Mobutu leaves legacy of chaos and corruption

The death on Sunday of the former president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, is unlikely to alter the political climate of the country…

The death on Sunday of the former president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, is unlikely to alter the political climate of the country he ruled for more than three decades. It is already four months since he was driven into exile by the rebel forces of Laurent Kabila, now president of the renamed Democratic Republic of Congo.

And it had been clear for some time before the cancer-stricken dictator's flight to Morocco that his days of absolute and abusive power were numbered. That is not to say, however, that Mobutu Sese Seko - the self-styled guide and helmsman of Africa's third largest country - will quickly be forgotten. How could Zaire-Congo's impoverished masses forget a man who so cynically plundered his nation's wealth, buying a string of palaces across Europe and stashing billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts?

The bespectacled tyrant and his trademark leopard-skin hat will long be synonymous with the worst excesses of corruption and greed. It is unlikely that many will mourn the passing of Mobutu (66), whose battle against prostate cancer first came to public attention more than a year ago when he sought medical treatment in France. Having made himself head of state with full executive powers in 1965, Mobutu embarked on a course which would quickly reduce the former Belgian colony to a shambles.

In 1971, he proclaimed his doctrine of "authenticity", the Congo was renamed Zaire and people were urged to adopt a national costume of his own design. Not being one to hide his light under a bushel, the hotel cook's son Joseph-Desire became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngebendu wa za Banga, "the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win sweeps from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake".


What he actually left in his wake was a country in name only. Roads, ports, railways, riverboats, schools, hospitals and public buildings were allowed fall into such a state of disrepair that it will take the new regime many years to fix the mess. Any pretence at good governance or fiscal accountability was dropped as Mobutu's cronies dipped their hands in the public coffers and his political opponents squabbled pointlessly among themselves.

In the village of his birth, he built a gaudy palace, an equatorial pleasure dome complete with casino, ornamental gardens and a runway long enough to accommodate Concorde, which he leased from Air France for family shopping sprees in Europe. His cynical exploitation of the country was made possible by western support during the Cold War.

In return for providing bases from which the United States could mount anti-communist operations, Mobutu was able to extract the maximum of aid and indulgence. When secessionists threatened the unity of the sprawling country, France, Belgium and Morocco were on hand to send in troops.

Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Mobutu had started to lose favour with the West. Growing anarchy and lawlessness threatened him at home but, rather than going under, Mobutu continued to thrive amidst the chaos which had become Zaire.

Few could have predicted that his overthrow would be occasioned by an uprising born in the remote mountains of eastern Zaire. But with backing from Rwanda and Uganda, Laurent Kabila's rebels succeeded in routing the Zairean army. Mobutu returned from convalescence on the French Riviera vowing to stop the rebel advance, but when it became clear the capital was about to fall he upped sticks and fled.

He never again spoke in public after leaving his homeland. Some say he desperately feared dying in exile. But only the closest of his entourage will be able to attest to how he spent his last days. Some sources indicate that he will be buried in Rabat's Christian cemetery. Others in his native land, however, say that his family is welcome to return his remains for burial in the Congo. In his final days, Mobutu was a man who had lost everything: his health, his home, the respect of his people.