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|Mobutu Sese Seko
"creator of the Republic of Zaire"
Joseph-Désiré Mobutu was born in Lisala, in what was then the Belgian Congo, on October 14, 1930, and was educated by Belgian missionaries. He joined the colonial army in 1950, rising to the rank of Sergeant within six years. After leaving the army in 1956, he became a columnist for the Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) newspaper, L'Avenir. In 1959, he received a fellowship from the colonial administration to study at the Institute of Journalism and Social Sciences in Brussels, Belgium.
Although he missed most of the independence movement in the Belgian Congo, he did attend the 1960 Round Table Conference in Brussels, at which the Belgian government negotiated the terms of independence. On June 30, 1960, he was appointed Army Chief of Staff by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.
The new government of the Democratic Republic of Congo was a coalition between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Joseph Kasavubu. On September 14, 1960, Colonel Mobutu helped Kasavubu overthrow Lumumba, for which Mobutu was rewarded with the rank of Lieutenant-General. On November 25, 1965, Mobutu took advantage of a power struggle between Kasavubu and Prime Minister Moise Tshombe to stage another coup d'état and seize control of the government.
Colonel Mobutu during the coup against Lumumba
Mobutu spent the next five years centralizing authority, and was then elected President in 1970. Exalting the superiority of African "authentic" traditions, he portrayed himself as a traditional chief. He changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga, which means "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake." He adopted his trademark leopard skin cap and wooden walking stick topped with an eagle, ordered all citizens to adopt African names and dress, and, in October 1971, renamed the country the Republic of Zaire. In 1973, he nationalized foreign businesses, including valuable copper and diamond mines. Much of the revenue from these enterprises went straight into Mobutu's bank accounts, allowing him to finance villas on the French Riviera, yachts, and limousines.
Early in his rule, Mobutu consolidated power by publicly torturing and executing political rivals, coup plotters, and other threats. Later he switched tactics and began buying off political rivals rather than killing them. In Mobutu's opinion, bribing his exiled opponents into returning to Zaire limited their capacity to damage his and his country's reputation. Despite his reputation for corruption and brutality, Mobutu was re-elected President in 1977 (there were no other candidates, however).
Mobutu received much financial and military support from Western powers, especially the United States, who were eager to maintain a barrier to Communism in Central Africa. In 1978, France, Belgium and the United States helped Mobutu repel an attack by Katangan rebels. But, while Mobutu was busy lining his pockets with foreign aid, the people of Zaire faced economic hardship. Food shortages, unpaid government salaries, and a decaying infrastructure all contributed to popular discontent. After a 1990 massacre of students at a pro-democracy rally at the University of Lubumbashi, France and the United States demanded political reforms. Mobutu agreed to create a multi-party state and national assembly, but neither promise ever materialized.
In October 1996, while Mobutu was in Europe seeking treatment for prostate cancer, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, began an offensive that conquered vitually the entire country within six months. Mobutu retured to Zaire too late to stop the offensive. On May 16, 1997, Kabila's army took Kinshasa. That same day, Kabila became President of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Refused entrance into France and Togo, Mobutu finally found refuge in Morocco, where he died on September 7, 1997.
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This page was last updated on 02/10/2019.