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Zairianization and Retrocession

The conquest of economic independence figured prominently on Mobutu's agenda from the outset. Government moves to establish greater control over foreign enterprises operating in the country brought about a confrontation with the Belgian-owned Upper Katanga Mining Union (Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga UMHK), which was nationalized in January 1967, and a new stateowned company formed.

By 1974 the official ideology had metamorphosed into Mobutism, in which the acts and sayings of the leader were glorified. The state was personalized, and state and party were fused together. But Mobutism soon degenerated into a parody of Maoism. To "Founder-President" were added ever more extravagant praise-names: "Guide of the Revolution," "Helmsman" (borrowed from Mao Zedong), "Mulopwe" (emperor, or even godking), and finally "Messiah." Important places in the president's political career were designated as pilgrimage sites. At this point, the ideology of the regime had become so overblown that many Zairians and most foreign observers found it impossible to take seriously.

In November 1973, specific and more extensive measures were announced to restore the control of the economy to Zairian nationals. "Zaire is the country that has been the most heavily exploited in the world," Mobutu declared on November 30. "That is why," he added, "farms, ranches, plantations, concessions, commerce, and real estate agencies will be turned over to sons of the country." In this way began the campaign that became known as Zairianization.

At first, "the sons of the country" consisted essentially of highranking party members and government officials, in all approximately 300 people. Major plantations and ranches and large commercial business enterprises were given to the top political elite. Smaller enterprises were allocated to local notables. Army officers, judges, members of the regional administration, and aimbassadors failed to qualify as potential recipients {acquereurs). The self-serving character of this decision caused immediate public indignation.

Faced with mounting opposition to his Zairianization policies, Mobutu announced that the economic activities covered by the November 30 measures would be entirely taken over by the state. Those citizens who wished to acquire a plantation or a farm would have to buy it from the state. Considerable confusion followed in the wake of this announcement. For one thing, the criteria used for assessing individual qualifications party militancy, integrity, commercial experience, solvency could be interpreted in many different ways; for another, the screening procedure was at best arbitrary.

And when a candidate failed to meet the stipulated conditions, a bribe (matabiche) was often the quickest way to clinch a favorable decision from the local authorities. As Crawford Young and Thomas Turner observed, "what transpired was a tumultuous, disorderly and profoundly demeaning scramble for the loot .... Success in the scramble was above all a measure of political influence and proximity to the ultimate sources of power."

Zairianization engendered economic disaster on an unprecedented scale. In a matter of months, commercial networks were utterly disrupted; massive layoffs were reported; and shortages of basic commodities became increasingly widespread, along with liquidations of assets. Asset stripping in the retail sector became a common practice. Efforts of the regime to introduce price controls did little to curb inflation. The plantation sector of the economy, meanwhile, was brought to a virtual standstill.

Confronted with a wholesale plunder of the Zairian economy, on December 30, 1974, Mobutu announced a ten-point "radicalization" program intended to bring about "a revolution in the revolution." Officially, major economic initiatives remained the exclusive domain of the state. The main thrust of radicalization was aimed at the self-serving attitude of the acquereurs. Party leaders were expected to turn their properties over to the state and devote themselves to agricultural activities. Party cadres were chastised for their "mercenary behavior" and lack of civic sense.

More importandy, the large-scale, Belgian-owned corporations that had been left untouched by the Zairianization decrees were now targeted for nationalization. Thus, the calamitous effects of Zairianization were extended to the commanding heights of the economy. While being constantly reminded of their revolutionary duties, members of the political class were given yet another opportunity to draw further benefits from their control of an even larger sector of the economy.

As the Zairian economy went into a tailspin, Mobutu finally came to realize the magnitude of the catastrophe ushered in by Zairianization and radicalization. In November 1975, he announced the creation of a stabilization committee in charge of examining a retrocession formula designed to return a substantial portion of Zairianized enterprises to their original owners. Agreement was reached on a return of 40 percent equity in both radicalized and Zairianized businesses; in time, however, foreign owners were allowed to regain as much as 60 percent in equity, with the remaining 40 percent remaining in Zairian hands.

Meanwhile, almost irreparable damage had been inflicted upon the economy, and the insatiable greed of the political class was made all the more intolerable by the conditions of acute penury now confronting the rural masses. The fall of copper prices and the sharp rise in the cost of oil imports in 1974 further propelled the economy into a period of prolonged stagnation. Zaire's growing dependence on foreign lending agencies made a mockery of Mobutu's insistence on the conquest of economic independence. And with the disparities of wealth and privilege between the political class and the populace only slightly diminished by "retrocession," growing social turbulence became inevitable.





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Page last modified: 23-06-2015 20:53:07 ZULU