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Durability of the Patrimonial State

Under Mobutu formal institutions were always of little consequence in explaining how power is distributed; the informal networks of influence built around the president are the key to an understanding of the patrimonial underpinnings of the regime.

In accordance with his chiefly role, Mobutu's rule was from the outset based on bonds of personal loyalty between himself and his entourage. His hegemony has been absolute, extending to every level of government. In an effort to forestall the emergence of independent power centers, administrative and government personnel have been constantly moved around; opposition members, alternatively rusticated and rehabilitated; and security forces dissolved and restructured as the circumstances dictated.

Prior to 1990, what has been termed the "presidential brotherhood" constituted the inner circle of Mobutu's clients, numbering anywhere from fifteen to twenty people. Included in this group were the members of the Political Bureau of the MPR and certain key personalities of the security forces. A somewhat larger and shadowy entourage of courtiers and technocrats could be identified as the next most important group of clients, overlapping with yet a third group represented by the provincial bosses. The boundaries separating one group from the other were highly fluid, however, reflecting Mobutu's well-known disposition to constantly rearrange the structure and personnel of his government. What held these clients together was their presumed loyalty to the patrimonial ruler, a loyalty nurtured by the anticipation of rewards commensurate with their willingness and ability to comply with presidential orders.

Penalties to the disloyal had always been just as important as rewards to the faithful in sustaining the Mobutist state. The coercive side of the patrimonial state is equally pertinent to an understanding of how Mobutu has managed to stay on top. His real power base lay in a wide array of paramilitary and intelligence-gathering agencies.

The most important were the Special Presidential Division (Division Speciale Presidentielle—DSP), an elite force in charge of ensuring Mobutu's personal security; the Military Action and Intelligence Service (Service d'Action et de Renseignements Militaire—SARM), in charge of military intelligence; and SARM's civilian counterpart, the National Documentation Agency (Agence Nationale de Documentation—AND). Each agency had separate access to the president, and each had a history of rampant corruption and abuse of the civilian population. Agents were grossly underpaid, so bribery and extortion were common currency. Arresting innocent citizens and holding them captive until they pay the required amount was by no means unusual. Along with the sanctions facing all forms of organized opposition, the diffuse fear instilled among the masses by the security forces must be seen as the most obvious explanation for Mobutu's extraordinary record of political longevity.

Servicing the networks of the patrimonial state was Mobutu's own responsibility. In practice, substantial amounts of the government's money were regularly diverted into the presidential slush fund to be allocated to the faithful in accordance with the presidential whim. Just as the patrimonial state can best be visualized as an extension of the ruler's household, the coffers of the state had long been almost indistinguishable from Mobutu's private wealth (said to amount to approximately US$5 billion). The siphoning off of state funds into private networks was one of the norms of political clientage institutionalized under Mobutu.

The opportunity costs arising from the exigencies of the system are readily apparent in such deficiencies as the populace's low standard of living, the utter neglect of the rural sectors, the absence of an investment budget for the development and maintenance of infrastructure, and the very modest amounts spent on education and health services. Although Mobutu's personal style bears much of the blame for this dismal state of affairs, part of the explanation must also be found in the emergence in Zaire of a polity that combined some of the worst features of the absolutist, hula matari state with the inefficiency and corruption of a patrimonial regime.

It was not until April 1990 that external and internal pressure obliged Mobutu to introduce political pluralism and declare an end to the one-party state although he retained a hold on his personal power. In August 1996, Mobutu left the country for cancer treatment in Switzerland and remained there for four months. Although he remained nominally in control, his prolonged absence led to a significant decline in his authority.

By November 1996, the Alliance des forces democratiques pour le liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL) led by Laurent Kabila forces occupied a substantial area of the east of the country. On 16 May 1997, Mobutu and his entourage left Kinshasa travelling to Togo and then to Morocco. Many of his family and supporters fled to the neighbouring Republic of Congo. Mobutu died in Morocco in September 1997.

Professor Joseph Saye-Guannu heads the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Liberia’s second largest university, Cuttington, stated in 2006 that “He was an authoritarian, he was intolerant. He left his country bankrupt. For so many years he ruled that country, there was no sense of identity. So most of the problems we have today can be attributed to his leadership. He was part and parcel of the club of dictators. Many followed him; Idi Amin (of Uganda), they were all part and parcel of this club. They took their cue from him as well as other dictators on the continent, not only in Central and East Africa but also in West Africa”.

Switzerland blocked assets by the late ruler and his family in 1997 following a request from the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. It extended the freeze in 2008 to allow a lawyer representing the Congo to mount a case to keep the funds blocked. The DRC government said the money was stolen. The 2009 decision by Switzerland's highest court to return millions of dollars of Zaire's former president, Mobutu Sese Seko, to his family, was widely condemned in the country.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:05 ZULU