Democratic Republic of Congo – Profile Part 3

THE MOBUTU ERA
mobutuOn 25 November 1965, General Mobutu seized power once again this time in a bloodless coup with the aid of the CIA. Mobutu had political and military backing from the west; they saw him as an ally in the African continents fight against communism. According to insightonconflict.org, Mobutu has been quoted as saying that it had taken the politicians five years to ruin the country, and therefore “for five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country”. A one party state was quickly implemented and all other political parties were banned. Moise Tshombe found himself charged with treason and fled to Spain. The Congolese Parliament was in essence paralyzed being only able to rubber stamp motions. This did not last very long and was abolished outright soon after. Provincial autonomy was reduced as was the number of provinces which left Mobutu with a highly centralized government. The Mobutu Era had begun…..

In 1967, Mobutu – the self-proclaimed ‘Father of the Nation’ – established the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR). It was the sole legal political organization allowed in the country and every citizen was a member. He claimed that it would unify the country, establish long term stability and develop its weak economy. Even trade unions did not escape Mobutu’s transformation of Congo; they were amalgamated into one single union which was named the National Union of Zairian Workers. This union would act as a pro Mobutu union and was set up with this in mind. It would not be until 1991 that other trade unions were decriminalized.

For the next three years Mobutu set about crushing all forms of dissent. His main methods were through either patronage or force. One of the most notable examples of this was in 1966 when 3 cabinet members along with Evariste Kimba (who was recently elected Prime Minister) were arrested under the suspicion of a supposed ‘Pentecost Plot’. These men were subjected to a show trial and sentenced to death by hanging. The hanging itself was carried out in public in Kinshasa to a crowd of over fifty thousand spectators. By 1970, in a short three-year period, Mobutu established his autocracy.mb

In that same year came a visit from King Baudouin of Belgium which added further legitimacy to Mobutu’s reign. Legislative and presidential elections were held. The elections themselves were nothing more than a sham as the electorate could only choose between a single list of hand-picked contenders for the legislature and only one choice for the presidential elections. Mobutu won with an overwhelming majority of the votes which came as no surprise to any. Subsequently, Mobutu established his own personal security forces; the Special Presidential Division, the Military Action and Intelligence Service and the National Documentation Agency.

1971 saw the start of Mobutu’s campaign of pro-African cultural awareness he called “Authenticite”. The Democratic Republic of Congo now became the Republic of Zaire, a strange choice as the word Zaire is a Portuguese derivative of the word “Nzere” meaning river in a local African language. The armed forces also saw its name change to the Zairian Armed Forces. General Mobutu adopted the name Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (Mobutu Sese Seko for short). Many towns and cities were also renamed; Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Stanleyville became Kisangani, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, Jadotville became Likasi and Albertville became known as Kalemie. Furthermore, the Franc was replaced as legal tender by the Zaire.

 

Mobutu envisaged the process of “Authenticite” as a way to rid the country of its colonial past and to usher in a new era of Zairian national identity. However, many saw it as an attempt by Mobutu to carve his unique style of leadership into history. It was in fact little more than the start of a cult of personality on the road to a police state. A fine example of this expansionist cult of personality could be found at the ideological training centre’s head-quarters known as the Makanda Kabobi Institute. It was here that the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR) propagated the teachings of the state’s founder, “Mobutuism”. By 1974, it was taught in schools instead of religious teachings.

Mobutu steadily bolstered his grip on civil society as youth groups and workers organizations were incorporated into the MPR. The reason for this was to control areas of society it saw as potential threats to its legitimacy. This was known as Co-optation. This trend continued throughout the seventies and assimilated various women’s associations under the control of the party. He took full control of the media; that enabled him to bombard the public with pro-Mubutu political rhetoric through television, radio and the newspapers. He has been quoted as calling his use of his media outlets as “an excellent vehicle for educating the masses”.

His economic strategy for Zaire was based on nothing more than simple nepotism and cronyism. He nationalized all foreign owned firms and forced many investors out of the country. This saw the newly nationalized firm’s management being handed over to his friends and family leading to grand scale embezzlement. This did not bode to well as it brought about an economic slump. As a result, in 1977, Mobutu was forced to address his economic policies so as to attract foreign investment once again.

mobutu2He was re-elected in 1977 in yet another single candidate election. During the seventies, Zaire saw an exceptional increase in corruption given the stranglehold on power he exercised. It seemed as if his only concern was enriching himself and his associates. He himself owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz cars and even had a runway built in his hometown of Gbadolite which was built with an extended runway to accommodate the landing of Concord. At the same time, Zaire’s infrastructure was on the brink of collapse, wage issues arose as the majority of public servants were paid quite infrequently, sometimes going months without pay. Almost 20% of Zaire’s national budget went on “Presidency Services”; Mobutu was able to siphon vast amounts of money while many starved. In 1985, Forbes magazine estimated the personal wealth of Mobutu to be in the region of $5 billion, which was rather unsurprisingly the equivalent of Zaire’s national debt.

It was at this time that Mobutu’s reign became to be known as one of the world’s foremost examples of a kleptocracy. During this period of his rule, Zaire remained relatively peaceful with the exception of two revolts that took place in 1977 and 1978. These revolts were launched by Katangese rebels who were based in Angola but were quickly repressed with the aid of Belgian and French troops. The eighties saw the continuation of Zaire’s one party state but opposition parties began to pop up, most notably the Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS). As the Cold War period was coming to a close, international criticism grew with Mobutu’s human rights record, corruption, embezzlement etc.

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