In the first chapter of the book she takes the reader into the dark walls of what happened behind-the-scenes in Hotel Intercontental in Kinshasa, the capital of The Democratic Republic of Congo, as Mobutu’s regimes was, like a maggot, crumbling down to pieces. Hotels, we are told in the book by Michela, are a microcosm of Africa’s tumultuous history. It is where coups are planned, embryonic rebel government lodged, peace deals signed and buildings where atrocities are committed. In Rwanda it is hotel Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe Meiles, Hilton Hotel for Ethiopia and the Nile Hotel for Uganda.
But to give the reader a sense of how Congo was shaped in the past, Michela did a brilliant job, dissecting events that led to Congo’s independence. In the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, where Africa was carved up among colonial powers, the King of Belgium, King Leopold, emerged the biggest winner as he laid claim to the ‘Congo Free States’, the third biggest and most-richest country in Africa. He duped other colonial rivals, like Britain and France, assuring them of ‘free navigation rights, and commercial interest’ in Congo. It was not long before he dispatched Henry Morton Stanley, a British journalist abandoned by his mother which rankled him to prove a point in his life to be success, in Congo. In Congo, Henry Stanley was able to trace the source of the River Congo. To carry out his task of running the country on behalf of King Leopold, he went on to establish roads, rails, recruiting the locals to extract raw materials for the metropolitan country, Belgium.
In one of the most ruthless, brutal and repressive forced labour to be carried out on the African continent, his army force called Force Publique beat, hacked off the limbs of local Congolese when they failed to meet their quotas set by his colonial administration to collect rubber. Such was his brutality that the Congolese gave him the sobriquet of ‘Bula Mutari’, which means ‘Breaker of Rocks’. When the world starts awakening to the brutality going on in Congo, thanks largely to a British Journalist Edmund Morel, pressure was put on King Leopold to come up with reforms. He ended up, after much reluctance on his part, to hand over the country to the Belgian State. He died without setting his foot in a country he said was ‘a magnificent piece of cake’, where his policies have so devastated. In this chapter of the book, Michela Wrong touched on the stunning life of Mr Kurtz, a refined and educated missionary in Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Heart of Darkness’. Mr Kurtz, whom she titled the book on what Mobutu did in Congo, later went berserk, taking part in cannibalism with native Africans in Congo’s dark forest.
Things did not get any better under the Belgian government for Congo. After the independence of Ghana in March 1957, African people were demanding self-rule. For Congo independence came on June 30th 1960. In what was a hastened granting of independence to Congo, said Michela in the book, Congo boast of 17 university educated locals.
The Rise of Mobutu
In the book, Michela gives an incredibly superb account into the diplomatic wheeling and dealing that was going on in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, where the independence negotiations of Congo happened. Leading the negotiations on the side of the Congolese people was Patrice Lumumba, who Michela described as ‘near-miraculous politician with good rhetoric’s, flamboyant, erratic and always bubbling with ideas’. As these negotiations were going on during the height of the Cold-War, the decades-longed rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union for global supremacy after the end of the Second World War (1939-45), Lumumba was marked out by the US for being ‘a Soviet Man’. The person who got wind of this was Larry Delvins, the CIA official in Brussels. Devlins, who will go on to install Mobutu as President, informed his bosses in Langley, the CIA headquarters, about this.
Not to be snuffed out from a strategically located country in Africa, the US Embassy in Brussels decided to throw a reception for the Congolese delegation, designed for Larry Delvins and his team to launch into a deliberate bout of diplomatic networking to spot out who they can do business with. The idea was for everyone to meet all the Congolese delegation, take a mental note of them, and at the end of the reception they would gather their findings. They did. After the reception, Delvlins and his team were impressed by, as Delvin puts it in the book when quizzed by Michela, ‘a very intelligent young man, bit immature, but with a great potential’. That man was Mobutu, who was not even an accredited delegate, but private secretary to Lumumba.
Independence was granted to Congo in 1960, with Lumumba appointed Prime Minister and Josepha Kasavumbu President. But the new Congolese government was riven by infighting, with ethic rivalry splintering the government to various factions. Some days after independence, resource-rich Katanga Province, at the say-so of Belgium – they were still meddling – seceded from Congo, with Moise Katombe as their President. Incandescent with anger, Lumumba tried to woo them back. But when he realised that dialogue is not something Katombe trades in, he called for the support of the UN peacekeepers, and simultaneously, the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of the US.
In the squalled that followed, said Michela in the book, Lumumba and Joseph Kasavumbu sacked each other over the radio. Mobutu, who was promoted as Chief of the Military after quelling army munity, was put in the position of carrying out the wishes of Prime Minister and President. Faced with this, the US was provided a perfect moment to strike and neutralise Lumumba, and in effect the Soviet Union. By this time Larry Delvlins was posted in Kinshasa, as the CIA head. He aided and abated Mobutu to launch a ‘peaceful revolution’, sidelining both Lumumba and Kasavumbu.
In Stanleyville (present day it is called Kisangani), Lumumba was put under house arrest. Even under house arrest, Lumumba would escape and Congolese will mob him, as he gives his speeches about the importance of unity. This Houdini-like behaviour and the stardom of Lumumba were given a tough time to the fledgling, shaking Mobutu regime. But his masters in the US were having a plan. In the book, the author Michela managed to get Larry Devlins to confirm about the options’ of killing Lumumba with a poison. Larry Delvins said he refused this option, because ‘it was an impossible one’. He did confirm that a poison, designed to be put in Lumumba’s food, was brought to him by a CIA doctor, but said, ‘I received it, put it in my cupboard, but throw it in the river.’ Anyway, it was not long when Lumumba was assassinated, after being beaten by rival Congolese, his remains lobbed into an acid container.
Mobutu consolidating his grip on Power
In the book, Michela also looked at the life of Mobutu when he was young, asking his contemporaries. In a special chapter, she traced the life of Mobutu. Born on 14 October 1930 (I am also October born) in Liasla, to a mother who would later be known to Congolese as Mama Yemo (Mari Madeline is her full name) and his father Alberic Gbemani, Mobutu is a Ngabadi by tribe, one of the more than 200-plus minority tribes in Congo. He is said to be good at school, alternating the first to third positions in class. In fact, when he was president, at a whim, he will tell aides to go to his school and bring his school records. Mobutu will use them to show his children, and advise them to take their education seriously, waxing lyrical about the importance of education in his presidential yatch called ‘Kamayola’.
He was sent to a strictly catholic school. At school he would indulge in wisecracks, making fun of teachers, like writing ink at the back of their shirts when they are writing on the board. That was Mobutu’s way of making colleagues have fun. But the biggest change in his live occurred when he was expelled from school for a misdemeanor, after breaking school rules going to the capital, and overstaying there with a lover, which was at odds with rules set by the catholic school.
From there he was sent to the military to serve his punishment. But the Military became a place where he can learn, reading any book he can lay his hands on, and doing some correspondence courses with the school, rather than a punishment. In the book, contemporaries said that he was not a military man as he would likes to make out later when he became president. It was the education he fancied. This helps him to be a journalist for some newspapers in Belgium and Congo, and also a spy.
But like many autocrats, Mobutu made it to the top by the sheer dint of his toughness and his cunning understanding of human behaviour. There are skills that he possessed, which Michela magnified in the book with ferocious fabulousness, that would later help him maintain his grip on power. One was his ability to retain avalanche of information in his ‘elephantine mind’, his skills to manipulate people around him who are called ‘mouvanciers’ and senior government officials know in Congo as ‘Big Vegetables’ for their corrupt practices, and his ability to dithers over taking decisions, giving nervous ambiguity to his ministers (Saddam Hussein also perfected this art). Mobutu used a mixture of repression, intimidation, buying off opponents with money to retain power. He looted the copper-producing company of Congo Gacemines and the diamond company MIBA, operating in Mbuji Maji.
In the 70s, Mobutu launched an ambitious intellectual project called ‘authenticity’. Conscious that his country needs a symbol of unity, Mobutu ordered his countrymen to wear ‘abacost’, ties were banned, women no skirts. At the heart of this project was to promote African values, but Mobutu failed, as the ideology was inchoate and incoherent. Master of the political game, Mobutu will tour the country sometimes to meet his people. After engaging the crowd enthusiastically, sometimes Mobutu will make a public putdown to a senior ‘mouvancier’ or sack him – all in front of the crowd. Michela said in the book: “It was Mobutu’s way of assessing the national mood and lancing the boil of public discontent before it turn septic.”
In the book also, Michela Wrong looked at the music culture of Congo, and how, in the midst of the absurdity, corruption and anarchy reigning the Congolese sought happiness, humour and febrile energy from their music Rumba, which resonates across Africa (confession time reader : your dear book reviewer is a massive fan of Rumba music. I listen to it all the time. Franco and TP O K Jazz being my favourite).
The End beckons for the Leopard
Mobutu, known as the leopard for his trademark leopard- skin hat, became so certain of his grip on power that he thought that in the poker game of politics his hands were strong with the winning cards, inviting anyone gusty enough to call his bluff. When the Cold-War ended in 1989, the man who the US relied on became an embarrassment for his poor Human Rights records, and country’s lack of political pluralism, which became the yin and yang of US foreign policy.
But it was an event closer to Mobutu’s country that will bring his regime down: the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Michela said in the book that when Mobutu heard that the Rwandan President Juvenile Haberemanna was killed on his plane in Kigali with Burundi President from an OAU Summit, he wept, because the late president was a ‘close friend’. The Tutsis, who were having the upper hand in the genocide, routed the Hutus, who moved to the border counties with Congo, where they settled.
The new Rwandan regime was uncomfortable having the Hutus at the border. Together with Uganda and Angola, they banded together to support Laurent Kabila and his forces to make a push-back to the Hutus. They defeated them and they went on a rampage in Congo to topple the Mobutu regime in 1997. Mobutu, when all this was happening, was at Gabadolite, in his village, with his twin wives Bobi and Kosssia Ladawa – which is unusual, marrying twin sisters, but Mobutu’s way of not having the other frocking with other men, or other men mistaken his really wife Bobi with Ladawa. He first got married to Marie Antoinette, who is said to be a feisty woman, and ‘served as a check on Mobutu’, but died in 1977. At Gabadolite, the president will be talking about farming, his sheep imported from Argentina and having a family meeting with marabouts (witch-doctors) some coming from Senegal, signing decrees and documents, his son Nzanga said, brought to him by the ‘mouvanciers’ and the ‘Big Vegetables, completely cut off, said Kengo Wa Dengo and Karl i Bond, his many Prime Ministers, from running the country.
He later fled with his family to Togo, and later to Morocco, where in September 1997 the man who rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngebendu Wa Za Banga (the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving wife in his wake) succumbed to prostate cancer and died. Before he died he saw his achievements discredited, his reputation besmirched and his name vilified by the Kabila government. Given that Mobutu’s hidden wealth is shrouded in the fog of mystery, in the last part of the book, author Michela Wrong mentioned The Gambia when she said on page 298: “The legends of Mobutu’s horde will endure, fuelled by reports of roomfuls of gold ingots in Gambia.”
Michela Wrong’s account of Congo under Mobutu is one of the most insightful books about Mobutu, who is still somewhat a subject of interest to people interested in Africa’s past. She interviewed many people closed to Mobutu, from his children to Ministers, Prime Ministers, and foreign players on the Congolese scene at the time. Reader if you are looking for a book that will give you a comprehensive account of Congo, Mobutu’s regime and Kabila, this is the book for you.
It is available at Timbooktoo Bookshop, Bakau for D450. You can call them on: 4494345
Amadou Camara is the Associate Editor of this newspaper