What Mobutu Did Right

Seventeen years after he fled the country, Mobutu Sese Seko is still being held responsible for the shortcomings of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here's why that view is overly simplistic.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Seventeen years after the late President Mobutu Sese Seko fled Zaire, since renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his mismanagement of the country, dubbed a "kleptocracy," continues to dominate analyses of his 32-year tenure among scholars and journalists.* Through this lens, Mobutu’s reign was characterized by the rampant corruption of a government engineered solely to benefit him and his friends. It is true that in the final analysis, Mobutu squandered Congo’s potential and resources, and tended to treat the national treasury like his private checking account. As a construct, however, the "kleptocracy" perspective is devoid of policy meaning and context, and it presumes a lack of vision, planning, and state-building or nation-building initiatives. It reduces Congo to a caricature. Any analysis that bases its entire argument on Mobutu’s patronage system is bound to ignore the merits and gains of the Mobutu years and come to the wrong conclusions about Congo’s current tribulations and its prospects for the future. Most importantly, such discourse sets the lowest expectations, standards, and benchmarks for international engagement in Congo today.

James A. Robinson, a Harvard University professor and co-author of Why Nations Fail, falls into this trap in his recent Legatum Institute report Curing the Mal Zaïrois: The Democratic Republic of Congo Edges Toward Statehood. An abridged version of that study ran on Democracy Lab in December 2013. At the outset, Robinson seeks to establish Mobutu’s patrimonial system as the primary reason for the near collapse of the Congolese state and the current political leadership deficit, which sustains the government’s failure to provide basic services to the people and protect Congo’s territorial integrity. The country appears to be on autopilot, bumping from crisis to crisis. But Mobutu has been gone for 17 years, the equivalent of four U.S. presidential terms.* The responsibility for the present governance crisis and insecurity rests with today’s leadership.

Today, Congo is embroiled in a conflict in its eastern provinces, an outgrowth of the 1998 war, which was so broad, complex, and violent that it’s sometimes called "the African World War." Meanwhile, the government wraps itself in the macroeconomic discourse of the Bretton Wood institutions, touting GDP growth rates as proof of successful economic reforms. Still, for all the positive indexes and steady revenue flow, there are no signs of prosperity and investment in public services. Infrastructure for health and education has literally crumbled.

The Mobutu years are a virtual dark age for foreign analysts, who consistently cite mythmaking sources like Joseph Conrad’s century-old Heart of Darkness while ignoring historical accounts like Crawford Young and Thomas Turner’s The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State and Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila. By focusing exclusively on colonial history and the Kabila years that followed Mobutu’s regime, they conveniently skip over the critical years of state-building and consolidation that followed independence.

Seventy-five years of colonial experimentation did not yield a state or a nation. That much became clear to newly elected President Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and the members of parliament when they assumed their positions in June 1960. Independence euphoria was cut short five days later when the nascent army, a remnant of the Force Publique (colonial army and police), mutinied. Katanga, the mining province that accounted for over 60 percent of national revenues, seceded six days later, and diamond-rich South Kasai followed immediately after. Conflict erupted across Congo as various rebel groups and mercenaries sought to control sections of the national territory.

It was the Congolese leadership’s duty to turn King Leopold II‘s colony into a single people politically organized as a state. In February 1960, at the Table Ronde in Brussels, these leaders had set their differences aside and negotiated the details of independence as a Congolese collective. For the next five years, the founding fathers had to learn about the democratic process while trying to woo runaway provinces back into the fold.

It was in that context, amid a post-electoral constitutional crisis, that 35-year-old Lt. Gen. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (who later changed his name to "Mobutu Sese Seko") staged his coup d’état on Nov. 25, 1965, with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Belgian security services. (The photo above shows then-Colonel Mobutu answering media questions from a car in Léopoldville in 1960.)

Mobutu promised to restore peace and order and to return the country to democratic rule within five years. But seven months after he came to power, Mobutu ordered the execution of four former ministers from the deposed government at a public hanging at Kinshasa’s main stadium for an alleged coup plot. The message of fear registered in the national psyche, and the show of force terrified people into submissiveness.

In an effort to rebrand and reshape Congo, Mobutu renamed the country Zaire. Aware that, historically, Congo’s many power centers had never been consolidated, but determined to be the only one in charge, the president banned political parties and co-opted all citizens into his Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, the new party-state. The Senate and the Assembly were replaced by the Politburo and the Central Committee. But these two political bodies did not shy away from rigorous policy debates, often challenging and sometimes reversing presidential executive orders.

By 1973, after a trip to North Korea and China, Mobutu assumed the titles of Enlightened Helmsman and the Father of the Nation, fostering a robust and pervasive cult of personality, which marked Zaire’s descent into dictatorship. Nevertheless, apart from the military (over which he had total control), he could not fully rein in the other
power centers, such as the Catholic Church, labor unions, and business associations.

Mobutu’s move to consolidate power necessarily included initiatives to unify the country and build a nation. His successive governments were meticulously composed to reflect Congo’s regional and ethnic balance. He integrated the civil service, transferring officials and administrators across the country to leadership posts away from their native provinces. In the military, no ethnic group could represent more than 25 percent of a unit to avoid the ethnic rebellions, such as the M23, that are a central challenge facing Congo’s government today.

Both the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Youth and Sports also invested large financial and programmatic resources to launch a cultural renaissance and an athletic revival aimed at forging national pride. Congolese rhythms emerged as a dominant force in African music, and in 1974, Congo became the first sub-Saharan African country to compete in the World Cup. That same year, the Congolese state underwrote and hosted the Rumble in the Jungle, the historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

With revenues from its mineral resources, Congo expanded its educational system, building new colleges, as well as primary, secondary, and vocational schools. Until 1985, when the International Monetary Fund imposed a structural adjustment program, the Congolese state covered full tuition and granted a stipend to all college and university students. In another successful nation-building project, the state introduced a quota system to guide admission in institutions of higher learning and military academies in order to correct the disparity in educational opportunities between provinces.

During this time, Congo also launched a number of economic projects, creating new state-owned enterprises and a series of pharaonic undertakings such as the Inga dams and the Sidérurgie de Maluku projects. Through these massive centralized projects, Mobutu instilled a strong sense of national unity and pride that still bind Congolese to this day and help keep the country together despite the different waves of conflict and foreign invasions. Today, governance issues notwithstanding, the Congolese see themselves as a nation.

With the protracted conflict in the east, it is sometime hard to imagine a professional Congolese army. But under Mobutu, Congo did manage to raise an adequate army from the ashes of the colonial Force Publique, which was recognized as a military leader in the region for two decades. The United States relied on this army to fight the communists in Angola in the mid-1970s and stop Libya’s expansionist advances in Chad in 1982. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Congolese trained elite troops from several African countries, such as Chad, Rwanda, Burundi, and Togo. Incidentally, Mobutu would later cannibalize and ethnicize the military and other security institutions, relying primarily on his elite, Israeli-trained presidential guard, which recruited mostly from his Ngbandi and Ngbaka ethnic base. With such a limited recruitment pool, Mobutu could no longer retain the most talented and competent military and intelligence officers. Today, the ethnicization of security institutions remains a key driver of instability.

After consolidating power and uniting the nation, Mobutu — and his state — eventually fell victim to his kleptocratic instincts. To remain in power, Mobutu suppressed opposition to his power through a combination of money, force, and deportation. But even as Mobutu’s absolute power was gradually corroded by corruption, he remained the country’s primary centripetal force. He held the center of state power, pulling the country together, but he never fully controlled the countervailing institutions of power. As unchecked patrimonialism weakened the state and the physical and social infrastructures collapsed, the uprising that would undo his power grip came from within his parliament.

After Mobutu’s flight into exile, the Kabila governments all but abandoned his unification efforts, investing little capital in nation-building projects. Meanwhile, the current regime is as patrimonial and kleptocratic as ever, as shown by the recent loss of nearly $1.4 billion in opaque mining deals underpricing national assets. The Sun City Agreement that Robinson highlights as the primary catalyst for structural societal change in post-Mobutu Congo did not lead to better governance, but rather to unprecedented levels of corruption and paralysis of leadership. With its one president and four vice presidents, this transitional arrangement was derided by the Congolese people as the "1+4=0 government." Today, national pride comes from other power centers. All major reforms of consequence, including the electoral system and the revision of mining contracts, were initiated by civil society groups. For now, civil society is the nation’s centripetal force.

Robinson, like so many analysts before him, assumes that patrimonialism and state-building are mutually exclusive. Patrimonialism was a prevalent feature of African politics in Mobutu’s days — yet other African patrimonial regimes are credited for their state-building efforts. During this time, Côte d’Ivoire’s longtime dictator, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, presided over an equally perverse patrimonial system for 33 years. Yet analysts never describe him as a kleptocrat, instead choosing to depict him as the laudable architect of the Ivorian nation. After his death in 1993, Côte d’Ivoire experienced unprecedented political and ethnic strife that culminated in a civil war.

By insisting on the Mobutu regime’s kleptocratic dimension, Robinson fails to acknowledge Mobutu’s achievements as a nation-builder. If the Congolese identify themselves as citizens of a common state today as he notes, it is mostly due to Mobutu’s vision and leadership.

*Correction, May 9, 2014: Mobutu Sese Seko fled Zaire 17 years ago in May 1997. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated in two places and in the subheading that he fled 16 years ago.

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