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Mobutu Sese Seko, Father of the Nation

Mobutu Sese Seko overthrew the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba in the early 1960’s. His rule, which lasted until 1997, was known for vast corruption and tyranny. The theft of economic resources was so great under his rule that his administration was sometimes called a “kleptocracy.” He often bribed his rivals into submission using the slogan “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still.” Western intelligence agencies helped keep Mobutu in power as an antidote to Marxist influence in neighboring Angola. He was finally driven from power by rebels led by Laurent-Desire Kabila.

Mobutu was born in the town of Lisala, on the Congo River, on October 4, 1930. His father, Alberic Gbemani, was a cook for a colonial magistrate in Lisala. Despite his birthplace, however, Mobutu belonged not to the dominant ethnic group of that region but rather to the Ngbandi, a small ethnic community whose domain lay far to the north, along the border with the Central African Republic.

Mobutu referred frequently both to his humble background as the son of a cook and to the renown of his father's uncle, a warrior and diviner from the village of Gbadolite. Although officially known as Joseph-Desire Mobutu, Mobutu was also given the name of his great-uncle, Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga, meaning "all-conquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph." When, under the authenticity policy of the early 1970s, Zairians were obliged to adopt "authentic" names, Mobutu dropped Joseph-Desire and became Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga — or, more commonly, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mobutu, who had completed four years of primary school in Leopoldville, took seven more years to reach the secondary level, moving in and out of different schools. He had frequent conflicts with the Catholic missionaries whose schools he attended, and in 1950, at the age of nineteen, he was definitively expelled. A seven year disciplinary conscription into the Force Publique followed. Military service proved crucial in shaping Mobutu's career. Unlike many recruits, he spoke excellent French, which quickly won him a desk job. By November 1950, he was sent to the school for noncommissioned officers, where he came to know many members of the military generation who would assume control of the army after the flight of the Belgian officers in 1960. By the time of his discharge in 1956, Mobutu, had risen to the rank of sergeant major, the highest rank open to Congolese. He also had begun to write newspaper articles under a pseudonym.

Mobutu returned to civilian life just as decolonization began to seem possible. His newspaper articles had brought him to the attention of Pierre Davister, a Belgian editor of the Leopoldville paper L 'Avenir. At that time, a European patron was of enormous benefit to an ambitious Congolese; under Davister' s tutelage, Mobutu became an editorial writer for the new African weekly, Actualites Africaines. Davister later would provide valuable services by giving favorable coverage to the Mobutu regime as editor of his own Belgian magazine, Special.

Mobutu thus acquired visibility among the emergent African elite of Leopoldville. Yet one portal to status in colonial society remained closed to him: full recognition as an evolue depended upon approval by the Roman Catholic Church. Denied this recognition, Mobutu rejected the church.

During 1959-60, politically ambitious young Congolese were busy constructing political networks for themselves. Residence in Belgium prevented Mobutu from taking the path of many of his peers at home, who were building ethno-regional clienteles. But their approach would have been unpromising for him in any case, since the Ngbandi were a small and peripheral community, and among the so-called Ngala (Lingala-speaking immigrants in Leopoldville) such figures as Jean Bolikango were potential opponents. Mobutu pursued another route, as Belgian diplomatic, intelligence, and financial interests sought clients among the Congolese students and interns in Brussels.

Fatefully, Mobutu also had met Patrice Lumumba, when the latter arrived in Brussels. He allied himself with Lumumba (whose school background, like that of Mobutu, inclined him to anti-clericalism), when the Congolese National Movement (Mouvement National Congolais—MNC) split into two wings identified, respectively, with Lumumba and Albert Kalonji. By early 1960, Mobutu had been named head of the MNC-Lumumba office in Brussels. He attended the Round Table Conference on independence held in Brussels in January 1960 and returned home only three weeks before Independence Day, June 30.

After independence, Lumumba appointed Mobutu Chief of Staff of the Congolese army with the rank of Colonel. When the army mutinied against its Belgian officers, Mobutu was a logical choice to help fill the void. Lumumba, elected prime minister in May 1960, named as commander in chief a member of his own ethnic group, Victor Lundula, but Mobutu was Lumumba's choice as chief of staff. In the first weeks of independence, Mobutu established himself as the country's most outstanding Congolese Officer, trying to restore discipline to an army which had mutinied.

During the crucial period of July-August 1960, Mobutu built up "his" national army by channeling foreign aid to units loyal to him, by exiling unreliable units to remote areas, and by absorbing or dispersing rival armies. He tied individual officers to him by controlling their promotion and the flow of money for payrolls. Lundula, older and less competitive, apparently did little to rival Mobutu.

Mobutu was practically forced to turn himself against Lumumba due to the intricate political situation which developed between July and September 1960. In September, Mobutu became Commander, Chief of the army. After President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as premier on September 5 and Lumumba sought to block this action through parliament, Mobutu staged his first coup on September 14.

On his own authority (but with United States backing), he made his first coup in dismissing the Government official machinery. He appointed 15 university graduates and Congolese technicians to run the country. These appointees were known as the College des Commissaires. The so-called College of Commissioners, composed primarily of university students and graduates, replaced parliament for six months in 1960-61.

In February 1961, the College was disbanded. A constitutional Government was re-established and Cyrille Adoula was appointed Prime-Minister, Mobutu turning his talents to restructuring and consolidating the Congolese army now renamed Armee Nationale Congolaise (ANC).

During the next four years, as weak civilian governments rose and fell in Leopoldville, real power was held behind the scenes by the "Binza Group," a group of Mobutu supporters named for the prosperous suburb where its members lived.

Mobutu initially had no political organization which, as an alternative to the U.S. covert funding program, can provide him with the funds needed to ensure his continuation in office. Nor is there any wealthy managerial or commercial class to whom he can turn to finance his political efforts. If the U.S. Government refuses to help him, he has the alternative of seeking help from other Western states. By 1966, other Western powers had been unwilling to provide political action funds in sufficient quantity.

Another alternative would have been for him to try to squeeze such funds from the local European business and commercial community by a form of blackmail or resort to graft. Such devices might easily backfire, particularly if attempted before Mobutu is firmly in power. A third alternative would be for him to turn to the French, Soviets, Chinese Communists or radical Africans. While he probably would not accept direct Soviet or Chinese Communist funds, he might in desperation accept funds from the radical African states or the French.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:03 ZULU