Tale of a Tyrant

by Greg Goma

from Toward Freedom magazine June / July 1997


Nearly seven years ago, Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's 'president for life," announced the end of his one party state. But the transition didn't come, promised elections never took place, and repression continued. Meanwhile, two US administrations looked away, and the media continued its policy of self-imposed ignorance. But none of this was a surprise. It has been going on already for 30 years. Even today, as the Mobuto era ends, you aren't likely to hear how Zaire came under the heel of this tyrant. The short version is this: The US put him there, and propped him up for decades as part of its Cold War strategy in Africa.

But let's look deeper. In 1960, Zaire-then known as the Belgian Congo-declared its independence, even as Belgians predicted they'd continue to rule for another century. In the end, all they tried to save were their mining interests and farms. Out of this revolution emerged Patrice Lumumba, the nation's first Prime Minister. But Lumumba was considered a communist by Washington, and therefore a threat to US interests.

Perhaps it was his attempt to have UN troops step in that sealed his fate. However it was decided, Lumumba became another target for murder in the CIA's "golden age" of destabilization campaigns. It would be no problem for the team that had overthrown regimes from Guatemala and Greece to Iran. Clearly, the country was ripe for an assassination, with fights breaking out between tribes and political parties. In the richest province, Katanga, Moise Tshombe became leader and declared the region's independence.

In addition to its heartland status in Africa, Zaire was vital because of its vast mineral resources: it was one of the worlds Largest copper and industrial diamond producers, and had gold, manganese, zinc, cobalt, and silver. In short, the region was an important source of raw materials for the emerging military-industrial complex. Its uranium, one of the only known sources during World War II, was used in the first atomic bombs.

With Belgian and US support, an Israeli-trained paratrooper named Mobuto became Military Chief, then leader of a coup that deposed Lumumba in less than a year. Mobuto turned him over to Tshombe his archenemy who finished the job. For several years more the country, whose artificial boundaries had been set in negotiations between Belgium, Britain, France, and Portugal, hovered at the edge of civil war. But the US backed Mobuto, then called Colonel, and has supported him ever since.

As President, Mobutu stashed a huge fortune in Swiss banks. But he was still our anti-communist bulwark. His rapaciousness spread through the bureaucracy, especially the army, but no discouraging words were uttered by his overseers. Much of his loot came from US taxpayers, yet the anti-tax crowd was mum. He even pocketed CIA money provided to support 'contras" in Angola. It made no difference. Mobuto was our friend," after all, part of the elite club that included-at least for a while- Noriega in Panama, Marcos in the Philippines, Diem and Thieu in Vietnam, Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua, Suharto in Indonesia, and the Shah in Iran.

And what did our "friend" do to his country? The World Bank, no less, said recently that Zaire's economy has shrunk to its 1958 level-despite almost triple the population, public finances are a mess, the national currency is worthless, and the State is insolvent. Upon independence, Zaire had the highest literacy rate in Africa; today, little more than half of all children attend schools. When open at all, they don't have text books and students often have to sit on the floor. Even the desks have been looted.

It's finally accepted that Mobutu is a tyrant. But the country's new "liberator," Laurent Desire Kabila, has already announced plans to suspend all political parties. According to Human Rights Watch, although Kabila's Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) don't match the brutality of Mobutu's army, they have targeted civilians, used children as soldiers, and attacked refugee camps. After victory, Kabila wants to bar anyone linked to the previous regime from participating in the transition.

And so, almost 40 years after its independence struggle began, the divisions created by imperial schemes still hobble what was once the continent's most promising new nation. Another tyrant has fallen, but the damage has been done. And the real culprits-some of them even mouthing belated outrage-escape with impunity again.

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