A Zairian Journey

Life under Mobutu, Thief of All Thieves

Watching the tumultuous events in Central Africa in recent years, I’ve found it hard to square the ongoing agony with my memory of Rwanda, which I visited in 1982, while backpacking my way across the continent following a postcollege year in Kenya. Political atmosphere in nondemocracies ranges from hushed and fearful to open and vibrant, and Rwanda registered well above middle. A woman army officer I met at a party in Kigali in 1982 insisted her country had put the Tutsi-Hutu animosity behind it, and I believed her. Kigali itself was small, clean, and well-run. I didn’t see trouble anywhere.

In Zaire, on the other hand, trouble was everywhere. Zaire was trouble. At the border at Goma, the customs officer dismissed my visa out of hand, just for the fun of doing so. “Il n’y a rien a dire!” he shouted. “C’est fini! Terminé!” A helpful Rwandan tipped me off to a second border crossing, with an official said to be more amenable to persuasion. In his dingy shack I emptied my backpack, and a little later, minus my tape recorder, proceeded into Goma, where that evening I was robbed at gunpoint by a trio of soldiers.

Bienvenue à Zaire!

Arriving in a country to be robbed by its security forces provides a helpful wake-up call for a traveler. If the little rules are being broken, so too are some of the bigger ones. In Zaire, it turned out, all the rules were being broken.

Nothing worked there. That was the most important thing to know about the place. Things fell apart: in Zaire, the irony of Yeats’s famous line shrank to a narrow and mordant postcolonial truth. Telephones didn’t work. Electricity didn’t work. Maybe the line on your map corresponded to an actual road, or maybe not. Roads had dissolved back into the bush—the country had 10 percent of the paved highway it had had at independence from Belgium two decades earlier. Parks and schools lay in shabby neglect. Machines stood abandoned where they had broken down. In the capital, Kinshasa, I passed a vast yard of public buses, left to rust because there were no spare parts. This general ruin had given birth to caustic monikers with which people vented their frustration. The national air line, Air Zaire, was known as Air Peut-être; the government bureau in charge of road maintenance, the Office des Trous—the Bureau of Holes.

It’s not easy for most Americans to comprehend, but there exists a blurry region where infrastructure—both physical and political—and morality overlap, and collapse in one system undermines the other. In Zaire, policemen and soldiers weren’t being paid, so they robbed people, as they had robbed me, or free-lanced as hired thugs. A man in Kinshasa told me that for 1000Z (about $60 at the time) you could get your enemy publicly beaten, or his girlfriend raped, or his car burned. There was nothing in Zaire you couldn’t get by paying for it, and precious little you could get without paying for it. I caught a ride from Goma through the Ituri forests to Kisangani with an Afro-Belgian trucker named Dédé who was hauling a load of goods from Kenya. He had three guys and a dog who traveled with him. They were his police, mechanic, and road repair crew. If he didn’t provide these services for himself, who would? The public function of government had withered away, sapped by the regime’s brazen raids on public wealth, until the very idea of government lay in ruins.

Atop this pyramid of thieves perched the dictator Joseph Désiré Mobutu, or rather—to use the “traditional” name he gave himself after clawing his way to power in 1965—Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, which I was told was Lingala for “the cock who never leaves the hen alone.” Mobuto had robbed the country blind, and the Zairois knew it. People even found rueful solace in the scope of their dictator’s larceny; they half boasted, half lamented that he owned no fewer than 500 Mercedes Benzes. One day the barge I was traveling on—I had bought passage from Kisangani downstream along the 1,200 mile arc of the Congo to Kinshasa—passed the presidential yacht, the Kamanyola. As the magnificent five-tiered steamboat slid by, I saw dark-suited security men, white-coated stewards, and a helipad with a copter painted in the green, red, and yellow of Mobutu’s party (a trained pilot, Mobutu was said to be always ready to escape at a moment’s notice). The boat tooted its horn, and the Zairois on our barge dutifully waved. I had befriended an eighteen-year-old student named Théophile, and as the yacht went by he ventriloquized to me, without breaking his grin or ceasing waving, “Lá-dedans, c’est le plus grand voleur des voleurs”—there goes the greatest thief of all thieves.

Mobutu’s picture was everywhere in Zaire—a comical figure in a leopard-skin cap and ascot tie, staring out from behind clunky black glasses with a look seemingly intended to convey a mesmeric intensity. His sayings were published in his version of Mao’s little red book (green, in this case), and out in the bush as well, where you might stumble upon a peeling billboard quoting le Président ruminating about the natural beauty of the country and his own heroic role in preserving it, or expounding some tenet of Mobutuism (his program of “authenticity,” for instance, which commanded the Zairois to address each other as Citoyen or Citoyenne rather than Monsieur or Madame and outlawed European-style suits in favor of a leisure-like polyester garment known as a Mobutu suit). A dozen times a day, TV and radio broadcast a soundbite in which he led an audience through a political catechism in Lingala—Mama bo? Parti bo? Mokonzi bo? (“How many mothers? How many parties? How many leaders?”) —to frenetic shouts of Moko! (“One!”).

These props and rituals resembled those of other, greater African leaders, like Nkrumah or Kenyatta, whose attempts to build nationalism in their fledgling countries had drawn them, some might say tragically, into propagating cults of personality. In Mobutu’s case the self-mythifying impulse seemed farcical, a clumsy decoration on an ugly apparatus of personal plunder. Mobutu played with Zaire like a toy. Théophile told me of a notorious national soccer final in which the team from Mobutu’s home region appeared headed for defeat until referees, after glancing up to the presidential box, annulled first one goal, then a second, triggering a riot which Mobutu’s security men put down with maximum brutality. That had happened years earlier; by the 1980s Mobutu rarely appeared in public. Cannily he seemed to have understood how to make his presence felt through absence; if he could not appeal to his subjects’ hearts through loyalty, he would play to their imaginations, through mystery. He would be both everywhere and nowhere; would disappear and reappear, like a magician.

I spent almost three months in Zaire: two weeks hitching rides to Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo); a full month on the river (the trip was supposed to take less than a week, but our convoy of barges kept running aground in low water); and another month in steamy Kinshasa. Zaire is a vast, varied, lovely land. I recall the road climbing out of Goma into the Virunga game park, where at night the volcano glowed smoky orange, and by day the dilapidated bus crossed a green savanna strewn with acacia trees, herds of buffalo and elephants, and belching hot springs. Or the fantastic traffic along the Congo River, where the dense bush would suddenly give way to a riverbank village of huts, and out would come a small flotilla of narrow dugouts, paddled by shiftless men standing upright with impeccable balance. The villagers sold every kind of living and recently living cargo imaginable to Zairois on board who smoke-cured it, using smothered fires built in big steel drums. They sold the food later at a huge profit in Kinshasa—the piles of blackened fish and game stacked ever higher as our trip dragged on. I ate everything: frogs, snails, turtles; monitor lizard and crocodile and monkey; spiny caterpillars called lubili, fried crispy black; mboloko, some kind of jungle wildcat with a pungent, to me repulsive, flavor. My meals were cooked for me over a charcoal stove by Cécile, the captain’s wife, in exchange for a prized bottle of Johnny Walker Red. The captain himself, a dour fifty-year-old named Louis Moma, had been working the river for decades. He regaled me with stories of the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa in 1974, and also of Mobutu, who had been a childhood schoolmate—an oversized, somber boy who knew everything about watches and clocks, who took them apart and studied them. “In those days he was known as Jeff,” Moma said. “He was a great watch-repairer.”

By the time I got to the capital, my visa had expired, and I made the colossal mistake of trying to renew it. A flourishing cottage industry had sprung up helping shepherd foreigners through the bribeocracy, and reluctantly I surrendered my passport to a Citoyen Kalimi, who flattered me with reassurances while conveying gravely that it was not going to be inexpensive, not at all, not at all. For the next three weeks, as I waited for the return of my passport, I wandered around Kinshasa, returning at night to a flophouse in the Avenue Kato where I was the first “European” ever to have stayed, regarded with wonder and amusement. Mosquitoes were fierce, and the only protection were burnable repellent coils of Chinese manufacture which filled the room with a thick, scented fog, scorching your throat, but proving just sufficiently more noxious to mosquitoes than humans to repel them while allowing you a fitful sleep.

I had hardly any money—indeed, I was waiting I for some to be cabled from the States to enable me to get home—and my goals each day were extravagantly modest: to wander around the market, or hang out with a group of rowdy crippled guys on the Avenue 30 Juin who raced around on wheelchairs, powered by bicycle drive trains whose pedals they turned with their hands, or find a cheap restaurant where I could have a dish of fiery stew and kwanga, the boiled cassava that had the consistency of playdough. I had been reading Henry Miller, and his wry twist on Emerson’s dictum—that if it were true that a man was the sum of all he thought about during the course of a day, then he, Miller, was food—had been my touchstone for months; I was trying hard to pare my ambitions down to the shape of basic daily needs and means. In retrospect this project seems faintly offensive, since unlike most Zairois I had access to money, however distantly. Yet as a way of trying to comprehend the material conditions of life in Africa it had a certain coherence—eating what was generally eaten, sleeping where people slept, getting (alas) the diseases they did (including malaria and spectacular bouts of amebic dysentery); and to some extent sharing their alienated view of those with power and money, the sense of an unbridgeable distance. Sham or not, I had taken a temporary vow of poverty; it seemed to me my only shot at seeing the Africa I wanted to see.

Poverty, of course, was there in every country I passed through in Africa—but in Zaire it had a particular starkness. There is a vast difference between a poor country thriftily making do and a rich one disastrously falling apart. After all, Zaire’s was no economy of peanuts and coffee and fish. Vast riches were there to be made in minerals and oil and precious metals and diamonds, were in fact being made, and everyone knew it. International newspapers told of Mobutu’s henchmen marching into banks to demand transfers of millions in foreign currencies. At the level of the average citoyen, dreams of a piece of the action ran rampant. In the garbage-strewn city squares of Kinshasa, ragged men hawked smelts of bogus gold wrapped in tissue paper. Rumors circulated of diamonds big as lemons in Shaba province, if only you could get down there and smuggle them out to Brussels or Paris without getting spied out, ratted on, caught, or killed.

Intrigue swirled through daily life. People were afraid to talk openly, so they spoke secretly. Whispering and the nervous glance to the side had become part of the national personality, coexisting oddly with ebullience and flair. Much more than other Africans, the Zairois believed in magic. Théo poured the first sip of his Coke on the ground to appease ancestors, and he steered me away from a small coin I was about to pick up in the street—such objects, he warned, might be fetishes, used in the exorcism of a spirit or a disease. Like many of the Zairois I met, including educated ones, he swore by stories of sorcery: magicians who changed fetuses into lizards; an adulterous couple caught in flagrante delicto and then, through a curse, frozen that way. At the low end of the social spectrum, this belief in magic merged into psychosis. Kinshasa was full of madmen. Crazed people wandered the sidewalks, faces smeared with ash, feathers stuck in their hair. In the crowded Grand Marché shamans did a brisk business in shoe laces, bottle caps, bits of wax and other fetishes; at night they simply left their wares where they stood, because people were afraid to steal them.

Although rooted in African traditions, the belief in charms and spells among the Zairois struck me as an adaptation to an environment in which rationality—or rather government, which is its political manifestation—had failed. The chaos of Mobutu’s system, itself a kind of evil magic, rewarded luck, along with shrewdness, duplicity, and, all else failing, a capacity for brute violence. Violence was implicit beneath the surface of Zaire, and sometimes not very far beneath. In a society with no recourse to civil authority, disputes turn nastier quicker, violence becomes either expressive or preemptive; the intermediate levels of arguing get dispensed with. I watched a quarrel in a bar where one man went down and the other began kicking him full force in the head, again and again. At a forlorn truckstop in the bush, Dédé, our truck driver, by nature a boisterously funny man, was being harangued by someone as we sat talking, then suddenly punched the man as hard as he could, straight in the face, knocking him down; scooped him up off the floor and hurled him out the door. This was the American Wild West, it occurred to me. But where frontier violence suggests improvements to come, a later universe of order fashioned out of the unruly big bang, postcolonial violence bespoke entropy, devolution, a slide toward the void.

At least that’s what I saw. To some extent, probably, it was what I was looking for. My journal from those months reminds me that I often met Zairois who countered the daily mess of their country with perseverance and verve. Still, mostly I noticed darker things. I was under the sway of V. S. Naipaul, in particular his novel A Bend in the River (1980), a brilliant but bleakly nihilistic study of postcolonial chaos set in an isolated town clearly meant to be Kisangani. Taking its cue from the Simba revolt of 1964 in the eastern Congo, in which scores of Westerners were murdered, the novel charts moral and political anarchy in an outpost town quaking before the relentless advance of rebel troops. Like Conrad before him, Naipaul uses Africa to illuminate the depravity of human nature, government falling away to reveal us as we truly are: appetite and fear the poles of our motivation, strategy and self-deception of our behavior. “The world is what it is,” begins A Bend in the River. “Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The idealizations of literature—including pessimistic ones like Naipaul’s—succeed by their partiality, turning a truth about humanity into the truth, creating a world drenched in a particular moral vision. Having trained my gaze through Naipaul’s gloomy lens, I was looking for trouble in Mobutu’s Zaire, and finding plenty of it.

Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t my trouble. A traveler, I could spectate and then leave, which is what I did, having finally received a visa renewal and laissez-passer from Citoyen Kalimi, along with money cabled from the States. Théo escorted me to the river crossing for The Republic Congo-Brazzaville. I made my way through a gauntlet of eager customs officials, handing out 10Z notes at every step—shedding a skin of money, molting my way onto the perilously crowded ferry and out of Zaire. On the other side I discovered how three months of Mobutuism had worked on me, when a soldier approached and instinctively I flinched—only to have him simply stamp my passport and welcome me to Congo Brazzaville. He smiled, seeming to read my reaction. Behind us, on the riverbank facing Zaire, stood a huge sign: Á Bas Avec Les Corrupteurs et Les Corruptibles! Down With the Corrupt and the Corruptibles!

As I write, the current rebellion in eastern Zaire, a driven by spillover from the Tutsi-Hutu struggle in Rwanda, works its way inexorably westward. Mobutu has entered the endgame of his three-decade chess match with destiny. It is unclear what will finish him off, the cancer rumored to be ravaging his body, or the rebel forces under Laurent Kabila, who now control almost half the country. Either way, conventional wisdom says he is finished.

I confess to not quite believing it. I look in the paper at the pictures of Mobutu, and the man is smiling, as if he knows something no one else does. Spend enough time soaking in your own propaganda, and maybe it seeps in; the charlatan finally believes himself a shaman. “They will never kill him,” I recall a man in a bar in Kinshasa confiding to me one night. “Bullets will pass right through.”

The sorcerer-as-dictator fits a tradition of Central African mystification begun by Westerners and taken up by the Zairois themselves, attempting perhaps to explain the sordid, stunted history of their new country. Whatever their larger significance, Conradian visions of a heart of human darkness in Central Africa reflect political anxieties about control of a scarcely manageable land. Zaire is a sparsely settled conglomeration of peoples speaking 400 dialects; it lacks viable roads connecting its major regions, and its people lack a unifying experience beyond the dimming memory of an oppressive colonial past. At independence in 1960, the country had fewer than two dozen university graduates, and when the Belgians left, hurriedly and in a panic, the new nation instantly fell apart, paralyzed by mismanagement and riven by secessions. Zaire was a theoretical construct; and Mobutu had the shrewdness to install himself as its foundational concept. He made himself necessary. Living under his rule meant living amidst privation and craziness; and yet it was never quite possible to imagine Zaire without him—neither the Zairois themselves could bring it off, nor other governments, the United States and France notably among them, who propped him up over the decades.

Now the struggle to imagine a Zaire sans Mobutu seems to have succeeded. His fate hangs day by day in the balance. Mobutu treated his country as another watch he could take apart and reassemble at his pleasure, a personal possession he could toy with; and now his subjects are discovering poetic justice in returning the favor.


Related: Rand Richards Cooper reviews V. S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads