What Mobutu learned from King Leopold

When Joseph Desire Mobutu decided to make a present to himself of a luxurious $5

When Joseph Desire Mobutu decided to make a present to himself of a luxurious $5.2 million villa on the French Riviera, it was only as an afterthought that he asked whether the price was in dollars or Belgian francs - the 39fold difference in value held no meaning for a man of such careless wealth.

After all, Mobutu already had a farmhouse in Switzerland, and an estate on Portugal's Algarve, boasting a 14,000-bottle wine cellar. Then there was the vast apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris, and at least nine buildings in upmarket districts of Brussels. Not bad for a man who in 1959 claimed to have $6 to his name.

As Michela Wrong notes in this absorbing tale of African independence gone astray: "From Cape Town to Madrid, Marbella to Marrakesh, Abidjan to Dakar were scattered a string of farms, villas and hotels" belonging to Mobutu.

Mobutu was the ultimate nouveau riche. The cook's son rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za - "the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake". He spouted vague philosophy about African values, but turned to the West to hide the riches he siphoned out of Congo. By the end, he had stowed away $14 billion in foreign banks, $8 billion in Switzerland alone.

He built palaces in every province of the Congo, and stocked them with the West's luxury goods - Mercedes in the garage, pink champagne in the bar. But when the dictator was finally toppled in 1997 and Wrong and other journalists joined those ransacking one of these palaces in Goma, near the border with Rwanda, they got a surprise.

"From outside, the villa had looked the height of ostentatious luxury: all chandeliers, Ming vases, antique furniture and marble floors. Close up, almost everything proved to be fake." The vases were modern imitations, with price labels still attached. The Romanesque plinths were in moulded plastic. Mobutu's cravats turned out to be nylon bibs, held in place by Velcro.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz takes as its starting-point the character in Joseph Conrad's famous tale of colonial madness in Central Africa. Ever since it was published almost a century ago, Heart of Darkness has given newspaper editors a convenient cliche to apply each time a new chapter of the modern African nightmare unfolds.

But as Wrong correctly explains, the title refers to the hypocrisy of colonial behaviour at the time, while Kurtz's ravings about "the horror, the horror" mark his final fall from grace. "Conrad was more preoccupied with rotten Western values, the white man's inhumanity to the black man, than, as is almost always assumed today, black savagery."

The six months Conrad spent in the Congo were the most traumatic in his life. At this time, the Congo Free State was the personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, who compensated for being a late entrant in the race for colonies by proving the cruellest colonist of all. Leopold's agents used murder, rape, whippings and amputations almost casually in the drive to extract the maximum amount of wealth from the Congo. The population halved, as up to 13 million people died or fled before the chicottes (whips) of the colonists.

In matters of extortion and embezzlement, Leopold was the perfect master for Mobutu. As Wrong notes, both leaders were remarkably adept at squeezing loans out of gullible creditors. Both covered their tracks with a system of fraudulent book-keeping. Both indulged in similar strategems to cheat the tax man after their death and both left Congo with crippling debts after they quit the scene.

THE Belgian government, after it took over the colony in 1908, proved little better. Forced labour was used to extract the region's massive mining wealth. White colonists enjoyed the best conditions in Africa - at the time of independence in 1960, Congo had more hospital beds than all other black African countries combined - but under a similar system to apartheid in South Africa.

The Congolese were kept in enforced ignorance. Education was seen as subversive; at independence, only 17 Congolese youths had received a university education. The seeds were sown for future disaster.

Though hardly the first writer to cover the subject - in the past few years alone, the Congo has inspired two admirable novels, in Ronan Bennett's The Catastrophist and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible - Wrong distinguishes herself by the level of background research carried out. She tracks down CIA agent Larry Devlin, the man most responsible for putting Mobutu in power in the 1960s, and casts a withering eye on the fruits of Belgian colonialism in modern-day Brussels.

The story is, by necessity, unfinished. Mobutu is gone, but the search for his wealth continues. An intermittent war in the region has sucked in eight neighbouring countries. And the Congolese, surrounded by vast mineral wealth continue to live on about $120 per capita a year.

Paul Cullen is Development Correspondent of The Irish Times