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Mobutu, Zairian Dictator for 32 Years, Dies in Exile

Africa: U.S.-backed despot, 66, was ousted in May. His rule made him a symbol of corruption.

September 08, 1997|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NAIROBI, Kenya — Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire for nearly 32 years with a combination of brutal repression and unbridled greed that impoverished his citizens while earning him millions, died in Morocco on Sunday, less than four months after being driven into exile by leaders of a popular rebellion.

Mobutu, who died at 66 after a long battle with prostate cancer, was for years the epitome of the African strongman. More than a dictatorship, his regime was often called a "kleptocracy."

He strode the African and world stages dressed in a trademark leopard-skin hat and carrying an ebony, ivory-tipped walking stick. He looted the treasury of his mineral-rich country, spending some of it on European homes and fine champagne and, reportedly, socking much of it away in Swiss bank accounts. Stern and imperious, he was little loved and mostly feared. When he was deposed in May by the onrushing troops of an old foe, Laurent Kabila, Mobutu was so ill that he could barely walk. And yet only one country, Morocco, agreed to accept him.

Mobutu once bragged in an interview on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" that he was one of the world's richest men--this as Zaire's infrastructure crumbled. Many of the country's paved roads had been swallowed up by the encroaching jungle, hospital patients were forced to provide their own medicine, and almost every police officer, regular army soldier and civil servant had resorted to banditry as a means to survive.

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Joseph-Desire Mobutu was born Oct. 14, 1930, in Lisala, in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. The son of a cook and hotel maid, he first pursued a career in journalism before becoming a soldier. In 1960, shortly after independence from Belgium, he was named army chief of staff. When the Belgians pulled out, Mobutu was one of the country's few literate, high-school-educated non-Europeans. Recognizing that the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, Mobutu sewed up a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency.

The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, whom the CIA suspected of Marxist tendencies, was quickly killed, and the U.S.-backed Mobutu spent the next few years maneuvering himself into position to become dictator.

On Nov. 24, 1965, he brought down the first post-colonial government--of Joseph Kasavubu--and declared himself president of the Second Republic. His hold on power remained unchallenged until the early 1990s, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe stirred winds of democracy in Africa.

He Africanized his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga--meaning "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."

A pro-democracy movement led by the Roman Catholic Church began pressing for multi-party elections in Zaire, but the shrewd Mobutu easily sowed divisions among his opponents. The country Mobutu had renamed Zaire was never an African Arcadia. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese were worked to death by Belgian colonizers who gained international approval to create a despotic and exploitative "Free State" in the watershed of the mighty Congo River and for the next century milked it for everything it was worth.

Although the country--renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo with Mobutu's ouster--is still considered to be fabulously wealthy, with vast timber reserves and hydroelectric potential and some of the world's richest mineral deposits, it is in shambles politically, economically and socially.

"Mobutuism" amounted to a one-party totalitarian system melded with African symbols and calls for self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Eventually, the word simply was a synonym for graft.

Besides what Mobutu siphoned off and stole, he paid himself generously. His personal salary was 17% of the state budget. By 1989, he officially received $100 million a year to spend as he wished, more than the government spent on education, health and social services combined.

Besides his French Riviera villa and the immense palace--known as "Versailles in the Jungle"--that he built in his ancestral village, Mobutu's properties included a 15-acre beach resort, a plantation of orchards and a huge vineyard in Portugal, a 32-room mansion in Switzerland and a 16th century castle in Spain.

In the end, it was not only Mobutu's greed but his lifelong habit of meddling in the internal affairs of his neighbors that finally brought him down.

Mobutu had been friendly with the Hutu-led regime in Rwanda that in April 1994 unleashed a genocide against its ethnic Tutsi minority. Tutsi troops marching in from Uganda eventually drove out the Hutu government, but not before at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been slaughtered. The genocide regime decamped en masse into eastern Zaire.

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