A Mobutu in our midst? Quotes from Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz

As I grow older, I realize that I am beginning to pick interest in interesting things in books. The themes that stay long in my mind as of now are most likely things such as failing to tell someone a character is in love with that they are than corruption, the lisp in the protagonist’s speech than her immigration blues or the fact that a character speaks words twice all the time than religious riots. There is something human and particular about such things, and my interest is nowadays geared to such things.

Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, the author’s first book that recounts the times of Zaire’s leader for thirty two years is not the type of book in which you would expect trivial details as the ones I mention above, but I am moved mostly by Mobutu’s story as a human being than anything else. Since reading the book, I have been wondering about the personal lives of rulers, the influence of their family backgrounds, the circumstances of their growth and rise to power, their relationships with family members and what happens to them when they are no longer in power.

Dear reader, you will forgive me, but I have found so many similarities between former president Mobutu Sese Seko’s manner of doing things and in some very personal effects, and a current president of one of the neighbouring countries to the country the Leopard skin cap wearing man used to lead. Be it the family rule with relatives doing official duties with or without positions, the army of fixers and middlemen, the crowd-exciting theatrics, handing cash in envelopes and sacks to praise-singers, charming opponents sometimes with cash, harassing those that can’t be bought, a tight control of the military and ethnic composition of the same, a seeming non-plan of succession amidst hints on family succession plans, the manipulation of subordinates by playing them against one another, twisted economic policies, doing puppet work for Western powers, let me not go on and on.

I have also of late started feeling that this same leader who is alive and shall not mentioned may actually be besieged and not in much control as it may seem, and he may in the end be betrayed and humiliated by those we (including he probably think are close to him, but I am ignorant about the actual state of affairs in the palaces, so ignore my speculation.

Mobutu Sese Seko (photo: Wikipedia)

Mobutu Sese Seko (photo: Wikipedia)

Below are a few excerpts from Michela’s book that stayed with me.

American and Belgian Interest in the Killing of Lumumba

“… the CIA director himself had told Devlin that Lumumba’s removal was an ‘urgent and prime objective’, an instruction that presumably could have covered anything from encouraging Lumumba’s rivals to topple him by legal means to funding a coup. Now Washington moved to direct action. Shortly after Mobutu’s takeover, Devlin was advised by headquarters that ‘Joe from Paris’ would be coming to Leopoldville on an urgent mission. ‘I was told I’d recognize him, and I did. He was waiting at a café across from the embassy and he walked me to my car and we went to a quiet place where we could talk.’ The man was a top CIA scientist and he had come to Kinshasa with a poison for Lumumba. Devlin, he said, was to arrange for it to be slipped into the prime minister’s food, or his toothpaste. The poison was cleverly designed to produce one of the diseases endemic to central Africa so that Lumumba’s death would look like an unfortunate accident. ‘Jesus Christ, isn’t this unusual?’ was Devlin’s astonished reply. Joe from Paris acknowledged that it was, but said authorization came from President Eisenhower himself.” – Page 77

“The whereabouts of Lumumba’s body have never been identified. It was probably hacked into pieces, the head dissolved in a vat of sulphuric acid by a Belgian clean-up team sent to remove all traces of the assassinations. But another, even more fanciful story has done the rounds: that Mobutu’s collaborators, terrified that Lumumba’s spirit would live on after his death, asked a witch doctor how to destroy his supernatural powers. On his instructions they divided up the body, and hired a low-flying C130, and flew along the borders of their huge country, scattering the pieces. This was the only way, the marabout has said, to prevent Lumumba’s spirit reassembling and returning to challenge his former friend.” – Pages 78-9

Political Charm and Oratory

‘He was a speaker of genius,’ said a Congolese journalist who was a student at the time. ‘I would go unwillingly, because I didn’t really approve of Mobutu. But as soon as he began speaking, we would be swept away. We’d stand in the sun for hours, but the time would slip by without you noticing. If you study those speeches now, in the cold light of day, you can see there was almost nothing in them, they were full of inconstancies, gossip and tittle-tattle. But he knew just how to speak to the people. He would tell us nonsense and we would believe him’.” – Page 89

On Authenticity

‘Authenticity is the realization by the Zairean people that it must return to its origins, seek out the values of its ancestors, to discover those which contribute to its harmonious and natural development,’ Mobutu told the United Nations. ‘It is the refusal to blindly embrace imported ideologies. It is, in short, the affirmation of mankind, in its place, as it is, with its mental and social structures. (…) Instead of the European suit, men were to don a high-collared jacket of Mobutu’s invention. Dubbed the abacost (from ‘a bas le costume’ – ‘down with the jacket), and usually modelled in dark brown or navy blue wool, this was no better adapted to the African climate, but it was different. (…) ‘If he had focalized and crystallized his thought by writing it down, there were rich ideas there waiting to be developed,’ insisted Honore Ngbanda, who later became one of Mobutu’s closest aides.” – Pages 90 – 91

The Complicity of the Bretton Woods Institutions in Crippling Zaire’s Economy

“… the reason the report (Blumenthal’s) was significant was not so much because of the information it contained, but because it ended the cosy arrangement in which the Zaireans knew that the international financiers knew, and the financiers knew that the Zaireans knew that they knew, but everyone could carry on playing the game of credits, conditions, targets and standby arrangements with apparent innocence. ‘It was a bombshell,’ acknowledged one World Bank official. ‘The report came out just before we were to meet a Zairean delegation and I wanted to crawl under the table. I couldn’t look them in the eye. What could you say to them after that?’ – Page 193

“The image of the Fund going on bended knee to beg one of the world’s most corrupt leaders to take its money is not an attractive one. It may help explain why in 1987 David Finch, an Australian economist heading the IMF trade and finance department, resigned over the granting of a new loan, claiming the US had applied undue pressure. The programme staggered along, although it 3aas now a tattered. Pitiful scrap of a thing. Kengo had been sacked, and trust in Mobutu’s good intentions had shriveled.” – Page 204

Mobutu, as an American Agent

“Roger Morris, responsible for African affairs at the National Security Council under both presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, once estimated that Mobutu received close to $150 million from the CIA during the first decade or so of his regime. Not all that money would have been originally intended for him. John Stockwell, a CIA man who ran one covert operation to destabilize Angola’s Marxist government through Zaire, logged how Mobutu creamed off part of any consignment destined for Angola, on one occasion in 1976 casually pocketing $1.4 million given him by the US to pay off the rebels. Ten years later, a state department official was still being confronted with the same problem. ‘We’d mostly stick with equipment as if we sent money we knew it would go missing. But even when we were shipping equipment and gasoline, the Zaireans would steal part of it. I don’t think they knew how to do business normally.” – Page 200

Betrayal by acolytes

“Mobutu always tried not to dwell on his acolyte’s hypocrisy. Politicians who denounced him abroad would be welcomed back like prodigal sons. No matter how rude the newspaper article, he never sued. ‘He did a lot of forgiving, because there were a lot of betrayals,’ said son Nzanga. ‘He would say, “Never forget but never take revenge. Because your judgment is not good when you’re harbouring hard feelings.” “But treachery rankled nevertheless.” Page 215

“Before allowing the car to drive off, Mobutu lowered the passenger window and addressed his security aide in a voice that was barely audible. ‘Ngbabda, do you realize that even Nzimbi abandoned and betrayed me?’ the president said in disbelief. Then he burst into tears.” – Page 279

Price of Power on Family

‘We relied on my mother. She played the role of father and mother at the same time,’ said Nzanga. ‘We missed him terribly. We really lacked a paternal presence. For my father it was work, work, work, all the time. Even when we were at the table he would be receiving visitors and holding meetings. He had no personal life. Which is why I want to be around my own two children a lot while they are growing up.’ – Page 268

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