Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (October 14, 1930 September 7, 1997), known commonly as Mobutu, or Mobutu Sese Seko (in English), born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, was the President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for 32 years (1965–1997) after deposing Joseph Kasavubu. He formed a totalitarian regime in Zaire which attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence and entered wars to challenge the rise of communism in other African countries. His mismanagement of his country's economy, and enriching himself off its financial and natural resources, makes his name synonymous with kleptocracy in Africa.
The wife of the Belgian judge took a liking to Mobutu and taught him to speak, read and write fluent French. Yemo relied on the help of relatives to support her four children, and the family moved often. Mobutu's earliest studies were in Léopoldville, but his mother eventually sent him to an uncle in Coquilhatville, where he attended the Christian Brothers School, a Catholic mission boarding school. A physically imposing figure, he dominated school sports, but also excelled in academics, including running the class newspaper. He was also known for his pranks and impish sense of humor; a classmate recalled that when the Belgian priests, whose first language was Dutch, misspoke in French, Mobutu would leap to his feet in class and point out the mistake. In 1949 Mobutu stowed away aboard a boat to Léopoldville and met a girl. The priests found him several weeks later, and at the end of the school year he was sent to the Force Publique (FP), the Belgian Congolese army, with a seven-year commitment, a punishment for rebellious students.
Mobutu found discipline in army life and a surrogate father figure in Sergeant Joseph Bobozo. Mobutu also kept up his studies through his old fellow students, borrowing European newspapers from the Belgian officers and books from wherever he could find them, reading them on sentry duty and whenever he had a spare moment. His personal favorites were the writings of French President Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. After passing a course in accounting, he began to dabble professionally in journalism. Still angry after his clashes with the school priests, he did not wed in a church. His contribution to the wedding festivities was a crate of beer, all his army salary could afford.
As a soldier, Mobutu wrote pseudonymously on contemporary politics for a new magazine set up by a Belgian colonial, Actualités Africaines. In 1956 he quit the army and became a full-time journalist, writing for the Léopoldville daily L'Avenir. In 1958 he went to Belgium to cover the 1958 World Exposition and stayed to receive journalist training. By this time Mobutu had met many of the young Congolese intellectuals challenging colonial rule. He became friends with Patrice Lumumba and joined Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). Mobutu eventually became Lumumba's personal aide, though several contemporaries indicate that Belgian intelligence had recruited Mobutu to be an informer by this point.
During the 1960 talks in Brussels on Congolese independence the U.S. embassy held a reception to get a better sense of the Congolese delegation. Embassy staff were each assigned a list of delegation members to meet and then discuss their impressions. The ambassador noted, "One name kept coming up. But it wasn't on anyone's list because he wasn't an official delegation member, he was Lumumba's secretary. But everyone agreed that this was an extremely intelligent man, very young, perhaps immature, but a man with great potential.
Following the granting of independence on June 30, 1960, a coalition government was formed, led by Prime Minister Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. The new nation quickly lurched into the Congo Crisis as the army mutinied against the remaining Belgian officers. Lumumba appointed Mobutu as chief of staff of the army, in which capacity Mobutu toured the country convincing soldiers to return to their barracks. Encouraged by a Belgian government intent on maintaining its access to rich Congolese mines, secessionist violence erupted in the south. Miffed that the United Nations force sent to help restore order was not helping to crush the secessionists, Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, receiving massive military aid and about a thousand Soviet technical advisers in six weeks. The U.S. government saw the Soviet activity as a maneuver to spread communist influence in central Africa. Kasavubu, riled by the Soviet arrival, dismissed Lumumba. An outraged Lumumba declared Kasavubu deposed. Both Lumumba and Kasavubu then ordered Mobutu to arrest the other. As army chief of staff, Mobutu came under great pressure from multiple sources. The embassies of Western nations, who were helping to pay the salaries of his rebellious soldiers, as well as Kasavubu, the student and his own subordinates favored getting rid of the Soviet presence. On September 14, 1960, Mobutu took control, in a CIA-sponsored coup, putting Lumumba under house arrest for the second time and keeping Kasavubu as president.
All Soviet advisors were ordered to leave. Next, Mobutu accused Lumumba of pro-communist sympathies, thereby hoping to gain the support of the United States. Lumumba tried to flee to Stanleyville, but he was captured and sent to Katanga where he was assassinated.
In 1964, partisans led by Pierre Mulele, started another rebellion. They quickly occupied two thirds of The Congo, but the Congolese army, led by Mobutu, was able to reconquer the entire territory in 1965.
Initially, Mobutu's government was decidedly apolitical, even anti-political. The word "politician" carried negative connotations, and became almost synonymous with someone who was wicked or corrupt. Even so, 1966 saw the debut of the Corps of Volunteers of the Republic, a vanguard movement designed to mobilize popular support behind Mobutu, who was proclaimed the nation's "Second National Hero" after Lumumba. Ironic given the role he played in Lumumba's ousting, Mobutu strove to present himself as a successor to Lumumba's legacy and one of the key tenets early in his rule was "authentic Congolese nationalism."
1967 marked the debut of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR) which until 1990 was the nation's only legal political party. Membership became obligatory for all citizens. Among the themes advanced by the MPR in its doctrine, the Manifesto of N'Sele, was nationalism, revolution, and authenticity. Revolution was described as a "truly national revolution, essentially pragmatic," which called for "the repudiation of both capitalism and communism." One of the MPR's slogans was "Neither left nor right," to which would be added "nor even center" in later years.
That same year, all trade unions were consolidated into a single union, the National Union of Zairian Workers, and brought under government control. By Mobutu's own admission, the union would serve as an instrument of support for government policy, rather than as a force for confrontation. Independent trade unions were illegal until 1991.
Mobutu faced many challenges early in his rule, but most opposition he was able to coopt into submission through patronage; those he could not, he dealt with forcefully. In 1966 four cabinet members were arrested on charges of complicity in an attempted coup, tried by a military tribunal, and publicly executed in an open-air spectacle witnessed by over 50,000 people. Uprisings by former Katangan gendarmeries were crushed, as was an abortive revolt led by white mercenaries in 1967. By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and for the most part, law and order was brought to nearly all parts of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu's legitimacy and power. The Belgian monarch, King Baudouin I, made a highly successful state visit to Kinshasa. That same year legislative and presidential elections were held, and Mobutu won 99% of the popular vote in an election where voting was compulsory and he was the sole candidate.
As he consolidated power Mobutu set up several military forces whose sole purpose was to protect him. These included the Special Presidential Division, Civil Guard and Service for Action and Military Intelligence (SNIP).
Embarking on a campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaire in October 1971. Africans were ordered to drop their Christian names for African ones, and priests were warned that they would face 5 years' imprisonment if they were caught baptizing a Zairean child with a Christian name. Western attire and ties were banned, and men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost.
In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.), Mobutu Sese Seko for short.
Early in his rule, Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. To set an example, many were hanged before large audiences, including former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba, who, with three cabinet members - Jérôme Anany (Defense Minister), Emmanuel Bamba (Finance Minister), and Alexandre Mahamba (Minister of Mines and Energy) - was tried in May 1966, and sent to the gallows on May 30, before an audience of 50,000 spectators. The men were executed on charges of being in contact with Colonel Alphonse Bangala and Major Pierre Efomi, for the purpose of planning a coup. Mobutu explained the executions as follows: "One had to strike through a spectacular example, and create the conditions of regime discipline. When a chief takes a decision, he decides - period.
In 1968 Pierre Mulele, Lumumba's Minister of Education and later a rebel leader during the 1964 Simba rebellion, was lured out of exile in Brazzaville on the assumption that he would be amnestied, but was tortured and killed by Mobutu's forces. While Mulele was still alive, his eyes were gouged out, his genitals were ripped off, and his limbs were amputated one by one. Mobutu later moved away from murder, and switched to a new tactic, buying off political rivals. He used the slogan "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still" to describe his tactic of co-opting political opponents through bribery. A favorite Mobutu tactic was to play "musical chairs," rotating members of his government, switching the cabinet roster constantly to ensure that no one would pose a threat to his rule. Another tactic was to arrest and sometimes torture dissident members of the government, only to later pardon them and reward them with high office. The most famous example of this treatment is Jean Nguza Karl-i-Bond, who was fired as foreign minister in 1977, sentenced to death, and tortured. Mobutu then commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, released him after a year, and later appointed him prime minister before fleeing the country in 1981 (although he returned to the fold in 1985, first as Zaire's ambassador to the U.S., and later as foreign minister).
In 1972 Mobutu tried unsuccessfully to have himself named president for life.
He initially nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country. In many cases he handed the management of these firms to relatives and close associates who stole the companies' assets. This precipitated such an economic slump that Mobutu was forced by 1977 to try to woo foreign investors back. Katangan rebels based in Angola invaded Zaire in 1977 in retaliation for Mobutu's support for anti-MPLA rebels. France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan paratroopers into the country and repulsed the rebels, ending Shaba I. The rebels attacked Zaire again, in greater numbers, in the Shaba II invasion of 1978. The governments of Belgium and France deployed troops with logistical support from the United States and defeated the rebels again.
He was re-elected in single-candidate elections in 1977 and 1984. He worked hard on little but to increase his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion, most of it in Swiss banks (however, many now suspect he was never a billionaire at all). This was almost equivalent to the country's foreign debt at the time, and, by 1989, the government was forced to default on international loans from Belgium. He owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation's roads rotted and many of his people starved. Infrastructure virtually collapsed, and many public service workers went months without being paid. Most money was siphoned off to Mobutu, his family, and top political and military leaders. Only the Special Presidential Division - on whom his physical safety depended - was paid adequately or regularly. A popular saying that the civil servants pretended to work while the state pretended to pay them expressed this grim reality.
Another feature of Mobutu's economic mismanagement, directly linked to the way he and his friends siphoned off so much of the country's wealth, was rampant inflation. The rapid decline in the real value of salaries strongly encouraged a culture of corruption and dishonesty among public servants of all kinds.
Marshal Mobutu was known to charter a Concorde from Air France for personal use, including shopping trips to Paris for him and his family. He had an airport constructed in his hometown of Gbadolite with a runway long enough to accommodate the Concorde's entended take off and landing requirements. In 1989, Mobutu chartered Concorde aircraft F-BTSD for a June 26-July 5 trip to give a speech at the United Nations in New York City, July 16 for French bicentential celebrations in Paris (where he was a guest of President François Mitterrand), on September 19 for a flight from Paris to Gbadolite, and another nonstop flight from Gbadolite to Marseille with the youth choir of Zaire.
Mobutu's rule earned a reputation as one of the world's foremost examples of kleptocracy and nepotism. Close relatives and fellow members of the Ngbandi tribe were awarded with high positions in the military and government, and he groomed his eldest son, Nyiwa, to one day succeed him as President; however, this was thwarted by Nyiwa's death (caused by AIDS) in 1994.
He was also the subject of a massive personality cult. The evening news on television was preceded by an image of him descending through clouds from the heavens, portraits of him adorned many public places, government officials wore lapels bearing his portrait, and he held such titles as "Father of the Nation," "Savior of the People," and "Supreme Combattant." At one point, in early 1975, the media was even forbidden from mentioning by name anyone but Mobutu; others were referred to only by the positions they held.
In 1983, Mobutu promoted himself to the rank of Field Marshal.
However, Mobutu was able to successfully capitalize on Cold War tensions and gain significant support from Western countries like the United States and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund.
For the most part, Zaire enjoyed warm relations with the United States. The United States was the third largest donor of aid to Zaire (after Belgium and France), and Mobutu befriended several U.S. presidents, including Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Relations did cool significantly in 1974-1975 over Mobutu's increasingly radical rhetoric (which included his scathing denunciations of American foreign policy), and plummeted to an all-time low in the summer of 1975, when Mobutu accused the CIA of plotting his overthrow and arrested eleven senior Zairian generals and several civilians, and condemned (in absentia) a former head of the Central Bank. However, many people viewed these charges with skepticism; in fact, one of Mobutu's staunchest critics, Nzongola-Ntalaja, speculated that Mobutu invented the plot as an excuse to purge the military of talented officers who might otherwise pose a threat to his rule. In spite of these hindrances, the chilly relationship quickly thawed when both countries found each other supporting the same side during the Angolan Civil War.
Because of Mobutu's poor human rights record, the Carter Administration worked to put some distance between itself and the Kinshasa government; even so, Zaire was the recipient of nearly half the foreign aid Carter allocated sub-Saharan Africa. During the first Shaba invasion, the United States played a relatively inconsequential role; its belated intervention consisted of little more than the delivery of non-lethal supplies. But during the second Shaba invasion, the U.S. played a much more active and decisive role by providing transportation and logistical support to the French and Belgian paratroopers that were deployed to aid Mobutu against the rebels. Carter echoed Mobutu's (unsubstantiated) charges of Soviet and Cuban aid to the rebels, until it was apparent that no hard evidence existed to verify his claims. In 1980, the House of Representatives voted to terminate military aid to Zaire, but the Senate reinstated the funds, in response to pressure from Carter and American business interests in Zaire.
Mobutu enjoyed a very warm relationship with the Reagan Administration (through financial donation); during Reagan's presidency, Mobutu visited the White House three times, and criticism of Zaire's human rights record by the U.S. was effectively muted. During a state visit by Mobutu in 1983, Reagan praised the Zairian strongman as "a voice of good sense and goodwill.
Mobutu also had a cordial relationship with Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush; he was the first African head of state to visit Bush at the White House. Even so, Mobutu's relationship with the U.S. radically changed shortly afterwards with the end of the Cold War; with the Soviet Union gone, there was no longer any reason to support Mobutu as a bulwark against communism. Accordingly, the U.S. and other Western powers began pressuring Mobutu to democratize the regime. Regarding the change in U.S. attitude to his regime, Mobutu bitterly remarked: "I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the U.S. The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing. In 1993, Mobutu was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department after he sought to visit Washington, D.C. Shortly after this, Mobutu was befriended by televangelist Pat Robertson, who promised to try to get the State Department to lift its ban on the African leader.
Moscow was the only major world capital Mobutu never visited, although he did accept an invitation to do so in 1974; however, for reasons unknown, he cancelled the visit at the last minute, and toured the People's Republic of China and North Korea, instead.
Relations cooled further in 1975, when the two countries found themselves opposing different sides in the Angolan Civil War. This had a dramatic effect on Zairian foreign policy for the next decade; bereft of his claim to African leadership (Mobutu was one of the few leaders who denied the Marxist government of Angola recognition), Mobutu turned increasingly to the U.S. and its allies, adopting pro-American stances on such issues as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Israel's position in international organizations, etc.
China and Zaire shared a common goal in Central Africa, namely doing everything in their power to halt Soviet gains in the area. Accordingly, both Zaire and China covertly funneled aid to the FNLA (and later, UNITA) in order to prevent the MPLA, who were supported and augmented by Cuban forces, from coming to power. The Cubans, who exercised considerable influence in Africa in support of leftist and anti-imperialist forces, were heavily sponsored by the Soviet Union during the period. In addition to inviting Holden Roberto and his guerrillas to Beijing for training, China provided weapons and money to the rebels. Zaire itself launched an ill-fated, pre-emptive invasion of Angola in a bid to install a pro-Kinshasa government, but was repulsed by Cuban troops. The expedition was a fiasco with far-reaching repercussions, most notably the Shaba I and Shaba II invasions, both of which China opposed. China sent military aid to Zaire during both invasions, and accused the Soviet Union and Cuba (who were alleged to have supported the Shaban rebels, although this was and remains speculation) of working to de-stabilize Central Africa.
Tutsis had long opposed Mobutu, due to his open support for Rwandan Hutu extremists responsible for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. When his government issued an order in November 1996 forcing Tutsis to leave Zaire on penalty of death, they erupted in rebellion. From eastern Zaire, with the support of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defense Paul Kagame, they launched an offensive to overthrow Mobutu, joining forces with locals opposed to him as they marched west toward Kinshasa.
Ailing with cancer, Mobutu was unable to coordinate the resistance, which crumbled in front of the march, the army being more used to suppressing civilians than defending the large country. On May 16, 1997, following failed peace talks, the Tutsi rebels and other anti-Mobutu groups as the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL) captured Kinshasa. Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In December 2007, the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of the Congo recommended returning his remains to the Congo and interring them in a mausoleum.
He is a constantly recurring theme in Advance fee fraud (419) scams in emails sent to anybody worldwide. A 419er may claim to be Mobutu's wife, son, or daughter and promise a percentage of his wealth to the email recipient if the recipient does a few things first, including pay advance fees. Another cause of his unscrupulous legacy abroad is his record on human rights as well as mismanagement of the economy and the institutionalization of corruption.
Mobutu also was one of the men who was instrumental to bringing the famous Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to Zaire on October 30th, 1974. According to the documentary When We Were Kings. Promoter Don King promised both fighters $5,000,000 USD for the fight, and no other group would put up that kind of money for the fight. Mobutu, wanting to expand the image of the nation of Zaire, put up the nations money to do so. According to a quote in the film, Ali supposedly said: "Some countries go to war to get their names out there, and wars cost a lot more than $10,000,000."
Mobutu had seventeen children.
Mobutu also might be considered as the inspiration behind some of the characters in the works of the poetry of Wole Soyinka, the novel A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, and Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe.