Many people had considered him a relatively calm person as compared to the other political leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Little did they know Mobutu Sese Seko would turn out to be one of the most barbaric leaders in the country and on the continent.
Born Joseph -Désiré Mobutu on this day in 1930 in then-Belgian Congo, Mobutu is infamous for his role in the death of African icon, Patrice Lumumba.
But before all this, he was raised by his grandfather and uncle, who gave him the name Mobutu. He was also taken under the wing of the wife of his late father’s employer- a Belgian judge. Under her, he was taught how to speak, read, and write the French language fluently. He attended school in Leopoldville and later Coquilhatville, where he excelled in sports.
He was also a rebellious child, a behaviour that got him serving in the colonial army as punishment. In the army, he found an interest in newspapers and dabbled in journalism, writing under a pseudonym for the Belgian paper, Actualités Africaines. He eventually left the army and worked full time as a journalist, a profession through which he met many African liberators including Lumumba. He went on to become Lumumba’s aide and later the Secretary of State to the Presidency under Lumumba as prime minister.
When wrangles between Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba arose, Mobutu carried staged a coup and declared both leaders neutralised. It was at this juncture that his troops arrested Lumumba and sent him to Moise Tshombe, who killed him.
In 1965, Mobutu became president and started off with the Authenticité campaign, which involved removing all vestiges of colonialism in the country. He renamed the country Zaire, changed the names of many cities including Leopoldville, which changed to Kinshasa. He also urged many Zaireans to drop their christian names. Personally, he changed from Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga.
He staged himself as a benevolent leader, promising an election in 1966 and throwing money to the poor people across towns- it was later discovered they were useless tokens. However, things changed in 1966 when he banned all opposition parties and established a one-party rule, stating that “In our African tradition there are never two chiefs….That is why we Congolese, in the desire to conform to the traditions of our continent, have resolved to group all the energies of the citizens of our country under the banner of a single national party.”
As the only official leader, Sese Seko set out to punish and execute his opponents in public as a way of teaching others not to cross him. He explained: “One had to strike through a spectacular example, and create the conditions of regime discipline. When a chief takes a decision, he decides – period.”
Many of his opponents were arrested for flimsy reasons and others including a former minister, Pierre Mulele, were tortured. Mobutu’s troops gouged out Mulele’s eyes, ripped off his genitals and amputated his limbs while he was still alive. He also hanged former Minister Evariste Kimba, Jérôme Anany, Emmanuel Bamba and Alexandre Mahamba in front of 50,000 people, shocking the populace into submission.
Mobutu would later change his tactics from murder to paying off his political rivals, going by the mantra “keep your enemies closer.” He also arrested and tortured opponents only to later pardon them in public and promote them to the high offices in government. His army and personal guard were a menace to the people and foreigners, asking for bribes and preying on them at every chance.
As a dictator, he made himself a cult, requiring that no one could mention anyone but him by name on TV and that every news bulletin would show him descending from heaven. He also ruled that he is the only person in the country permitted to wear leopard prints. He gave himself titles such as Father of the Nation, Saviour of the People and Supreme Combatant. He also required all the musicians from the country to swear allegiance to him, singing his praise songs: any songs that seemed to attack him were banned.
When he came to power, he established the Mobutu Good Will Fund as a way of fundraising to end poverty in the country. However, he listed himself as the only beneficiary meaning that all the money went to him directly. He established a luxury life, and stashing money overseas. He had numerous cars, palaces and yachts. He would also charter Concorde planes for his trips overseas, and even had the airport constructed to fit the requirements of these planes.
All this time, Zaireans were living in poverty. Most of the government infrastructure collapsed and the economy was in shambles and in debt. People from Mobutu’s tribe and his relatives run the government, with his son, Nyiwa, under his tutelage to become his father’s successor. This however fell through when Nyiwa died in 1994 of AIDS. All these people stole from the country and Mobutu did nothing to stop them. As of 1983, Mobutu had stashed away about $5 billion in a Swiss Bank account, which was almost the same amount of debt in Zaire.
At the start of the 1990s with the Cold War thawing, Mobutu was forced to change his tactics. He reinstated multi party-ism. Slowly, his association with some of the world leaders including the U.S. started suffering because of his human rights record.
At this time, he was also in advance stages of prostrate cancer. When he went overseas for treatment, rebel forces led by Joseph Kabila, gained ground in the country. Peace talks between the two in 1997, Mobutu fled to exile in Togo and later Morocco, where he died in September the same year.
Mobutu left behind a string of chaos in one of Africa’s resource-rich countries. In his quest to be the ‘president for life’ he committed atrocities that denied the country a chance to exist away from its current reality. His greed for power and wealth would become his downfall.