Today we’re wrapping up our review of Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest
It’s no secret that Mobutu Sese Seko (ne Joseph-Desiré Mobutu) was a shitty dictator who forced school children to sing anthems praising him every morning and had his own citizens tortured if they disputed his claim to be immortal.
Of course Mobuto was not immortal; he is now very much dead.
But let’s back up a minute:
Patrice Lumumba was an anti-colonialist protestor who was jailed for opposing Belgian rule in the Congo and became the first democratically elected prime minister of the DRC.
He then gave raises to everyone in the government except the military, so of course the military revolted. He asked the UN for help putting down the rebellion, but the UN sucked so he went to the Soviets.
American hates the Soviets, so America + Belgium helped Mobutu overthrow the government, kill Lumumba, and squash the rebellion.
The execution is thought to have taken place on 17 January 1961, between 21:40 and 21:43 (according to the Belgian report.) The Belgians and their counterparts wished to get rid of the bodies, and did so by digging up and dismembering the bodies, then having them dissolved in sulphuric acid while the bones were ground and scattered. (Source)
Mobutu became dictator and changed the country’s name to Zaire to show that he was totally anti-colonialist, despite using Belgian money and soldiers to overthrow the democratically elected government anti-colonialist government of the DRC.
During his reign, Mobutu built a highly centralized state and amassed a large personal fortune through economic exploitation and corruption, leading some to call his rule a “kleptocracy.” The nation suffered from uncontrolled inflation, a large debt, and massive currency devaluations. (source)
I seriously question the idea of a “highly centralized state” in the DRC, given the lack of basic things like roads, but I think I know what Wikipedia is trying to say.
But, say what you will, Mobutu did crush several rebellions and bring a relative order of peace to his country:
By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and for the most part, law and order was brought to nearly all parts of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu’s legitimacy and power. King Baudouin of Belgium, made a highly successful state visit to Kinshasa. …
Early in his rule[when?], Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. To set an example, many were hanged before large audiences, including former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba, who, with three cabinet members – Jérôme Anany (Defense Minister), Emmanuel Bamba (Finance Minister), and Alexandre Mahamba (Minister of Mines and Energy) – was tried in May 1966, and sent to the gallows on 30 May, before an audience of 50,000 spectators. …
Mobutu later moved away from torture and murder, and switched to a new tactic, buying off political rivals. He used the slogan “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still” to describe his tactic of co-opting political opponents through bribery.
The idea that Mobutu was somehow more pro-capitalist than Lumumba is silly, of course, but somehow the capitalist colonialists didn’t get the joke:
[Mobutu] initially nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country. In many cases he handed the management of these firms to relatives and close associates who stole the companies’ assets. This precipitated such an economic slump that Mobutu was forced by 1977 to try to woo foreign investors back. Katangan rebels based in Angola invaded Zaire in 1977 in retaliation for Mobutu’s support for anti-MPLA rebels. France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan paratroopers into the country and repulsed the rebels, ending Shaba I. The rebels attacked Zaire again, in greater numbers, in the Shaba II invasion of 1978. The governments of Belgium and France deployed troops with logistical support from the United States and defeated the rebels again.
Why the US, France, or Belgium should spend their money to help Mobutu is beyond me, but I suppose he was our anti-European communist oligarch and not the USSR’s anti-European communist oligarch.
Mobutu might have started out as a smart guy. The Wikipedia certainly gives that impression. But he ran his country like an idiot.
He spent most of his time increasing his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion, most of it in Swiss banks … This was almost equivalent to the country’s foreign debt at the time, and, by 1989, the government was forced to default on international loans from Belgium. He owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation’s roads rotted and many of his people starved. Infrastructure virtually collapsed, and many public service workers went months without being paid. … A popular saying that the civil servants pretended to work while the state pretended to pay them expressed this grim reality.
Another feature of Mobutu’s economic mismanagement, directly linked to the way he and his friends siphoned off so much of the country’s wealth, was rampant inflation. The rapid decline in the real value of salaries strongly encouraged a culture of corruption and dishonesty among public servants of all kinds.
At some point, according to Isaac Bacirongo, Mobutu actually stopped paying the army, telling them “You have guns; go get money yourself.” (I am only remembering the quote so it may not be exact.) Unsurprisingly, the army began exploiting the ordinary citizens even more than usual, and when the DRC got invaded yet again, didn’t bother defending it.
He was also the subject of one of the most pervasive personality cults of the 20th century. The evening news on television was preceded by an image of him descending through clouds like a god descending from the heavens. Portraits of him adorned many public places, and government officials wore lapels bearing his portrait. He held such titles as “Father of the Nation,” “Messiah,” “Guide of the Revolution,” “Helmsman,” “Founder,” “Savior of the People,” and “Supreme Combatant.” In the 1996 documentary of the 1974 Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire, dancers receiving the fighters can be heard chanting “Sese Seko, Sese Seko.” At one point, in early 1975, the media was even forbidden from mentioning by name anyone but Mobutu; others were referred to only by the positions they held.
Isaac Bacirongo once told a neighbor that he didn’t think Mobutu was actually immortal. The neighbor reported Isaac to the secret police, who arrested and tortured him every day for, IIRC, two weeks. They considered transferring him to a formal prison for political prisoners, where he probably would have been tortured more, but in an ironic twist of fortune, decided that Pygmies were worthless and so couldn’t be real political opponents and so not worth the bother of imprisoning. So Isaac was released.
Here the story gets a little complicated, because it involves other countries, but I’ll try to keep it short:
Over in Rwanda, the Tutusis were a small minority of relatively well-off people and the Hutus were a large majority of very poor people. So the Hutus kicked out the Tutsis, leading to a lot of Tutsis living in places like the DRC. The Tutsis got themselves an army, and in 1994, shot down the Rwandan president’s plane. This enraged the already not happy Hutus, who responded by killing all of the Tutsis they could get their hands on (resulting in more refugees.) The Tutsi army responded by invading Rwanda and taking over, resulting in a bunch of Hutu refugees.
Isaac notes that the sudden influx of refugees into his area made the price of unskilled labor plummet. He took advantage of this by hiring workers to build him a second, extremely cheap house.
But of course immigration and the cost of labor have nothing to do with each other.
Anyway, then Kabila, a dedicated Marxist who’d worked with Che Guevara back in the day*, with the help of the Tutsi army, invaded and conquered the DRC. This worked out for the Tutsi army, which got to shoot all of the Hutu refugees in the DRC, and worked out for Kabila, who promptly abandoned Marxism in favor of being Mobutu 2.0.
*Even Che Guevara didn’t think much of Kabila:
[Kabila] was sent[by whom?] to eastern Congo to help organize a revolution, in particular in the Kivu and North Katanga provinces. In 1965, Kabila set up a cross-border rebel operation from Kigoma, Tanzania, across Lake Tanganyika. …
Che Guevara assisted Kabila for a short time in 1965. Guevara had appeared in the Congo with approximately 100 men who planned to bring about a Cuban-style revolution. Guevara judged Kabila (then 26) as “not the man of the hour” he had alluded to, being too distracted. This, in Guevara’s opinion, accounted for Kabila showing up days late at times to provide supplies, aid, or backup to Guevara’s men. The lack of cooperation between Kabila and Guevara contributed to the suppression of the revolt that same year.
… After the failure of the rebellion, Kabila turned to smuggling gold and timber on Lake Tanganyika. He also ran a bar and brothel in Tanzania.
Kabila was later shot by one of his own bodyguards.
Isaac himself was only about 500 meters away when the invading army began massacring Hutu refugees who had gathered in his area. He and a friend’s children escaped into the forest, where they reverted to hunting and gathering while hiding from the army. (In this case, it was a very good thing Isaac was a Pygmy; if I had to survive in the Congolese rainforest for a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t know the first thing about gathering food.) Isaac’s entire family thought he was dead until he managed to return home.
The security situation deteriorated from there, with the country split between two armies and a bunch of militias in the forests. Now instead of merely jailing and torturing people, the armies took to shooting them. Trade and commerce broke down because you couldn’t travel anywhere because the different armies would shoot you if you went into a different part of the country, and besides, the armies were just stealing everything. They looted one of Isaac’s pharmacies and then burned it down.
Sad to say, it sounds like everyone was actually better off under Mobutu.
Around this time, Isaac decided to become a Pygmy rights advocate and went to a couple of international conferences to speak about how Pygmies are discriminated against by Bantus, not allowed to hunt in the national parks, etc., and was promptly arrested for making the government look bad. He managed to bribe his way out of prison and fled the country in the middle of the night, convinced that if he stayed, he’d be killed.
Isaac was lucky to escape.
I wager the security situation in the DRC is still a mess.