Aida 203 Zaire
"ZAIRE is a good friend and a good investment." - Richard Nixon, toasting Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, 1972.
"Over a period of years, President Mobutu has been a friend of ours. We enjoy good relations with Zaire. We have substantial commercial interests in the country." - Jimmy Carter, press conference, March 24, 1977.
"I have come to appreciate the dynamism that is so characteristic of Zaire and Zaireans, and to respect your dedication to fairness and reason." - Vice-President George Bush, visiting Kinshasa, November, 1982.
"Zaire is among America's oldest friends and its President, President Mobutu is one of our most valued friends. The strong ties of friendship between Zaire and the US endure and prosper. We are proud and very, very pleased to have you with us today." - President George Bush, White House, June 29, 1989.
It would be instructive to know just how many millions of Africans have died, often horribly, because of (1) unbending US determination to smash Africa's old but stable colonial empires and (2) Washington's plenteous patronage of some of the most venal, corrupt and vicious despots ever inflicted on this tormented continent.
Now, it seems, the last important survivor of that melancholy band is doomed finally to disappear. He is, of course, Zaire's President-for-Life, Mobutu Sese Seko, generally regarded as Africa's most corrupt leader ever, a man who, under US protection, has plundered and prostituted his country for more than three decades, who has in that time reduced Zaire (nee the Belgian Congo) to a surreal parody of a state.
Over the years there have been many reports of Mobutu's impending departure. This time it looks for real. On the one side, French papers report that his prostate cancer has mestasasised into the bones. Recent photographs reflect a shadow of the tall, imposing figure he once cut in his African robes and trademark leopard skin torque. The Swiss, caught before, are cautious. As recently as November, their papers reported him as dallying with a high-price Swiss call girl.
More convincingly, his armed forces, a shambolic rabble backed by White mercenaries, are being routed and humiliated by a rebel force of whom few had heard only a few months back. Kalemie, in southern Shaba province, fell on February 4, followed by Punia, Lubutu, Isiro and Faradje in the north-east.
Indications are then that Africa's longest-serving dictator is, or has, lost his grip; that the long-feared, long-predicted disintegration of the continent's second largest state looms ever nearer. Should that happen, it could destabilise the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and Uganda would all be affected.
There is little to be proud of in Zaire. In the 32 unhappy years of Mobutu's rule everything that was not nailed down - and a lot that was - has been stolen by its insatiable, bloodsucking leaders. The IMF lists Zaire as the world's eighth poorest state. Horsefeathers. Zaire is not poor. It is a rich country full of poor people. There is a difference. They are not poor because of colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, apartheid or any other of Africa's favourite demons.
They are poor because since 1965 they have been the playthings of a Mobutu-led clique of crooks, buffoons, con men, scroungers, vultures and mountebanks, all so venal, so inept, so corrupt that they would bring a blush of shame even to the cheeks of certain SA pols we all know and love. At independence, Zaire had all the makings of a success story.
How can you call a country poor that once produced, in abundance, coffee, rubber, palm oil, cocoa and tea - that in the colonial days was a net exporter of food?
A huge country, with a land surface of 2,35 sq million km, twice the size of SA, Zaire has fertile soils, a generally ample rainfall, vast rain forests (second largest in the world). With a population of 44 million (World Bank estimates) it is not over-populated. It has a ready-made path to the interior along the mighty Congo River.
How can you call a country poor that is blessed with huge mineral wealth? Zaire has about 60% of the world's reserves of cobalt, along with vast reserves of copper, cadmium, gold, silver, tin, germanium, columbine, zinc, iron, manganese, tungsten, bauxite, lead, phosphates, uranium and petroleum. In 1984 industrial diamonds mined in Zaire accounted for 40% of the free world's total production.
Suitably governed Zaire could, and should, have been one of the richest states in the world, let alone Africa. When Mobutu seized power in 1965, Zaire's mines, farms and plantations were fertile, well-managed and productive, all ticking over profitably. He soon reduced all that to utter ruin admittedly not quite as fast as the ANC is doing in SA, but fast enough.
His regime, totally lacking any experience of responsible administration, wreaked havoc by gross mismanagement, theft and corruption - le mal Zairois, the Zairean sickness. For 32 years little or nothing has been spent on maintaining ports, roads, railways, river boats, schools, hospitals or mines. Of 2 600 km of rail in 1960, less than 700 km still operate - after a fashion.
The bush has overgrown the Belgian roads and power grids. Land communication today is practically non-existent. Government health expenditure constitutes only 0,8% of the gross national product; education, 0,4%. What middle class once existed has totally disappeared. Food production and employment are both lower than at independence.
In the trackless bush, where millions of peasants and tribesmen live, the scourge of leprosy, sleeping sickness and malaria are again pandemic, all compounded by rampant AIDS. Zaire's per capita income, among Africa's lowest, is around R400 a year, and declining, as the population increases at 3% or more a year. One could go on. But you get the picture.
The Zaire of today is a seething cauldron of poverty, disease, squalor and violence, with millions of its people having reverted to the Iron Age. And, whatever Zaire has become, economically, socially, politically, the US carries a huge share of the blame. Today, as Time magazine has remarked, Zaire is little more than a gutted memorial to the greed of its leaders. As is ever more the case with SA, the great Central African state provides a case study of the hoax of African independence.
Born in 1930, his father a mission cook, Army Sergeant Joseph Desire first came to public notice in 1960, when the Belgians - under UN and US pressure - withdrew precipitously from their outsize Central African holdings. With the CIA's help, Mobutu stepped into the power vacuum that followed the country's chaotic independence, to be soon followed by Dag Hammarskjold's disastrous UN intervention.
Staging a bloodless coup, he took power, only to hand it back to a civilian President, Patrice Lumumbu. The next year this worthless scoundrel was assassinated. Mobutu, together with the CIA, installed another president. Soon the humble Army Sergeant was wearing a Lieut-General's flashes.
In 1965, backed by a joint US/Israeli covert operation headed by his old friend, Lawrence Devlin, then the CIA's station chief in Kinshasa, Mobutu seized control for good, making himself head of state with full executive powers. The Americans first installed him, then kept in power for the next 32 years a regime of killers and crooks.
In his early years, the Western media hailed Mobutu as an exemplar of the new breed of post-colonial African leaders. And true, he did show some success in bringing a fragile unity to this clumsy colonial creation with its monstrous fake borders, lashing together an unlikely ragbag of 254 ethnic groups speaking 400 dialects. Then Mobutu began reverting to type.
Following a trip to China he launched a showy "authenticity" campaign designed to reduce Western influence and return his country to its African roots. Many foreign assets were nationalised, giving him tighter control over this source of income. He began changing many Christian names, starting with his own, to make them more "authentic."
Joseph Desire went out of the window and in came Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Bangawa. Though often presented in more delicate terms in the Western media, this modest new moniker means "the cock that goes from hen to hen knowing no fatigue." He had other self-promoting titles, including The Guide, The Helmsman, "The Greatest Marshall in all History," "The Great Leopard of Zaire," and Yamukolo Oleki Bango "You are the Strongest. You will Suppress Everybody Else."
Soon the country was reeling under his calamitous "Zaireanisation" measures of 1973, when he seized the assets of all Belgian firms in Zaire. Biggest of these was Gecamines, the massive mining conglomerate in Shaba Province, whose coffers Mobutu proceeded to treat as his own personal bank account. By 1993 Gecamine's earnings from copper and cobalt had fallen by nearly 75%. Gecamines collapsed in 1995 from plunder, pillage and ethnic cleansing by pro-Mobutu forces. "Without Gecamines, they're back in the Stone Age," commented one Belgian financial investment adviser. The World Bank had already ceased all operations in the country.
The one who did not get any poorer was, obviously, Mobutu. In his years of absolute power, he stuffed billions into "special accounts" in Luxembourg, Brussels, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, London and the Bankers Trust, New York. He himself reputedly owned a Swiss bank at one time. His personal fortune, built on a network of private businesses, the ransacking of public resources and the pilfering of foreign aid that flowed into the country (mostly courtesy the US taxpayer) has been variously estimated at US$5-to $10-billion.
For the sheer scale of his theft, Mobutu can hardly be said to have a rival in history. Again and again he compromised himself with his ostentatious life style and immense wealth. In France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, Senegal and Ivory Coast, he owned more than 30 castles, luxury villas and apartments.
In recent years Mobutu governed from his native fiefdom of Gbadolite, a jungle village close to the equator and perched on the northernmost banks of the River Congo. Gbadolite, which at huge cost he transformed into the "Versailles of the Jungle," was the one area of Zaire that worked and prospered reasonably well.
Mobutu was always misleadingly modest about his wealth. When pressed, he would swear on his "honour as a Christian and a chief" that his available funds amounted "no more than $50 million." "I would estimate it to be less than $50 million," he said in 1988. "What is that after 23 years as head of State of such a big country?"
As is customary in so much of Africa, he was routinely elected by 98% of the vote.
How did he get away with it for so long? His greatest asset always was that he himself was regarded as an asset by the CIA. His relations with the CIA have been legendary.
Although his rule hardly represented a shining example of Grecian democracy, in the abstract make-believe world of the State Department, he also had his supporters. That was particularly so in 1994, when he returned to the West's good books by providing camps and logistical support for the Rwandan refugees.
Can any man be a second Mobutu, holding together a country of so many different tribes? Just who could replace him is far from clear. Mobutu has been careful not to groom a successor, cultivating instead a policy of divide and rule. What calibre of man they have among the rebel forces is, as yet, unknown.
Mobutu himself has often predicted apocalypse for Zaire after his departure. He could be proved right. For all practical purposes Zaire itself no longer exists as a state entity. If the fragile remains of Zaire's central authority do collapse, the continental impact could be bloodchilling. Almost all of Zaire's Great Lakes neighbours are already in a state of acute turmoil. If Zaire now also falls apart, it could make the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi look like a sideshow.
And all of it an overwhelming indictment
of US policy in Africa.
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