Mobutu Sese Seko's rule created an irreparable crisis for the Congo, and his rule is one of the most insane ever in the world.
Africa has witnessed dictators who have done absurd things and who have plundered their countries beyond redemption. The level of damage that Mobutu Sese Seko inflicted on the Democratic Republic of Congo is unprecedented. His greed and insanity were above the comprehension of feeble minds.
By the time he fled to Morocco, and died there, he had plunged Congo into an irretrievable crisis. His penchant for power, his drive for personalization and an unending quest for adulation and self-aggrandisement worked together to ensure a disaster for his country. As he amassed billions for himself, the people of Congo were reduced to paupers, leaving on one meal a day.
Born Joseph-Desire Mobutu, the Congolese general seized power in 1965. Mobutu thought of himself as some sort of demigod and forced the evening news to begin with a scene of him descending from the clouds -- and forbade the newscaster to mention anybody but him by name. Mobutu prohibited anybody else from wearing leopard-print hats and carried around a wooden cane that he claimed took the strength of eight men to carry.
Mobutu imprisoned people who did not have African names and changed his own name to 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"). Then he paid Muhammad Ali and George Foreman $5 million each to fight in his country to give it more recognition in the world. Muhammad Ali famously said, "Some countries go to war to get their names out there, and wars cost a lot more than $10 million."
Mobutu's long hold on power had disastrous consequences for his people. The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka referred to Mobutu as Africa's leading "toad king," a monarchical ruler who lived in grotesque splendor while his people starved. Mobutu's Zaire was also the distressing model for novelist V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River (1979), a chilling account of life in an African dictatorship. Indeed, it would be hard to think of Zaire under Mobutu as a developing country. Rather, it was a deteriorating society held together only by the iron-fisted and corrupt rule of its dictator.
Mobutu mishandled his nation's economy almost from the beginning. Once secure in power, he tried to exploit Zaire's natural mineral riches, but he and his backers lacked the personnel, infrastructure, and business ethos to make it work. Even worse, his decision in 1973 to nationalize all other economic assets owned by foreigners led to a catastrophic decline in national productivity and wealth. Humiliated by his financial woes, Mobutu returned farms and factories to their original owners, but a fall in the world price of copper further devastated the Zairian economy.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Mobutu grew ever more entrenched and corrupt and ever more suspicious of attempts to liberalize his rule. He made some halfhearted concessions toward free speech and democracy in the early '90s, but was unable to yield any real power.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the breakdown of order in Burundi that began in 1993 indirectly helped cause Mobutu's final downfall. More than one million refugees fled into Zaire's eastern border regions, unsettling the local population and reviving dormant feuds. Out of this uncertainty another rebellion emerged led by the enigmatic Laurent Kabila. This rebel movement proved surprisingly successful and in mid-1997 succeeded in pushing to the outskirts of the capital. Kabila became president and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mobutu, ailing with prostate cancer (he had undergone surgery on August 22, 1996) fled with his family and close supporters to Togo. On September 7, 1997, about four months after he left the Congo, Mobutu died in Morocco.
According to the most conservative estimates, he stole US$4–5 billion from his country, and some sources put the figure as high as US$15 billion. According to Mobutu's ex-son-in-law, Pierre Janssen—the ex-husband of Mobutu's daughter Yaki—Mobutu had no concern for the cost of the expensive gifts he gave away to his cronies. Janssen married Yaki in a lavish ceremony that included three orchestras, a US$65,000 wedding cake and a giant fireworks display. Yaki wore a US$70,000 wedding gown and US$3 million worth of jewels. Janssen wrote a book describing Mobutu's daily routine—which included several daily bottles of wine, retainers flown in from overseas and lavish meals.
According to Transparency International, Mobutu embezzled over US$5 billion from his country, ranking him as the third-most corrupt leader since 1984 and the most corrupt African leader during the same period.
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