Modern history



Mobutu Gets Down to Business


SEPTEMBER 1974. ZIZI KABONGO SHOOK HIS HEAD IN AMAZEMENT when the letter arrived. He received mail often enough here in Paris, but delivered personally by the director of his school? That was something new. Since when had the rector of the celebrated Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA), become a sort of honorary courier? Didn’t the head of the world’s leading school for radio and TV journalists have better things to do than play postman to a handful of African students?

But this letter had been sent by someone with clout, Zizi saw. It came by way of the embassy and in those days that could only mean: from the president’s office. Mobutu had handed the letter over to his cabinet minister, the minister had handed it to the ambassador, and the ambassador to his staff. That’s how things went these days in Zizi’s distant homeland. Since Mobutu had taken power nine years ago, he was the one who pulled the strings. All the strings.

September. The academic year had just begun. Paris was reawakening: the French had come back from vacation, the subways were full again, people trundled hurriedly along the boulevards. “Ambassade de la République du Zaïre,” Zizi read on the envelope. Even after three years, it still took some getting used to . . . . [I]n 1971, the rounded vowel-sounds of Congo had made way for the hiss of Zaïre. Mobutu found that more authentic than the old colonial name. The Father of the Revolution had based his choice on one of the earliest known historical documents: a sixteenth-century Portuguese map. But shortly after the name was changed, Mobutu discovered that it was all a foolish mistake: Zaïre was a slipshod spelling of ndazi, a run-of-the-mill Kikongo word for river. When the Portuguese had landed at the estuary and asked the locals what that huge, roiling mass of water was called, they had simply replied: “River!” Nzadi, they repeated. Zaïre, that was what the Portuguese thought they heard. For thirty-two years, Zizi’s country would owe its name to the sloppy, four-century-old phonetics of a Portuguese cartographer.

And so Zaïre it was. That was what the country was called, and from then on the river as well, and the currency and the cigarettes and the condoms and all manner of other things. A bizarre name, with its atypical Z and that troublesome diaeresis. When you typed the name, you came up with one of those holy trinities of dots over the i. Mobutu’s American allies could never quite wrap their mouths around it. They spoke of the one-syllable zair, as in air with a z up front.

À l’attention du Citoyen Kabongo Kalala, that was the address on the embassy envelope. The French found it charming, that use of citoyen as a form of address. At least one country, two hundred years after the storming of the Bastille, still held aloft the tenets of revolutionary etiquette.

Zizi, of course, wouldn’t have expected them to address it to “Zizi.” There weren’t very many people who knew his real name, but in official correspondence he remained plain old Isidore—especially in France, where zizi is another word for weenie. But the address didn’t mention Isidore either. Kabongo Kalala, that had been his official name for the last two years. Born in 1940 as Isidore Kabongo, he had gone through life since 1972 as Kabongo Kalala. With no first name. Christian names were now forbidden as being, once again, too colonial.

The people’s minds, Mobutu felt, had been bent beneath the old yoke for too long. His plan was to liberate them mentally as well. A whole host of name changes would help in that process. Léopoldville was to become Kinshasa, Stanleyville Kisangani, and Elisabethville Lubumbashi. Lesser towns also received a new, indigenous name: Ilebo for Port Francqui, Kananga for Luluabourg, Moba for Baudouinville, Mbandaka for Coquilhatville, Likasi for Jadotville. Lake Leopold was renamed Maï Ndombe, the black water. Lake Albert became Lake Mobutu. And, in order to puncture local pride, Katanga was now to be called Shaba.

But a different toponymy was not enough, according to Mobutu. People’s names had to reflect the change as well, for there were some who still looked up far too much to Belgium. Individuals bearing the name Lukusa continued to corrupt that to De Luxe. Kalonda sometimes became De Kalondarve. The singer Georges Kiamuangana preferred the Flemish-sounding Verckys as his stage name. And Désiré Bonyololo, the stenographer from Kisangani, liked to call himself Désiré Van-Duel. This was an affront to the ideologists of the Second Republic: the new Zaïrian should be proud of what he was, rather than ridiculously try to flaunt what he wanted to be. From now on, only native names.

And so Christian names were axed as well. They had been introduced by missionaries who had christened each baptized child with the name of a European saint: Joseph, Jean, Christophe, Thérèse, Bernadette, Marie. Shouldn’t the true Zaïrian, the president said, prefer to describe himself in relation to his ancestors rather than to some remote saint? That is why he banned Christian names and prescribed the use of ancestral ones. The prénom vanished, the postnom (an unintentionally comic Mobutian neologism) took its place. It was a sly attempt to undermine the power of the church. Isidore Kabongo became Kabongo Kalala. Under Mobutu, everything, but then everything, was different.

“AT FIRST WE WERE QUITE PLEASED with Mobutu’s coup,” Zizi Kabongo told me during one of our many conversations in Kinshasa. There were few informants with whom I met as often as I did Kabongo.1 He spoke about his country’s complex history with great lucidity and finesse. He had attended seminary for a time, like so many of his generation, but was stranded halfway in his calling as a teacher of Latin and Greek in Katanga. He would ultimately choose the path of journalism. Today, at sixty-nine, he is a manager for the national radio broadcaster. “‘Whew!’ we said back then. At last, a little organization! The First Republic had been a huge mess. All that sniping back and forth between Kasavubu and Tshombe . . . . [I]t was a great disillusionment. The trains had stopped running, prosperity had been crushed, unemployment was on the rise. And meanwhile you saw the politicians being driven around in limousines, and sending their children to study in Europe. Mobutu abolished the political parties for five years, and everyone was quite satisfied about that.”

Mobutu did, indeed, introduce a sudden change in style. Shortly after his coup d’état he spoke to the masses in Kinshasa’s big soccer stadium. Here one had a slim young orator who wore no extravagant tuxedo, but a khaki uniform and a beret.2 He railed vigorously against “the sterile conflicts between politicians who sacrificed the country and their countrymen to their own interests.” His listeners could only agree to that. “For them, the only thing that counted was power and what they could do with it. Fill their own pockets, exploit Congo and the Congolese, that was their motto.” Mobutu called it as he saw it. His language was robust, his reasoning clear. “I will always speak the truth to you, no matter how hard that may be to hear. It is over, the time of assurances that all is well when all is not well. And now I will tell you right away: in our beloved country, everything is going very badly indeed.”

He went on to treat the packed stadium to a lecture on national economics. He produced sobering statistics. The production of corn, rice, manioc, cotton, and palm oil had fallen drastically. State spending had grown exponentially. Buying power had plummeted. Corruption was alive and kicking. Things could not go on like this. “Special circumstances, special measures, and that in every area.” Mobutu announced a five-year moratorium on political parties. During that period he planned to get the country back on track and to do that he needed the help of every man and woman. “To achieve this plan of recovery, we need hands, a great many hands.” Mobutu rolled up the sleeves of his own uniform, to set the right example. “We will see each other again here in five years’ time. In five years’ time you will see the difference between the first and the second legislature. I am certain that you will notice then that the Congo of today, with its misery, its hunger and its adversities, will have changed into a rich and prosperous country where the living is good, the envy of the world.”3

Since Patrice Lumumba, no politician had spoken in the capital with such passion. Mobutu employed Lumumba’s vigorous idiom and supplemented it with a concrete plan of action. He radiated confidence and conviction. Congo was going to become a modern country.

What Zizi really wanted was to go to Europe and write his thesis about Charles Baudelaire, but Mobutu felt that the young intelligentsia should serve their country in a more tangible fashion. Along with a few other of his countrymen, Zizi was therefore sent to Paris to learn the business of television. State television was to become an essential instrument in Mobutu’s attempts to get the country back on its feet. On November 23, 1966, exactly one year after the coup, the first Congolese TV program was broadcast. One year later, the first Lingala-language programs began.

“Antennae and relay stations began popping up everywhere,” Zizi told me. “Congo had color television long before large parts of Eastern Europe. An entire generation of journalists received excellent training. We went to Paris and from Mobutu we received student grants that were two times the French minimum wage. I had my own apartment, I went to the movies. I earned more than a French worker!” When Mobutu came to Paris once to visit his students, they were all taken out to the Champs-Élysées to buy five suits, at his expense.4 When they went to Brussels to shoot some footage, his chief of protocol came by to check the camera crew’s baggage and make sure their clothes were up to snuff. Even the cameraman had to wear a bow tie. In the end, the per diems were so exorbitant that Zizi was able to build his own house.

And then came that letter, in September 1974. In it, Zizi read that he was to come to Kinshasa at the end of the month for a visit of no longer than forty-eight hours. All the Zaïrian students at the INA were summoned because if your studies are being paid for by Mobutu, it is only normal that you do something in return. The reason for such great urgency? An important boxing match was going to take place, and it had to be broadcast live. A boxing match featuring Muhammad Ali.

THE FIRST DECADE of Mobutu’s thirty-year reign was a time of hope, expectations, and revival. “Mobutu was electric,” the writer Vincent Lombume told me once.5 And not only because he brought in television and built hydroelectric power stations, but also because he himself delivered a moral jolt to a nation in disrepair. The period 1965–75 is remembered as the golden decade of an independent Congo. And indeed, Kinshasa was hopping as never before; the beer flowed, the nights never stopped. “Kin-la-Belle,” the city was called. From 1969, beer production rose by 16 percent annually. In 1974, the year of the heavyweight bout, a total of 5 million hectoliters (about 190,000 gallons) was brewed.6 But the first five years, as Mobutu set about consolidating his own power, were also marked by extremely grim moments. Moments surrounding the euphoria like shards of glass cemented to the top of a concrete wall.

It was early in the morning of a gloomy Thursday in Kinshasa that the first people arrived at the big, open field in the cité, the wasteland beside the bridge west of Ndolo airport. Was it really going to happen? Young women carrying baskets of sugarcane on their head slowed for a look. Mothers with babies on their back stopped and stared. Civil servants in suits departed from their usual route to the office. Urchins in torn T-shirts came running up. Was it really true? Hundreds, thousands of feet crossed the big field. Chic Italian loafers stepped through the dust beside bare, callused feet. Spike-heeled slippers poked little holes in the sand. Trucks full of soldiers were waiting. In the midst of the military detachment stood proof enough for everyone to see: a wooden podium had been built, topped by a gallows.

It was Thursday, June 2, 1966, and Mobutu had been in power for six months. On Monday he had read a radio statement saying that a plot against him had been thwarted. Four days earlier, on Pentecost Sunday, the people all heard, four members of the old regime had been caught planning a coup. They were Alexandre Mahamba, a former cabinet minister under Lumumba, Joseph Ileo, and Cyrille Adoula; Jérôme Anany, defense minister under Adoula; Émmanuel Bamba, minister of finance in that same government and also a prominent Kimbanguist leader; and above all Évariste Kimba, the man who had briefly served as prime minister at Joseph Kasavubu’s request, just before Mobutu staged his coup. Had they really been planning to overthrow the regime? Most probably, they had walked into a trap. Army officers pretending to be turncoats had asked them to draw up a list of candidates for a new government. The trial that followed was a mockery. None of the officers involved were called to the witness stand; the four civil defendants didn’t stand a chance. When one of them tried to come to his own defense, the court-martial chairman said: “Gentlemen, we are here for the military tribunal, not for a debate. We are here to mete out punishment, the court-martial therefore won’t take long.”7 A few moments later the verdict was handed down: the four were to be hanged. None of them had ever committed an act of violence, been in possession of a weapon, or even started to implement a plan against the regime.

The people converged. Many tens of thousands of them. The French AFP wire service spoke of no less than three hundred thousand.8 It was the biggest crowd in Congolese history. Kinshasa’s population had doubled in recent years and now numbered more than eight hundred thousand souls.9More than half of them were under the age of twenty.10 Due in part to the civil war going on in the interior, migration to the city had picked up again after independence. Kinshasa was bursting at the seams. Across a fifteen-kilometer (about 9.3-mile) zone there now stretched out an endless sea of corrugated iron and makeshift huts, most of them only with a ground floor, all of them overcrowded. The only tall buildings were in the city center. All of these old and new inhabitants of Kinshasa, the “Kinois,” now thronged together on that one Thursday morning after Pentecost. In the 1930s, the colonizer had held executions publicly, as a deterrent. Would Mobutu dare to go that far? To execute four former cabinet ministers, no less?

Mobutu, as the people had found out by now, was no mama’s boy. His former opponents had no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere immediately after the coup. Kasavubu fled to his native region, Tshombe returned to exile in Spain. They were taking no chances. Kasavubu had written to Mobutu to say that he would accept the coup as “being in the country’s greater interests.” As an elected official he could perhaps claim his seat in the parliament, but he “considered it more useful at this point to leave his post.” Kasavubu had always had something monastic about him, but he had never spoken this meekly before. “What I want most is to take a bit of a rest in Bas-Congo,” he went on to note. He wanted to go back to his village, exchange his European clothes for native garb, and tap palm wine for visiting friends and guests.11 And as though it were not clear enough already, he added: “I have no desire to stir up any agitation whatsoever.”12 Exit Kasavubu, in other words. Four years later, at the age of fifty-two, he died of cancer.

But Tshombe was cut from very different cloth, the people knew. Many of them had voted for him at some point. After his resounding electoral victory, he, as the nation’s savior, continued to nurture major political ambitions. He shuttled back and forth between Paris, Madrid, and Palma de Mallorca, brooding over a possible return. Mobutu was dead set against that. Hadn’t he publicly stated that he would apply himself to “l’élimination pure et simple de la politicaille” (the elimination, once and for all, of the political weasels)?13 None of those gathered around the gallows now could imagine it, but one year later Tshombe—even though democratically elected, like Lumumba—would be condemned to death, in absente, for “subversive activities.” In June 1967 a shady French businessman with contacts in the highest Congolese circles invited him for a airborne jaunt from Palma to Ibiza. On the return flight the man suddenly drew a pistol, fired two shots, and ordered the pilots to fly to Algiers. Upon arrival, Tshombe was thrown straight into prison. Congo demanded his extradition but, going against the recommendation of the Algerian supreme court, President Houari Boumédienne refused to let him go. He originally hoped to extradite Tshombe in exchange for Congo’s breaking diplomatic ties with Israel, but French President Charles de Gaulle personally called on him to forgo any such exchange. An extradition would most certainly have resulted in another murder, like that of Lumumba.14 Two years later, on June 29, 1969, three months after Kasavubu, Tshombe died in his Algerian prison cell. A heart attack, the physicians said. Murdered, according to many in Congo. He was only forty-eight.

Mobutu had won the struggle for the throne, but during the first years of his regime he systematically eliminated his rivals from the First Republic. Even Lumumba, five years after his death, had to be neutralized. His backers were still far too numerous, and not only in the east of the country. Mobutu responded with a masterful move that displayed both strategic brilliance and bottomless cynicism: he, Mobutu, the man who had played a key role in Lumumba’s murder, now pronounced that same Lumumba to be . . . a national hero! During the celebration of the national holiday, the Congolese people heard Mobutu say, without a waver: “All honor and fame to this illustrious Congolese, to this great African, the first martyr of our economic independence: Patrice Emery Lumumba.”15 Boulevard Léopold II, one of Kinshasa’s main arterials, was promptly redubbed Boulevard Patrice Emery Lumumba. And it bears that name still. At the top of the boulevard, a huge statue of Lumumba stands waving to the mass of honking cars.

The move bore witness to a craftiness beyond compare. Just as Mobutu had neutralized Tshombe in 1964 by employing him in his fight against the Simbas, he now neutralized the person of Lumumba by means of posthumous rehabilitation. The Lumumbists had the wind knocked out of them: their hero had suddenly become the enemy’s hero too! Mobutu had, as it were, dragged him onto the back of the scooter of his coup d’état. Neutralization by encapsulation would, in the next thirty years, become one of the favorite tricks of his dictatorship.

Neutralization was also a key theme in the first months of his regime. After banning the political parties, he now put the parliament out to pasture as well. To the MPs and senators he said: “Go now and get some rest, take a five-year break!”16 He, in the meantime, would see to the country’s legislation. The provinces, too, had their turn. The proliferation of miniprovinces was a waste of money, Mobutu felt. He preferred to keep things simple and so reduced their number from twenty-one to nine, all ruled over now by Mobutu adepts. This centralization was intended to counter the centrifugal forces of secession and tribalism. And the ball kept rolling. Congo was transformed from a federal, civil democracy into a decentralized military dictatorship. At the time of the takeover Mobutu had appointed General Léonard Mulamba as his prime minister, but after a time saw the need to neutralize that function as well. Zizi Kabongo knew the real reason: “The people loved Mulamba more than Mobutu. That’s why he sent him away. Mulumba became the new ambassador to Japan. That’s how it always went. Ostensible promotions, tassels and fringe, money, all kinds of favors just to keep people quiet.” As a result, Mobutu—in addition to legislative and military authority—now assumed executive power too.

But a public hanging? That was altogether different from treating a rival to a remote ambassadorial post in a sumptuous villa. “No one thought it would really happen,” Zizi said. “Mobutu’s power base was still fairly shaky. All he had was the army, and the four condemned men all had tribesmen in that army. They could have mutinied.” Mobutu hesitated. For a few days he avoided his wife, fearing that she would talk him out of it. Archbishop Joseph-Albert Malula, too, had requested that the men be pardoned. Even the pope had called. But to give in now would be a sign of weakness . . . . Mobutu’s favorite book in those days was Machiavelli’s Principe.

That same day, a military brass band played on the gallows field. The sea of people looked on as a jeep drove up. The four condemned men were in it! When they reached the platform, two women began to scream in despair. The “conspirators” were family of theirs. They had to be removed from the grounds, along with their children. The women were hysterical, their torsos were bared, their hair hanging down over their faces. All eyes were now fixed on the gallows. The first to climb it was the executioner, a burly man dressed all in black, with a black hood over his head. Immediately afterward the crowd saw a tall, blindfolded man on the steps. He was wearing only a pair of blue soccer shorts with white and red stripes. It was Évariste Kimba, former prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the foot of the platform a priest had heard his confession, beside the four coffins that lay in wait. The executioner read the verdict. Kimba stood straight. The noose was placed around his neck and the trapdoor fell open. Horrified cries went up from the crowd, followed by a deathly silence. Kimba’s death throes lasted more than twenty minutes. While the crowd looked on in silence, the former prime minister’s body continued thrashing about. It took an eternity. From the jeep, the three remaining condemned men could see the fate that awaited them.

During the final hanging, panic broke out in the crowd. The people began running, knocking down the soldiers as they went. Children and adults stumbled and fell in the stampede. Within only a few minutes, tens of thousands of people ran away. When it was over, the field was dotted with groaning bodies and lost shoes. A little farther away a fourth coffin was being nailed shut. On that day, June 2, 1966, the people no longer cheered for Mobutu, but trembled in fear of him.

“Because it is difficult to unite love and fear in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when—of the two—either must be dispensed with,” Machiavelli had written.

“FROM THEN ON, everybody lived in fear,” Zizi told me. “The state intelligence service became very powerful. No one dared to dine at the restaurant at the zoo anymore, the place where politicians and diplomats had always met, because they were afraid of being spied on by the waiters. Even at memorial services, we were afraid of the little boys who sold peanuts. Maybe they were spies. Mobutu used those hangings to set an example. ‘No one toys with my power.’ He wanted to strike fear into people’s hearts and affirm his own status.”

In an interview two days later, Mobutu said: “With us, respect for the chief is sacred. A striking example had to be set.” The whole business of secessions, rebellions, and dismissals could not be allowed to start all over again. “When a chief decides something, it is decided, period.”17

Mobutu made sure that the cornerstone of his authority, the army, lacked for nothing. There would no mutiny against him. Unrest was immediately counteracted with money. The army underwent drastic modernization. New waves of recruits received new opportunities. In addition to an officers’ academy, he also organized specialized military training. Kisangani had been liberated by Belgian paratroopers. His army, Mobutu decided, would have parachutists as well.

In Kinshasa I spoke with Alphonsine Mosolo Mpiaka. She had been the first female paratrooper in the Congolese army. In 1966 she was twenty-five. “We received our ground training here in Ndjili. A center for paratroopers was set up there. Our instructors were Israelis.” America backed Mobutu, so Israel did too—to the great annoyance of the Arab world. “For the jumps themselves, we had to go to Israel. I did twelve. I was the first woman; after me, Mobutu recruited another twenty-four girls. The team had to be mixed, ethnically too. A couple of Bakongos, a couple of Balubas, a few from Katanga.” Detribalization here as well. Mobutu wanted an army that no longer thought along tribal lines. Loyalty was something he paid for. “We were highly respected and extremely pampered. My billet-money was enough for me to buy a plot of land with a house on it. But I never had to jump in the course of combat, only for the parades here in Kinshasa.”18

Her expertise, however, still came in handy. The rebellion in the east of the country was not yet fully under control, but Mobutu preferred to leave that to the white mercenaries. Bob Denard and Jean Schramme did most of the work and were decorated afterward. Schramme later turned against him and tried to “save” Congo singlehandedly, but that adventure met an ignominious end.19 And once the rebellion was over, the national army was able to shake off its white soldiers of fortune once and for all. In late 1967 Gaston Soumialot and Christophe Gbenye took to their heels, and all of Congo once again fell under the authority of the capital city. All of Congo? In its eastern reaches, a mountainous region close to Lake Tanganyika, Laurent-Désiré Kabila continued to rule the roost. But after Che Guevara’s departure, his “revolutionary” pocket of resistance between Fizi and Baraka came to resemble the comic-book village of Asterix and Obelix: autonomous, to be sure, but above all harmless.

Congo was pacified and from 1968 on Mobutu began restoring civil authority.20 He himself even began appearing in public out of uniform. For the first time he was seen sporting the accessories that would become his trademark: the characteristic leopard-skin hat, and in his hand a carved ebony walking stick. The traditional symbols of chiefdom.

Pierre Mulele figured it was safe to return home. After his peasants’ revolt in Kwilu in 1964 he had fled to Brazzaville. In 1968, however, Mobutu granted him amnesty. Justin Bomboko, the minister of foreign affairs and an insider of the Binza Group, assured him that he would be welcomed like a brother. In September of that year Mulele crossed the river and received a festive reception on the near shore. He was invited to stay at Bomboko’s house. Three days later, a contingent of soldiers came to pick him up for a big appearance at the soccer stadium. The impassioned and self-willed freedom fighter would be allowed to speak to the people there. Instead, the soldiers drove him to an army base where he was tortured gruesomely that same evening. They cut off his ears and nose. They gouged out his eyes and chopped off his genitals. While he was still alive, they then cut off his arms and legs. A few hours later, a sack filled with his remains was plunged into the big river.21

KASAVUBU, TSHOMBE, KIMBA, Gbenye, Soumialot, Mulele: one by one, within a few years’ time, Mobutu’s former rivals left the scene. To consolidate his new-won power, though, he also had to make sure that no new rivals arose. In 1967, therefore, his absolute sway became firmly embedded in a new constitution. “The Congolese people and I,” he once told parliament, “are one and the same.”22

The days that followed were bitter ones. Just outside the capital, on a leafy green hillside, lay the University of Lovanium. While Mobutu was busy establishing absolute sway, the student movement continued its incredibly brave attempts to knock the pins out from under him. The May 1968 student revolts in Paris, Louvain, and Amsterdam, so crucial to Europe, seem like little more than frivolous happenings when compared with the dedication and intensity of the Congolese student movement. Mobutu had succeeded in silencing all countermovements. The trade unions had been bound and gagged; the church was keeping its head down. Only the students still dared to make their presence known.23

In April 1967 Mobutu and his staff set up the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR); the primary text was written on May 20. The MPR was called a popular movement, but was in fact merely Mobutu’s political party. Its meetings were held outside the capital, in the little town of Nsele. Within a few years this riverside village would expand into a vast conference center with white, modernistic visitors’ quarters and impressive meeting halls. It became a sanctum of Mobutism. The text drafted on May 20 was sent into the world under the title “Manifeste de la Nsele” and became familiar to all in the course of time. In analogy to Mao’s Little Red Book, it was published and distributed widely in the form of a little green book, to serve as the catechism of the new regime. From now on, the text stated, every inhabitant of Congo belonged to the MPR. “Olinga olinga te, ozali na kati ya MPR,” people sighed. “Whether you like it or not, you’re a member by definition.”24

At first Mobutu seemed to be making room for an opposition party, but he quickly abandoned that idea. Like so many African countries shortly after independence, Congo became a single-party state. The abrupt transition from a monolithic, colonial administration to a democratic, multiparty system had included no intermediate steps, which was precisely why it resulted in a fiasco. The MPR was out to reunite the people. “More than the class struggle, the union of all is the guarantee for progress,” the manifesto said.25 The entire nation had to be made enthusiastic about the country’s reconstruction. The inner core of the MPR consisted only of a group of young Mobutuist volunteers, but soon the party’s power reached astronomical heights. The MPR became the country’s supreme institution—so much so, in fact, that the line between party and state was obscured. “The MPR is the designation of the state,” Mobutu’s house ideologist went so far as to say.26 At the top one had the president and his cabinet, the extremely powerful Bureau du Président. Beneath that was the MPR Congress and the Political Bureau, followed by a legislative, executive, and judicial council. All titles had been changed. A cabinet minister was henceforth to be called a state commissioner, a governor was a regional commissioner, and a member of parliament a people’s commissioner. Every citizen was a party member, even the ancestors and the embryos.

The students were not at all keen about this. Mobutu was out to do away with organized politics, they noted rightly. In doing so, he was turning back the clock: during colonial times, too, there was only a bureaucracy, an administrative leviathan that maintained statistics and spewed reports but made no allowance for public participation. Congolese academic circles had welcomed the coup at first, but their enthusiasm quickly dried up. The most important student movement took a resolutely anti-imperialist stance. Lumumba became their hero, Mobutu their enemy. When American Vice President Hubert Humphrey visited the country in January 1968 and wanted to lay a wreath at the Lumumba monument, the students viewed that as a provocation. During the ensuing demonstration, many people were arrested.

Clashes between students and the new regime escalated in the course of 1968 and 1969. The students demanded greater say, less interference from the MPR, and a fairer distribution of scholarships. A big demonstration was planned for June 1969, but Mobutu sent his troops to the campus. Lovanium was sealed off from the outside world for days. Still, a few hundred students succeeded in slipping around the guards and made it to the city center by bus. There they entered into heavy confrontations with the army. The soldiers fired tear gas, but the students made masks out of wet handkerchiefs and threw the canisters back. More and more local people joined them. The army opened fire. According to official figures, six people were killed and twelve wounded; the students said there were fifty casualties and eight hundred arrests. MPR? Mourir pour rien, die for no reason, the students said in disgust. Mobutu vowed to eradicate the student movement root and branch. Each campus was to have it own MPR youth association, the “Manifeste de la Nsele” became required reading and everyone was ordered to return to their books. The resistance was quashed. The leaders of the student revolt received harsh prison sentences of up to twenty years. This critical voice was now silenced as well.

HANGINGS, TORTURE, MASSACRES. The first five years of Mobutu’s presidency read like a catalogue of horrors, but that is only part of the story. Many older people in Congo today look back on that period with a certain nostalgia. “Things were orderly,” Zizi Kabongo said when I expressed amazement at that. “The soldiers went back to their barracks. There were commodities to be had, prices went down, industry received a boost. For me, too, it was the start of the most prosperous period of my life.”

For the first time since independence, major infrastructural projects were under way. Mobutu began work on the first hydroelectric plant on the Congo: the Inga Dam, which produced 351 megawatts. Kinshasa’s new neighborhoods received drinking water and electricity. A sewer system was built. The city’s central hospital had fifteen hundred beds and received four thousand patients a day. Ten thousand operations were carried out each year, and 1.6 metric tons (about 1.76 U.S. tons) of laundry were processed each day.27

Mobutu was no democrat, but he did change the course of the nation. All able-bodied men had to spend a few hours each Saturday afternoon doing volunteer work for the state, a taxation in kind like that seen in colonial times. Salongo it was called now. People were required to pull weeds, repair bicycle paths, and sweep the streets. In addition, to help boost agricultural production, everyone was encouraged to cultivate a plot of ground. Even army generals went out harvesting manioc. Work, work, work. Mobutu himself set the good example. He got up every morning at five. He read piles of newspapers, had breakfast with diplomats, attended a constant flow of meetings, and put in days of eighteen hours or more. In 1969, barely thirty-nine, he had a minor heart attack. “How wouldyou lead this goddamned country?” he asked his personal physician.28

Mobutu was nothing like the flabby figure he would become later. After the total debacle of the First Republic, he put Congo back on the map. He won respect and gave the country new élan. Had the Americans landed on the moon? He invited the crew of Apollo 11, making Congo the only African country to welcome the moon travelers.29 Were the Europeans organizing a Miss Europe contest? He convinced the organizers to hold the finals in Kinshasa, and to give them a native twist. The winner, including in the category “African Costume,” was a ravishing blonde from Finland. Were Congolese women still seen as the most beautiful on the continent? He backed Maître Taureau in organizing the first national Miss Congo contest. “The winner was Elisabeth Tabares from Katanga. She had lovely heels and not those stubby little toes.”30

In short, Mobutu made good on the promises that independence had awakened but been unable to keep.

But it wasn’t all circuses: there was also bread. In January 1967 a cheerful funeral procession moved through the streets of Kinshasa. Mobutu was there and young people from his corps of volunteers held aloft a cross topped by a pith helmet. The banner draped across it read: “Requiescat In Pace, UMHK, born 1906, died December 31, 1966.” The Union Minière du Haut-Katanga was being carried to its grave! The big coffin had been made to fit the dimensions of Louis Walaff, then chairman of the board of directors. In order not to rile the ancestors, the mining Moloch’s “remains” were tossed into the river.31

This lampoonery, however, represented an extremely important matter. Mobutu made no bones about his displeasure with the way Tshombe had wangled the notorious colonial portfolio away from Belgium. Along with that, of course, there was the humiliation to which Mobutu had been subjected at the economic round-table conference in 1960. Congo, he said, was politically independent, but economically far from that. The figures hardly proved him wrong. Only 5 percent of the employees in Katanga were foreigners, yet they took home 53 percent of all wages paid.32 The amount they paid for a good bottle of whisky equaled a miner’s monthly salary. In 1967, therefore, Mobutu set about nationalizing Union Minière, a move greatly deplored by the Generale in Brussels. The company was rechristened Gécomin, Générale Congolaise des Mines, but later also became known as Gécamines, Générale des Carrières et des Mines. The copper revenues would now flow directly into the national treasury. And those revenues were considerable. With the Vietnam War raging in the background, the price of copper on the international market had gone sky high. The Congolese economy had always profited from wars in other parts of the world: that had been the case in 1914–18, 1940–45, and during the Korean War, but the Vietnam War put even more money in the till.

To underscore his new economic regime, Mobutu also changed the country’s currency. At independence, 1 Congolese franc had equaled 1 Belgian franc, but by 1967 it was worth only one-tenth of that.33 Mobutu introduced the zaïre as the new monetary unit: 1 zaïre was worth 1,000 old Congolese francs, and equaled 100 Belgian francs and 2 U.S. dollars. The first banknote showed Mobutu and a few dignitaries resolutely rolling up their sleeves: “Retroussons les manches!” was the slogan. Getting back to business!

For many people, those were golden years. In Lubumbashi I met Paul Kasenge, a former Gécamines employee. “We had everything we wanted. I was twenty-six, and after studying commercial economics I became a manager. I was one of the first blacks to do that. The foreign managers had left, the Congolese took over. We were paid well. Copper commanded a good price. We had a house and a garden. There were schools and hospitals for our children. We even received a loan in order to buy a car, and could pay it off in installments.”34 A bicycle had once been the ultimate dream; now it was an automobile.

For others, the MPR offered new opportunities. André Kitadi, the cautious World War II veteran who had crossed the desert and gone out to dinner in English after the war, told me: “Through the MPR, I became a city councilman in Ngaliema. For the first time I had access to a higher position. I’d been waiting a long time for that.” The people were not dissatisfied. When Mobutu had himself reelected in 1970, he received 10,131,699 votes, with only 157 votes against him. Those all came from a single polling place, in Kinshasa’s student district. Also worthy of note is the fact that more votes were cast in his favor than there were registered voters, even though poll attendance was not compulsory.35 André Kitadi had changed his mind only much later on: “The dictatorship brought about the nation’s fall, but we didn’t know that back then.”36

SEPTEMBER 1974. Zizi Kabongo is getting ready to go home for the boxing match. During the first five years, Mobutu consolidated his power; during the next five he ruled through generosity. The world-championship heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman was to be the absolute high point of that flamboyant bonhomie. The match would go down in history as “the rumble in the jungle”; in Congo itself they called it “le combat du siècle” (the battle of the century). And it was, indeed, one of the great sporting events of the twentieth century. By refusing to enter the U.S. Army (“No Vietcong ever called me a nigger”), Ali had lost his title, but after a three-and-a-half-year suspension he was out for revenge. Foreman was seven years younger, only twenty-five, the Olympic champion, the world champion, unbeatable. He had knocked boxing legend Joe Frazier to the mat a total of six times in only two rounds before the fight was stopped. But Ali wanted his title back.

Promoter Don King was demanding a $10 million purse, an insane amount by all standards. No one was prepared to lay down such an astronomical sum for a slugfest that was bound to last no more than twelve times three minutes. No one but Mobutu. The Zaïrian economy had just gone through six years of uninterrupted growth and it was time for a party. Ali was euphoric about the decision, but probably unaware that the prize money Mobutu was coughing up came indirectly from the war in Vietnam. For him, the match in Kinshasa was his ultimate chance for revenge; for Mobutu it was the ultimate opportunity to do some “country marketing.”

That the founding president of the MPR chose boxing as his public relations tool should come as no surprise. Boxing had always been part of the black struggle for emancipation. Fists made possible what the law ruled out: the black man’s triumph. In 1910 the American Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world; after he gave Jim Jeffries a thumping, race riots broke out all over America. The Senegalese Battling Siki had beaten the Frenchman Georges Carpentier with a well-placed uppercut in the 1920s: until then, it had been unheard of for a colonial subject to so humiliate a superathlete from the mother country. In 1938 world heavyweight champion Joe Louis beat the German Max Schmeling with a technical knockout. “Heil Louis!” people shouted in the streets of Harlem that night. The fight in Kinshasa was between two black men, but Ali was the Zaïrians’ favorite from the start, Zizi said. “The people saw Ali as the good black man. He was very smart, he went into the cité. Ali, boma ye! the people shouted: Ali, kill him! Foreman was considered a white black man, just another American, not one of us.”

Muhammad Ali and Mobutu: the two had more in common than might have appeared at first glance. They came together in their distaste for white arrogance; both men wore their blackness as a source of pride. Both had shed their Christian names for politico-religious reasons: the Christian Cassius Clay had become a militant Muslim; the Catholic Joseph-Désiré now bore the ancestral-sounding name Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, “the powerful warrior whose stamina and willpower carry him for victory to victory, leaving behind only fire” (but also “the rooster that leaves no hen unruffled,” depending on the translator). The American sportsman and the African dictator were both young, strident voices that challenged the dominance of the white West. And what voices they were: virtuosic, voluble, humorous, and razor-sharp. With words, too, one could deal out blows. The agile French that Mobutu employed with such bravura was the equal of Ali’s cascade of English. Pokerfaced, shortly after the public hangings, Mobutu had told two Belgian journalists: “We Bantus can administer democracy, but not to the letter, not like you.” To a flatterer he once thundered: “I didn’t ask you to come here to hear your angelic voice or your evangelical message. Speak your mind, man! What is your problem?” But to someone who did dare to speak his mind, he said: “So you’re saying that you feel caught in a game of cat and mouse?” “Yes, that’s right.” “Well then tell me: who is the mouse?” “We are, papa!” “And who is the cat?” “Um . . . we’re that too.” “All right, so what’s the problem?” Ali enriched the English language with one-liners like: “I’m so bad, I make medicine sick” and “My toughest fight was with my first wife.” During his stay in Kinshasa, he came up with the immortal quip: “I’ve seen George Foreman shadowboxing, and the shadow won.”

That latter claim proved close to the truth as well. During a workout with his sparring partner, Foreman suffered a torn eyebrow and the fight had to be postponed for five weeks. Zizi Kabongo could stay in Paris a little longer. But the cultural component of the rumble in the jungle got off to a start anyway. Mobutu had brought the world’s greatest black musicians to Kinshasa. From Latin America there were performances by Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, from the United States came B. B. King, the Pointer Sisters, Sister Sledge, and James Brown. The Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango and South African singer Miriam Makeba shared the stage with the big stars of Zaïrian music. Old Wendo Kolosoyi, godfather of the rumba, was there, along with Franco and his OK Jazz. Tabu Ley, the man once known as Rochereau, gave a show, and the younger generation was represented by the funk-driven soukous band Zaïko Langa Langa, the most influential Congolese group of the 1970s. The three-day music festival in Kinshasa was a powerful, intercontinental expression of African pride.37 It was a sort of black Woodstock. What the slave trade had driven asunder, Mobutu brought back together.

At last Zizi was able to leave. He took the opportunity to visit his father in Kasai; he had bought a flour mill for him in Europe. A former railway official with the BCK, his father too had become a part-time farmer under Mobutu’s new agricultural plan. An electric mill made it so much easier to grind manioc. “When I saw him, my father was very upset. Mobutu had just said that the American artists were the descendants of slaves, and that slaves had not been sold into captivity by the whites, but by native chieftains. He said: ‘Mobutu claims that the blacks sold our brothers to the white man!’ ‘He’s right, Papa.’ ‘But that’s unbelievable!’ It distressed him greatly. I suspect that Mobutu was spreading those ideas intentionally. It helped him to break the power of the local chiefs.”

Mobutu did all he could to combat ethnic reflexes. A strong nation was incompatible with tribal logic; the younger generation had to be given a new frame of reference. The national soccer team had to include players from all over the country. Girls from each province took part in the Miss Zaïre contests. The army was to be inclusive as well: even Pygmies were allowed to join the military.38 To boost Zaïrian awareness, Mobutu also implemented reforms in higher education. The country’s three universities were fused to form one huge, national super-university with three campuses. You could go to Kinshasa to study law, economics, medicine, the natural sciences, or polytechnics. Kisangani was for psychology, teaching, or agricultural engineering. And Lubumbashi, close to the mines, was for earth sciences. There too, far from the capital, one could follow the “risky” curricula such as social sciences, philosophy, and literature.39 This reform weakened the student movement and resulted in an obligatory tribal mixture among young academics. The most striking example of that was one I came across in a yard in Bukavu one evening, just before dusk. I had been invited to visit Adolphine Ngoy and her family. Her daughter was preparing dinner over a charcoal fire. Adolphine came from Moanda, a seaside town on the Atlantic Ocean. How had she ever ended up two thousand kilometers (almost 1,250 miles) to the east, close to the Rwandan border? “Dodo and I met in Kinshasa. He was doing the polytechnic, I was studying linguistics. He was a Mushi from Bukavu, I was a Mukongo from Moanda. As the eldest son he was supposed to marry within his tribe, but he chose me. I moved here. His family objected strenuously. It took years for the neighborhood and the family to accept me.”40

Just as the Erasmus Program was intended to instill young people with a greater love for Europe, by means of a foreign sweetheart if need be, so too did Mobutu’s education reform create greater Zaïrian awareness. Mobutu liked to surround himself with young, enthusiastic Zaïrians who were completely taken by his national project. The two most influential people from his entourage were Citoyen Sakombi Inongo and Citoyen Bisengimana Rwema.

In April 2008 I traveled from Goma to Bukavu by ship across stunningly beautiful Lake Kivu, which forms the border between Rwanda and Congo. On board I was introduced to a reserved, extremely distinguished young man: the sort of gentleman one would never find out on the windy rear deck of a passenger ship, but who prefers to remain below deck and make phone calls. He was the son of Bisengimana, who had been the number-two man in Zaïre for years. “My father started working for Mobutu in 1966, but in 1969 he was promoted to director of the Bureau du Président de la République. Mobutu trusted him highly. My father was even allowed to disagree with him. They called him le petit léopard (the leopard cub). He wore a leopard-skin hat too. He remained Mobutu’s cabinet chief until 1977, when they had a falling out. After my father left, no one ever had as much power again under Mobutu.”41

The most unusual thing about that appointment, however, lay outside the ship’s window. The boat roared across the water. On our port side rose up the contours of the island of Idjwi, with Rwanda just behind. Bertrand Bisengimana was from that island and he was on his way home. Idjwi had been a German possession at first, but passed into Belgian hands even before World War I. The population consisted largely of Tutsis from Rwanda. Like him and his father. The Tutsis were an ethnic minority that had for centuries formed the social and political upper crust of the Rwandan empire, a position they owed to cattle breeding. Cows were to the Tutsi what coal had been to the industrial barons: everything. As early as the nineteenth century, Tutsi cattlemen had left overcrowded Rwanda to settle on the lake’s far shore. They moved onto the plateaus of South Kivu, to the volcanic region of North Kivu, and to the island of Idjwi. To the Congolese they were, in every way, “different.” They looked different and spoke differently. Their Kinyarwanda was a highly specific Bantu language, spoken only in Rwanda and the south of Uganda and related to the language of Burundi. The archetypal Tutsi was tall to extremely tall (1.95 meters—about 6 feet 5 inches—was not unheard of), with a pointed noise, a high forehead, and thin lips. A cliché, of course, but every bit as true as the clichés concerning the Irish, Italians, and Swedes. According to that same cliché, they had a reputation in Zaïre for being arrogant and devoid of humor, yet Mobutu still appointed one of them to be his cabinet chief.42 “In the beginning, Mobutu didn’t want to give preferential treatment to his own tribe,” Bertrand said, “otherwise my father, a Tutsi from Idjwi, could never have become the regime’s second man.” For Mobutu, of course, there were advantages to the fact that his direct associate came from a small tribe of migrants that could pose no threat to him . . . . Little did he know then that, in 1997, Rwandan Tutsis would depose him.

MOBUTU HAD GIVEN THE PEOPLE greater prosperity; now his aim was to give them a dream. That dream was Zaïrian nationalism. And that dream’s architect was named Dominique Sakombi, better known—in accordance with the tenets of the day—as Sakombi Inongo.43 Sakombi was an intelligent, extremely eloquent young man, a greater Mobutist than Mobutu himself. In spring 2008 I spoke to him briefly on the phone: his voice had grown thin as rolling paper, in no way reminiscent of the vocal barrage of yesteryear. He was very ill and could not bring himself to grant me an interview.

In the early 1970s Sakombi’s achievement was a particularly ingenious one: he did not ban tribalism, but raised it to the state level. The Zaïrians were still allowed to love their tribe . . . as long as that tribe was called Zaïre. He said: “For us, the ancestral village extends all the way to the borders of the national territory.”44 The arbitrary domain established by nineteenth-century European politicians now had to feel like a natural phenomenon. More than the head of state, Mobutu was to become the national village chieftain, the headman de luxe. And the citizens were his villagers, his children.

Sakombi was the state commissioner of information. His ministry had fourteen hundred staff members, its budget second only to that of the ministry of defense. Mobutu knew where his priorities lay: in a former lifetime he had been both a soldier and a journalist. If his dictatorship had at first relied on the power of the army, from 1970 on it relied on propaganda.

Sakombi designed a sweeping cultural policy that was marketed to the people under the slogan Recours à l’authenticité! Resume authenticity! The changing of the name of the country, of the cities and even of the citizens themselves was a part of that, but it went much further. The resumption of authentic living impacted almost every aspect of daily life. When a Zaïrian got up in the morning he knew what to wear. A ban had been imposed on Western clothing. Men were no longer to wear a suit and tie, but were obliged to put on an abacost, a high-necked outfit based on Mao’s own, with an upright collar and cravat. (Abacost was yet another Mobutuist neologism: it came from à bas le costume [down with the suit]. The language, too, was being changed.) Women were no longer allowed to wear miniskirts, only the traditional pagne, an elegant outfit in three parts—skirt, blouse, and headscarf. Only natural hairstyles were allowed. Extensions and the “conking” or straightening of hair was forbidden. Even more strongly forbidden were preparations for lightening the skin. The authentic Zaïrian was the diametrical opposite of the évolué, a person who no longer aspired to be what he would never become anyway, but who drew strength from his or her own identity, culture, and traditions.

If the Zaïrian happened to live in the city, he saw on his way to work new monuments being erected everywhere. The statues of Stanley, Leopold II, and Albert I were pulled down. As Sakombi drily stated at the time: “As far as I know, there is no statue of Lumumba in the center of Brussels either.”45 On squares and in front of government buildings arose stylized figures in concrete, their arms raised to the sky or toting baskets. Two hundred sculptors were active in Kinshasa alone.46 Their style was strikingly modern (works influenced by Ossip Zadkine, Pablo Picasso, and Constantin Brancus¸i were legion), but that was all right, for those Europeans had themselves been strongly influenced by African art. The authenticity policy was no exercise in nostalgia, but a complex admixture of tradition and modernity. Of it Sakombi said: “We respond as our forefathers would have done, had their culture not been interrupted by colonial acculturation.”47 He was not out for a retour à l’authenticité, a going back, but a recours, a resumption. From out of the old visual idiom, a new art was to be born. And so Mobutu had art treasures brought together from all over the country. Tens of thousands of masks and fetishes found their way into the national museums, just as all manner of artifacts had made their way to Tervuren during the colonial days.48 The national ballet was expected to study traditional dances in the interior and reinterpret them. A national theater company was set up, a national literature prize established.49

When a Zaïrian listened to the radio during the day, Zaïrian music was what he heard. Western music was banned. Mobutu set himself up as the great champion of popular music. Franco, the leader of OK Jazz, was placed at the head of a new government institution intended to support the music business. Wasn’t this the man who had stood beaming beside Mobutu at the leader’s birthday party, just before the coup? Tabu Ley toured the country. With Mobutu’s support; he even became the first black man to perform at the Olympia in Paris. Docteur Nico experimented with traditional percussion. Franco brought the old accordionist Camille Feruzi back into the limelight. Recours à l’authenticité, one heard him sing. Kinshasa’s music industry experienced its busiest years. Music recorded at five in the evening was in the shops the next morning at nine. There were recording artists everywhere. In Matonge, the absolute heart of the city’s nightlife, the central square of the Rond-Point Victoire was redubbed Place des Artistes. A huge statue was erected there to the pioneers of Congolese, no, Zaïrian music.

When the Zaïrian came home from work in the evening, he ate authentic cuisine. Pundu, fufu, makayabu: manioc loaf, grubs, all seasoned with the mother of all peppers: pilipili. Before taking a sip of your beer or palm wine you first spilled a few drops on the ground. Making libation to the ancestors, that was part of it too. When you turned on the TV after your wonderful meal, you saw the animation politique, huge groups of people in geometrical formation, all dressed in the same outfits (usually of green cloth with the national flag on it), dancing and singing the praises of the MPR. Day in, day out, songs went up to the benevolence of the illustrious leader. This went on for six, sometimes even twelve hours a day.50 Then, at six o’clock, there began the high point of state television: the news. It opened with one of Sakombi’s ideas. The president’s face appeared against a sky full of fluffy clouds and grew larger and larger, until it looked as though Mobutu were floating down from heaven, right into your living room. The children thought that he was God the Father. “Everything the president and his wife did was shown on the news,” Zizi said, “and also everything done by the members of the Political Bureau and the central committee. It became a real personality cult. Sakombi called Mobutu ‘the African pharaoh.’ That kind of thing.”

Even when one crawled into bed at night one could not leave the state’s propaganda behind, for Mobutu had called on the people to be fruitful and multiply—the revolution required many pairs of hands. Even at the most intimate moments of one’s private life, one heard the supreme leader calling. The joke went that, during lovemaking, he himself never cried out “Ça va jaillir!” (I’m going to come!), but “Ça va zaïre!” . . . Just as the missions had dictated their view of the “good” colonial body (the use of soap, the covering of one’s nakedness, the practice of monogamy), so too did the dictator worm his way into the intimacy of personal life and subject it to a new, all-inclusive regime. There was no getting around it. To have an orgasm was to serve the nation.

And it worked. The Zaïrian began feeling Zaïrian. With Sakombi’s help, Mobutu accomplished within a few years what the European Union has failed to achieve after more than half a century: people truly began feeling like part of a greater whole. The British and the French still refused to become Europeans, but the Bakongo and the Baluba were proud to be Zaïrian.

BUT WAS THERE NO RESISTANCE? Of course there was, but only discreet resistance. Zizi: “Not being allowed to wear a necktie, that was difficult. In Katanga you sometimes saw men walking down the street wearing a suit and an ascot, out of protest. The police would stop them right away: ‘What’s with the colonial outfit? What are you, a foreigner?’ ‘Yes, from Zambia,’ they would say then. After all, you could be executed for that!” While in Europe the necktie became the symbol of bourgeois values and repression, in Congo it developed into a statement of resistance and the desire for freedom. “Some people would put on a necktie, just to sit in the living room.”

The mandatory name change also prompted sly protest. “My father sent me a list of nine names from our family, from which I could choose my postnom. But one of my colleagues was named Gérard Ekwalanga. He was a great sports journalist and very religious, so he was quite attached to his Christian name. In protest, he named himself Ekwalanga Abomasoda. That postnom was not an ancestral one at all. In Lingala it means: ‘He who kills soldiers’! Or Oscar Kisema, who chose the name Kisema Kinzundi. That sounds like a normal name in Lingala, but in Swahili it means the ‘big vagina.’”

The ban on Christian names came as a blow to the church. “Mobutu wanted to destroy the power of the Catholic Church,” Zizi said. “He wanted to replace the saints with the ancestors.” At first the church had shown itself loyal to the new regime. One month after the coup, Cardinal Malula solemnly stated: “Mr. President, the church recognizes your authority, because authority is God-given. We will faithfully abide by the laws you see fit to pass.”51 But six years later, on January 12, 1972, this same Malula delivered a cutting speech against the regime. Mobutu was furious. He immediately expelled Malula from the Order of the Leopard, sent him into exile abroad, and forbade Christians to pray for their archbishop. To little avail. The church long remained one of the regime’s most vociferous critics. The bishops enjoyed the backing of an international network and they also ran the schools. States usually have two means for molding their citizens: the schools and the media. Mobutu had only the media. He therefore did all he could to curb the power of the church (mission schools had to have a native headmaster, crucifixes were burned, seminarians had to join the MPR youth movement, Christian young people’s organizations were banned, Christmas became a normal working day, even all religious gatherings, with the exception of mass and confession, were taboo at a certain point). And when none of this had the desired effect, he simply offered the bishops top government positions or bought them jeeps and limousines.

Mobutu’s cultural policies did not explicitly stipulate what the Congolese were to believe, and ancestor worship received no detailed national theology, but Kimbanguism, the religion persecuted so heavily under the Belgians, flourished as never before. It was seen as an authentic African religion. The Kimbanguists’ own organization developed into a miniature version of the state: hypercentralistic and hierarchical. The religious leader was venerated in song and dance, just like Mobutu. The underdogs of the colonial era now became the heralds of Mobutuism.52

RELYING ON ONE’S OWN IDENTITY was a lovely idea, but of course also fraught with catches. Why did Mobutu promote the native kitchen, when his own favorite dish was still ossobuco alla romana? What was so authentic about that gruesome animation politique, which he had only copied from Kim Il-sung of North Korea? What was so Zaïrian about the notorious abacost, which was really nothing more than a Mao outfit with more color to it, the finest examples of which came from Arzoni, a textile plant in Zellik, close to Brussels? What was so typically African about the pagne—made from Indonesian batik and praised by the nuns for the way it covered the breasts—the most colorfast variations of which (the famous wax hollandaise) came from the Vlisco plant in Helmond, the Netherlands? What made Camille Feruzi an authentic musician? He played the accordion, for God’s sake, and he had obviously listened to a lot of Tino Rossi.

Was this recours à l’authenticité then simply a ruse? A charming ideology meant to disguise a deeper reality? Yes, it was. And that deeper reality was: Mobutu had started caring less and less about his people. He was so busy safeguarding his position that he neglected major governmental duties. He was so caught up with handing out cars, appointments, honorariums, and ambassadorial posts that the state treasury was drained. Yes, one could speak of economic recovery, but that was due more to Vietnam than to prudent policy making. It was a chance period of economic boom on which Mobutu was able to surf along in comfort, but it in no way served to combat poverty. He used the wealth of revenues to keep his own power base intact. In essence, he owed his power to an extreme form of pork-barrel politics. Mobutu perched atop a pyramid of clientalism where, directly or indirectly, thousands ate from his hand. He and his retinue were bound to each other by a network of mutual debts and favors. In exchange for benefits, his followers gave him the loyalty he needed to remain in power. Mobutu needed them and they needed Mobutu. A monstrous alliance. Mobutu was a slave to his own thirst for power.

In Zaïre, therefore, a true state bourgeoisie arose, a large group of individuals who owed their prosperity to the regime.53 In the most literal sense, the state served as economic base for this new middle class, which did not hesitate to diplay its newfound wealth in the form of expensive cars, lovely homes, and a luxurious lifestyle.54 Those who drove around in a Jaguar or Mercedes received the nickname “Onassis.” “And anyone who felt a nasty cough coming on flew to his family physician in Brussels,” Zizi said.

This clientalism went well as long as there was money. The nationalization of Union Minière had produced huge revenues for Mobutu, but his attempts to retain power were consuming more of that money all the time. “I used to have, as it were, no family at all,” he moaned once, “no one cared a whit about me! But since I have become president, it seems that half of Zaïre has discovered that they could very well be related to me in one way or another, and therefore have a right to my assistance.”55 All of this took place, of course, to the disadvantage of the common Zaïrian, who was unable to recall any family ties with the head of state. To keep his growing clientele satisfied, Mobutu had to keep on finding new sources of income. Foreign investments, bilateral agreements, and international loans came in handy.56 The more needy his country was, the more he was able to rake in. Poverty pays. It was an economic jackpot.

But it was still not enough. On November 30, 1973, he made a drastic decision. He had just returned from a tour of China, where he had seen the country’s planned economy. “The peril is more white than yellow,” he said upon his return. “Politically we are a free people, culturally we are becoming that, but in economic terms we are not at all the masters of our fate.”57 Mobutu began a process of “Zaïrianization”: those small- and medium-sized businesses, plantations, and trading companies still in the hands of foreigners, a few thousand enterprises in all, were expropriated and given to his faithful followers.58 From one day to the next, Portuguese restaurant owners, Greek shopkeepers, Pakistani TV repairmen, or Belgian coffee growers saw the work of a lifetime disappear. At the head of their company came a Zaïrian from the president’s circles who usually had no sense of how to run a business. In the best of cases he allowed the original owner to work on as manager and came by each month to collect the profits. In the worst cases, he immediately emptied the till and sold all the stocks on hand.

The consequences were grotesque. An elegant lady who never left the capital might suddenly be running a quinine plantation on the other side of the country. Gentlemen who couldn’t tell a cow from a bull became heads of a cattle company. Generals were allowed to run fisheries, and diplomats soft-drink factories. Minister of Information Sakombi became the owner of a series of newsstands and movie theaters, but also of a few sawmills. Bisengimana received the Prince de Ligne plantations on Idjwi, which comprised one-third of the island itself.59 Our friend Jamais Kolonga, a small fish in the network around the president, became head of a lumberyard in his native district. The party animal from the capital was now suddenly required to manage a stock of tropical hardwood. Some made a mess of it, others rose to the occasion. In one fell swoop, pop star Franco became the new owner of Willy Pelgrim’s recording empire, a sector with which he was indeed familiar.60 Thanks to Zaïrianization, Jeannot Bemba became the country’s wealthiest businessman. He was made chairman of the employers’ association and even started his own airline, Scibe Zaïre. Finally, Mobutu treated himself to fourteen plantations spread all over the country. He controlled a quarter of the production of cacao and rubber, had twenty-five thousand people on the payroll, and so became the nation’s third biggest employer. Thanks in part to the mining revenues, he was now estimated to be the world’s eighth richest man.61

But Mobutu saw his country, and it was not good. In late 1974 he switched to “radicalization.” Ailing companies were now taken over by the state. That way they could continue to yield revenue and with those yields he could stay on friendly terms with his friends. It had not been a good idea, letting them run the companies. But this new economic reform worked out badly as well. Without asking for it, Mobutu, that close friend of the Americans, suddenly found himself stuck with a communist economy. By means of a third reform, this one dubbed “retrocession”(rhetoric was the only branch of business still solidly on its feet), he tried to give the plucked and dressed companies back to their original owners, but they were no longer interested in the least.62

The social consequences were disastrous. As brilliant a communicator as Mobutu was, he was an equally great flop as an economist. The fiasco of Zaïrianization caused unemployment to rise. Those who still had a job, for example as civil servant or teacher, could no longer get by.63 Everyone moonlighted, as bricklayer, chauffeur, or beer vendor. Their wives tried to earn a little through microcommerce. They would spend the whole day on the market, sitting beside a little pile of charcoal or onions. They bought bread at the wholesale bakery and carried it on their heads around town until it had all been sold. They stayed at home with the children and started a little shop where the neighbors could come to buy tea bags, matches, and soap. They let their homes be used as depots for a brewery or a cement factory, and sold soft drinks or bags of cement at a tiny profit. Everyone tried to make ends meet. Even if that meant turning to their families for help.

In 1974 things came to a head. The end of the Vietnam War resulted in a dramatic fall in copper prices. What’s more, the start of the oil crisis was being felt in Zaïre too. Prices shot up. The entire process of Zaïrianization contributed even more to inflation, for now that a class of the super-rich had arisen, shopkeepers pumped their prices up as well. For the average citizen, however, this meant a further decline in spending power. In 1960 an unskilled worker had to work one day in order to pay for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of freshwater fish; by the mid-1970s that same worker needed to work ten days to do so.64 Food became unaffordable and consumed the entire family budget. Farming in the interior had been neglected. Why should a farmer cultivate his land when there were no more roads to bring his goods to market? Zaïre, one of the world’s most fertile countries, therefore became highly dependent on expensive, imported food. Cans of tomato paste were unloaded in the harbors, while in the interior, tons of beefsteak tomatoes hung rotting on the plant.

Mobutu’s promise of economic recovery had ended up in catastrophe. One of the MPR’s early slogans had been: Servir et non se server (Serve, but not to serve yourself), but Mobutu and his clan served themselves very well indeed. His popularity declined. The bread was running out. And what about the circuses?

AFTER HIS ADVENTURE WITH BAUDOUIN’S SWORD, Longin Ngwadi returned to Kikwit. He began work as a salesman for Bata, the international shoe chain that had shops in Africa. One day he saw a pretty girl come into the shop. She looked at a few models, then went off to buy fish. A few minutes later Longwin closed the shop for lunch and went after her. She was just finishing her shopping. Fish was still affordable in those days. He spoke to her the immortal words:

“I’ll pay for your fish, if you become my fiancée.”


“Yes, really?”

“Then I’ll give you my address.”

That evening he visited her at her home. She called in her father and her uncles. The family first wanted to see who this oddball was.

“I am ready to take this girl as my wife,” Ngwadi said.

“Do you have money?” the family asked.


That was not entirely true, but his European boss at the Bata shop was willing to advance him the dowry. It wasn’t the first time he’d done that for an employee. Ngwadi had to pay back a little each month. Bata had a good reputation, it was a serious shop. The father and uncles gave their approval.

Ngwadi worked for Bata for many years. Meanwhile, his wife, because that happened to be the tradition, worked the land: she grew corn, manioc, and peanuts. The young couple had everything they needed. The first of six children was born in 1969. A few years later Ngwadi bought a big lot, thirty meters by forty (nearly 100 by 130 feet), and built a spacious clay house, the same house where I interviewed him. “That was the wealthiest period of my life.”

But then came Zaïrianization. “My European boss left. Bata was taken over by a Zaïrian. He ran the company. That was not good. Bata went bankrupt.” Hard times came. Increasingly often, Ngwadi went to pray at the grave of Kuku Pemba, a dangerous spot, a mythical spot. Kuku Pemba had been the first man from that region to see a white man. In times of famine, people turned to something higher. Kuku Pemba was seen as a powerful ancestor; even Mobutu was afraid of him.

In 1974, for the first time in years, Ngwadi went back to the capital. “I went to Kinshasa to see the fight. I saw Ali praying too. He was a Muslim and wore a little chain around his neck. Foreman had a big dog with him, like a European. I was sitting in the stadium. The match was held in the middle of the night. Foreman was stronger. Ali went to the ropes. He did that throughout the whole match. Foreman was swollen up like a pig. It was a fantastic fight, fantastic!”

How could you stay angry at a president who treated you to a wonderful party like that?

Because the American viewers needed to watch the fight during prime time, the match did not start until 4 A.M. The air in the city was hot and humid, the rainy season had arrived. The stadium already began filling up the morning before the match. “The children had a day off from school. Companies had to give their employees a day of paid leave. The bars had to sell beer at half price. Even the flour was free,” Zizi Kabongo recalled. Spectators came from all over, even as far away as Angola and Cameroon. Seventy thousand people had a seat in the stadium. A few thousand of those seats were reserved for VIPs, most of them Mobutu’s yes-men. A huge crowd milled around outside the stadium. Because of the unusual hour, Mobutu had had lighting installed. Around the grandstands, four gigantic flyswatters rose up out of the darkness. They were equipped with a battery of blinding lamps that, thanks to the current from the Inga Dam, bathed the entire stadium in bright white light. Mobutu was truly electric.

In the middle of the soccer pitch stood the ring where it was all going to take place. The American TV crews had brought an impressive array of equipment. The children sitting on the concrete steps beamed with pride. Theirs was the only country in the world that could organize this match! Even the ring had been brought over from America! The Americans even had their own water with them! And their own toilet paper!

The Zaïrian television crew, too, was well-equipped. To make sure nothing could go wrong, the state broadcasting company had bought five brand-new Arriflexes, heavy cameras you could carry on your shoulder. In addition, the reporters had a few Bell & Howells, lighter cameras for details and close-ups. Everything in color, of course. There were two directors, two commentators in French, and one in Lingala. All of them received a great deal of extra pay for working at night.

Zizi Kabongo was put on the camera that was to record the crowd’s reactions. A brass band marched around the track, playing traditional Congolese music. A huge cheer went up when Ali came out of the catacombs and moved to the ring, dancing and shadowboxing as he went. He removed his cape. A god’s body shone in the spotlights. Ali, boma ye! Ali, boma ye! Zaïre chanted.

But the most amazing thing of all was: Mobutu himself wasn’t there. The stadium where the people had welcomed him in 1965 he now avoided. Was he afraid he might be less popular than Ali? Did he fear for his own safety? Did he consider himself, as president-founder, more emphatically present when he was absent? Kabongo wasn’t sure. He did know, however, that Mobutu was viewing his shots live in his own palace. The chief, it so happened, had the country’s only closed-circuit television network. Kabongo let his camera glide over the sea of faces. On his monitor he saw the colorful celebration of a cheering crowd reduced to a mute scene in bluish gray.

He was only able to catch an occasional glimpse of the match itself. He did not see it when, in the very first round, Ali tried to knock out Foreman with a series of brutal right leads to the body and face. He did not see how enraged Foreman became and how Ali forgot to dance. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” that was what he’d promised. Dance he would, dance he must, but it didn’t happen. Through his camera Kabongo saw only the crowd, the crowd that cheered at first, then cowered in fear. He did not see how, starting in the second round, Ali kept to the ropes and leaned far back to avoid Foreman’s blows. Ali concealed his face behind his black gloves and soaked up a relentless tempest of punches to the body. “Everlast” was the word printed on the cushions in each corner of the ring, but the question was whether this could last forever. Foreman had one of the hardest punches in the history of heavyweight boxing. Ali’s plan was to beat his opponent by exhausting him. The “rope-a-dope” was how he would refer to the technique later. Kabongo did not hear how Ali kept shouting around the white grimace of his mouthguard: “George, you disappoint me.” “Come here, sucker! They told me you could punch.” “You’re not breaking popcorn, George.”

Kabongo filmed and filmed. His shots were not meant to go around the world. The Americans were taking care of that. This was for domestic consumption. He saw the dignitaries: the state commissioner of sports, the provincial governors, the diplomats, the members of the Political Bureau and the central committee: the whole clique that ate from Mobutu’s hand. Sycophantic spectators came up and handed him money, asking him to get a good shot of them, so the president would see. Especially women. A woman wearing a red pagne, a lady in white . . . Could he zoom in on them just a little?

Every once in a while he turned and looked. Each time he saw that giant of a Foreman pounding Ali, who was hanging terribly over the ropes. Kabongo did not see how, in the eighth round, thirteen seconds before the bell, Ali suddenly bounced off the ropes and struck out with a lightning right-left-right combination. The final punch was a crushing sledgehammer blow to Foreman’s jaw that distorted his face into a lump of modeling clay. Foreman’s arms, which had rocked like the steel crossbars on a locomotive for eight whole rounds, suddenly milled helplessly in thin air. Foreman bent over, he couldn’t believe it. He had never been knocked out before. The floor of the ring rushed up to meet him.

IT WAS A CRAZY NIGHT. Right after the match, an extremely heavy thunderstorm broke loose. The nightclubs of Kinshasa filled to the brim. The drinks were on the house. Everyone partied, everyone laughed, everyone went on a binge. But on his way home, Kabongo couldn’t help but wonder how Mobutu had viewed his shots. Alone in his palace with a few family members? Reveling in the spectacle he had given his country? Curious about the woman in the red pagne? Or peering restlessly at the crowd’s reactions, apprehensive of every face that did not smile broadly enough?

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