Module Twenty Seven, Activity Three

Postcolonial Congo -Bitter Harvest: Foreign Intervention, Authoritarianism, & Kleptocracy

At the end of Activity Two, which provided an overview of the history the Congo up until independence in 1960, with special emphasis on the colonial experience, you were asked to project what you thought might be the post-colonial legacy of 75 years of Belgian rule.

At independence in 1960, the Congo had, in some sectors, one of the most developed economies in colonial Africa. With the exception of the European “settler” colonies of Rhodesia and South Africa, the Congo was the most industrialized colony with the largest waged workforce in sub-Saharan Africa. It also had the highest rate of urbanization. According to the prevailing wisdom of the time, these factors should have positioned the Congo to experience a smooth transition into nationhood.

However, we also learned in our historical overview that Belgian colonial policy had deliberately excluded African participation in the political system, denied Congolese the access to skilled and management positions in commerce and through its education policy restricted Congolese access to secondary and higher education. Moreover, through policies that promoted ethnic identity, ethnic solidarity, and regionalism, the colonial regime stifled the formation of a strong sense of national identity, of Congolese nationalism.

These legacy factors cast a foreboding shadow over the celebration of the birth of the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 30, 1960.

Within a week of independence, the brand new government faced its first crisis that would foretell a troubled history for the infant nation. On July 5, 1960 the enlisted forces in Congolese army mutinied against the Belgian officer corps that was still in command of the armed forces. The enlisted men were protesting maltreatment, racism, the lack of opportunity for promotion, as well as low pay. The Belgian colonial policy, not dissimilar to their policy in the political arena, intentionally excluded Africans from the officer corps, even at the intermediate level. Consequently, at independence, the army was totally under the control of Belgian officers with no Congolese rising above the rank of captain.

Prime Minister Lumumba, recognizing the legitimate demands of the Congolese soldiers and being cognizant of the government’s and country’s need for a unified army, dismissed the Belgian high command, but not its officer corps, and appointed Victor Lundula, a medical doctor who once served in the Force Publique, but who had no experience in the army, as commander in chief. He also appointed Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, a then trusted associate to the rank of colonel and chief of staff of the newly renamed Armée nationale congolaise (ANC). These moves turned out to be disastrous. Lundula, while an intelligent doctor, had no experience administering to a national army. Mobutu, who had served in the colonial army as an enlisted man between 1949 -1956, although trusted by Lumumba, had his own ambitions, and soon played a key role in removing Lumumba from power. However, the central issue, which posed a seemingly insurmountable problem that was very difficult to immediately address, was that of rapidly capacitating a well-trained Congolese officer corps who would be capable of leading a united and well-disciplined Armée nationale congolaise.

The mutiny by the army was the opening episode in a rapid chain of events of political upheaval over the next six months that resulted in political chaos and the near disintegration of the still infant Republic of the Congo that are summarized here:

  1. On July 11th, Katanga, the mineral rich province, announced with support from Belgium, that it was seceding from the Congo and declared itself an independent country (Republic of Katanga);
  2. Less than one month later, South Kasai (now Kasai Orientale) declared that it was also seceding from the Republic;
  3. In response to the unraveling of the new nation-state, Prime Minister Lumumba was successful in persuading the United Nations to intervene in the Congo in the form of a UN Peacekeeping mission with the intent of assisting the government maintain peace and security in the country (United Nations Mission in the Congo (ONUC). The first ONUC troops arrived on July 15, 1960, and by the end of the year their number had grown to almost 20,000 troops.
  4. Under pressure from the Belgians and the U.S. on September 5, 1960, President Kasa Vubu announced that he was dismissing Patrice Lumumba as prime minister, and putting him under house arrest. There was strong popular opposition to the dismissal of the democratically elected prime minister;
  5. In mid-September the recently appointed chief of staff of the armed forces colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu announced that he had formed a “college of commissioners” comprised of senior civil servants to administer the country (Kasa Vubu was allowed to remain president in a reduced ceremonial role);
  6. In November, Lumumba managed to escape his house imprisonment, but he was captured within days, beaten, imprisoned, and taken to Katanga where on January 17, 1961 he was brutally murdered by senior Katangese officials, but with the clear support of the Belgian and U.S. secret services.

We will now address some of these seminal events in more detail:

To understand these events it is important to remember and recognize, on one hand, the internal or domestic factors that provided the context for these events. Most important is the fact that on June 30, 1960 the Congo inherited from the colonial era a state structure that had no real power from which to govern; a government that lacked capacity to deliver the most basic of governmental services; a polity that lacked unity and was riven with ethnic and regional loyalties facilitated by the colonial regime; and a constitution that intentionally limited the power of democratically elected officials, reducing the ability of Prime Minister Lumumba and his parliamentary majority to govern effectively.

On the other hand, it is also essential to recognize external factors that contributed to the failure of the infant Congolese state. Disgruntled Belgian colonial officials conspired with European settlers and multinational companies, which were heavily invested in the mines of southwestern Congo, to encourage and support the secession of Katanga. Just as critical to understanding the events in the Congo in the early 1960s, is recognizing the impact of the Cold War, which was full-blown in 1960; the actions of the U.S., which through the C.I.A. supported  Lumumba’s demise, the rise to power of Mobutu, and the actions of the United Nations ONUC force which did not serve as agents of political stability in the Congo, but which refused to intervene in Kasai and Katanga, and was complicit in the arrest and eventual assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

Congo’s independence and ensuing crisis came at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and its NATO allies and the Soviet Bloc countries. Not since the end of the Korean war in 1953 had Cold War tensions been so high as they were in the early 1960s, highlighted by three main events. (1) The shooting down over the USSR of a U.S. U2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers, in May, 1960; (2) the overthrow of the U.S. supported authoritarian government in Cuba by revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro in 1959, leading within two years to a series of crises in Cuba that brought U.S. to the brink of war with the USSR, Cuba’s primary protector, over the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis; and (3) the emerging crisis in Vietnam that eventually led to active engagement of U.S. forces between 1964-74.

The U.S. approach to the Congo –first by the Eisenhower administration that was in its final year when Congo became independent, and then by the new Kennedy administration that took over the presidency in January 1961 –was deeply impacted by the heightened Cold War tensions. In rhetoric both administrations supported the transition from colonialism to independence for African colonies. However, both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations’ understanding of post-independence Africa was filtered through Cold War lenses. Consequently, they were susceptible to the Belgian’s assertions that Lumumba and his allies were Marxist in orientation and would, if left unchecked, lead the Congo into a close alliance with the USSR. Lacking any Africanist expertise, both U.S. administrations, were strongly inclined to blindly accept the Belgian argument. Not only did the U.S. accept the dismissal of Lumumba and his eventual assassination, there is strong evidence of the CIA’s active support of his assassination.

The Cold War informed mindset on the Congo had a long-term negative consequence that went much further than the assassination of a democratically elected prime minister and the political chaos of the following year. The U.S. policy towards the Congo was largely framed, not on a commitment to support democracy and development in the country, but on ensuring that the top leadership of the country would be supportive of U.S. political and economic interests, which were framed by a Cold War mentality. This perspective resulted in U.S. support of the 1965 military coup that brought Mobuto Sese Seko to power and of his 32 years of authoritarian rule.

Your Turn:

Create a chain of events, starting with the most recent event in the previous section, and working your way backwards to what caused the preceding event. Begin with the last sentence, “. . . U.S. support of the 1965 military coup that brought Mobuto Sese Seko to power and of his 32 years of authoritarian rule.” With this event, ask yourself, “but why?” and continue down the chain of events back into time. Look into the reading to answer the “why” of the question: “Why did the U.S. support the 1965 military coup?”

Secession of Katanga

The secession from the Congo and declaration of the Republic of Katanga less than two weeks after Congo’s independence was not a total surprise.  Although the copper-and-mineral-rich province was the primary source of revenue for the colonial state and was the jewel of the Belgian colonial endeavor in Africa, the province’s geo-political orientation was more closely aligned to the political economy of southern Africa than to the colonial capital in Léopoldville. From the 1920s, Anglo-South African capital was almost as important in the development of the mining economy of Katanga as was Belgian capital. South African-sourced machinery, supplies and services were central to the Katanga mining industry. Also important was that much of the skilled white labor essential to the mining industry had roots in the Southern Africa mining complex. These workers brought with them to Katanga the deeply racist and discriminatory work culture that was normative in South Africa, which by the 1930s became the norm at Katanga’s mines and in the mining compounds.


This external factor was complemented by the Belgian colonial policy of regional administration that was designed to foster regional identity at the expense of a national identity among the Congolese.  Consequently, in the 1960 election, among the many political parties competing, only Lumumba’s Mouvement national Congolese (MNC) was a nation-wide nationalist party. All the other political parties, including Conakat (Confédération des Associations Tribales du Katanga) formed in 1959 under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, were regionally based parties. From its formation in 1959, Conakat was supported by a coalition of European interests, including industry, colonial officials and settler groups. In the pre-independence elections in 1960, Conakat did poorly nationally, but won a solid majority of the votes in Katanga province.

Lubumbashi/Elizabethvile, Capital of Katanga, Circa 1960
Lubumbashi/Elizabethvile, Capital of Katanga, Circa 1960

The pre-existing close relationship between Moise Tshombe, the leadership of Conakat, and European interests, facilitated the rapidly reached decision for Katanga to secede from the Congo. Opposition to Lumumba among the former Belgian colonial officials in Katanga, the fear on the part of the mining executives that Lumumba might nationalize the giant mining companies (although Lumumba had not indicated that his government planned to do so) and the strong opposition to the new government among the racist settler communities combined with the political ambitions of Tshombe and the Conakat leadership, provided a coalition that made the secession of Katanga possible and sustained its political status for over two years.

The political, economic and social structures that had been in place for decades in Katanga, continued almost seamlessly under the new guise of the Republic of Katanga.

Open Pit Copper Mine in Katanga
Open Pit Copper Mine in Katanga
Copper Processing Plant in Katanga
Copper Processing Plant in Katanga

The economic infrastructure that was orientated southward was not severely impacted by Congo independence and the ensuing political machinations. In 1960, the southern polities of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia (comprising the Central African Federation along with the smaller Nyasaland) and South Africa were very much a part of the region’s racist political economy. Hence, political events in post-colonial Congo had very little economic impact in Katanga. Supplies essential to the mining industry continued to move smoothly through a rail system that linked Katanga with South Africa. Copper exports also continued unimpeded via a rail-line that linked the province with the Angolan port city of Benguela. Portugal, Angola’s colonizer, was a staunch ally of the U.S. and supported the secession of Katanga.

Map of Southern African Rail System: Katanga's Economic Integration
Map of Southern African Rail System: Katanga's Economic Integration

In the political arena, senior Belgian civil servants, in collaboration with Katangese protégés, staffed the government departments with limited interruption. Indeed, while the Belgian government never officially recognized Katanga as an independent state, many of its actions were supportive of the new regime and it did not attempt to isolate it internationally.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the reality that the Belgian colonial army and police force in the region remained intact under Belgian leadership in sharp contrast to the newly minted Armée nationale congolaise, helping to ensure that national troops would not be able to challenge the province’s secession. Moreover, even though United Nation ONUC troops were stationed in parts of Katanga, they never challenged the new power structure in Katanga, in spite of pleas from Lumumba to do so.

Katanga’s nominal independence lasted until December 1962, following months of negotiations between the Tshombe, the United Nations that had become increasingly frustrated with instability in the Congo, and the fractured leadership in Kinshasa. An agreement was reached to end Katanga’s secession.  Under the agreement, Tshombe went into exile in Europe, but there were no sanctions imposed on the leadership of Conakat. In 18 short months, Tshombe returned to the Congo, to become prime minister of the united country in mid 1964.

Moise Tshombe Time Magazine Cover, December 22, 1961
Moise Tshombe Time Magazine Cover, December 22, 1961

Your Turn: 

Katanga and Kasai Orintal are rich in minerals.  Construct an analysis in a couple of paragraphs of the role of minerals in the colonial history of these provinces and how minerals may have contributed to the decision of local political leaders to succeed from the Congo within a month of independence in July, 1960.

Assassination of Patrice Lumumba

The events that led up to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected inaugural prime minister of the Congo, have already been outlined, as has been the rationale of his domestic and international opponents.

On the domestic front, Lumumba’s opposition was primarily from regionally based political leaders who had failed to gain support outside of their local base in pre-independence elections of 1960.  This included Joseph Kasa Vubu, who became the country’s first president. It was not that these leaders, with the notable exception on Tshombe in Katanga, had no national ambitions, but the harsh reality that their political power was regionally based, restricted their political options. Their local support, the foundation of their political influence and power, was conditional of them being able to deliver services to their regions. This dilemma placed them in a potentially adversarial relationship with Lumumba and his Mouvement national Congolese (MNC) political party that had a clear national orientation.

In spite of strong domestic opposition, the primary driving force behind Lumumba’s ouster as prime minister in early September, 1960 were international interests. Lumumba was an unapologetic nationalist and Pan-Africanist, who was firmly committed to develop Congo politically, socially and economically as a unified nation-state. These goals necessitated the dramatic reduction of Belgium’s political and economic influence. There is, however, no evidence that Lumumba was a Marxist or that in the few short months that he was prime minister he sought a special relationship with the Soviet Bloc. Yet, the Belgian government’s multinational business with interest in the Congo, and the community of former colonial civil servants and European settlers, framed Lumumba and his allies as Marxists determined to nationalize all international owned mines, industries, financial institutions and large-scale commercial farms. These accusations caught the attention of the outgoing Eisenhower and incoming Kennedy administrations in the U.S. who were prone to see nationalist movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America through the prism of Cold War ideology.

There is strong evidence that CIA operatives stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa closely collaborated with Belgian diplomats in plotting the dismissal of Lumumba as Prime Minister. They worked closely with Joseph Mobutu, whom Lumumba had appointed as the first Congolese Chief of Staff of the army and President Kasa Vubu to plot Lumumba’s dismissal. The public pretext that was used by Vasa-Vubu to justify removing Lumumba from office and placing him under house arrest was Lumumba’s supposed complicity in the army’s violence against civilians in their attempt to put down the secession movement in South Kasai.

While there is evidence that the army used excessive force in South Kasai, the evidence does not suggest that Lumumba directed or supported these actions. Just as importantly, the constitution laid out a procedure for impeaching a prime minister, a procedure that required the collection and documentation of evidence that should be presented to a parliamentary committee who would weigh the evidence and pronounce judgment. This procedure was not followed.  Kasa Vubu, under pressure from Belgium and the U.S. dismissed Lumumba and placed him under house arrest.

Mobutu, using the newly appointed college of commissioners, was able to suppress Lumumba’s popular support in Kinshasa. However, support for Lumumba in some regions outside of the capital remained strong. This was particularly true in the north eastern province of Orientale and its capital city, Kisangani. By October, 1960, Antonine Gizenga, who had been Lumumba’s deputy prime minister, had organized supporters of the Mouvement national Congolese (MNC) into a small resistance force in Kisangani. He argued that the actions by the leadership in Kinshasa necessitated the use of force to regain power for the democratically elected government led by Lumumba.

Lumumba, under house arrest, became convinced that the only hope was for him to escape house arrest and make his way to Kisangani. On November 27, 1960, he was able to slip past the soldiers who guarded his house and began a journey towards Kisangani. However, the Congolese security forces with logistical support from the Belgian and U.S. intelligence operatives were able to intercept Lumumba’s movement on December 1, 1960. Upon his arrest Lumumba was severely beaten and was taken back to Kinshasa where he was held in a military barracks for a short time before being transferred to an elite armored military base in the Lower Congo, where he was to spend the last six weeks of his life prior to being flown to Lubumbashi, capital of nominally independent Katanga, on January 17, 1961. Since the government in Kinshasa was officially at war with Katanga, it is highly unlikely that they would deliberately send Lumumba to Katanga where he would most certainly be killed. The evidence in now incontrovertible; Belgium intelligence with the full support and knowledge of the CIA, organized and arranged for Lumumba’s removal from a military prison in the Lower Congo and for the plane that took him to Lubumbashi.

The next day, Lumumba was taken to a house used by security officials outside of the city where he and the aides who had been arrested with him were shot execution style. Initially they were buried on site.  A few days later, afraid that their actions would become public, the Katangese security forces exhumed their bodies in hope that they would not be discovered.

A few weeks before his eventual assassination, Lumumba was able to have a letter to his children smuggled out of the military camp where he was being held. The contents of this letter are part of a life and testimony that made him a martyr and a hero to so many, not just in the Congo, but also across the continent of Africa:

Dead or alive, free or in prison on the orders of the colonialists, it is not myself that counts.  It is the Congo, it is our poor people, whose independence has been transformed into a cage, from whose confines the outside world looks in on us. . . To my children whom I leave and whom I may never see again, I would like them to be told that it is for them, as it is for all Congolese, to accomplish the sacred task of reconstructing our independence and our sovereignty, for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men.”

Arrest of Lumumba, December 1, 1960
Arrest of Lumumba, December 1, 1960
Political Cartoon: Lumumba Map of Africa
Political Cartoon: Lumumba Map of Africa
House in Katanga where Lumumba was assassinated
House in Katanga where Lumumba was assassinated

Your Turn:

Our story of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba is not comprehensive. Please (1) watch the video remembrance of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba on the 50th anniversary of his death:

and (2) read the BBC summary “Patrice Lumumba: A brief history.”

While you watch this video and read the report, keep notes.

After watching the video and reading the reports, write at least a paragraph that answers the question: How, and why, was Patrice Lumumba murdered, according to these reports?  What are your personal thoughts about his assassination?

Congo: 1962-1965

After the overthrow of Lumumba in September, 1960 there were a series of heads of government (prime ministers) – seven in all, prior to Mobutu’s coup in Oct. 1965 that installed a Presidential system, that is, with the president as head of government as well as head of state.

During this period only one prime minister, Cyrille Adoula, served longer than a year—August 1961-June, 1964; when he was replaced by Moise Tshombe who was brought back from his European exile. Joseph Kasa Vubu remained the President (head of state) for most of this period. However his power and influence was limited constitutionally, and by Mobutu, who along with his “college of commissioners,” had more power than either the prime minister or president.

It was also problematic that, with the notable exception of Mobutu, the leaders who had significant power after the demise of Lumumba: Kasa Vubu, Adoula, and Tshombe, were all regionalists. Their support and power-base was regional not national, as had been the case with Lumumba. This tendency reinforced a system of governance that was weak and lacked capacity at the national level, but which supported regional biases. Such a system discriminated against regions of the country that were not resource rich and which had under-developed social and economic infrastructure as a result of colonial bias.

In spite of the weakness of the leadership in Kinshasa, with the assistance of the international community—primarily Belgium, France and the U.S. by 1963 most of the remaining “Lumumbaists” had been removed from senior positions in government. And, at the end of 1962 Katanga and Kasai were re-integrated into the Congo. Yet, there was a near total failure of government to address the legitimate aspirational goals of Congolese; for the vast majority of the population their social and economic situation was no better, and for some worse, than it had been under colonialism.

In response to political chaos and popular disillusionment there were attempts at starting a “second independence movement,” including an ill-fated liberationist/armed movement—Conseil national de liberation (CNL) which between late 1963 and 1965 undertook and armed resistance to the Congolese government. Thanks to external support (mainly from the Soviet bloc and Cuba) the CNL was able to take control of some of the northeastern region of Congo, but they were not able to match the mercenary army and Katangist forces that used CIA funds to dislodge the CNL fighters by late 1964.  Famously, Che Guevara, the iconic Argentinian hero of the Cuban revolution, spent six month fighting alongside CNL fighters in 1964, but he became disillusioned by the laxity of the CNL leadership –particularly of Laurent Kabila. It is into this chaotic political vacuum that Mobutu—a central actor in Congo since Lumumba appointed him head of the army, right after independence—takes control of the Congo (which he had been a power behind the scenes) in a second coup on November 25th 1965.

Rise and Fall of Mobuto Seso Seko

Module Ten, which focused on politics and governments in post-colonial Africa outlined in some detail the legacy of the colonial state and political system on the newly independent African states. Colonial political systems were by design anti-democratic, indigenous populations that were deliberately excluded from participation in the governing process. The degree and severity of exclusion varied across colonies based on the interests of the particular colonial power. As detailed above, the Belgians were particularly determined to exclude Congolese from the processes of government. Consequently, the post-independence governments were ill prepared and severely lacked the capacity to govern effectively.

In addition, colonial powers across the continent had deployed strategies of  “divide and rule” in order to govern and effectively control geographically large areas and culturally diverse populations.  These tactics often created ethnic, regional, and linguistic rivalries that that became ingrained by the end of the colonial era and did not disappear after independence but made national identity and a unified polity difficult, if not impossible to achieve.

Finally, as emphasized in modules Nine and Ten, the colonial economic modes of production, that were totally resource and export orientated with the vast majority of profits flowing out of the country with minimal reinvestment in the colonies, provided the newly independent governments with meager revenue resources with which to address the legitimate popular aspirations for the expansion of housing, health care, education and employment as well as for peace and security.

This negative legacy, that was particularly severe in the Congo, created a political and social environment that made authoritarian, one-man rule a strong possibility, and even an attractive alternative, at first, for postcolonial countries and their citizens who were confronted with a highly dysfunctional and ill-equipped political system inherited from their former colonial rulers.

As detailed in Module Ten, in response to popular dissatisfaction with early post-colonial regimes, a number of African countries experienced military coups in the first decade after independence ushering in authoritarian regimes many of which were dominated by single military strong men.  In an era that saw the rise of a number of authoritarian military rulers that include Jean-Bédal Bokassa (Central Africa Republic), Idi Amin (Uganda) and Siad Barre (Somalia) perhaps the most notorious was Joseph-Desiré Mobutu of the Congo who exercised authoritarian rule over the Congo for thirty-two years (1965 – 1997).

External Influence and the Impact of the Cold War

Mobutu’s rise to power, included his growing political influence beginning in July 1960 when Lumumba appointed him as chief of staff of the army, and his increasingly important role as power broker in the years of the Congo crisis, that culminated in the 1965 coup, was facilitated in large part by external support by the Belgians and the U.S.  The U.S.’s decision and justification for direct interference in the Congo, was shaped by the Cold War. Declassified CIA directives and State Department memos from the early 1960’s clearly demonstrate the U.S.’s grooming of Mobutu as the strong leader that they believed was necessary, not only to bring stability to the Congo, but to guarantee that the Soviets would not gain influence in this resource rich but politically vulnerable country and region.

Based on the evidence, it is not surprising that Nzongola-Ntalaja, a leading Congolese scholar, asserts that, ‘as an externally backed autocrat, the Mobutu regime was a pure product of the Cold War. It originated in the cold strategic calculation of Western powers that leaders with social or political base [domestically] were preferable to [leaders] with strong national constituencies, to which they were accountable” (pg. 142)

The support of the U.S. as well as that of Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, continued until that the early 1990s when the West declared victory in the Cold War with the demise of the Soviet Union the democratization of the eastern European Warsaw Pact countries.

With devastating consequences, the U.S. and her Western allies supported and protected Mobutu in spite of incontrovertible evidence of endemic corruption, wide spread human rights abuses, and the political decay and social dislocation brought about by Mobutu’s autocratic rule. Indeed, as late as 1989, when Glasnost and Perestroika were in full bloom and the Cold War over, the newly elected George Bush, invited Mobutu to the White House, has had Presidents, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan before him. President Bush welcomed Mobutu by asserting: “Zaire is among America’s oldest friends—and its president, President Mobutu is one of our valued friends . . .” (Edgerton, The Troubled Heart of Africa: a History of the Congo, 2002, pg. 218)

The U.S. and Belgium were not the only external powers that provided strong support to Mobutu. France also developed strong relations with Mobutu, recognizing the Congo’s strategic position in Africa, its mineral wealth, and not unimportant to the way in which France perceived its unique role in fostering Francophone culture and interest in the continent—Zaire was recognized as the largest French speaking country in Africa (even if it had been colonized by the Belgians). Former French president Jacques Chirac wrote in his memoirs: “You ask me what was France’s interest [in the Congo]. On this matter there is no ambiguity.  Congo-Leopoldville [note the use of anachronistic city name], Zaire today, is the largest country in Francophone Africa. It has considerable natural resources. It has the means of being a regional power. The long-term interest of France and its African allies is evident.” (Ntalaj, pg. 162)

Fairly dramatic change occurred as the cold war ended. The new Clinton administration in the early 1990s no longer viewed Mobutu as a strategic asset—indeed; they began to see his human rights and political record as a political liability. Toward the end of his rule, only France remained a supporter of Mobutu, carrying out covert missions in eastern Congo against the Kabila’s AFDL forces—but to no avail. Mobutu on May 17, 1997, thirty-two years after coming to power in the Congo, flew out of Kinshasa, one last time, to Morocco where he went into exile until his death of prostate cancer on September 7, 1997.

Mobutu with U.S. President Richard Nixon, 1973
Mobutu with U.S. President Richard Nixon, 1973
Mobutu with U.S. President Ronald Reagan
Mobutu with U.S. President Ronald Reagan
Mobutu with U.S. President George Bush, 1989
Mobutu with U.S. President George Bush, 1989

Authenticity and the Creation of Zaire

It took Mobutu several years after the 1965 coup to fully solidify his power and the re-integration of all regions into the Congo, including Katanga and the northeastern province of Orientale that had been the stronghold of the MNC led armed resistance. Once this was accomplished, Mobutu was determined to move Congo into an era of strength and prosperity.

The mechanism for achieving this goal was the launch in April 1971 of Authenticité, which Mobutu asserted would help link the country and people to reconnect to the historic past and authentic Congolese culture. Colonialism had deliberately denied that Congo had a history prior to the coming of the Belgians, and they had intentionally denigrated and devalued the Congo’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. Authenticité, Mobutu asserted, would renew the peoples pride in their cultural heritage and help bind the country together in a single national identity.

Authenticité was manifested in several parallel levels: symbolic, cultural, social, economic and political.

Symbolic:  Authenticité required the shedding of the symbolic vestiges of European colonialism, including Christianity.  Renaming became the most visible aspect this endeavor, —starting with name of the country, in October 1971, Mobutu announced that the country’s name would be changed to Zaire, a Portuguese corruption of the Kikongo word Nsere, their name of the Congo river—“the river that swallows all rivers. ” All eight provinces were also renamed; Katanga, for example, was named Shaba province. Ironically, in selecting a new name for the Congo, Mobutu did not adopt the Kicongo name Nsere, but Zaire the Portuguese corruption of that name. Which is more authentic?  All remaining Belgian/European place names—cities, towns, street, physical features (rivers, mountains, etc.) were given Congolese/Zairian names.

Just as dramatically, Mobutu insisted that all Congolese should give up their Christian names for “authentically” Zairian names. Mobutu gave up his own two Christian names, Joseph Désiré, re-naming himself, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“the all-powerful warrior who, because of endurance and inflexible will to win, go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”). He used, on a daily basis, his first three names, Mobutu Sese Seko. The national army was renamed, Forces Armées Zaïroises (FAZ).

Authenticité also impacted fashion and dress. Mobutu encouraged the rejection of European fashion and dress codes. He himself gave up the European styled suits that he had worn to date, and adopted an “authentic” suit that resembled the Mao suits made famous by Mao Zedong of China (see photos above). However, unlike the Mao suits that were constructed out of local village-spun fabrics, Mobutu’s suits were made of the finest European fabric and were personally tailored for him in Brussels. As a sign of his position, Mobutu wore a leopard-skinned hat (see photos with the American presidents). No one else was allowed to wear leopard-skinned hats.

At first there was a level of popular support for this attempt at indigenization that rejected externally imposed names and cultural framework. But, before long it became obvious that this was just a façade of opportunistic megalomania—personality cult. Mobutu was often followed around with a dance troop whose songs and dances were in his praise. He framed himself as father of the nation, and his first wife Marie-Antoinette and his mother “mama Yemo” were both at times called mother of the nation. He promoted extravagant showpieces such as the famous “rumble in the jungle” heavyweight boxing championship between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman on October 30, 1974. All remaining Belgian/European place names—cities, towns, street, physical features (rivers, mountains, etc.) were given Congolese/Zairian names.

The Economics of Authenticité:  From the outset of Authenticité in 1971 Mobutu was clear that the economy was to be impacted by the new direction. By the mid 1970’s Mobutu was outlining a plan for the Zairianization or indigenization of the means of production and distribution in Zaire. Large industries such as the copper and diamond mines were to be nationalized to become state owned parastatals. Smaller and mid-size foreign owned companies were to be sold (at a price set by the state) to Zairians (individuals or companies). This category included large-scale commercial farms, factories that produced consumer goods, and retail and transportation companies.

Once again, there was popular support initially for these economic policies among the Congolese, many of whom felt that foreign owned business mistreated their workers, and were discriminatory to their Congolese customer base. However, it soon became clear that indigenization would benefit only small elite of Mobutu’s inner circle, many of whom did not have the skills, or even the interest, of administering a commercial concern. They were only interested in the wealth, prestige and power that came with ownership. Many indigenized and nationalized businesses failed in short order: they began to sell off state assets and to local elite including Mobutu and his extended family. The few rapacious elite who benefited, temporarily, from indigenization were caustically called acquéreur, by the masses whose lives were made worse off by these policies.

Congo, by the early 1980s had become a classic example of what political economists term a “rentier” state. In such a system, the government, state institutions and elite survived by the setting and collecting of “rents”—licenses to set up business, mine minerals, import goods, export goods, etc. Most of the collected “rent” did not go into state treasury to be used on governance, but instead went directly into the foreign bank accounts of the elite, or into conspicuous consumption of luxury goods and international travel. Rentier systems correspond closely to patrimonial relationships in which the ruling elite “purchase” the support/loyalty of important constituencies through the distribution of scarce resources. This system privileged some communities, but discriminated against the most communities.  This was very similar to the divide and rule strategy employed by the colonial government.

Not having the resources or capacity to equitably distribute state resources across communities or regions, governing elites selected client or beneficiary communities whose loyalty was trusted to receive scarce resources, knowing that these privileged communities would support the regime, even as dissatisfaction grew among the majority of Congolese communities that did not receive patronage from Mobutu and his elite supporters.

The Politics of Authenticité   Consistent with his program of Authenticité Mobutu asserted traditional, pre-colonial, Congolese political systems that were based on a strong chief who had a near monopoly of power, which was used to make decisions that were in the interest of community as a whole.  Based on this interpretation of traditional political systems Mobutu claimed that parliamentary, multi-party democracy was alien to Zaire. He further argued that Zaire could only realize its potential as strong unified nation-state by reconstructing an “authentic” political system. In order to rectify this structure deficit, a new constitution was adopted in 1974 that gave the presidency great powers, and constitutionally sanctioned Zaire as a one-party state with the MPR as the sole political party.  A few years earlier in 1969 Mobutu had declared the Congo to be a one-party state; the 1974 constitution gave legitimacy to this decision.

Authenticité insured that Mobutu, and his closest supporters, controlled the powerful executive branch of government (the presidency) that had sole authority to appoint judges, thus controlling the judicial branch of government. The new constitution that established Zaire as a single party state, guaranteed that Mobutu’s MPR party controlled the legislative branch of government. Consequently, by the mid-1970s Mobutu had set in place a constitutionally sanctioned political system that guaranteed that he had a complete monopoly of power in the country under the guise of Authenticité that provide a façade of legitimacy based on the severely flawed assertion that it was based on authentic African values and traditional, pre-colonial, systems of governance.

International Relations and Authenticité: Authenticité in the 1970s also had diplomatic manifestations. Mobutu was interested in demonstrating that Zaire was not simply a puppet or client state of the West, but was committed to the ideals of the nonalignment, a core principle of many postcolonial countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, which asserted their autonomy from both the Eastern and Western blocs, the central Cold War antagonists.

To demonstrate his commitment to nonalignment, in January 1973 Mobutu made a state visit to China and later that year he broke off diplomatic relations with Israel (which were later restored in 1982). While these actions were concerning to the Mobutu’s Western supporters, they were more symbolic than substantive.  In spite of the ideals of Authenticité and assertions of nonalignment, throughout the 1970s and 1980s Mobutu, capitalizing on Cold War fears and animosities, became increasingly dependent on the U.S., France and Belgium for financial and military support without which his regime could not have survived.

Authenticité, Church, and Schooling:  Not surprisingly, Authenticité was strongly manifested in the education/schooling arena.  In 1973 the government formed the Youth of the Popular Revolutionary Movement (JMPR) and legislated that there should be chapters at all universities and high schools. The JMPR was to replace Christian student organizations with the goal of promoting Authenticité throughout each university and high school.

More concerning to the mission organizations that administered the vast majority of high schools, and some of the top universities was the mandate that Mobutuism, that is, the philosophy of Authenticité, was to be taught in schools in place of religious education. However, given the strong opposition to this mandate, particularly from the influential hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Zaire, this mandate was never fully implemented, but the policy increased tension between the church and Mobutu. By the mid-1970’s Mobutu had removed all government subsidies from Catholic run schools. This policy did not impact schools administered by Protestant missions since, following the practice established by the colonial regime, Protestant missions did not receive government subsidies.

The result of this policy was devastating since the vast majority of primary and secondary schools in the country were administered by the Roman Catholic Church. By the late 1970s less than 50% of primary school aged children in Zaire were able to complete four years of primary school, down from the nearly 70% of children who completed four years of schooling in the late 1950s.

In the name of authenticité, Mobutu further alienated the Catholic Church in 1972 by ordering the removal of all crucifixes from church run schools and hospitals as well as from public buildings and of all photographs of the pope, which were to be replaced by photos of Mobutu. Mobutu went as far as removing Christmas Day as an official holiday!

Authoritarianism and Personalized Rule

As indicated above, at the time of the coup that brought Mobutu to power in late 1965 there was considerable support of the coup both within the Congo and internationally. Between independence in 1960 and the coup, the Congo, which was so ill prepared for independence, had limped along from one crisis to another. Many Congolese were ready for a dramatic change if it brought stability, security and opportunity for development. A large majority of Congolese citizens appeared to be willing to give Mobutu a chance to be an agent for meaningful change.

One of Mobutu’s top priorities after the coup was to increase the centralization of power at the national level. As detailed above, regional loyalties that resulted in Kasai and Katanga seceding from the Congo immediately after independence, in addition to strength of other regionally based politicians and political parties, were a major obstacle to the creation of a unified nation-state in the Congo. The imperative to bring unity and stability to the troubled country seemed at the time to be of utmost importance.  The process for achieving these worthy goals was deemed less important. In a colonially inherited environment that lacked a cultural democracy, and a commitment to human rights, there was a strong potential for an authoritarian response to the political crisis.

One of the ways in which Mobutu addressed the problem of regionalism was to reduce the number of provinces. Immediately after the coup, Mobutu ordered a reduction in the number of provinces from twenty one to twelve, and then again from twelve to eight provinces by the end of 1966. This action reduced the severely balkanized landscape of the country’s political geography. The constitutional authority of the provinces were further reduced through a new constitution that transitioned Congo from a parliamentary to a strong presidential system with only one legislative house and reduced power at the provincial and local levels won approval by public referendum in June, 1967.

Mobutu slowly got rid of all of his rivals; Kasa Vubu died of natural causes in 1969, and Tshombe was murdered in a prison cell in Algeria where he had been imprisoned since June 1967 after attempting yet another armed rebellion in Katanga. In June 1969, at Mobutu’s order, security services loyal to him opened fire on peaceful university student demonstrations in Kinshasa, killing a number of students. Immediately thereafter, Mobutu declared that the Congo was to become a one-party state with his Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR) as the sole legal political party.

In the same year, seeking to further his grip on power, Mobutu created the Centre Nationale de Documentation (CND), a domestic security agency that was originally patterned on the colonial Sûreté Nationale. In the years that followed, CND would become an organ of state repression that would routinely imprison, torture, exile and at times kill dissenting citizens.

In 1985 Mobutu, increasingly fearful of his own safety, created an elite military force to insure his own security: the Division Spéciale Prédentielle (DSP), which was trained and armed by Israelis and was headed by Mobutu’s own son Mobutu Kongulo—whose nickname was Saddam Hussein. Paranoid that even his most trusted militia might conspire against him, he created at least seven additional extra army militia in the last two decades of his rule. During the 1980s these militia built a gulag of small prisons, many in inaccessible rural areas, where scores of citizens were imprisoned without trial. Many of those who were detained by Mobutu’s security forces were not politically engaged, but had been arrested on mere suspicion of political involvement.

Being increasingly suspicious of even his most trusted associates, Mobutu’s governing modus operandi was a constant revolving door of senior office holders; no one survived more than two years in a top position, but would be rotated in and out on a regular basis. The classic example of this “practice” was Nguza Karl-i-Bond who rotated in and out of top positions for much of the 1980s, including time in prison and in exile in the U.S.   This practice of rotating high and mid level civil service positions, created a system in which there was very limited institutionalization of government departments that were administered by constantly changing inexperienced civil servants who lacked the capacity (or the financial resources) to effectively administer their departments.  Indeed, between 1965 and 1997 Mobutu initiated 51 different governments/cabinet reshuffles—demonstrating his pattern of shaking up his elite often before any one person or faction could solidify a power base that could be used against him.

As was shown in the discussion of authenticité, Mobutu deliberately promoted a personality cult; his photo was prominently displayed in every public building (and in private commercial concerns), in every classroom.  By the late 1970s, official media dubbed him the Helmsman, Father of the Nation, Founding President, etc. Some of his sycophants went as far as comparing him with the Messiah, with the MPR as his church, and the party elite as his disciples!

Mobutu’s political and economic policies reignited separatist tendencies in Katanga/Shaba which twice was invaded by irredentist Katanga forces that had been encamped in northeastern Angola (1977 & 1978) with the support of the newly independent MPLA (political party) controlled government in Luanda. There was no love lost between the Marist oriented MPLA and Mobutu, who had supported the rival liberation movement (FLNA) of Holden Roberto, Mobutu’s brother-in-law (who had also been supported by the CIA!).

True to the tenants of neo-patrimony, Mobutu “bought” and maintained support through the distribution of largesse and jobs. When the private sector collapsed, his only medium for patrimony were state jobs—resulting in a largely oversized civil service. According to a World Bank study in early 1990s, Zaire had an active service of 600,000 employees, but estimated that only 60,000 were actually needed to effectively carry out the activities of government. Of course, in the last decade of his rule, he could not regularly make the pay role, encouraging bribery and outright theft of state assets by unpaid/underpaid civil servants. The police and army, who had guns, were in a position to demand bribes and outright theft from ordinary citizens.

Kleptocracy and Endemic Corruption

In the minds and perceptions of many Congolese and external observers the 1980s and early 1990s, Zaire is most closely associated with kleptocracy and endemic corruption. The economy, as an enterprise in the production of goods and services, was in deep disarray. Civil society was fragmented. In addition, the political system was increasingly authoritarian with the institutions of governance all but non-existent.  These observations lead, inevitably, to the question: given these realities, how did Mobutu and his authoritarian support mechanisms survive? Most knowledgeable observers answered through an entrenched and reasonably effective system of Kleptocracy and corruption. A common dictionary definition of Kleptocracy is “rule by thief or thieves.”

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their 2004 paper, “Kleptocracy and Divide-and-Rule: A Model of Personal Rule,” give Mobutu as textbook example of their model that highlights four characteristics: 1. Prime aim to accumulate as much wealth for self and family; 2. Limited base support in the country—lack of political legitimacy; 3. Use divide and rule tactics to gain support of key constituencies while either ignoring or purposefully depriving other constituencies; 4. Use of rents, corruption and foreign assistance to increase wealth and maintain power –through new patrimonial relationships.

All of these characteristics of a Kleptocracy closely align with reality in the last two decades of Mobutu’s rule in Zaire.  However, what is missing from this list is the control and regular use of use of the country’s armed forces, police and the establishment of smaller specialized and highly loyal militia groups to provide personal security and to guarantee regime survival, including extra judicial force –imprisonment, torture, disappearance and exile –as it was regularly used in Zaire, for political survival.

The collapse of local and national economy and the raise of increasingly authoritarian state, created an environment in Zaire in which corruption at all levels of government and civil society, became the “naturalized” mode of governance and state-society relations. At the national level, international business had to part with significant bribes and rents to get licenses to invest, import, export, expropriate profits, etc. State contracts in all spheres: defense, infrastructure development, social services were allocated only after significant bribes were paid to senior officials, who in turn, had to share part of their largesse with their superiors, all the way up to the presidency. Mobutu and his senior ministers extorted billions of dollars through soliciting direct bribes from business, from defense and other major contractors, direct embezzlement of tax revenue, international aid, etc.

Although a significant percentage of rents collected from international companies seeking to do business in Zaire went directly to Mobutu and his top lieutenants, the patrimonial system, central to Mobutu’s political power, necessitated sharing some of the “fruits” of corruption with key supporters at all levels. One frequent, mid-level bureaucrat who had to travel to Gbadolite, Mobutu’s rural palace, on a regular basis reported that no one ever left the compound without a gift from Mobutu—sometimes gifts were quite generous.

At the local level, state employees, who by the 1980s were seldom paid on time—if at all, supplemented their inadequate and irregular salaries by postal and judicial fraud, false billing, extortion, embezzlement, outright theft, padding payrolls with false names (or keeping deceased employees on payroll), or taking second or third jobs. Bribery was universal. No one could arrive at or leave from an international airports without paying a host of bribes, and military barricades (roadblocks) set up on roads around the country, extorted money from every traveler able to pay. Admission into a secondary school or university was based on bribery, not on outstanding grades (Edgerton, 210).

Reliable UN sources estimate that in the last two decades of the Mobutu regime between 15%-20% of the operating state budget went directly to Mobutu including loans and grants from international agencies. At the time of his exile in 1997, it was estimated that Mobutu and his family had looted in excess of $15 billion from the state coffers over the thirty years of his rule. Reliable Swiss banking sources indicated that Mobutu, in 1997 had approximately $4 billion dollars in liquid assets making him among the richest men in the world. This figure does not take in account the many luxury properties that he owned in Europe and other African countries. (See table below).

Mobutu and his top lieutenants were also known for conspicuous consumption, that they supported through corruption. Even as the vast majority of ordinary Zairian people lived in abject and worsening poverty, Mobutu built a number of palaces throughout the country—the most extravagant and ostentatious in grandeur were a luxury yacht, the Kamanyola, that he used on the Congo river, and his “palace in the jungle” at his deeply rural home community: Gbadolite in the northeast province of Équateur. This palace included an airport with a runway equipped to handle jumbo and super-sonic airliners so that he would not have to go back to Kinshasa to fly to Europe, a 15,000 bottle climate controlled wine cellar; several distinctive “out” buildings, including a world class hotel to house international visitors, a Chinese village that included an elaborate Pagoda in addition to his living own quarters, a 158,400 square foot mansion with mahogany doors, with inlaid malachite, interior walls covers with Carrara marble from Italy, silk tapestries, crystal chandeliers, Venetian mirrors and Empire style furniture, all imported from Europe.

He also owned mansions in Europe (French Riviera, Brussels, Paris, Switzerland,) and in other African countries: Dakar, Abidjan, Marrakech, and even in Apartheid Cape Town. By the early 1990s, Mobutu, increasingly paranoid, lived and governed almost exclusively from Gbadolite, surrounded by sycophants and private security, not to mention high security prison where opponents, real and imagined, were imprisoned and tortured.

His lavish life style included tailor made clothes for himself, wives, children, mistresses. Records show that a top of the line Belgian tailor paid more than 100 visits to the Congo between 1978 to personally deliver clothes for the Mobutu family.

Foreign Real Estate Holding by Mobutu, 1975: (NB—value would have increased considerably by the time of his death in 1997)

Location Real Estate Table

Mobutu and his family also took advantage of the indigenization policy to buy up prime agricultural estates. In 1974, he and his wife formed a business conglomerate called Cultures et Elebages du Zaire (CELZA). Over the next decade, CELZA “purchased”/took ownership of 22 plantation estates. Already in 1976, CELZA estates produced 13% of marketed Palm Oil; 7% of marked Palm Kernel; 6% of marketed coffee; 23% of marketed Cocoa beans; 26% of marketed rubber; 15% of marketed tea; 9% of Conchona. By 1990, a report in Le Monde (leading French newspaper) estimated that one third of the national revenue was available to Mobutu.

Your Turn:

Carefully watch the 1984 60 Minutes segment narrated by Mike Wallace. As you watch, take notes and remember that this segment was produced in 1984, almost twenty years after Mobutu came to power in 1965 as a result of a military coup; the interview is also 13 years before Mobutu’s departure from Zaire in 1997:

Now answer the following questions in your Exploring Africa notenook.

  1. What was the primary focus of the 60 Minutes piece narrated by Mike Wallace?
  2. According the piece what were the main problems confronting Zaire under Mobutu’s rule? What were that causes of these problems?
  3. A number of prominent American and Zairian individuals were interviewed for the 60 Minute program, including a third party interview of Mobutu. What explanation and justification does Mobutu give for his policies and actions? Critique his arguments.
  4. Here is a list of the individuals interviewed. See if you can answer the following questions for each for each of the interviewees:
    1. What is their assessment of Mobutu and his policies?
    2. What is their explanation for his policies and actions?
    3. What should the U.S. government (and its European allies) policy be towards Mobutu? What culpability, if any, do external powers have in the maintaining of Mobutu’s rule?
      1. Nguza Karl-i-Bond, former prime mister of Zaire, then in exile in Belgium
      2. Howard Wolpe, U.S. Congressman from Michigan, then chair of the House of Representatives sub-committee on African Affairs
      3. Sheldon Vance, former U.S. ambassador to Zaire (1969 -1974)
      4. Mickey Leyland, U.S. Congressman from Texas, key member of the African American caucus in the House of Representatives.
      5. Erwin Blumenthal, formal International Monetary Fund (IMF) official at the Bank of Zaire (country’s central bank).
  5. Former U.S. ambassador to Zaire, Sheldon Vance, contends that Mobutu’s authoritarian rule can be explained the tendency in “Black Africa,” to resort to a tradition of “tribal governance” in which the chief had absolute power. Based on what you have learned in the module of the history of the country up until Mobutu’s rule, give reasons why this assessment by Ambassador Vance is faulty.

Impact of Structural Adjustment Impositions

In Module Nine, activities Eight and Nine, we detailed the rationale for and impact of Economic Structural Adjustment Programs (ESAP) that were strongly promoted throughout Africa in the 1980s by the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the international development agencies of Western countries such as the United States Development Agency (USAID). ESAP was based on an economic analysis, which asserted that Africa’s development problems were largely caused by bloated high inefficient governments that overly regulated and subsidized national economies.

In the 1980s many African countries were heavily indebted and were dependent on external loans and direct aid to provide basic governmental services. Consequently, most of these countries, including Zaire, where vulnerable to IMF, WB and USAID conditions for debt relieve and continued access to external revenues whether in the forms of loans, grants or direct investment. Core to ESAP doctrine was the conditionality that governments significantly reduce government expenditures in social services such as education and health care while also privatizing previously state owned enterprises.

Implementation of ESAP mandates had a negative impact on the majority of citizens, who although already poor, had to pay increased fees for basic services such as schooling and health care.  Moreover, unemployment, already high, was increased as previously state owned firms were privatized and the new owners laid off significant numbers of employees. Mobutu was forced to partially implement ESAP in Zaire, but given his special Cold War reinforced relationship with the West, he did not face the same sanctions for not fully buying into ESAP, as did neighboring countries such as Tanzania and Zambia which were heavily penalized for not fully endorsing ESAP in their economic policies.

Never the less, ESAP did have a negative impact on Zaire. There was reduced funding to essential services such as education and health care, exacerbating the horrific impact of Mobutu’s own policies on the well being of the vast majority of Zairians and reinforcing popular opposition to Mobutu and his regime. Indeed, external funds that had been used to pay civil servants were significantly diminished with the consequence of decreasing the government payroll by a third in the 1980s. This resulted significant reduction in the regime’s ability to fulfill it “clientelistic” obligations, further eroding support for the regime.

Foreign Interventions: The End of the Cold War, Aftermath of Rwanda Genocide & the Mobutu’s Demise

By the early 1990s Zaire’s economy had collapsed and the state infrastructure was virtually non-existent. Mobutu, ruling from his rural palace at Gbadolite, was increasingly isolated from the socio-economic realities of his country; his control was based on the willingness of his various militia and the army to use force, imprisonment, and torture to prop up his regime.

Factors and events from outside the country became the “straw the broke the camel’s back” to end 32 years of Mobutu’s authoritarian rule.

First, the collapse of Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War removed the three decade-old rationale for unwavering Western support of Mobutu in spite of evidence of egregious human rights abuses, kleptocracy, endemic corruption and the collapse of the Zairian state and economy. The new Clinton administration in the U.S. that came to power in January, 1993 was not burdened with realities and policy imperatives of the Cold War that had informed the practices of prior administrations. Instead, its policy was based, in part, on a commitment to democratic values and political freedom.  Mobutu, and other authoritarian leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, who throughout the Cold War era could depend on the support of the U.S. and its European allies, provided that they continued to declare their commitment to anti-communism, were put on notice that they could no longer expect unquestioning support from Washington D.C. and the capitals of Europe.

Secondly, the ending of the cold war corresponded with a significant movement towards democracy that has been called “Africa’s Second Liberation”  (detailed in Module Ten, activity Five). Countries that had been governed constitutionally as one-party-states wrote new constitutions and held multi-party elections.  Countries that were ruled by their military as a result of coups returned to civilian rule. This movement across sub-Saharan Africa emboldened the domestic opposition in Zaire. Just as importantly, other African regimes whom for decades had shown solidarity with Mobutu, began in the 1990s to indicate that his extreme authoritarianism was out of sync with the new realities in Africa.

In response to these pressures Mobutu took a symbolic move towards liberalism by inviting opposition leaders and leaders in civil society to participate in a National Sovereign Conference (CNS) in June 1991 with the promise of genuine reform and the ushering in of the “Third Republic.” However, by January of 1992, Mobutu decided he was not willing to institute meaningful political change and the CNS had been dissolved with the ensuing arrest of some of the opposition leaders and the brutal suppression of demonstrations by university student groups.

The third, and decisive, factor that led to the collapse of the Mobutu regime was the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The details of the Rwanda connection will be presented in the next section of this activity. At this juncture it is sufficient to point out that the immediate aftermath of the genocide resulted in a mass movement of nearly one million refugees from Rwanda into the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, generating dislocation of local populations and tremendous political upheaval that included the formation of armed groups who actions threatened Mobutu’s collapsing regime.

Genocide in the Great Lake Region and Endemic Violence in Eastern Congo

1994 promised to be a great year for Africa.  The movement towards democratic reform that began in the early 1990s continued as more African countries ended military or one-party forms of governance, embracing constitutions that encouraged multiple political parties and enshrined basic human rights.  On the southern tip of Africa, the Republic of South Africa threw off centuries of racial dominance by the minority white population, electing Nelson Mandela as its first democratically elected president, and adopting one of the most progressive constitutions in the entire world. However, the optimism and near euphoria that accompanied the transition in South Africa in April, 1994 was dramatically interrupted by 100 days of brutality, starting in the same month of April, of the Rwandan genocide during which between 800,000 and one million Rwandans, primarily from the Tutsi ethnic group, were murdered.

The shameful lack of intervention by the U.S. and European powers to stop the genocide has been well documented. The genocide was brought to an end by the armed forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), comprised mainly of soldiers from a group of exiled Tutsis who had lived in neighboring Uganda for several decades. The RFP, under the leadership of Paul Kagame, who eventually became president of Rwanda (a post that he still holds in 2017), was able to establish control of the country by the end of the summer of 1994. However, the impending RFP victory set off a massive exit of more than two million Rwandans led by the defeated Rwandan army and members of the former regime. While there was some movement of refugees eastwards into neighboring Tanzania, the vast majority (more than 1.5 million according to U.N. data) moved westward across the border into already volatile eastern Congo, settling in rapidly constructed refugee camps in North and South Kivu.

Along with the remnants of the defeated Rwandan army, the massive exit of refugees included genocidaires, individuals who had participated in the genocide. While these two groups did not make the majority of the Rwandan refugees in eastern Congo, their presence in the refugee camps was used by the new Rwandan RFP dominated government to legitimatize their decision to both send units from the newly re-organized national army into eastern Congo and to support militia groups organized among the Banyamulenge—the Congolese Tutsi population who have lived in eastern Congo for generations, under the pretext of fully defeating the Interahamwe. The Interahamwe were armed groups comprised of Rwandan refugees, primarily genocidaires and former members of the Rwandan army.  The RFP asserted their right to intervene across international borders in order to project Rwanda from attack by the Interahamwe.

The presence of Rwandan refugees, the Hutu and Tutsi dominated militias, and the incursion of RFP forces greatly exacerbated tensions in the already volatile Kivu regions of the Eastern Congo, contributing to the demise of the Mobutu regime and, far more tragically, setting off a sequence of war and foreign intervention in the Congo between 1996 -2007. This sequence, which resulted in the deaths of more than five million Congolese, has been called many names by different commentators, scholars and journalists, including: The Great African War(s), Africa’s World War, and the Congo wars.

It is important to point out that while the presence of Rwandan refugees in Kivu North and South was the primary rationale for intervention by Rwanda and Uganda, the RFP and the Mobutu regime had been deeply suspicious of each other for years prior to the genocide. Mobutu was a strong ally of the pre-genocide regime in Rwanda and had provided support for the regime’s opposition to the invading RFP. This alliance was in part a result of Mobutu’s uneasy relationship with the Banyamulenge – the indigenous Tutsi population in the Kivu provinces who were perceived to be strong opponents his regime. Consequently, Mobutu wanted to prevent any alliance between the Banyamulenge and the RFP that might strengthen their opposition efforts in Zaire. Given this history, the new post-genocide RFP regime in Rwanda, not only wanted to destroy the Interahamwe who posed, they were convinced, an existential threat to Rwanda, the RFP leadership firmly believed that it was in their interest that the Mobutu regime be brought to an end.


Impact of Civil War in Burundi

Burundi and Rwanda share a very similar history.  Before the arrival of European colonialism, initially by Germany and then after World War I by Belgium, these societies were organized around centralized states that were dominated by minority elite Tutsi clans. The Tutsi domination of the majority Hutu population was reinforced by systems of indirect rule established by the Germans and continued under Belgian rule. At independence in 1962, the governments of Burundi continued to be dominated by the small Tutsi elite. However, in neighboring Rwanda, a party representing Hutus won the pre-independence election in late 1961 allowing the party to form the first government of independent Rwanda.

The history of the first three decades of independence of Burundi was marked by unrest and periods of severe violence as the Tutsi dominated government and army repressed Hutu resistance—at times, brutally. 1972 marked the worst of state supported violence when more than 100,000 (some estimates as high as 500,000) Hutu were killed by the police and army in reaction to increased resistance to authoritarian rule. Each round of resistance and state sponsored violent response was followed by attempts by the international community to facilitate political reform. In the early 1990s, it seemed that there might be meaningful reform allowing greater Hutu participation in the government of Burundi. Sadly these efforts were stymied by a new wave of army led violence in 1992-1993 that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Burundians—primarily Hutu.

Throughout the first three decades of Burundi’s independence, each new wave of violence set off a flood of refugees eastward into western Tanzania and the neighboring South Kivu province of Zaire. The U.N. estimates that in 1992-93 more than 100,000 Burundian (primarily Hutu) moved into eastern Congo, adding to the inter-ethnic tensions in the region as the refugee population attempted to integrate into the local environment. Burundians joining the ethnic Congolese Hutu population known as the Banyarwanda, and competing for land and water resources with other Congolese groups including the Banyamulenge, added fuel to the growing political volatility of the region.

Zaire’s Relationship with Neighboring States in the 1990s

The extent of the external intervention in eastern Congo in the post-genocide period by 13 African countries--some as far away as Ethiopia, Namibia and Zimbabwe –was unprecedented in the history of post-colonial Africa. The charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—replicated by the African Union (AU) charter which replaced the OAU in 2001 –explicitly prohibited armed intervention (or invasion) of another African country. While the movement of Rwandan and Burundian refugees, some who whom were directly implicated in the genocide and political violence in their home countries, provided the pretext for the Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian military incursions into eastern Congo in the mid 1990s, the root causes of the intervention date back years before the Rwandan genocide.

Mobutu’s domestic and foreign policy did not endear him to some neighboring states. From as early as 1974, when neighboring Angola won their independence from Portugal, Zaire had a tense relationship with the new government in neighboring Angola. As indicated in the last section, during the struggle for independence in Angola, Mobutu worked closely with the CIA to weaken the efforts of the MPLA, the main liberation movement in Angola. The tense relationship between the two countries worsened when Angola allowed Katangese militia to use Angola territory to train and launch invasions of Shaba Province (Katanga) in 1977 and again in 1978. Although these invasions failed to “liberate” Katanga from Zaire, Angolan complicity reinforced the negative relationship with Zaire. Mobutu retaliated by throwing his support behind Joseph Savimbi’s UNITA forces in the Angolan civil war which lasted through much of the 1980s and 1990s causing widespread death and suffering.

Given this history, it is not surprising that Angola supported militia that sought to overthrow Mobutu in the mid-1990s and supported the new president Laurent Kabila when his new regime was threatened by forces supported by Rwanda and Uganda in 1998.

Mobutu’s alliance with the U.S. and his opposition to the MPLA, caused him to develop covert relations with the white minority regime in Rhodesia (prior to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980) and the Apartheid regime in South Africa, which in addition to fighting for its own survival defended its control over white dominated South West Africa (Namibia). In the tangled web of southern African politics of the 1970s and 1980s, consistent with its commitment to the liberation of all countries in southern Africa, the MPLA government supported SWAPO, the liberation movement in neighboring South West Africa/Namibia, by providing bases for SWAPO in southern Angola from where they launched attacks against the white minority regime. Beginning in the late 1970s, Apartheid South Africa launched a series of invasions of southern Angola in order to destroy SWAPO training camps. Mobutu was strongly implicated in this conflict, through his support of UNITA which was covertly supporting the South African invasions, in hope that the MPLA regime would be weakened to the extent that it would be unable to resist UNITA’s attempts to gain control of the central government of Angola.

Given this history, it is understandable why the independent African led governments of Namibia and Zimbabwe would, like Angola, support efforts to displace Mobutu in the mid-1990s, going as far as sending in troops to support the fledging regime of Laurent Kabila when western Congo was invaded by Rwandan and Ugandan troops in 1998. Moreover, while the Mandela government of South Africa did not send in its own soldiers to help defeat Mobutu, it used its significant diplomatic clot to force Mobutu’s resignation.

This is meant to provide some historical context for the unprecedented invasion of the Congo by forces controlled by other countries. This does not mean that these historical factors were the only reason for these foreign lead incursions into the Congo. As will be detailed below, greed, the desire to take advantage of and profit from the incredible mineral wealth of the eastern Congo was also a significant stimulus for foreign intervention.


Laurent Kabila and the Re-Birth of the Congo

By the mid 1990s, Mobutu’s grip on power in Zaire was rapidly declining as the result of significant domestic opposition and the lack of state capacity to effectively respond to the demands for Mobutu to step down as president. Just as important, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Zaire was confronted by neighboring countries that were, for reasons articulated above, committed to the demise of the Mobutu regime. This was particularly true for the governments of Rwanda and Uganda.

As stated above, the charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) strictly prohibited African nations from invading other African countries. However, given the extraordinary circumstances, the more than one million Rwandan refugees just across the border in eastern Zaire were perceived by the new RFP government in Rwanda as an existential threat. The new, post-genocide, RFP regime asserted that it was justified in sending its own troops into eastern Zaire in order to neutralize the threat from the Interahamwe.

While the RFP did send troops into eastern Congo in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, Paul Kagame and other RFP leaders recognized that even if they neutralized Rwandan militia based in South and North Kivu they did not have the capacity to control the entire country and defeat Mobutu. Consequently, Rwanda, and it close ally, the neighboring country Uganda under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, decided that the most effective way to remove Mobutu from power was to actively support (through finance and materiel) a Congolese surrogate. Enter, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila was born in 1939 and came of age politically at the time of Congo’s independence in 1960. As a high school student in northern Katanga province in southeastern Congo, he was active in the anti-colonial movement. At independence in 1960, he quickly became involved in the anti-Tshombe movement in his home province. As a supporter of Prime Minister Lumumba, he was opposed to the Katanga secession. At twenty-one years old he joined a small armed resistance movement in opposition to the secession of his own home province, rising to a senior leadership position in spite of his youthful age. However, given the outside intervention by South African and Belgian mercenaries on behalf Tshombe and the Katanga secession, the resistance movement was crushed.

Kabila activities after this defeat are murky. It is known that he traveled to Moscow and to Yugoslavia but it is not clear how long he spent in these Eastern Bloc countries. He reemerged in 1964 as part of a Chinese supported pro-Lumumba guerilla styled resistance movement, Conseil National de Liberation (CNL) centered in North Kivu and Oriental provinces. The CNL tried to take advantage of the political chaos in the Congo prior to the 1965 coup that brought Mobutu to power with the objective of restoring what the CNL considered to be a legitimate Lumumba inspired government in the Congo. Famously, Che Guevar, the iconic Argentinian hero of the Cuban revolution, spent six month fighting alongside of CNL fighters in 1964, but became disillusioned by the laxity of the CNL leadership, particularly of Laurent Kabila. After the coup of 1965, Mobutu, with the assistance of the CIA, Belgium and France, was able to weaken the CNL and restore control over the entire eastern part of the country by early 1966.

Over the next decade, Kabila, with a small band of guerilla fighters, moved in and out of eastern Zaire from bases in western Tanzania, but they were never able to control more than small patches of the rural country-side. For a while Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania, tolerated Kabila’s militia because of his moral opposition to Mobutu’s policies in Zaire. However, in 1975 Kabila’s forces kidnapped four U.S. and Dutch scientists who worked at Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research station in western Tanzania. This action was the proverbial last straw of support of Kabila. Nyerere expelled Kabila’s forces from Tanzania, but not Kabila himself.

There is some evidence that Kabila did move in and out of eastern Zaire during the 1980s and early 1990s, but it is also clear that he spent most of his time travelling to various African countries seeking support, with a permanent residence in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. He was living in Dar-es-Salaam in 1995 when associates of Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni came calling.

Journalists and scholars who have investigated the rise of Kabila suggest the Rwandans and Ugandans who interacted with Kabila were not impressed with him based on their early meetings with him in late 1995. Kabila came across as an old-fashioned African Marxist who greatly exaggerated the exploits and successes of his militia. However, the Rwandans and Ugandans had few options when it came to finding a Congolese person who had some legitimacy in Zaire and who, at the same time, would be loyal to them, to lead a movement to overthrow Mobutu.

Kagame and Museveni were reluctant to join forces with the internal opposition leaders within Zaire. The internal opposition to Mobutu, although weak and divided, had leaders such as Etienne Tskisekedi who had considerable legitimacy as a longtime opponent of Mobutu. Kagame and Museveni were interested in promoting a leader and movement whom they could control; they were correctly concerned with their ability to control a leader, such as Tskisekedi, who had strong nationalist credentials.

In September 1996 in Kigali, the Rwandans and Ugandans brought Kabila together with three other individuals whom they thought could collectively lead a formidable (and compliant) opposition to Mobutu. The group included Andrea Ngandu, a long time rebel in Orientale province, Deo Bugera a leader in the Tutsi community in North Kivu, and Anselme Masasu, a young officer of the RFP forces who had distinguished himself in the RFP invasion of the eastern Congo. Over a period of several weeks, these four designated leaders along with their close lieutenants, with constant pressure and oversight from their hosts, hammered out an agreement that resulted in the formation of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). In spite of some reservation on the part of the Rwandans and Ugandans, the AFDL selected Laurent Kabila as its first leader. The AFDL became the externally sponsored vehicle for the overthrow of the Mobutu regime and the establishment of a new government in the Congo that would be friendly to the interests of Rwanda and Uganda.

As will be discussed in activity 4, in spite of Rwanda’s and Uganda’s best laid plans for the AFDL there were perverse unintended consequences to their sponsorship to of the AFDL. Jason Stearns’ in his Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (2011), very nicely summarizes the hubris of Rwandan and Ugandan leadership in creating and supporting AFDL.

“Laurent Kabila emerged as the accidental leader of the AFDL movement and eventually as the president of a liberated Congo. In an example of Rwandan [and Ugandan] hubris, the RFP planners desperately tried to foist ideology and sincerity up the Congolese they had handpicked. As ingenious as Kagame’s military planners were, their political strategy ended up being simplistic and short-sighted. For many Congolese who had labored long—and ultimately unsuccessfully—to overthrow Mobutu peacefully, Kabila was a living symbol of foreign meddling in their country. It is one of the Congo’s historical ironies that the same man came to be seen as a bulwark of patriotism and resistance against Rwandan [and Ugandan] aggression. ” (pg. 90).

Laurent-Désiré Kabila
Laurent-Désiré Kabila

Go on to Activity Four or select from one of the other activities: