After me will come the deluge.
—MOBUTU SESE SEKO
KINSHASA, ZAIRE, DECEMBER 1996
The war caught Mobutu wrong-footed, off guard. When news of fighting in the eastern Congo broke, the Enlightened Helmsman—one of the many titles he had coined for himself—was convalescing in a hospital in Switzerland.
Initially, it was news of their leader’s illness that preoccupied most Zairians more than war in the faraway Kivus. The first rumors appeared to have been influenced by the official press: Mobutu had been the victim of a savage toothache, an abscess perhaps. Conspiratorially, the CIA wrote to headquarters that he was suffering from AIDS.1 It was the foreign press that managed to get the real story from the hospital: He had been operated on for prostate cancer. Again the rumors boiled up in Kinshasa, relegating the fighting in the east to the back pages of the newspapers. He had fallen into a coma along with his wife, they said. The voice on the radio, saying he would soon return, was really that of an actor, impersonating the Old Leopard quite admirably.
Initially, Mobutu was not worried about the fighting. “Kabila? I know Kabila,” he told his French lawyer. “He’s nothing. He’s a petty smuggler who lives in the hills above Goma.”
“Maréchal,” the lawyer responded, “I think we need to be aware of the danger. I don’t know Kabila, but he’s at the head of organized, determined battalions. Behind him are the Rwandans, the Ugandans, and I think the Americans!”2
Even his bitterest enemies had a hard time believing that the all-seeing Guide was fatally sick. Over thirty-one years he had fashioned himself as the spiritual, political, and customary chief of the country. Two thirds of Zairians had known no other ruler. His face was on every banknote and countless T-shirts, tablecloths, and album covers. Schoolchildren sang his praises every morning before class: One country, one father, one ruler, Mobutu, Mobutu, Mobutu! The evening news on state television began with Mobutu’s head descending from the heavens through the clouds.
With his silver-tipped black cane and leopard-skin hat, he was the modern version of a traditional king; no one could defy or even supplement his authority. “Does anybody know of a village with two chiefs?” he liked to ask.
His chieftaincy was not just symbolic. In 1980, during his fiftieth birthday celebrations, he was named King of the Bangala during an opulent coronation ceremony.3 “Only God is above you,” the officiator announced. He was hailed as Mobutu Moyi, or Mobutu Sun King.4 That was not his only similarity with King Louis XIV of France. Through the 1974 constitution, he became head of all branches of government and could legislate by decree and change the constitution at his discretion. In some years he personally disposed of 20 percent of the budget. He was truly the father of the nation: He often presided over ceremonies where he cut ribbons on road projects or brought medicine to a hospital, magnanimous gifts from the father to his children. Visitors to Mobutu’s palace—even foreign diplomats—could often expect to walk away with thousands of dollars in “presents.”5
His health became a national concern on the street corners in Kinshasa, where people gathered around the newspaper stands and self-made pundits debated the impact of cancer treatment on the sixty-six-year-old. He had been castrated, some said. No, his penis had now swollen to twice its original size, enhancing his notorious sexual prowess.
In reality, the aging autocrat had fallen victim to his own bizarre beliefs. Long an acolyte of traditional healing and magic, he had allowed himself to be treated with natural herbs and tonics until the cancer spread through his body and forced him to seek help abroad.
Finally, on December 17, 1996, his presidential jet arrived at Njili airport. The political uncertainty and fear of a civil war (and probably cash handouts) drove tens of thousands to the airport and the street leading into the city. It was a taste of the good old days: Marching bands played; a phalanx of women danced, their dresses emblazoned with Mobutu’s face; and people waved thousands of tiny Zairian flags. “Father has come! Zaire is saved!” they shouted.
Despite the widespread disdain for Mobutu and his rule, the uncertainty of what the rebels would bring fueled genuine acclamation for the despot’s return. The clergy, the army, and even some opposition figures hailed his return to defend the nation against the “Tutsi conspiracy to create a Hima empire,” as some newspapers put it.6
Mobutu ensconced himself in his residence at the center of the capital’s largest military camp and tried to resuscitate his regime. He fired the head of the army and replaced him with a more competent officer. He arranged for several hundred French mercenaries to come to his aid, along with Serbian and South African soldiers of fortune. His generals met with Rwandan ex-FAR commanders, who were trying to regroup their soldiers who had been dispersed when the refugee camps broke up.
The Old Leopard, however, no longer had the power he used to. Since he had lifted the ban on political parties in 1990, he had slowly been relegated to a more symbolic role in politics. He spent most of his time in his jungle palace in Gbadolite, five hundred miles from the capital, and left the day-to-day running of the country to his prime minister. For years, Mobutu had carefully pitted Zaire’s leading business and political leaders against each other to prevent them from challenging him. In the end, however, Mobutu’s divide-and-rule tactics had left him with a splintered, ineffective shell of a government.
This mess was most apparent in the security forces, where competing militias vied for power and control of economic spoils. A firefight broke out at the Matadi port when a shipment of arms from North Korea came in. Troops loyal to General Nzimbi Ngbale, Mobutu’s presidential guard commander and cousin, and those under General Mahele exchanged gunfire. The former wanted to sell the weapons for profit, while the latter wanted to use them to fight the rebels.
Mobutu’s health began to fail him again. Within a month, he was back in Europe for further treatment. The vicious tongues in the capital began to wag with new rumors of his ill health. When the Central Bank issued yet another new banknote to keep track of rising inflation, it was quickly dubbed “the Prostate.” Just like the president’s gland, it was inflating daily. Just like the illness, these banknotes could seriously damage your health.
When Mobutu returned to Kinshasa the next time, in March 1997, only a fraction of the people turned out to welcome him. They waited in vain at the airport after the airplane arrived and didn’t open its doors. Inside, a sickly Mobutu was struggling to stand up, his muscles having seized up during the ride. Masseuses rubbed his body as his staff shooed away the spectators and press from the airport. Hours later, leaning heavily on the arm of his wife, Mobutu exited the plane and headed home through the deserted streets.
Mobutu liked to watch television. He used to wake early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, to have a massage and watch the news on satellite television. He suffered from insomnia, which had been aggravated by his cancer medication.
The news was not good. Kabila’s conquest of the country had become a media favorite, and dozens of news organizations flocked to the east of the country, streaming live feed of captured towns, with villagers celebrating their “liberation,” around the world. Kabila’s forces had captured Kisangani just days after Mobutu returned to Zaire in March 1997. Television cameras showed people lining the streets as the rebels marched into town, throwing down palm fronds, colorful cloths, and mattresses for them to walk on. In Washington, the White House spokesman announced: “Mobutism is about to become a creature of history.” 7 With his back against the wall, Mobutu began thinking about negotiating. He fired his prime minister and handed power over to his long-standing rival, Etienne Tshisekedi, who promptly named a new cabinet, reserving some of the most important ministries for his “brother” Kabila. The Old Leopard sent his national security advisor to South Africa to see whether Kabila was open for negotiations.
Mobutu’s pride, however, still shone through. He said he would meet with the rebel leader—but on his own terms and only if he asked politely. “Politely means, ‘Mr. President of Zaire, my intention is to meet you.’ That’s polite,” Mobutu said in a rare session with the media in April.
Mobutu spent his days in his residence, surrounded by his closest family—his wife, her sister, his son Nzanga, and his grandchildren. He took hot baths in the early morning and evening and drank infusions of lemongrass and ginger. In the evenings, when rainstorms had cleared the thick humidity from the air, he would sit on his balcony, overlooking rapids on the Congo River. Cocker spaniels and a family of peacocks played on the neatly trimmed lawns. Just outside the gates to his property, he could see a sign proclaiming, “Welcome Home, Field Marshall Mobutu.”
The rest of the view was less pleasing. His swimming pool was overflowing and covered with algae, and the military camp was clogged with wrecks of military vehicles, many of which had been cannibalized for spare parts to sell on the black market. In the surrounding military camp, soldiers’ undergarments hung from washing lines; garbage piled up in the ditches.
He unsuccessfully tried to reassert his power, even in the intimacy of his bedroom. His legendary sexual appetite had led him to marry three times and maintain dozens of mistresses. Even after several operations on his prostate, he reportedly continued sleeping with his wife and her twin sister, prompting profuse bleeding.8 Moderation, never his strong suit, was not about to grace him in his old age.
The scenes played out in Kinshasa were both tragic and comic, dramatic and banal. Plump generals in alligator skin shoes held tea parties in their gardens as soldiers set fire to their barracks. Street children in rags and white gloves pretended to guide traffic while army bosses sold tanks for scrap metal on the black market. Kinshasa seemed to have fallen down a rabbit hole.
Then there was Mobutu’s preoccupation with corpses. Two in particular bothered him. One was that of his first wife, Marie-Antoinette, who was buried in a crypt in Gbadolite. He worried endlessly that the rebels, who were within a few weeks’ march of his hometown, would defile her tomb along with those of his sons, buried next to her. On the tenth anniversary of her death, ten years earlier, he had ordered her tomb to be hermetically sealed, but one could never be too sure. He radioed to Gbadolite to ask them to check her tomb, to make sure it could not be opened. His aides traded worried looks. He had long been rumored to be worried about her ghost haunting him. Some suggested that was the reason he had married twins—to protect him from her spirit. With one on each side of him, they would ward her off.
The second corpse had not yet been buried. It was that of Juvénal Habyarimana, the former president of Rwanda, whose body had been recovered after his plane had been shot down on April 6, 1994, over Kigali. The cadaver’s journey is shrouded in mystery, but I have heard people in Bukavu, Gbadolite, and Kinshasa who insist they touched it, saw it, smelled its decomposing mass. Most likely, it was hurried out through Bukavu (my housekeeper there swore that her father, a commander in Mobutu’s army, had kept it in their basement for two nights) and then made its way to Gbadolite, where it was kept embalmed and in cool storage.
Mobutu had been close friends with Habyarimana and was still hosting his widow, Agathe, who spent months in his jungle palace before fleeing to France. Mobutu promised that her husband would receive a hero’s burial in Rwanda, presumably after he chased the RPF from power. When it became clear that this would not be the case, and the RPF was closing on Gbadolite, Mobutu had the body brought to Kinshasa. Fearing that the RPF troops would get their hands on the body, he ordered his friend to be cremated.
Cremation is not practiced in central Africa, and no one seemed to know how to go about it. Do you put him in an oven or on a pyre? Wouldn’t the church disapprove? The body was kept embalmed in the hold of a cargo aircraft at the airport for three days as officials tried to figure out how to organize the ceremony. As Kabila’s rebel army closed in on the capital, the military officer in charge of the body panicked and began calling around for advice. If he abandoned the body, he would be guilty of treason; if the RPF caught him with it, he was surely a dead man. He told a journalist: “If it were up to me, I would have dumped it into the river. But for Mobutu, it is like one of his own children. And even if it is one of his own last acts, he insisted on this being done correctly.”9
Finally, an Indian Hindu priest was found to officiate. Even though Habyarimana had been a devout Catholic, Mobutu told them just to get on with it. On May 15, 1997, Habyarimana’s body went up in flames in Kinshasa, over three years after his death. No one seems to know where his ashes are.
At the end of April, Mobutu was visited by a delegation from Washington led by Bill Richardson, President Clinton’s special envoy to the region. The U.S. government was worried about a bloodbath in Kinshasa when the rebels arrived, and wanted to get the autocrat to step down. They discovered a hobbled man who needed help to stand and sit. He seemed divorced from reality; they informed him that his army’s last stand at Kenge, 125 miles to the west of the capital, had failed. Richardson handed him a letter from Clinton asking that he step down with honor and dignity. The ambassador recalled: “He was being told: ‘You’ll be dragged through the streets. These things could happen to you and we are not going to stop them.’”10
Mobutu felt betrayed. The United States had supported him since the 1950s; he had visited the White House numerous times and met Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. He wrote a letter to French president Jacques Chirac: “Today, the US and Great Britain through their proxies South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola are using the ringleader Laurent Kabila to stab me in the back, taking advantage of my illness.”11
Despite his fury, Mobutu was left with little choice. His ministers were beginning to hire boats to take their furniture and suitcases across the river to the neighboring Republic of Congo. His phone calls were beginning to go unanswered.
He agreed to meet with Kabila on May 4, 1997. The meeting place itself was the subject of long negotiations. Kabila refused to meet in Gabon or the Republic of Congo, fearing a French-backed assassination plot in its former colonies. Mobutu could not travel to South Africa because of his health. Finally, both parties agreed on a meeting on the South African navy ship Outenika, anchored just off the coast. South African president Nelson Mandela would mediate. Since Mobutu was unable to walk the thirty-one steps onto the boat, the hosts had to cobble together a plank strong enough for Mobutu’s limousine to be driven on board.
For once, Mobutu was outshone in superstition. Laurent Kabila refused to look into his eyes during the meeting and instead stared at the ceiling; according to the prevailing rumor, he was afraid that the Old Leopard still had enough magical power left to curse him with his stare and prevent him from reaching his prize, now so close. It was the only time that the two rivals met; after fighting him for thirty-two years, the rebel leader had little to say to his foe. Hand over power, and step down without any conditions, he told him. Mobutu, insulted by the treatment, limped off the boat, refusing to strike a deal. Mandela, seventyeight himself, had to prop him up as he walked to his car.
During the last days of the rainy season in Kinshasa, thunderous downpours pounded down on the rooftops and inundated whole neighborhoods. It didn’t dampen the youths’ anticipation, however. Graffiti began appearing on walls. One downtown said: “Mobutu = Problème, Kabila = Solution.” Elsewhere, vandals painted over the “Zaire” on administrative buildings, scrawling “Congo,” the name Kabila had adopted for the country, above. An enterprising young man climbed up a sixty-foot-high billboard, painted a mustache on Mobutu’s face, and blackened out a tooth.
It is telling that the closest thing to a hero this period could muster was a traitor. General Donat Mahele was a lanky, tall man from the Equateur region, but not from the same tribe as Mobutu. He had been trained at France’s elite Saint-Cyr military academy, held command positions in the Shaba wars of 1977 and 1978, and led Mobutu’s troops sent to help Habyarimana beat back the RPF in 1990. He was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and enjoyed a good reputation among foreign military advisors; when the army pillaged Kinshasa in 1991, he had the guts to order his soldiers to shoot their looting comrades, which helped bring the chaos under control.
Mahele was named to lead the Zairean army in December 1996. By the following April, after countless standoffs with other army commanders, he realized that it was a lost cause. Kabila controlled two-thirds of the country, including its diamond and copper mines. “At some point he realized that the morally right thing to do was to surrender before more lives were lost,” José Endundo, the general’s friend and a prominent businessman, remembered.
Everyone was worried that the AFDL’s arrival in Kinshasa would prompt a bloodbath, with running gun battles in downtown streets, revenge killings, and indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods. At the very least, the thousands of demoralized soldiers would thoroughly loot the city before taking to their heels.
It was the Americans who provided General Mahele with the means to get in touch with Laurent Kabila. Ambassador Daniel Simpson, who had met with Kabila on a visit to Lubumbashi, arranged for a phone call to take place on May 14 at his residence. Mahele and Kabila spoke for half an hour and then again a few days later. They arranged for Mahele to read a speech on the radio, telling the troops to stand down when the rebels walked into town. He would also fly to the Zambian capital, Lusaka, to meet with Kabila and officially recognize him.12
First, however, Mobutu had to leave. If he was still in Kinshasa when the rebels arrived, some units loyal to him might try to put up a fight.
On May 15, Mobutu had just come back from another trip to the South African ship Outenika—Kabila hadn’t even bothered turning up this time—to be met by his most powerful generals at his residence. General Likulia, who had taken over the prime minister’s office in the final days, was adamant that they could still defend the capital. “I ordered attack helicopters with ample ammunition [in South Africa]. I even paid a sizeable down payment to make sure the equipment arrives.”13
Likulia looked to the others to back him up. Mahele, however, had had enough. “Voila, Maréchal, I am no longer able to ensure your safety here.”
Mobutu looked at him in amazement. “What are you talking about? I wasn’t aware of this!” According to other, probably more dramatic witnesses, he looked at Mahele and said, “Et tu, Brute?”
Bobi Ladawa, the first lady, chimed in, “You betrayed your father! After everything he has done for you!”
Likulia looked to Mobutu’s nephew, General Nzimbi, the commander of the presidential guard. “Nzimbi, you said you have 15,000 troops here in the city. What have you done to prepare our defense?” The general stared back in embarrassed silence.14
“I see,” Mobutu said softly. “It is decided then. We shall leave tomorrow.”
The gossip mill began churning as each person involved in the meeting began propagating his own version of what had happened. By the following morning, the news had gone out among the officer corps: Mahele had betrayed the nation.
The next day, Mobutu drove to the airport at dawn, opting for a small, less conspicuous vehicle, accompanied by ten cars stuffed with suitcases. Other objects had preceded them and had been packed onto a 747 jet that was waiting for Mobutu and his entourage. He had so much luggage that he had to leave part of it at the airport in the vehicles. Abandoned expensive vehicles were becoming a common sight in Kinshasa, especially at the various ports where Mobutu officials were fleeing across the river to Brazzaville in canoes, speedboats, and ferries.
Mahele spent the rest of the day preparing for Kabila’s arrival in town. He was particularly worried about the presidential guards, the elite forces who had benefited most from Mobutu’s largesse and who were recruited largely from his home region of Equateur. In the evening, he received a phone call from Prime Minister Likulia, who told him that riots had broken out in Camp Tshatshi, where the presidential guard was based.
Mahele decided to go there himself, accompanied only by a few other officers. “That was typical Mahele,” a former colleague and friend told me. “Even in the 1991 Kinshasa riots, he patrolled town on foot with soldiers. That was too low! That’s not the role of a general!”
At the gates of Camp Tshatshi, they found a gang of presidential guards shooting in the air, high on adrenaline. They stopped the group of officers and made them get out of their jeeps. Mahele entered the camp and tried to reason with them, but they shouted him down: “You have sold us out! You betrayed us, and now you will cross over to Brazzaville! What about us and our families!”
They began talking to each other in Ngbandi, Mobutu’s mother tongue, saying that they should kill the traitor. Mahele was from the Mbuza tribe, but he got the message and began backtracking to the cars they had left outside the gate. His bodyguard Kazembe was waiting for him and forced open the gate, provoking the outrage of the soldiers, who shot him.
A commotion ensued—Mahele jumped in the car, while his other bodyguards jumped into the bushes on the side of the road. The presidential guard opened fire on the jeep, but when they looked inside, Mahele was nowhere to be seen.
“Sorcerer!” they cried out, looking under the seats. Finally, they found the general, hiding underneath the car. “I’m here, you fools. Do with me what you want!”
They took him back into the camp and tore off his general’s stripes and red beret. A fight broke out between the Ngbandi and the Mbuza within the presidential guard about what should be done with him, but the scuffle was cut short when someone—some say Kongolo, Mobutu’s notorious son—drew a pistol and shot Mahele in the back of his head.
Camp Tshatshi collapsed as the soldiers, leaderless and divided, fought over the remaining spoils.15