Mobutu, a member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, was born in Lisala, Belgian Congo. Mobutu's mother, Marie Madeleine Yemo, was a hotel maid who fled to Lisala to escape the harem of a local village chief. There she met and married Albéric Gbemani, a cook for a Belgian judge. Shortly afterwards she gave birth to Mobutu. The name "Mobutu" was selected by an uncle.
Gbemani died when Mobutu was eight. Thereafter he was raised by an uncle and a grandfather.
The wife of the Belgian judge took a liking to Mobutu and taught him to speak, read, and write the French language fluently. Yemo relied on the help of relatives to support her four children, and the family moved often. Mobutu's earliest education took place 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. He also excelled in academic subjects and ran 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, made an error 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. At the end of the school year, in lieu of being sent to prison, he was ordered to serve seven years in the colonial army, the Force Publique (FP) — the usual punishment for rebellious students.
Mobutu found discipline in army life, as well as a father figure in Sergeant Louis Bobozo. Mobutu kept up his studies by 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 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 marry 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 magazine set up by a Belgian colonial, Actualités Africaines (African News). In 1956, he quit the army and became a full-time journalist, writing for the Léopoldville daily L'Avenir. Two years later, he went to Belgium to cover the 1958 World Exposition and stayed to receive training in journalism. By this time, Mobutu had met many of the young Congolese intellectuals who were challenging colonial rule. He became friendly 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.
During the 1960 talks in Brussels on Congolese independence, the US embassy held a reception for the Congolese delegation. Embassy staff were each assigned a list of delegation members to meet, and then discussed 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 Congo's independence on 30 June 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 Armée Nationale Congolaise, the Congolese National Army, under army chief Victor Lundula. In that 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. Concerned 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 US government saw the Soviet activity as a maneuver to spread communist influence in Central Africa. Kasa-Vubu was encouraged by the US and Belgium to dismiss Lumumba, which he proceeded to do on 5 September. An outraged Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed. Parliament refused to recognise the dismissals and urged reconciliation, but no agreement was reached. Both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu each ordered Mobutu to arrest the other. As Army Chief of Staff, Mobutu came under great pressure from multiple sources. The embassies of Western nations, which helped pay the soldiers' salaries, as well as Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu's subordinates, all favored getting rid of the Soviet presence. On 14 September Mobutu launched a bloodless coup, declaring both Kasa-Vubu and Lumumba to be "neutralised" and establishing a new government of university graduates. Lumumba rejected this action but was forced to retire to his residence where UN peacekeepers prevented Mobutu's soldiers from arresting him.
Losing confidence that the international community would support his reinstatement, Lumumba fled in late November to join his supporters in Stanleyville to establish a new government. In early December he was captured by Mobutu's troops and incarcerated at his headquarters in Thysville. However, Mobutu still considered him a threat and on 17 January 1961 transferred him to the rebelling State of Katanga. Lumumba then disappeared from the public view. It was later discovered that he was murdered the same day by the secessionist forces of Moise Tshombe after Mobutu's government turned him over.
Colonel Joseph-Desiré Mobutu with President Joseph Kasa-Vubu
On 23 January 1961, Kasa-Vubu promoted Mobutu to major-general; De Witte argues that this was a political move, "aimed to strengthen the army, the president's sole support, and Mobutu's position within the army."
In 1964, Pierre Mulele led partisans in 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.
Second coup and consolidation of power
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Prime Minister Moise Tshombe's Congolese National Convention had won a large majority in the March 1965 elections, but Kasa-Vubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him. With the government in near-paralysis, Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup on 25 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier.
Under the auspices of a regime d'exception (the equivalent of a state of emergency), Mobutu assumed sweeping—almost absolute—powers for five years. In his first speech upon taking power, Mobutu told a large crowd at Léopoldville's main stadium that since politicians had brought the country to ruin in five years, "for five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country." Parliament was reduced to a rubber-stamp before being abolished altogether, though it was later revived. The number of provinces was reduced, and their autonomy curtailed, resulting in a highly centralized state.
A Congolese cotton shirt embellished with a portrait of Mobutu from the collection of the Tropenmuseum
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. Ironically, given the role he played in Lumumba's ouster, 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. It was officially defined as "the nation politically organized"—in essence, the state was a transmission belt for the party. All citizens automatically became members of the MPR from birth. 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. The MPR elected its president every seven years. At the same time, he was automatically nominated as the sole candidate for a seven-year term as president of the republic; he was confirmed in office by a referendum. A single list of MPR candidates was returned to the legislature every five years. In practice, this gave the party president—Mobutu—all governing power in the nation.
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 swearing in again as President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo following the 1970 election
Facing many challenges early in his rule, Mobutu was able to turn most opposition into submission through patronage; those he could not co-opt, 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 aborted 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. His Majesty King Baudouin of the Belgians made a highly successful state visit to Kinshasa. That same year legislative and presidential elections were held. The MPR was the only party allowed to run, even though the constitution stated that two parties should have been allowed. According to official figures, an implausible 98.33% of voters voted in favor of the MPR list. For the presidential election, Mobutu was the only candidate, and voters were offered two ballot choices: green for hope, and red for chaos: Mobutu won with a vote of 10,131,699 to 157.
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, or authenticité, Mobutu began renaming the cities of the Congo starting on 1 June 1966; Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the country the Republic of Zaire. He ordered the people to drop their European names for African ones, and priests were warned that they would face five years' imprisonment if they were caught baptizing a Zairean child with a European name. Western attire and ties were banned, and men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume--"down with the suit").
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. It was also around this time that he assumed his classic image—abacost, thick-framed glasses, walking stick and leopard-skin toque.
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 30 May, 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 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 torture and 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.
In 1972 Mobutu tried unsuccessfully to have himself named president for life. In an order signed by General Likulia Bolongo raising President Mobutu to the rank of Marshal, Victor Nendaka Bika, in his capacity as Vice-President of the Bureau of the Central Committee, second authority in the land, addressed a speech filled with praise for President Mobutu.
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 spent most of his time increasing his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion, most of it in Swiss banks (however, a comparatively small $3.4 million has been found after his ousting). 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 of the 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.
Mobutu was known for his opulent lifestyle. He cruised on the Congo on his yacht Kamanyola. In Gbadolite he erected a palace, the "Versailles of the jungle". For shopping trips to Paris he would charter a Concorde from Air France and had the Gbadolite Airport constructed with a runway long enough to accommodate the Concorde's extended take off and landing requirements. In 1989, Mobutu chartered Concorde aircraft F-BTSD for a 26 June – 5 July trip to give a speech at the United Nations in New York City, 16 July for French bicentennial celebrations in Paris (where he was a guest of President François Mitterrand), on 19 September 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 succeed him as president; however, this was thwarted by Nyiwa's death from AIDS in 1994. He led one of the most enduring dictatorial regimes in Africa and amassed a personal fortune estimated to be over US$5 billion by selling his nation's rich natural resources while his nation's people lived in poverty. While in office, he formed an authoritarian regime responsible for numerous human rights violations, attempted to purge the country of all Belgian cultural influences and maintained an anti-communist stance to gain positive international diplomacy.
10 Makuta coin depicting Mobutu Sese Seko
He was also the subject of one of the most pervasive personality cults of the 20th century. The evening news on television was preceded by an image of him descending through clouds like a god descending from the heavens. Portraits of him adorned many public places, and government officials wore lapels bearing his portrait. He held such titles as "Father of the Nation", "Messiah", "Guide of the Revolution", "Helmsman", "Founder", "Savior of the People", and "Supreme Combatant". In the 1996 documentary of the 1974 Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire, dancers receiving the fighters can be heard chanting "Sese Seko, Sese Seko." 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.
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.