50 years ago Mobutu Sese Seko revolted in the Congo – A never ending Kleptocracy?

A “deal” for thirty years – corruption, misery and strategic backgrounds

by Peter Küpfer

In the first part (Current Concerns No 32/33 from 31.12.2015) the prehistory of the “independent” Congo, the first turbulent weeks of the Government Lumumba, his dastard assassination and the Congo turmoil staged and fueled by the West, has been outlined. It turned out that the old Belgian colonial power, many members of which were on the operating levers of the army, aimed in the same direction as the American administration, which had only one goal in the peak years of the Cold War: Not to allow the empire in the heart of Africa with its indispensable commodities, especially copper, to fall into the hands of the international communism. All means were justified to them to achieve this goal: Intimidation, unleashing the Katanga secession by their straw man Moïse Tschombe, murder of Lumumba, fueling the Congo turmoil, involving the UN and murder of its Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld at the moment when he wanted to come to a substantial agreement with the insurgents (see box). As they realised that Kasavubu had certain unpredictabilities and did not come to grips with the Marxist-inspired uprisings, they resorted to the man who appeared to them the most reliable, Mobutu. He staged a masterfully prepared and carried out coup, that in the context of the Congo turmoil could only succeed with substantial help of Western intelligence agencies. The fact that the coup came about without bloodshed, has been stressed by the Western media as a merit of Mobutu. He deceived the public about his bloodthirstiness and brutality on which Mobutu’s thirty year dictatorship founded – with continuous tacit consent of the West. He was allowed to plunder Congo, as quid pro quo he guaranteed uncompromising loyalty with the Western world, its defense system and its upright anti-communism: a deal that sustained over 30 years.

Empty promises

Mobutu had meticulously planned his coup which he staged in the night of 24-25 November 1965. No shot was fired, everything went smooth. On the next morning, the national radio broadcasted military marches. Then Mobuto informed the Congolese in a short speech that the army had seized power, removed President Kasavubu and suspended the constitution. At first there was not a single attempt at resistance in the giant country. It is unthinkable that in the confusing Congolese state of affairs, as described in the first section, such a feat could be accomplished without active support from western superpowers. Mobutu’s excellent relations with the Belgian army, its secret service and the CIA are well known. Thus the reaction of the western press was unanimous: this was long overdue. The young commander in chief could only be praised for his cold blood and his know-how. This way the West mainly praised itself. Because it was very clear: Mobuto safeguarded an upright anti-communist foreign politics and a strict domestic order. This was highly important in the hot phase of the Cold War. In addition the West could be sure that Mobutu was safeguarding the West’s other main interest: a further access to Congo’s raw materials, especially copper.
In the beginning Mobuto promised a provisional short-term military regime until democracy could be restored. Elections should be held and democratic institutions should be created within five years. Then he would step back as guardian of the law. In reality, Mobutu did everything to remove the remnants of the Congolese democracy and to establish himself as dictator. From the beginning Mobutu reigned alone and through decrees legitimated only by his will. The principal means to their implementation was a strengthening of the army, its technical build-up and the improvement of its capacities. In this he was supported by the “old guards” of the former Belgian colonial army and the Belgian secret service. Soon also the police became part of the Congolese army, also directly commanded by Mobutu. Additional provinces were added to the traditional Congolese provinces. They were controlled by submissive abettors who were permitted to develop their own private kingdoms in remote regions. But the central instrument for Mobutu’s rule was the founding of the Congolese Mobutu party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR) in 1967. In the beginning, Mobutu also permitted an oppositional party. But then the MPR became a unity party. Even more so: in 1970, he decreed that the MPR was the highest institution of the Congolese state and hence controlled all other national institutions. This had the effect that there were no such national institutions: they were all taken in by the Party. The leading party committee became the government; the governors became regional party leaders. Each Congolese was a member of the Party, just because he was born in Congo – in fact even the foetus in the mother’s womb was already a Party member. So the MPR was, as the formula of the time said, “the Congolese nation in its political organisation”. Meanwhile there was no mention of the country electing its own government. Mobutu enjoyed power and he held it for more than 30 years – as a dictator.

Show trials in Stalinist style

Short after his coup Mobutu settled his scores with his opponents in brutally enacted trials reminding of the Nazi “Volksgerichtshof” or Stalinist show trials. Based on highly incomplete and questionable evidence, the main defendants suffered the death penalty for asserted treacherous activities. Their executions were conducted in public. The most repulsive in this series of public executions pertained to Pierre Mulele. Mulele was a fellow combatant of Lumumba. After Lumumba’s murder he fled to China and there he was taught the strategy of guerrilla warfare. Back in Congo he started in 1964 in his home region Kwilu a Maoist guerrilla insurgency which could be suppressed only years later. He himself fled to Brazzaville. After the coup, Mobutu’s emissaries persuaded him to return to Congo, promising an amnesty. Immediately when he was back in Congo he was arrested and executed after a short trial. Witnesses reported of cruel tortures he had to suffer during his public execution.
Mobutu’s security service “uncovered” so-called conspiracies. In 1966, four officers were executed who were accused of a plot “against national security”. On 2 June they were publicly hanged in a central square in Kinshasa. In 1971 and 1974 there were more such show trials, followed with public executions. In 1978 a group of 19 officers were accused of conspiracy of which 13 were suffering the death penalty. These trials served to stabilise his internal power. They were the writing on the wall for certain circles in the nomenklatura, demonstrating the consequences of defying Mobutu’s autocracy.

“Authenticity” should conceal sale

The so-called campaign for “authenticity” – with partially grotesque forms – became effective in Congo and lead to a “Zaïrification” and finally an unrestrained Maoist like personality cult of the “Great Helmsman” (“Le Grand Timonier”), as he wanted to be called. Under the term “authenticity” Mobutu sparked a political movement aiming to reinforce the African identity of the Congo. But the series of measures remained completely on the surface. It began with the name of the river giving the empire in the heart of Africa its name. The river was no longer named Congo, which was an garbled Portuguese form of “Big River”, but Zaïre, an allegedly authentic articulation. Thus, also the country now was called no longer Congo but Zaïre. Simultaneously, the new national currency, the Zaire was introduced, replacing the Congolese franc. State officials and party members we required to wear traditional African clothing, however, the clothing was strongly reminiscent of the Maoist uniforms. Moreover, all Congolese who had a Christian, Arab or Western surname were required to accept an additional Congolese name, leading to confusion and legal uncertainty.
Those perfunctory actions should probably detract more from the real Congolese politics: those politics were not aimed at the preservation of the country and its strength, but geared to subservience to the political and economic interests of the West. In the areas of the economics, the era of “Zaïrification” started.

Hasty nationalizations lead to the brink of bankruptcy

There was a wave of nationalizations, starting first with large enterprises. This also included the nationalization of the large copper mine Consortium, the former “Union Minière du Haut Katanga” (UMHK), which was previously controlled by Belgian hands. It was renamed to Gécamines (Générale des Carrières et des Mines) and transferred to government ownership which led to strong resentment in the Belgian Government. Also medium and small businesses were nationalized, which attracted a mass emigration of skilled workforces. The operations were conducted by the so-called “acquéreurs”, of which only small minority possessed an appropriate professional or administrative qualification. They also brought with them the idea that they can misuse their positions for personal enrichment which is tolerated by the government. Additionally, ambitious giant projects such as the Inga dam on the Upper Congo were draining government finances. All this led to a deep alarming economic crisis, of which the country has not recovered, even though Mobutu soon again reversed direction. There was a lack of genuine national sentiments, there was a lack of knowledge and willingness to sacrifice and a lack of identification with the young state which had brought nothing for the population but poverty and deprivation. That was nothing to be amended by regulations.
Those who wanted to be successful in this country did not necessarily had to achieve something, but had to talk and act as devout assistant of the Great Helmsman. This led to the rise in the hierarchy and thus to at least personal success. The price for this was discussed above.

Personality cult after Maoist model

The party sponsored and organized personality cult for Mobutu took on grotesque forms. Party officials and senior officials vied to give at state occasions poems, songs, dances or performed entire scenes which only had one theme: to manifest their love and devotion to the Great Helmsman. The party devoted substantial resources in order to drive and establish the cult in the population which produced laureates and  associated rewards.
All this could not detract from the fact that the Congo as a country was neglected; the majority of the population was unemployed and thus exposed to impoverishment. The wealth came almost entirely from the mining concessions which were not sufficient in the long run, to cover the growing government spending. Moreover, there was almost no investment because of the corrupt system. The members of the nomenclature understood their function as a way to enrich themselves, and managed to transfer their wealth – pressed-off from the population – abroad. They had for this a role-model: Mobutu himself.
The fact that Congo had not to declare bankruptcy during these dramatic times was owed to massive Western financial help and generous loans.
The West turned a blind eye to the human rights situation, mismanagement and systematic corruption. It was important in the years of the Cold War, to have a regime in the heart of Africa, which was politically and militarily a solid ally to the Western Hemisphere. In this context it is hardly surprising that the long-lasting Marxist-inspired movement in the East could only be defeated with the help of the NATO (!).1 So the danger of the Congo pulling out of from western geopolitical defensive strategy against the Soviet bloc, was banned once for all. The privileged and special position of the Congo, based on  geostrategic considerations,  did not change until 1989, when the Communist block collapsed and the geostrategic map surrounding Russia was reshuffled. This also led to the fall of the longstanding Congolese Czar. (Continuation and conclusion will follow in a third installment.)                                                     •

1    In 1964, a militant lumumbistic faction under Christophe Gbenye organized an uprising in Katanga. The uprising was put down with difficulty. The decisive factor was the use of NATO troops. Even then it was probably very difficult for NATO to declare this form of forward strategy a “defence case” – but no one seemed to care. It was important to the West, to build a “fortress against communism” in Congo. For this they needed Mobutu. (Cf. Malu-Malu, p.141)

Literature:Ludo De Witte, “L’Assassinat de Lumumba”, Paris 2000, ISBN 2-84586-006-4
Helmut Strizek, “Kongo/Zaïre-Ruanda-Burundi – Stabilität durch erneute Militärherrschaft?
Studie zur ‘neuen Ordnung’ in Zentralafrika” (Congo/Zaïre-Rwanda-Burundi – stability by renewed military rule? Study on the New Order in Central Africa), Munich / Cologne / London (World Forum Verlag) 1998, ISBN 3-8039-0479-X
Jean-Jacques Arthur Malu-Malu, “Le Congo Kinshasa”, Paris (Editions Karthala) 2002, ISBN 2-84586-233-4

Dag Hammarskjöld

Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary-General and in charge for the ONUC deployment of UN troops in the Katanga rebellion of Moïse Tshombe, died on 18 September 1961 in a plane crash on the border between the Democratic Republic Congo and then Rhodesia (now Zambia). It was a Uno service machine, hired from the Belgian airline, with 15 people on board, all passengers died with the crash. Hammarskjöld was on his way to Ndola (Rhodesia) to clarify with Moïse Tshombe the extent to which the conflict could be resolved by way of mediation. 2015, more than 50 years after the event, Ban Ki-moon commissioned an expert committee to clarify the causes of the plane crash anew. South Africa had handed fresh evidence to the UN which hardened the suspicion of many insiders: The machine had been damaged through manipulation or shot down by fighter aircrafts, there had been an assassination attempt on the Secretary-General coming as mediator. It is unlikely that the authors of the attack can be found and convicted today. They presumably should be found in the same circles that let murder Lumumba, fueled the Congo turmoil and helped Mobutu to grab power.


The term refers to a political regime which lives off the fact to deprive the own people systematically. The more than 30 years of Mobutu’s dictatorship is a classic example of this kind of dictatorship. The country‘s mineral resources have been exploited to favourable conditions and leaving it to the Western customer. The regular accruing money from mining rights where led to the private (foreign) accounts of dictators family and his minions and withdrew it thereby the natural flow. It lacked by investments in public interest of the state and where those who generate it under inhuman conditions withdrew systematically and in several respects.