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END OF AN AFRICAN DICTATORSHIP | NEWS ANALYSIS

Legacy of Guile, Greed and Graft

Zaire: Mobutu epitomized misrule and corruption. But he also brought stability to nation.

May 17, 1997|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KINSHASA, Zaire — He styled himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, a name that means "the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."

But in the end, Africa's longest-serving dictator was powerless and conquered, his will broken by cancer and his claims to glory in shambles.

When he finally fled in humiliation Friday after 32 years in power, Mobutu left a crippling legacy of guile, greed and graft that will long hinder progress in one of the world's poorest nations.

After a stunning seven-month rebellion, Mobutu ceded power to a lifelong foe, Laurent Kabila. Whatever the future holds, the past is agonizingly clear: Mobutu became the epitome of misrule and corruption.

Mobutu, 66, was the last of Africa's Big Men, the omnipotent post-colonial rulers who draped themselves in nationalist rhetoric and boasted of magical powers as they plundered economies and ruthlessly crushed dissent.

He was not the worst of such megalomaniacs. He didn't practice cannibalism, as did the late self-proclaimed "emperor" of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, or preside over mass murder and terror, as did Uganda's exiled Idi Amin.

Mobutu was far more clever.

While his sinister security forces imprisoned and killed political enemies at home, he became Washington's favorite African leader. He strode like a monarch across the world stage, always wearing his leopard-skin hat and waving a silver-topped ebony walking stick.

He bragged on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" that he was one of the world's richest men as his nation--potentially wealthy from vast deposits of gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt--was driven into penury by officials' extravagance and corruption.

"He defined the term 'African kleptocracy,' " said Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. "He really has left his country as a nation only in name. There's little semblance of governance. The basic functions of the state, tax collection and the provision of basic needs and security, are not performed. Zaire has become a national shell."

Under Mobutu, Zaire slowly slid backward until roads disappeared in the jungle, hospital patients were forced to provide their own medicine, and the army and police turned to banditry. Many countries have multiple time zones; Zaire has six different currencies because the economy is in such chaos.

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The legacy is not all bad. Analysts say Mobutu helped preserve Zaire's territorial integrity, especially when he used foreign mercenaries to quash a series of secessionist revolts early in his reign. Even critics say Mobutu's ironfisted rule kept Africa's third-largest nation from splintering.

"Zaire went through many years of stability under Mobutu," said Vincent Farley, a former diplomat and Africa expert at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga. "I give Mobutu credit for establishing a national entity. It hasn't split apart."

Mobutu's rampant abuses were ignored or papered over by Washington and other Western governments for most of his era.

He adroitly won their support--and billions of dollars in aid--because he understood the Western fear of Communist expansion in Africa and how to exploit it.

Until the late 1980s, American taxpayers were still giving Mobutu's regime $70 million a year in foreign aid, nearly half of all U.S. aid to sub-Saharan Africa.

In exchange, the U.S. and its allies were able to mine strategic minerals, especially cobalt, and stage covert military operations from Zaire. Mobutu's willingness to funnel arms to the UNITA rebels of Jonas Savimbi in neighboring Angola, for example, allowed Washington to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union and to bloody Cuban troops fighting for Angola's socialist government.

"We used him, and he used us, for many years," explained a veteran diplomat here.

Supporters portrayed Mobutu as the only man who could hold Zaire's 250 often-competing ethnic groups together.

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The United Nations, France, Belgium and Morocco all deployed troops and the U.S. sent aircraft and other help at various times to help crush his opponents and keep him in power.

But most outside support stopped with the end of the Cold War. The United States steadily cut aid in an effort to force Mobutu to create a transition to democracy. Mobutu agreed but sabotaged all efforts to organize elections.

Increasingly isolated, Zaire went into a tailspin. Mobutu's army, unpaid and corrupt, went on savage rampages, pillaging cities and preying on the populace. Mobutu's power began to ebb as his health worsened.

Kabila's forces didn't so much beat Mobutu as move into a vacuum.

Mobutu's long career was remarkable given his humble beginnings. Born Oct. 14, 1930, Joseph Desire Mobutu was the son of a maid and a cook. He attended Catholic missionary-run schools until he was expelled at 19 for stealing.

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