former self with many projects which were still under development stoped. Everything in the town was re-absorbed by the jungle. The airport is now occupied by the army, the hotel struggles to make five visits a day, the power station no longer generates power.
The palace is in the poorest shape. The people of the town still live with a lot of nostalgia from the past glory and they highly talk of their former saviour Mobutu Sese Seko.
The Mobutu regime is believed to have stolen between $5 to $15 billion from Democratic Republic Congo.
Author: Katende Basajjabaka
Katende writes about sports and occasionally technology.