IN THE LONELINESS OF HIS OMNIPOTENCE, MOBUTU CONTINUED to stare at the screen. But, fifteen years after the historic bout, he saw things that knocked him for a bigger loop than any footage he’d seen before. It was Christmas Day 1989 and on a foreign channel he saw a turtle poke its head out, slow, helpless, with the fear of death in its eyes. No, this was no turtle, it was a man who came crawling—or who was squeezed, rather—from a compartment beneath an army tank. Amid the grayish-green steel his upper body moved so clumsily—his arms were pressed against his sides, his hands still in the compartment—that it made him look like a turtle. A soldier waiting on the street supported the man and pulled him out, like a midwife.
The video footage was yellowed and grainy, the scene had something wintery about it. But Mobutu recognized the man right away. It was Nicolae Ceauşescu. He and his wife had been arrested shortly before, after days of protest in his country. Mobutu watched the Romanian president stumble to his feet and take off his black astrakhan cap to arrange his hair. The cap looked like a wintertime variation on his own leopard-skin model. That was not the only similarity. Like him, Ceauşescu had come to power in 1965 and Mobutu greatly admired the way he had kept Romania on a course independent from the Soviet Union. And like Mobutu, Ceauşescu had been able to count on great Western support. Both men derived their power from faithful allies abroad and an obedient clique at home, which allowed their presidencies to grow into a sort of monarchy. Both were fond of the same nickname: Ceauşescu had people call him the Conducător, the leader, while Mobutu liked to be called le Guide. Surrounding the “Genius of the Carpathians,” another one of those nicknames, there had grown a personality cult as remarkable as that surrounding the “Great Helmsman” in Kinshasa. In Zaïre, the philosophy of authenticity had meanwhile been transformed into “Mobutuism”; in Romania, “Ceauşesism” reigned supreme. With so much authority on their sides, neither of them were good at dealing with criticism. They curbed the freedom of the press and when it came to dissidents, they were pleased to see the back of them. Let them spew their rancor over full ashtrays in some grimy Parisian café, blind as they were to the blessings these men had brought with them. The security of the state deservedly took pride of place. Ceauşescu’s Securitate displayed striking resemblances to Mobutu’s DSP, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle. The ties between Kinshasa and Bucharest were extremely warm and were topped off by a close personal friendship between Mobutu and Ceauşescu. Mobutu looked to America for money and to the East for methodology. He had learned a lot from Mao and Kim Il-sung, but the only Communist head of state with whom he was still on friendly terms was Ceauşescu. Their wives got along well too.
Mobutu saw the footage. Only one month earlier their two parties had held a bipartisan summit in Bucharest.1 Now he watched as Nicolae and Elena took their seats in a dismal classroom. How worn-out they looked, all of a sudden . . . Nicolae was a gray-haired senior citizen in a long winter coat, Elena an elderly lady with a big fur collar. An old Eastern European couple. They were sitting at a desk with thin metal legs. Nicolae waved his arms, raised his voice. The camera swung to the right. Shots of a few ranking officers covered in medals. Soldiers who sprang to their feet. A man reading aloud a printed statement.
It had been an extremely turbulent year in Europe. Glasnost, perestroika, the Wall . . . Mobutu followed it all vigilantly. Mikhail Gorbachev’s impetus for a political thaw had prompted a chain reaction no one could stop now. Least of all Gorbachev himself. The democratization of a huge, single-party state seemed a totally reckless venture to Mobutu:
Look at what is happening in the Soviet Union; even without a multiparty system installed, allowing the mere possibility of it was enough to cause regionalism and separatism to rear their heads. I pass no judgment whatsoever on the Baltic, Armenian, Georgian, or Belorussian movements; I limit myself to noting that the mere thought of a multiparty system works in favor of centrifugal forces.2
Democratization, Mobutu was leery of that. He remembered all too well the debacle of the First Republic. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in many ways resembled the decolonization of Africa: an abrupt process in which a latent hope suddenly found itself caught up in an uncontrollable momentum. With true sophistry, he reasoned: “Were we to forcibly impose here a Western-style democratic system, only then would we fall into dictatorship.”3
The end of the Communist era had arrived all over Central and Eastern Europe, without bloodshed. During the last few days, Mobutu had seen squares in Bucharest where tens of thousands of people had braved the cold to demand that the Conducător step down. But this shaky footage from a little village outside the capital gave him the real shivers. Suddenly Nicolae and Elena were no longer sitting in that classroom but standing on a empty playground, in front of a yellow wall. Mobutu saw a cloud of dust. Heard a rattling. Like someone shaking a can full of pebbles. The home video of world history. Faded colors. Muffled voices. Eternal winter. The camera then swept over two wax figures. Elena lying on her side, indifferent to the flow of blood trickling from her head. Nicolae on his back, his calves folded back unnaturally beneath his body, like a jumping jack. Mobutu looked, and kept looking.
ZOOM OUT. Dolly back. Reframe. New focus: more than ten years earlier, 1978. Bright sunlight. Mobutu, brimming over with self-confidence. Shots of his figure. He’s grown a bit fatter since the coup; the presidency has obviously served him well. In 1970 and again in 1977 he was reelected as head of state. The term of office had been extended to seven years and there was no longer a statutory limit on the number of consecutive terms. Mobutu had always been the sole candidate. At the polls, the voters had only to deposit a red card or a green one in the ballot box. Red, as one was told by an MPR official in the polling place itself, stood for chaos, bloodshed, foreign ideologies. Green was the color of hope, of manioc, and the MPR itself. Everyone could see you vote. Mobutu received 98 or 99 percent and governed more comfortably than ever. He walked a little more slowly, spoke a little more slowly too. Dignity had become more important than energy.
The rocket was ready to be launched. At the edge of a plateau overlooking the valley of the Luvua stood a slender juggernaut, twelve meters (thirty-nine feet) high. It was supported by a double framework of steel. It was 11:30 A.M. on Monday, June 5, 1978. A beaming Mobutu had invited a gaggle of friends and journalists to witness another of his stunts: the launching of a rocket from Zaïrian soil. He had come to an agreement with a German firm a few years earlier. That company, OTRAG (Orbital Transport- und Raketen Aktiengesellschaft), was given free run of a huge stretch of savanna to experiment with the construction and launching of inexpensive rockets. OTRAG received German government funding in its attempts to find an alternative to the costly projects run by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).4 In the long run, these German Billigraketen(bargain rockets) were meant to launch satellites into earth orbit for a mere pittance. A private company that built rockets: that was a first in the history of space travel. And a company that received support from an African dictator: that was an absolute first. Driving force behind the project was Lutz Kayser, but the most striking name on the payroll was that of Kurt Debus, a German who had worked during World War II on the development of the V-2 and who after the war had headed the Kennedy Space Center for many years, where he was in charge of the Apollo program.
OTRAG had gone looking for a large, empty spot along the equator, and had already taken a look at Indonesia, Singapore, Brazil, and Nauru, all countries bordered by an ocean. Zaïre entered the picture only late in the game. The savanna of Shaba, former Katanga, was thinly populated enough too. Within ten days in 1977 a deal was signed with Mobutu: the arrangement was stunning in every way. OTRAG became lord and master over an area of one hundred thousand square kilometers (thirty-nine thousand square miles), one and a half times the size of Ireland. It was reminiscent of the nineteenth-century rubber companies with their huge concessions that allowed them to “do business” unobstructed. For a period that extended to the remote year 2000, OTRAG leased almost 5 percent of Zaïre’s territory under extremely favorable terms. The company was exempted from paying import duties and was not to be held responsible for any environmental damage. Its employees paid no taxes and enjoyed legal immunity. And because the savanna was not quite as empty as the ocean, they were even allowed to relocate native settlements if they got in the way of the launch. Mobutu, the man who had fought against secessions and rebellions, was now effectively handing over the control over a substantial part of his country. In return he asked for no more than 5 percent of the net profits, if profits were ever made, and the launching of an observation satellite for domestic security, if such a launch should ever take place.5 But things never got to that point. In anticipation, however, he pulled in $25 million dollars’ rent each year, which immediately disappeared into his own pocket.6
Mobutu, beaming with pride, stood with his cronies and awaited liftoff. The countdown was in German. The first two tests had been successful. One year earlier, in deepest secrecy, the company had fired a six-meter-high (twenty-foot-high) rocket twenty kilometers (about 12.5 miles) into the air. Two weeks before, a heavier projectile had actually reached an altitude of thirty kilometers (about nineteen miles). Today, nothing could go wrong. This colossus was going to make it to a hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles).
Mobutu loved such spectacles. Wasn’t he the man who had invited the moon walkers to Kinshasa? Hadn’t he organized the match of the century in Congo? Hadn’t the public hanging been a spectacle too? But performances alone were not enough. He also wanted to treat the country to a series of megalomaniacal infrastructural works. The Inga Dam on the Congo he had rebuilt into one of Africa’s biggest hydroelectric plants. Upon completion in 1982, the new dam, Inga II, was to produce 1,424 megawatts instead of the former 351. Soon afterward Mobutu began dreaming of Inga III, a station with a capacity of no less than 30,000 megawatts, enough to supply energy for all of Africa and a part of Europe too. Before things got to that point, however, he had a high-tension line stretched from Inga all the way to the mining province of Shaba, an 1,800-kilometer-long (1,100-mile-long) extension cord straight through the jungle. Shaba itself was already well-equipped with power stations, but that line was Mobutu’s way of keeping a finger on the main switch of the rebellious province. The project required 10,000 pylons. In Maluku, on the Congo north of Kinshasa, he had a foundry built that could produce an annual 250,000 metric tons (275,000 U.S. tons) of steel.7
All these prestigious projects bore identical earmarks: they were built by foreign companies and equipped with the very latest gadgetry, they were delivered as turnkey projects—and they never worked as they were meant to. As soon as payment was received, the French, Italian, or American contractor would leave the country, abandoning all the high-tech equipment to people who did not know how to use it or had not had the time to learn. Inga II cost $478 million, but Zaïre continued to be plagued by blackouts.8Maintenance of the turbines was neglected and the two (of the original eight) that still work today generate only 30 percent of the intended yield. The high-tension line to Shaba cost a dizzying $850 million, but often carried no more than 10 percent of its capacity.9In addition, the project included no trunk lines to serve the cities and villages along the way. A $182 million price tag came attached to the steel mill at Maluku, but the company never turned a profit: it was unable to process local iron ore, only imported scrap metal.10
All that wasted money . . . That never became clearer to me than in 2007, the first time Zizi Kabongo showed me around the national broadcasting building. Mobutu’s construction craze was not limited to heavy industry; Kinshasa was to be beautified too, just like Brussels in the days of Leopold II. In the borough of Limete a huge traffic cloverleaf was built, with broad exits and entrances and daring overpasses; in the middle of the rotunda there arose a modernistic replica of the Eiffel Tower, a pointed steel-and-concrete structure 150 meters (about 485 feet) high. A panoramic restaurant was to be built at the top of it, but the complex was never finished. Along the banks of the Congo he had built the CCIZ, Zaïre’s international trade center, a high-priced structure that has stood in disrepair for decades. Shortly after the official opening, when the air-conditioning broke down, it turned out that the building’s windows could not be opened—a bit of a nuisance in a tropical country. In the center of the city there arose a chic, multilevel shopping mall called the Galéries Présidentielles. And a few kilometers farther away came the media park for the RTNC, the national broadcasting company, Kabongo’s new place of employment. Cost price: $159 million.
“The French built this,” he said as he showed me around. “They were determined to get the contract. In exchange for the commission, they gave Mobutu free Mirage jet fighters.” He showed me the dilapidated recording studios. Two of the original nine were still in use: massive, unequipped hangars. During live broadcasts, a little band of intrepid journalists availed themselves of two old cameras and a few microphones, at least if the electricity hadn’t gone out. I saw it happen once myself. As part of an artists’ exchange program between Brussels and Kinshasa, I took part in a morning talk show with a few other guests. The ceiling sagged. In the light from the spots we could see the asbestos floating down ceaselessly. Power cables were exposed; mixing consoles were lashed together with rope. I couldn’t understand how they could produce live television here. Before the talk show came a news report. The anchorwoman had no autocue, not even notes, but she presented the items perfectly, by heart, without the slightest hesitation and with amazing presence. The only thing was: after the news had been going for a few minutes, a technician realized that there was no microphone on her table. The broadcast had to be interrupted. While the crew feverishly went in search of a mike that still worked, the Congolese viewers were treated to a long stretch of test pattern. I saw the elegant anchorwoman sitting there at her brightly lit table, in the vastness of a darkened, rundown studio.
“The complex was originally built for six thousand employees,” Kabongo said. “Two thousand people still work here.” The central building was a nineteen-story phallus. The reception desk in the entryway had a switchboard that could accommodate hundreds of incoming calls. It had all been out of order for years, just like the elevators. These days everything went by way of the emergency stairwell, a dark labyrinth like some sketch by Escher that stank terribly of urine because the plumbing on the top floors was broken as well. In the old days the managing director had his office on the building’s top floor, from where he had a majestic view of the whole city. Today no one feels like clambering up to that eagle’s nest. The current director enjoys the great privilege of a ground-floor office. The higher you work in the building, the lower your status. “What a waste of money,” Kabongo sighed as we climbed to his fifth-floor office, “the RTNC, the CCIZ, all those projects . . . and all of it at a point when there was so much poverty elsewhere in the country.”11
It is truly amazing, the way Mobutu kept throwing money around. Ever since 1975 and the start of an endless war of decolonization in neighboring Angola, Zaïre had been unable to use the Benguela Line—the stretch of railroad on which my father had worked and that connected the Katangan mining basin with the Atlantic. It became much harder to export ore and Mobutu missed out on a lot of foreign revenue. The country was crumbling, but he seemed hardly aware of that.
Vier, drei, zwei, eins . . . a burst of flames lit the surroundings. The roar swelled. Slowly, the rocket rose from the launching pad. A hundred kilometers into the atmosphere, that’s where it was headed, a new step forward in African space travel. A lavish lunch was waiting for the guests. But before the projectile had left the pad, even a child could see that something was going wrong. The rocket listed, cut a neat arc to the left and landed a few hundred meters away, in the valley of the Luvua, where it exploded. As a thick cloud of smoke rose up from the savanna, Mobutu turned away in silence. Against the sky, the spectators could briefly see a dark vapor trail describing the curve the rocket had made.12 A parabola of soot. It looked like a graphic representation of Mobutu’s regime: after the steep rise of the first years, his Zaïre toppled inexorably and plunged straight into the abyss.
AND THERE WERE MORE THINGS TO COME DOWN out of the blue in those years. Between 1974 and 1980, two of the Zaïrian army’s C-130 transport planes, two Macchi fighters, three Alouette helicopters, and four Puma helicopters went down.13 Not a single one of those crashes took place during combat. The reason for so much bad luck? The soldiers were so badly paid that they had started selling the spare parts for their aircraft. Pierre Yambuya, a helicopter pilot in the national army, saw it all happen. His testimony provides a unique glimpse of the state the armed forces were in at the time. “Anyone with a private plane knew that Kinshasa was the world’s cheapest market for spare parts. The soldiers sold them for twenty times less than the factory price.”14 Mobutu showed off with his prestigious projects, but began neglecting the institution that had made his coup possible: the army. Air force pilots supplemented their incomes by selling, wherever they landed, a part of their kerosene to the local population, who used it as lantern fuel. It became such a common custom that children would run with their yellow jerrycans to the landing strip as soon as a government plane arrived. Yambuya knew what he was talking about: “A sergeant-major earned 280 zaïres, a bag of rice cost 1,200 zaïres back then. An adjutant got 430 zaïres. But a school uniform cost 850 zaïres, and with the 5 zaïre allowance he received for each child, you couldn’t even buy a pencil.” That suddenly makes corruption much more understandable. The soldiers did not protest “up through the ranks,” for that could cost them their jobs or even their lives, but repeated at lower levels that which went on over their heads. “To lead a reasonable life, for example, I sold the fuel from my helicopter. My superior stuck the funding intended for my mission in his own pocket and said: ‘If you land somewhere, just sell some fuel. After all, what you do is your own business.’”15
Zaïre became sick. The deeper cause was a shortage of revenues (due to the copper crisis, the oil crisis, failed Zaïrianization, and grotesque public spending), and the worst symptoms were the withdrawal of the state and the spread of corruption. It was in the army that that first became visible. Soldiers took military vehicles away from the base and used them to run their own taxi services. Radios and record players disappeared from the mess halls, bulldozers and trucks from the garages. Officers even took their subordinates home with them and used them as servants. Absenteeism in the barracks was high, sometimes more than 50 percent. The few soldiers who did show up for roll call were not highly motivated. Discipline was something from long, long ago. An internal document, the “Mémorandum du Réflexion,” did not shrink from self-criticism when it came to a concise summary of the troops’ morale: “Everyone wants to command, but no one wants to obey.”16
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Angolan border, Moïse Tshombe’s troops—the veterans of the Katangan secession—were increasingly active. Many of them belonged to the Lunda tribe, a people whose traditional territory reached into Angola. Mobutu had driven them into exile many years ago, after they had defeated the Simba rebels. But now, along with their sons and new recruits, they were out for revenge. These notorious Katangan guardsmen had followed a remarkable course. During the Katangan secession (1960–63) they had fought for a rightist, European-run Katanga, but in Angola they had taken sides since 1975 with the Marxist MPLA, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola. The reason for the ideological turnaround was simple enough: the MPLA, like them, held a grudge against Mobutu.
After the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, Angola started in 1975 a violent struggle for decolonization. As in Congo the contest was one for the throne, but in Angola the conflict was far bloodier. There were three factions. Agostinho Neto’s left-wing MPLA faced off against the FNLA of Holden Roberto and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA. The superpowers got involved. Angola was the spot where the Cold War experienced its most heated African episode. The MPLA received massive support from Russia and Cuba; the two other militias had American backing. The U.S. support went by way of South Africa and Zaïre: Pretoria backed Savimbi in the south; Kinshasa supported Roberto in the north. Because Roberto also happened to be Mobutu’s brother-in-law, the former Katangan guardsmen chose to join up with the MPLA. Their leader’s name was Nathanaël Mbumba, their new nom de guerre the FLNC (Front pour la Libération Nationale du Congo), their nickname les Tigres Katangais (the Katangan Tigers).
The rebels invaded Zaïre on two occasions. In 1977 and again in 1978 they crossed the border and seized a large part of western Shaba (the so-called Shaba I and Shaba II wars). In numbers and logistics they were far inferior to the national army, but the local population received them joyfully; not only were they fellow Lundas, but the people were also tiring of Mobutu. The rebels won ground easily and in 1978 even took the important mining town of Kolwezi. For the first time in a decade, Mobutu had to deal with a military uprising. Dissidents who had fled to Brussels and Paris hoped the dictatorship would topple and saw in the invasion the “embryo of a people’s army.”17 Mbumba, they felt, could breathe new life into the dreams of Lumumba and Mulele. The sun king’s empire seemed to be tottering.
Mobutu, however, did everything in his power to portray the rebellion as a foreign, Marxist intervention. According to him, Mbumba was merely a pawn of the MPLA and therefore of Cuba and Russia. With this line of reasoning he hoped to draw support from abroad, for his own army was now virtually worthless. And it worked. After eight days, Shaba I was quashed by Moroccan troops flown in in French military aircraft. Shaba II was put down after only a few days by French Foreign Legion troops and Belgian paratroopers. Mobutu’s allies sprang into action after the rebels had slaughtered thirty whites in a villa in Kolwezi. What these foreign friends did not know was that the white people had probably not been murdered by the rebels at all, but by Mobutu’s own troops. Helicopter pilot Yambuya was in Kolwezi, and was clear about what he had seen:
On Sunday, May 14, Colonel Bosange [of the national army] suddenly orders all those Europeans locked up in the villa to be executed. According to him, they are all mercenaries. Bosange will tolerate no objections, and General Tshikeva does not try to dissuade him. Only old Musangu raises his voice in protest. Bosange commands the head of the intelligence and security services, Lieutenant Mutuale, and three other soldiers to carry out his orders. Mutuale and his firing squad go to the villa, where the doors and windows are hermetically sealed. They fire their machine guns through the closed metal blinds. The volleys echo like the sound of a car crash. Five minutes later, Mutuale and his men are back: mission accomplished.18
Mobutu knew his history. In 1960 Belgium had invaded the country after the murder of five whites in Elisabethville. In 1964 Stanleyville was retaken by Belgian paratroopers after hundreds of whites were taken hostage. Kill a few Europeans, Mobutu knew, and you’ve got a Western army on your side. That is: as long as you can put the blame on someone else.
The two Shaba wars were short-lived, but the lessons they taught were of great importance. First, Mobutu was capable of doing absolutely anything to maintain his position. Second, his army was worthless. Third, he survived by dint of foreign support. America had been a faithful ally ever since 1960 (regardless of occasional tensions), but now France came along as well. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing implemented a very explicit policy of increasing the French sphere of influence in Central Africa. As the world’s largest Francophone country, Zaïre of course received special attention. Back in 1960, with decolonization in full swing, France had even tried to acquire Congo from Belgium with a reference to the historical droit de préemption from 1885!19 Giscard, however, was much more interested in financial gain. Trade with Zaïre received a strategic boost. It was against that background that the deal had been made to build TV studios in exchange for Mirage jets. The main contractor was Giscard’s cousin, while another of his cousins was one of the project’s biggest financers.20 Nepotism was hardly a Zaïrian invention.
In Kinshasa and Brussels I spoke a number of times to Colonel Eugène Yoka, who had been one of the Zaïrian army’s few fighter pilots. He was the son of the last surviving widow of a World War I veteran and came from a soldiering family. His father had fought against the Germans; his grandfather was one of the first soldiers in the Force Publique. He himself had put in more than two thousand flight hours. In 1961 he was among the first batch of Congolese pilots to complete his training; he had been taught to fly in an SV4-BIS—a propeller biplane—at Tienen, in Belgium. Afterward he had flown Dakotas, T-6 aircraft, P-148s, you name it. He was there when the Concorde made its first flight to Africa in 1973; Mobutu would soon charter the supersonic plane for jaunts on a regular basis, including trips with his family to Disneyland Paris.21 Yoka also became one of the select circle of pilots able to fly the Mirage. He had been trained in France. I asked him about his memories of the Shaba wars. “I was there,” he said, “for both Shaba I and Shaba II, but not as a pilot.”22 I’d received a similar answer from Alphonsine Mosolo, the first female parachutist, who had received her training in Israel. “The wars in ’77 and ’78, I never had to jump then.” Both soldiers had received extensive training abroad, both of them had to show up for the annual parades in Kinshasa, but neither of them had to apply their expertise when the time came. The armed forces seemed to have fallen into disuse. Mosolo said: “Instead of jumping, I cooked for Mobutu aboard the Kamanyola. That was his private yacht, the one he used on the river. One evening there was a party on board. I was finished cooking. Mobutu liked it when spirits were high, he was a real partygoer. I was sitting in a chair, but he wanted me to dance. He even took my shoes off to get me to dance. Really! The president himself! Down on his knees! Even though my feet stank so badly!”23
MOBUTU COULD KEEP ON DANCING for a time in the full conviction that his country’s economic recession was only a temporary dip. Copper no longer commanded the price it once had and at the same time oil had become so expensive. But anyone can have a little bad luck, he reasoned, especially with an economy so dependent on a single sector like mining. All right, his country couldn’t pay off all its loans right away, true enough, but soon the international demand for ore would rise again. He turned to his French, American, and also his new Arab allies to ask for a little help.
But Zaïre’s burden of debt was not merely cyclical. In 1977 the deficit had risen to 32 percent of the total budget.24 Year after year, GNP dropped by a few percentage points.25 An annual inflation rate of 60 percent became normal.26 Between 1974 and 1983 prices rose six times over.27 This was no longer just a passing problem, the people knew. In 1984 they had to work two days to pay for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice, ten days for a kilo of beef. The unskilled Zairian who wanted to buy a cheap forty-kilo (eighty-eight-pound) bag of manioc for his family had to work eighty days to do so.28 And by the time he could finally afford that bag of manioc, the price had risen again. By 1979, purchasing power had plummeted to 4 percent of that in 1960.29
At first, Western and Japanese banks had had no problem with granting loans to the young Mobutu to carry out his program of industrialization—Zaïre was, after all, rich—but from 1975 on they started worrying about their money. Zaïre’s foreign debt by that point totaled $887 million, spread over ninety-eight banks.30 To consolidate their claims, those banks finally joined forces in the “Paris Club.” They directed a joint appeal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the financial watchdog of the world economy, set up in the wake of World War II to prevent another depression like that in the 1930s. The IMF was asked to provide emergency loans, to make sure Zaïre didn’t go completely off the deep end.
Mobutu, however, had no desire to entertain the busybodies of the IMF. After all, all the power he possessed was founded on the conscientious maintenance of a large group of followers. If he let the IMF come in he would no longer be able to pass out goodies. But if he didn’t, he would have no money left. This latter option would lead to the immediate collapse of his regime; the former still left him with a few possibilities. The trick was to pay lip service to the IMF, to nod amiably in response to all its demands, and then go on plundering the state treasury behind the scenes.
Mobutu, the man who had been so adamant about his country’s “economic independence,” now had to accept the IMF, the Paris Club, and later the World Bank as key players in the domestic economy. In 1976 the IMF launched the first of many stabilization plans for Zaïre. In exchange for a first installment of $47 million, Mobutu had to agree to cut public spending, raise tax revenues, devaluate the currency, stimulate production, enhance infrastructure, and improve the country’s financial management. Only then were the international banks prepared to talk about a possible extension of payment.
Many capital injections and bridge loans would follow but, in the period 1977 to 1979 alone, Mobutu—by the most conservative estimates—siphoned off more than $200 million for himself and his family.31 After the stabilization plans of the 1970s came the much more rigorous, structural adjustment programs of the 1980s, but that didn’t help either. By around 1990 Zaïre’s total national debt had risen to the insane sum of more than $10 billion. Only then did the flow of money stop.
It was, however, not the first time that Mobutu’s creative bookkeeping came to light. The first alarm had been sounded by a meticulous German banker as early as the late 1970s. In 1978 the IMF had charged Erwin Blumenthal, for years a top official with the West Germany Bundesbank, with the onerous task of cleaning up the mess called the National Bank of Zaïre. During this period, the IMF had placed the country’s major financial institutions under receivership. Blumenthal doggedly tried to pick up the pieces at the central bank: time and time again he unearthed shameless examples of corruption. “There is not a single official at the Fund or the World Bank who does not know that all attempts to impose stricter budgetary control here run into major obstacle: the presidency,” he wrote. “Who is going to shout ‘stop the thief!’? It is an impossible task to monitor the financial transactions within the president’s office. Within that office, no distinction is drawn between personal needs and state expenditures. How can it be that international organizations and Western governments blindly trust President Mobutu?”32
The systematic embezzlement of government funds, the discovery of a whole slew of secret bank accounts in Europe, the bald-faced, systematic greed of Mobutu and his clique filled Blumenthal with disgust. After less than two years, he resigned his mission. The confidential report with which he announced that resignation was grimly unambiguous: “New promises will undoubtedly be made by Mobutu and his government, and the payment of the country’s foreign debt, which is accruing apace, will once again be postponed; but there is absolutely no chance, I repeat, absolutely no chance that the foreign creditors will ever see their money again.”33
The Blumenthal Report was so damning for Mobutu and his clan that it had to leak out at some point. Zizi Kabongo still remembered those days: “Mobutu wanted to make absolutely sure that the report didn’t appear here. No one in Zaïre knew about it at first, but circulating in Paris was a text on the subject that had been published by Nguza Karl I Bond. Journalists coming back from abroad were frisked at the airport.” For eight months, Nguza had been Mobutu’s prime minister. After he fell from grace in 1981 he went to Europe, where he continued to fire broadsides at Mobutu’s regime in the form of books and pamphlets. For him, the president-founder was the embodiment of the “Zairian sickness.”34
Blumenthal said aloud what everyone suspected, but his revelations did not lead to a radical turnabout. Zaïre’s national debt was already up to $5 billion by 1981; for the French, however, Mobutu was too important a cultural and economic partner to cross. For the Americans he was too valuable as an ally in an Africa in the throes of socialist and communist experiments (in Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia, to mention only the neighboring countries). “Mobutu is a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard,” the CIA reasoned. Secret directives stated that “a negative frame of mind on the part of the IMF, or a negative attitude on the part of the U.S., might cause Mobutu to reconsider our extremely close ties. This could endanger a program that the president [Reagan] considers to be of cardinal importance for U.S. security.”35 Republican presidents in particular, like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. maintained extremely warm contacts with Kinshasa; after Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, relations cooled for a time.
THIS COLD WAR LOGIC formed a considerable encumbrance for the IMF’s recovery plans. Yet the IMF too, was not without sin. Historically speaking, the organization had been set up not to help poor nations back onto their feet, but to avoid global financial crises.36 Even in the 1970s, its genteel staff members tended to know more about macroeconomics than about anthropology. They preferred examining charts in their Washington offices to talking to the people it was really all about. The consequences of that lack of on-the-ground expertise were highly unfortunate.
On Christmas Day 1979, under the watchful eye of the IMF, one of the most remarkable monetary measures in the country’s history took place: the depreciation of the zaïre. To combat inflation, all citizens were summoned to bring their five- and ten-zaïre notes—the highest denominations known till then—to the bank and exchange them for new ones. In late 1976 there were 59,000 five-zaïre notes in circulation; by late 1979 there were 363,000, six times as many. The result was inflation. Currency is to an economy what oil is to a motor: too little of it is not good, but too much is not good either.37 In addition to inflation, hoarding had also become a problem. In a vast country with a shaky economy like Congo’s, almost no one wanted or was able to put money in the bank. People stashed it away in suitcases, pillows, or jugs. Didace Kawang, an actor to whom I once gave a master class in playwriting, told me about his uncle, who had been a successful merchant in Lubumbashi: “He did business with Zambia. The banknotes came in through the big gates. He had piles and piles of them. He bound them together in brikken, bundles the size of a brick, wrapped with a rubber band. He had a mattress made of money. Really! He slept on it!”38
The IMF bankers knew that it is extremely unhealthy for a national economy when there is more money in circulation (in the form of coins and bills) than there is in the banks. They knew the big theories: money in the bank is used to provide new loans; money used as a mattress doesn’t help the economy one little bit. To combat hoarding, therefore, they rolled out a process of currency depreciation. Anyone who turned in his banknotes on Christmas Day 1979 would be given new ones, at least for half the amount brought in. The other half had to be placed in a bank account. It was a clever way to bring a lot of “dead” money back to life and at the same time to deal with inflation. The move was intentionally announced at the last minute and lasted only one day, to keep people from fleeing abroad with their cash. The border crossings were closed and even the country’s airspace was shut down. Zaïre was going to freshen up in a monetary jiffy, in order to reappear spic and span in the international footlights. But the country was far too vast for such a lightning operation.
“My uncle had no choice but to put his savings in the bank too,” Didace said. “But they had reserved only one day for that. There was a huge line. People came in dragging sacks full of money. The sun went down and my uncle still hadn’t been able to turn in his bills. All his piles of banknotes became worthless . . . . In one swoop, he was poor as a church mouse. He died in his native village.” And he was not the only one, not by a long shot. Many of those who lived too far from a bank or who did not understand what the operation was about lost all their savings, while in Mobutu’s circles everyone had been briefed beforehand and had taken steps long before.
Not only was there something awry with the practical side of the IMF measures, but the basic philosophy was skewed as well. After the stock-market crash of 1929, the fund had dealt with the excesses of unbridled market thinking; by 1975, however, the IMF itself had evolved into one of the great heralds of free enterprise. Almost all its officials were firmly convinced that the creation of favorable market conditions was enough to jump-start a national economy, regardless of the local culture, the state of the economy or the governmental structure. Here too, a form of macroeconomic blindness reigned. As long as the government kept its distance, the invisible hand would do its work; that was the institution’s mantra. No one had an eye for the pace and sequence of the needed changes.39 The whole package was imposed at once, in the form of programs for “structural adjustment.” For these zealots of liberalization, all forms of poverty reported to them afterward (for they rarely entered the field themselves) could be blamed on the defective implementation of their infallible, yea, holy formulae.
The Zairian currency was devalued no less than six times: in 1975 it was still worth two dollars, by 1983 only three cents.40 Those devaluations were intended to stimulate international trade. As part of its “structural adjustments” the IMF demanded a drastic reduction in government spending and far-reaching privatizations. Governmental and semigovernmental enterprises had to be slimmed down and operated with greater autonomy. The infrastructure and production had to improve.
In the early 1980s the IMF’s prescription seemed to be taking effect. Inflation was indeed tempered and the economy seemed to be achieving a higher degree of organization. The charts were looking good. The Paris Club creditors breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that perhaps their loans really would be paid back. On nine separate occasions they voted for a program of debt relief. But on the ground, things turned out quite differently. As is often the case with IMF interventions, success was short-lived: inflation resumed after a time, poverty rose. The per capita GNP fell dramatically from six hundred dollars in 1980 to two hundred in 1985.41 People ate less; infant mortality was high. Onions were cut into quarters before they were sold.42
Slim down the public sector? The ranks of the civil service were reduced from 444,000 to 289,000; the number of schoolteachers from 285,000 to 126,000.43 That was, indeed, one way to combat inflation, but it meant that thousands of families ended up with no income. The civil service and the schools had been the country’s last major employers.
Cut back on spending? Government funding for education and health care was reduced, so that those with no money at all suddenly had to pay for their own children’s schooling and their visits to the doctor. The charts didn’t show it, but it was the poorest of the poor who paid most dearly for the IMF’s well-intentioned measures, while the international funding kept Mobutu firmly in the saddle.44
Measures to jump-start foreign trade? As long as Mobutu failed to use the available funding to restore the country’s infrastructure, Zaïre could only become more dependent on imports. The country had all it needed, for example, to again become a major coffee producer, but in the cities people drank only imported instant coffee. Little wonder: of the 140,000 kilometers (about 87,000 miles) of passable roads that had existed in 1960, only 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) were left.45 The IMF was out to reorganize the country, but in fact dismantled it. Zaïre became nothing more than a sales outlet and would remained that way for decades to come.
In 2008 I once spent an afternoon beside the Congo River in the old port of Boma. Swallows zigzagged across the water. Fishermen paddled out in the canoes to inspect their nets. It could have been 1890—until a huge cargo ship came sailing past. It was on its way from Matadi to the ocean. The ship rode high on the water. At the back, close to the prop, I could even see the keel. The ship was empty, completely empty. With the exception of a few spare containers, it was carrying nothing at all. I was reminded of Edmund Morel, who had watched a century earlier as the ships entered Antwerp’s harbor loaded with rubber and ivory from Congo, but left again empty. To Morel, the difference between ships riding high or low in the water was proof that the Free State was not engaged in commerce, but in plunder. The difference in draft I noted suggested that free trade, as roundly promulgated for decades by the prophets of the international economic institutions, could be a form of plunder as well.
IN THE 1980s Mobutu became a tired, somber man who seemed to draw little pleasure from his duties. After the deaths of his mother and his first wife, no one in his immediate surroundings had any control over him. His new wife, Bobi Ladawa, and her twin sister, who was also Mobutu’s mistress, never had the same impact as mama Yemo or mama-présidente Marie-Antoinette, his first spouse. Mobutu had been very fond of his old, mettlesome mother. Her death weighed heavily on him. His wife Marie-Antoinette had also been an outspoken character who had stubbornly refused to give up her Christian name. For a long time she had had a restraining effect on her husband’s tomfoolery. But now Mobutu had expelled his cabinet chief, Bisengimana Rwema, and his personal physician, the American William Close, had left the country.
Mobutu became a lonely man who grew more melancholy with each passing day. He seemed to fall prey to the longing for excess that marks all those for whom life holds no more surprises. In Europe he bought one chic property after the other. He owned a dozen castles, storage spaces, and residences in the wealthy Brussels boroughs of Ukkel and Sint-Genesius-Rode. He owned a luxurious, eight-hundred-square-meter (nearly 8,500-square-foot) apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris, Savigny Castle close to Lausanne, Switzerland, a palazzo in Venice, a sumptuous villa on the French Riviera, an equestrian estate in the Portuguese Algarve, and a series of hotels in West Africa and South Africa, not to mention his luxury yacht on the Congo.46 But the most incredible of all his residences was, without a doubt, Gbadolite. In the middle of the jungle in his native region, close to the border with the Central African Republic, he had a city built, complete with banks, a post office, a well-equipped hospital, a hypermodern hotel, and a landing strip that could accommodate the Concorde. (Zizi Kabongo: “That’s right, as a journalist I once took the Concorde from Gbadolite to Japan.”) A cathedral was added, with a crypt that was to serve as the family grave, and a Chinese village with pagodas and imported Chinese people. The crowning glory was Mobutu’s opulent, 15,000-square-meter (158,400-square-foot) palace. The mahogany doors were seven meters (nearly twenty-three feet) high and inlaid with malachite. The walls were covered with Carrara marble and silk tapestries. Crystal chandeliers, Venetian mirrors, Empire furniture: no expense was spared, no luxury was too excessive. There were Jacuzzis, massage rooms, a swimming pool, and a beauty parlor. Mrs. Mobutu had a walk-in closet fifty meters (over 160 feet) long where she hung her extensive collective of French couture, some one thousand creations in all. Beneath the building itself, thousands of top French vintages lay gathering dust (if not actually going sour in the tropical climate). There was a discotheque for the children and a bomb shelter for the family.47 The fountains scattered around the grounds splashed around the clock and were lit at night—in a region that had almost no electrical network. Mobutu threw state banquets for thousands of guests where the pink champagne—his favorite beverage—flowed freely and the suckling pigs lay grinning with an orange in their mouths.
“He had the great chefs of France and Belgium flown in,” recalled Kibambi Shintwa, a man who still retained his “authentic” name. Shintwa had worked as a reporter for the présidence from 1982 and was closely acquainted with Mobutu. “After years of hard work, he started taking it a little easier. He enjoyed good food and good restaurants. But he also derived a lot of pleasure from giving to others. He was extremely generous.” That generosity, however, was functional. “He always felt the need to remind others that he was the chief. He wanted to display his power.”48
Mobutu’s corruption was so shocking that it caused a long-forgotten term to resurface in the English language: kleptocracy. The unforgettable Jamais Kolonga had witnessed it firsthand. After his short-lived adventure as sawmill owner, he went to work for Miba, the national diamond enterprise in Kasai. “Oh, but I visited Gbadolite often. I usually went along with the great Mibaas Jonan Mukamba to see the president. Every time we went I had to carry an attaché case and hand it to the president when we met. Here you are! A briefcase full of diamonds, that was.”49 But kleptocracy was only part of the story. It was also a “giftocracy”: Mobutu stole in order to share and so ensure his popularity. No one left Gbadolite emptyhanded, or so the saying went. A few hundred dollars, a valise full of zaïres, a cigar box full of diamonds: Mobutu always had a gift ready for his guests.
“Mobutism” and the cult of personality that went along with it had already made clear the boundless nature of Mobutu’s vanity. Of the seventy-nine series of banknotes printed during his regime, seventy-one bore his likeness.50 But in the 1980s his narcissism became nothing short of pathological. No one knew that better than the Flemish tailor Alfons Mertens, who I met in a well-to-do residential area in Antwerp province. A good-natured family man he had never dreamed that he would become directly involved in world history, but he worked for Arzoni in Zellik (close to Brussels), the company that made the world’s chicest abacosts and so became a brand name in Zaïre, like Dior or Versace. Mertens was such a skilled tailor that in 1978 he became Mobutu’s private couturier. “Between 1978 and 1990 I traveled to Kinshasa more than a hundred times. I always stayed at the Intercontinental. Mobutu would have me come in to take the measurements of Air Zaïre’s pilots and stewardesses, or of his army generals. When his son was promoted to the rank of sublieutenant, I had to design a dress uniform and a ceremonial uniform for his entire class at the military academy: twenty-seven cadets in all. I often made clothes for Mobutu himself, including his civilian dress. His wife or mistress would pick the material, my boss would draw the pattern, I took the sizes. The Mobutus always went for extremely costly materials, like natural silk, wild silk. His sizes didn’t change much. He was tall, almost one meter eighty [five feet ten inches], but he never wore anything bigger than a size 54. He was a fine man. You had to meet him a few times before you won his trust, but after that he was nice person.”
In 1983 Mertens received the most ceremonious commission of his career. “I had to make new uniforms for all the generals, and no less than four full-dress uniforms for Mobutu himself, two black ones and two white ones. His generals had decided to confer on him the rank of marshal, and I went to work.” Mobutu, commander in chief of the armed forces, who had cut a bad figure indeed during the Shaba uprising, was now to be given the historically rare rank of marshal! The idea, of course, was his own.
Mertens showed me pictures of the ceremony and explained his creations. “Look, that collar, the belt, and cuffs, they were embroidered with real gold thread. That chain is made of gold too. All of it hand tailored. He had two times seven stars on his sleeves. All made from solid gold, from France.”51 His uniform cap bore a cockade with the emblem Paix Justice Travail, even though his country offered no peace, no justice, and no work. The photographs of his marshal’s inauguration bear witness to unparalleled gaudiness. Mobutu wore white gloves and held a scepter. He was driven around in a white Mercedes and waved to the people along the way. He inspected the troops, the magistrates, and the top officials, and gave a speech from beneath an ornamental canopy. A marshal needs a motto, he told the nation. His would be: Toujours servir. To serve at all times. It wasn’t even laughable anymore. It was the sad low point of madness cast adrift.
BUT DIDN’T ANYONE SPEAK OUT? In December 1980 a group of thirteen members of parliament had the audacity to send a fifty-two-page open letter to the president, calling for political change. Their leader was Étienne Tshisekedi, a former member of Mobutu’s staff who had written the 1967 constitution and occupied a number of ministerial and ambassadorial posts. Like everyone whose name starts with “Tshi,” he was a Muluba from Kasai. His obstinacy was legendary.
For fifteen years we have obeyed you. Look at all the things we’ve done during that time, just to please you? Sing, dance, perform political drama . . . we have been through every form of humiliation, all sorts of insults unlike anything even pressed upon us by our colonizers. And we did all that so that you would lack for nothing as you set about achieving, even if only half, of the social model you presented to us. Did you succeed in that? Unfortunately, no.
After fifteen years of government, which you have carried out without any distribution of power, we are now faced with two absolutely divided camps. On one side we have a few scandalously wealthy members of a privileged caste. On the other we have the masses of the people who live in darkest misery and can depend at most only on international charity to survive after a fashion. And if that charity happens to reach Zaïre, these same wealthy few make arrangements to claim it to the disadvantage of the needy masses! . . .
Citoyen Président-Fondateur, this dry-eyed analysis shows that our society is faced with grave problems. You have often said that a real chief is one who admits his own mistakes. You have done so often enough. But the tragedy is that you do not always assume the consequences of those mistakes. And the worst thing is that you take one step forward, and three steps back.52
It had been a long time since Mobutu had been spoken to so candidly. The group of thirteen was arrested and sent into exile abroad, but in 1982 a few of its members set up the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), an illegal opposition party that aimed to challenge the MPR’s single-party state. That party would become yet another nail in Mobutu’s coffin.
I talked about this with Raymond Mukoka, one of those involved from the very start. He had helped to write the MPs’ letter. “The cosigners were sentenced to fifteen years in exile. My name wasn’t on it, but as coauthor I was flown first to the Ituri, then on to Kasai. I had to pay for the food and wages of my own guards! We received support from Amnesty International and the Catholic Church, who used its field phones to keep my family informed. Jeune Afrique wrote about us. In 1985 I paid a brief visit to the capital. The UDPS arose in exile, just like the Kimbanguists. Some of the party members dreamed of forming a paramilitary wing, but we always remained nonviolent. Tshisekedi said: Our pen and our words, those are our weapons. In 1987 Mobutu invited us to Gbadolite. He said: join the MPR. We said: No! Then he said: Well, then take part in the MPR institutions. He gave us access to the central committee, offered us ministerial posts or management positions in the state-owned companies. A lot of our people took him up on that, but I didn’t want to, and Tshisekedi didn’t either.”53
Mobutu mollified his critics by giving them gifts and one of his favorite presents was a ministerial post. A political career was too lucrative for most people to refuse. Between 1965 and 1990 no less than fifty-one cabinets were installed, each of them with around forty ministers.54 Regular reshuffles, on the average of every six months, made sure no one could gain real power, while providing the next group with a chance to move up to the buffet.
Mobutu was a political schemer par excellence. “He didn’t like big meetings,” Zizi said, “he always chose for the tête-à-tête, for private consultations that allowed him to play out one politician against the other. He had a frightening ability to generate hatred between individuals.” Mobutu had an entire arsenal of techniques for binding people to him. He could be charming, friendly, and funny, but also manipulative, treacherous, and vicious. The emotional yo-yo was a tool he used consciously. He could be hearty and jovial one day, only to treat you with frosty distance the next. Kibambi Shintwa told me about that: “Mobutu was protean, slippery, impossible to figure out. He was fickle. He changed every day. What he was primarily interested in was showing that his power was not to be toyed with. He was jealous, like an animal clutching its prey.”
The very people he protected were sometimes humiliated in plain public view. Others, who had seemingly blown it for good, like former prime minister Nguza Karl I Bond, might suddenly be forgiven and allowed to return to Kinshasa—Nguza took Mobutu up on that offer and lost all credibility. Still, for a time, Nguza had been the hope of the clandestine opposition. In this way, critics were made to dance to the pipes of the MPR and Mobutu triumphed as wise and mild village chieftain.
Another privilege of the traditional chieftain of which Mobutu made avid use was his droit de cuissage (right to deflower). Zizi Kabongo said:
When he traveled around the country, the local chiefs always offered him a virgin. It was a great honor for the family when a girl lost her virginity to the supreme chieftain. It was an old custom, but Mobutu took it even further. He didn’t hesitate to employ women in his power games. He used women from his province to advance his political ends. He slept with the wives of his cabinet ministers, in order to hear their secrets and to humiliate his ministers. When they were summoned to Gbadolite, they never took their wives, they would take a niece instead. They didn’t mind that as much . . . . Mokonda was a legal counsel, one of his closest associates. He had a very beautiful wife. One day Mokonda was in a meeting with Mobutu at Gbadolite. What he didn’t know was that his wife was sleeping in the room next door. The president had had her flown in on a private jet. Mobutu, we used to say, is multipolygamous. He destroyed a lot of marriages.
Political and sexual intrigues were only the tip of the iceberg. The more Mobutu withdrew to his yacht or his palace, the more he wanted to know what was going on in the country. In the 1980s the intelligence services became as important as the propaganda services had been in the 1970s. The president had half a dozen such secret services, all working at cross-purposes, but here too the motto was: divide and conquer. Spies were everywhere. Men distrusted their wives, mothers their sons, sisters their brothers. Mobutu had informants everywhere, even in Belgium. Paranoia became the emotional bottom line. Cabinet ministers asked to dine with the president feigned a strict diet or intestinal problems, afraid as they were of being poisoned. Others brought their own bag lunches.55Rumor had it that an underground canal ran from the presidential palace on Kinshasa’s Mont Ngaliema and the river; political opponents were thrown into the canal to feed the crocodiles. Belgian diplomats, even among themselves, no longer pronounced Mobutu’s name. During meetings they preferred to speak of “Jefke Van den Bergh”: Jef was the Flemish equivalent of “Joseph,” Van den Bergh meant “of the mountain,” a reference to Mont Ngaliema.
A true reign of terror settled over Congo. The country was ruled by caprice, and there was nothing to be done about it. In 2005, during one of my first visits there, I came in contact with Madame A., an elderly lady and a former newsreader. During dinner she told me her incredible life’s story:
My husband was general editor of the daily news programs. We had five children. He was a handsome man. Mobutu’s sister-in-law saw him on TV and wanted him, married or not. One evening, while we were sitting around the table, armed soldiers suddenly came to the door. My husband had to go along with them. They told me: you keep your mouth shut, or you and your children will end up in the fleuve out at Kinsuka. At work they told me: don’t try anything, he hasn’t been taken by just anyone. I never saw him again. Mobutu gave him ambassadorial posts in Togo, Argentina, Austria, and Iran. He died in 1995, while serving as ambassador to South Africa. A lot of people in Kinshasa know the story, but not many of them know it’s about me.56
Mobutu’s secret services were so ruthless that even today Madame A. insists on remaining anonymous. The Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) acquired a particularly sinister reputation. The corps consisted of several thousand specially trained and well-paid soldiers from Mobutu’s native region. The great unifier of the nation had become so neurotic that he now drew his Praetorian Guard only from among his own tribesmen! It was an army within the army. They were loyal and unrelenting. The hard core consisted ofles hiboux (the owls), so called because they came at night and silently spirited people away. Opponents or suspected opponents were arrested and held without trial in filthy prisons without food. In Zaïre, like everywhere else in the world, the human mind was extremely creative in devising tortures. There was “the fish,” a method in which the prisoners’ hands were tied behind his back and he was hung upside down before being dipped in a tub of water. There was “the Boeing,” in which the prisoner was raised to the ceiling on pulleys, beaten with sticks, and then allowed to fall through “air pockets.” There was the “stenographer,” whereby blocks of wood were shoved between the fingers and then tightened to crush the fingers. There was “the nutcracker,” in which the feet were clamped into wet blocks of wood and the prisoner was then put in the sun; the wood dried and shattered the tarsal bones.57 Electric shocks were applied to genitals and cigarettes stubbed out on lips. Amnesty International submitted an official protest and tried to estimate the scope of the human rights violations, but the exact number has never become clear.58 As in colonial times, people were sent into domestic exile. Others disappeared without a trace.
Pierre Yambuya, the helicopter pilot who had sold his kerosene, flew secret missions on a number of occasions. He was required to fly over the Congo River or a lake, while commandos in the back tossed out dozens of bags; bags containing bodies, he saw. “Between March and October of 1983 I flew four such missions and each time a load was dumped close to the rapids at Kinsuka. To the best of my knowledge, at least one such flight was carried out each week.” Sometimes they didn’t even bother to kill the prisoners first. One day Yambuya had to land his Alouette on theKamanyola, the presidential yacht. Yambani, one of Mobutu’s ranking bodyguards climbed into the helicopter with two bound men and two commandos. Mobutu stood and watched. “When we take off again, Yambani tells me where to fly to. At a certain point he asks me to take it up to a thousand meters [3,250 feet]. He looks around to make sure there’s not a living soul in sight—except perhaps a few hunters in the jungle—and orders the commandos to lock in to their harnesses. The commandos obey, then open the right hatch at the back of the helicopter. They throw the first prisoner out, before he even has time to protest. The second prisoner starts weeping and begging for mercy, but then he too is pushed out of the hatch, in a free fall over the jungle.”59
IN KINSHASA, the repressive climate gave rise to a circuit of rumors in which truth and fantasy flowed together. That grapevine was referred to as the radio-trottoir (the sidewalk radio) because the official media spewed only government propaganda. The street became the venue for suspicion and sarcasm. Clandestine comic books and primitive paintings were sold at the crossings where the taxi-buses came together. Kinshasa developed a lively visual culture. Social, political, and moral topics were portrayed on mimeographed sheets or rudimentary canvases, with no explicit opinion expressed for or against. With virtuoso irony, cartoonists and painters depicted life in the big city under the dictatorship. The subjects were often ambivalent: the artists reveled in portraying transgressions and took potshots at all that was sacred. The scenes resembled something from Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Breughel.
Young people disgusted with Mobutism developed a very unique form of social commentary. They did not protest with words or images, but with clothing. The évolué’s suit had been banned, and the mandatory abacost they considered old-fashioned. And so they dressed in brand-new, extremely flashy outfits. They saved their money and imported shockingly expensive brand clothing from the boutiques along Louisalaan in Brussels and Place Vendôme in Paris, or at least that’s what they claimed. They christened their movement la Sape (Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes d’Elégance, the Society of Mood-Makers and Trendsetters). The musician Papa Wemba, a working-class-boy-become-international-pop-star, was their pope, le Pape de la Sape. It was a highly remarkable movement. Seemingly ridiculous at a first glance, a man in Kinshasa during times of crisis in a pair of gaudy sunglasses, a Jean-Paul Gaultier shirt, and a sable coat, but the sapeurs’ materialism was a form of social criticism, just as punk was in Europe. It displayed a deep aversion to the misery and repression they experienced, and allowed one to dream of a Zaïre without cares. Materialism is one of the most common symptoms of poverty. La Sape was about success, about visibility, about being in the picture and scoring. A disco was meant to be entered with a combination of chic, choc, and chèque. The true sapeur was übercool: he moved and spoke with total control, he treated his friends to beer and picked up girls with a snap of the fingers. He was a dandy, a playboy, a snob. Luxury meant respect. The sapeur wasn’t looked down on, but admired. For many dirt-poor young people, the extravaganza he put on kept hope alive.
Kabongo had been too old for that. “Mobutu threw a big party. Franco and Tabu Ley came and played there. The guests wore abacosts with the MPR logo on the collar. But Mobutu’s own sons were big fans of Papa Wemba. They wore baggy pants and shirts with flashy collars. Those were two separate worlds! La Sape was really the young people’s music. They considered themselves a new generation and rebelled against their parents. Papa Wemba refused to talk about politics. His music wasn’t made to listen to carefully, but to get the feet moving right away. It was music as anesthesia.”
An entire generation grew up in a world of poverty and misery. Music provided an escape valve, but going to school remained extremely popular. Even if the university auditoriums were a shambles, even if the professors rarely showed up, and even if the workbooks were missing and the mimeographed sheets worn to a tatter, the college classrooms filled week after week with young people who hoped that a university diploma would pull them out of the morass. The thirst for knowledge and diplomas was enormous and that has never changed. But the level of education was miserable, and corruption was found in all walks of life. For many poorly paid professors, everything was negotiable. Many female students exchanged sexual favors for a good grade. “For many girls, the body is no longer a source of beauty, but has necessarily also become a source of profitability,” one worried professor of moral philosophy wrote. The phenomenon even extended down to the secondary schools. Principals, party officials, and magistrates liked to brag about having une série 7 (a number 7 series), a teenage girl born in the 1970s.60 “Many girls’ schools have been transformed into sexual fishponds for leading figures in political-administrative circles. They leave their offices before the official closing time and mingle with the rows of cars waiting to pick up the children at the school gates. The evenings usually start at a restaurant in a working-class neighborhood, with roast chicken or fish and lots of pilipili, and end in the wee hours in some little hotel, ensconced in the darkness of the tropical nights.”61
TO COUNTER THE CRISIS, a new parallel economy arose, revolving around home commerce. Women would get up early in the morning and fry a single chicken, then take it to the market. Well-to-do ladies who had acquired a pair of chic foreign pumps through the informal circuit would sell them in their own neighborhoods. Nurses who worked in hospitals by day would take home a strip of pills and sell them one by one. Pilots would flog a few jerrycans full of kerosene. Civil servants haggled over every document they stamped. Policeman were delighted with every traffic violation. There was always something that could be “arranged.” Quid pro quo. Madesu ya bana, the people said, beans for the children, in the old tradition of matabiche and baksheesh: the Esperanto of the desperadoes.
In response to a state that was withdrawing from its citizens, the citizens withdrew from the state. “Article 15” they called it, in reference to a fictitious article in the Zaïrian constitution that read: “Débrouillez-vous!” (get it while you can!). Often enough, this involved illegal activities (contraband, theft, fraud)—but what does illegal mean when the country itself is criminal? Grassroots corruption was the best way to counter corruption at the top, for faithfully paid taxes would simply evaporate up there anyway. Hadn’t Mobutu Sese Seko himself more or less promised to turn a blind eye? During a huge rally in Kinshasa’s soccer stadium, he had said: “If you must steal, then steal a little bit and leave a little bit for the nation.”62
He should not have said that. During those years, 30 to 60 percent of the coffee harvest was smuggled out of the country, good for a sum of $350 million between 1975 and 1979. Seventy percent of the diamonds, 90 percent of the ivory, tons of cobalt, and hectoliters of gasoline crossed the borders unseen.63 The country was leaky as a sieve, and the state lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. It went little by little, just as the president had suggested, until nothing more was left. “The cockroach can finish a whole loaf of manioc, using only his teeth,” the people said.64 There was no other way to survive. Thanks to the informal economy, people were able to pay teachers and nurses. The country was living on borrowed time, but at least it was alive.
This economics of pillage, of course, could not endure. Congo was being cannibalized. No one gave a hoot about the state anymore. The postal service no longer functioned, water and electricity became scarce, there was less than one telephone line for every thousand inhabitants.65 The country, as Zao said in one of his songs, was becoming cadavéré, it was going into rigor mortis. Boats on the river became slowly drifting villages that would perhaps reach their destination someday. Air Zaïre, the national airline and a former source of pride, received the nickname “Air Peut-Etre” (Air Maybe) with as motto “la seule chose au Zaïre qui ne vole jamais,” the only thing in Zaïre that won’t disappear into thin air. Humor was the best remedy.
“Mobutu and Reagan and Mitterand were flying around the world in the Concorde,” began the best joke from the Mobutu era. “Reagan stuck his hand out the window and said: ‘I think we’re flying over America.’ ‘How can you tell?’ the other two heads of state asked. ‘I just felt the Statue of Liberty,’ said Reagan. Then Mitterand stuck his hand out the window. ‘I believe we are now flying over France,’ he said right away. ‘How can you tell?’ Mobutu and Reagan asked him. ‘I just felt the Eiffel Tower.’ Finally Mobutu stuck his hand out the window. ‘I know for sure that we’re flying over Zaïre,’ he told his fellow passengers. ‘But how can you be so sure?’ they protested. ‘Zaïre doesn’t have any towers, does it?’ ‘No,’ Mobutu said, ‘but somebody just stole my watch.’”66
THE CRISIS CHANGED THE RELATIONSHIP between the sexes as well. Many men had lost their jobs and felt humiliated because they could no longer support their families, let alone their mistresses. They were poorer than their parents and often had to turn to them for help. The man had once been the breadwinner, the one who came home with a paycheck, but now it was the woman who saw to the family’s income. A school principal in Kikwit told me: “We would run through my wages in two days. They didn’t add up to anything. And often enough I didn’t even get paid. My wife had a stall on the market. She sold soap, sugar, and salt. That was our family’s main source of income. During that period, many women earned more than their husbands. Sometimes the women even moved out altogether. Young women started going to college and became more independent.”67
The informal economy, however arduous and unpredictable, provided some women with new opportunities. A number of them adopted a more fighting spirit. Manioc saleswomen in Kivu, farming women themselves, refused to simply accept the way that local police and officials kept coming up with new taxes whenever they brought their baskets to market. They filed official protests, all the way up to the provincial governor’s office.68 In Bukavu, Régine Mutjima, headmistress at a girl’s school, noted that the policy of spending cuts implemented by the IMF and World Bank was leading to abuses.
[Léon] Kengo wa Dondo was prime minister in 1983, and he had plans to effect drastic cutbacks. Even the pregnancy leave for female schoolteachers was scrapped, ostensibly because there was no money for that, while government funds were being stolen by the truckload at the same time. I was the leader of the Association des Femmes Enseignantes de Bukavu [the Bukavu League of Women Teachers]. A Canadian colleague had told me about Gandhi. I read his writings and those of Martin Luther King, and the works of Lumumba and Nkrumah, even though that was forbidden. I also read the banned weekly Jeune Afrique. In 1986 one of my colleagues died during childbirth. She had kept working right up to the day itself, her baby weighed less than four pounds at birth, less than a little rabbit. I had never experienced anything like it. I decided to organize a sit-in. We went in little groups to the payroll office for the local schools. Three-quarters of the female school teachers took part. At 10 o’clock sharp we all sat down. We were running the risk of being shot at, we knew that, but we wanted to close down the city. That evening I was arrested. A Landrover full of soldiers took me to town hall. All I had on was my nightdress. They were all there: the mayor, the head of State Security, the MPR, the board of education, the borough council. It was one woman against fifty men. One by one, they started calling me names, but all I could think about was that baby that weighed less than four pounds, that little rabbit, whose mother, Madame Rumbasa, a good colleague, had died because she wasn’t given pregnancy leave. I became furious. I exploded. I screamed at the mayor. I had a lump in my throat, it was only the second time I’d cried during my adult life. When my tirade was over, no one spoke a word, that’s how furious I’d been. But then I felt calm. Around midnight, the mayor took me back to my house in his Mercedes.69
It was a unique act of courage. Mutjima was not prosecuted, but was allowed to go to conferences in Nsele and Gbadolite to talk about the problems faced by young people. Things did not always work out so well, however. On the other side of the country, Thérèse Pakasa worked as a cashier at a little supermarket in Kinshasa. She had once met Antoine Gizenga, Lumumba’s deputy prime minister who lived in exile in Brazzaville but came from her native region. She too read Lumumba and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She became enraged when she thought about the situation in her country. “I wanted to organization a demonstration, but the people were so afraid! I could only find three women who were willing to go along. A woman who sold bread and two housewives. We made a banner and pamphlets. In July 23, 1987 we walked down the Boulevard du 30 Juin, where the Belgian embassy was. We were carrying the old, blue Congolese flag.”
Four everyday women who risked their lives walking down the biggest street in the capital with a forbidden banner and a forbidden flag . . .
“After a couple of hundred meters we were arrested. The intelligence service kept me in detention for six weeks. I was tortured, but not very badly, and my determination grew. One year later I did it again, this time with ten women. We were arrested again. I was beaten, then sent under military guard into exile in another part of the country. When I came back to Kinshasa, I went straight to prison and all my children were arrested too, even my two-week-old baby. They couldn’t believe that a woman would do something like that.”70
THE BLOOD FLOWING FROM THE WOMAN’S HEAD. The man’s legs bent back like those of a jumping jack. The wintry footage from Romania continued to haunt Mobutu.71 The East bloc was collapsing, the Cold War was coming to an end. Soon he would be an expendable ally to the Americans. Mobutu owed his empire to the fear of communism, but Marx had proven to be a colossus with feet of clay. Loyalty in the struggle against the red menace no longer counted; respect for human rights became the new criterion. At a summit of Francophone countries, President François Mitterand announced that France would from now on support only those developing countries that abided by democratic values and honored human rights. The days of Giscard were over.
Early 1990. Along with the new decade, a new political climate also seemed to descend. In February Nelson Mandela was released from prison, a world event that gave new hope to the entire continent. In the Ivory Coast, in Benin, Gabon, and Tanzania, cries for the introduction of a multiparty system grew louder. The military dictatorships in Congo-Brazzaville and Mali shook on their foundations. The flush of freedom reached Zaïre as well. Mobutu realized that he could no longer ignore his people.
And so he consulted them, just as the Belgians had done in 1958 and Leopold II had done in 1905. On those earlier occasions, those consultations had resulted in a dramatic turnabout, but what would happen now? A group of consultants went from city to city and organized public hearings. All over the country, citizens were allowed to express their opinion of Mobutu’s regime, yes, even to air their grievances. There was no need to fear prosecution. The first hearing was held in Goma and Mobutu was there. He was quite willing to hear constructive criticism; after all, no one was perfect. But it rained, no, it poured complaints. Mobutu found himself standing in a tropical downpour of dissatisfaction. Old women stood up and delivered broadsides against him. His new nickname at that point was Mobutu Sesesescu, a clear reference to his late Romanian friend. Press secretary Kibambi Shintwa saw his reaction: “Mobutu couldn’t believe it, he was extremely disillusioned. He felt that the country owed him everything, and he withdrew, he was hurt. He didn’t want to admit the truth. He refused to attend the rest of the sittings.”
The investigators did their job. More than six thousands reports were drawn up, most of them absolutely damning. The chairman of the investigating committee presented a summary to the president. Zizi Kabongo remembered how that went: “Mobutu had withdrawn to his yacht, theKamanyola. He called together the political bureau of the MPR for consultations onboard. They were stuck there for two or three days. The cabinet ministers had to come too.” Even the American secretary of state came by to say that Bush Sr. despite all historical ties of friendship, could not go on granting him unconditional support.72
But on April 24, 1990, his mind was made up. Generals, magistrates, cabinet ministers, provincial governors, members of parliament, and foreign journalists were summoned to the whited conference grounds at Nsele, to what had been the Vatican of the MPR for the last quarter of a century. Standing behind an array of microphones, dressed in the black marshal’s uniform that Alfons Mertens had sewed for him, Mobutu spoke to the auditorium. He had heard the voice of the people; Zaïre was to be democratized. To everyone’s amazement, he announced the end of the single-party state. From now on, three parties would be allowed; room would be made for freedom of the press, free trade unions, and, within a year, free elections. “And what will happen with the chief in all of this?” Mobutu wondered aloud at the end of his speech. “The head of state stands above the political parties. He will be the umpire, even more, the highest court of appeal. I hereby announce that, as from today, I am withdrawing from the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, to allow a new chief to be chosen . . . .” Mobutu hesitated for a moment, stumbled over his words and looked helplessly into the hushed auditorium. Like a man grown old in the space of a single second, he lifted his thick-rimmed spectacles, dabbed at eyelids hazy with tears and spoke the words that have since become legendary: “Comprenez mon émotion, forgive me for being emotional.”
The footage was seen all over the country. Had they understood correctly? Was this how the Second Republic came to a definitive end? By means of a simple speech, diluted with a few crocodile tears? A speech as prosaic as the radio broadcast with which Mobutu had seized power in 1965? With no revolution or fighting in the streets? Young people raided their fathers’ closets, rummaged through the old clothes, looking for neckties. No one remembered how you tied one, but who cared? This was the emblem of freedom! Girls put on their brothers’ oversized dungarees and went out on the street, giggling. This was one revolution that required no throwing of stones or chanting of slogans. “I remember it clearly.” Zizi said, thinking back on the most hopeful day of his life. “That night the streets of Kinshasa were filled with badly tied neckties.”