Leaving Fire in His Wake

  • Share
  • Read Later
Shafts of equatorial sunshine pierce the jungle canopy and stained-glass windows of a tiny chapel, capturing the dictator's head in a halo of multicolored light. An imposing man in a gray sharkskin suit and shiny black shoes, he clasps his large hands and kneels in prayer, silently reciting the Eucharist service.

Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko seldom misses Sunday Mass. It is a ritual he has faithfully observed during his nearly 30 years of absolute power, a tenure marked by the torture and killing of his opponents and corruption that has funneled much of his nation's wealth into his private pocket. Now 62 and in robust health, Mobutu governs from his native fiefdom of Gbadolite, a jungle village close to the equator. Surrounded at all times by heavily armed troops, he remains impervious to the growing clamor among 35 million Zairians for an end to his disastrously autocratic rule.

"If my people need me," Mobutu says with a smile, "I can certainly remain in power for another five, 10 or even 20 years." Any hope that he will peacefully step aside is belied by the name he took for himself several years after he seized power in the 1960s: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga (the all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, shall go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake).

After church, Mobutu joins guests for a flute of his favorite pink Laurent Perrier champagne at the nearby presidential palace. Like an amiable monarch amid courtiers, he bows gracefully to kiss a woman's hand and banters politely with a local Jesuit priest before herding everyone across an immense terrace toward a buffet laden with lobster and thick steaks. In the 100 degrees heat, a wave of satisfaction seems to envelop the presidential party, a sense that all is still well in this remote hinterland far from the chaos afflicting the rest of the country.

Mobutu's personal fortune, built on a network of private businesses, the pilfering of public resources and skimming the foreign aid that has flowed into his country, has been estimated at $5 billion. He has bank accounts in Switzerland and other countries, an apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris, a palatial villa at Cap-Martin on the French Riviera and other residences in Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Senegal. When pressed, he swears on his "honor as a Christian and a chief" that his available funds amount to "no more than $10 million." He does concede, however, that this absurdly low figure does not include his foreign real estate holdings and other assets he does not consider liquid.

In Gbadolite, Mobutu lives in a series of garish palaces guarded by soldiers drawn from his own Bangala tribe. An early riser, he often tunes in newscasts via satellites. It was after watching the televised execution of his old friend President Nicolae Ceaucescu of Romania, for example, that he decided to embark Zaire on its now stalled "transition to democracy." After breakfast he accords audiences that can stretch into the afternoon; then he relaxes with % his family or studies biographies of men he admires, including Napoleon and De Gaulle. Mobutu is fascinated by Machiavelli, whose treatise The Prince he used to keep at his bedside.

These days he avoids trips to the capital or other major cities, although the Gbadolite village airstrip can accommodate the supersonic Concorde that Mobutu charters from Air France as well as a number of Boeing jets in the presidential fleet. Exquisite flower gardens and vast plantations of pineapple imbue Gbadolite with an air of bucolic tranquillity. But it is a Potemkin village: most of the electricity is switched off when the dictator and his circle are absent, leaving thousands of townspeople to fend for themselves in the tropical darkness.

His hold on power is based on his brutality, his control of key military units and broadcast media, and his elite security forces. But there is also a personal element: his knack for co-opting former enemies is little short of amazing. Nguza Karl-i-Bond, who published an account of brutal tortures inflicted on him by Mobutu's minions, later proceeded to serve him twice as Prime Minister. As Mobutu shifts appointees in and out of office, sometimes on a monthly basis, erstwhile opponents have shown a willingness to return to his orbit, occasionally banking tidy sums in the process.

Equally noteworthy has been Mobutu's quest for sexual favors among the wives of political associates. "The President enjoys an almost feudal droit du seigneur," explains a former Cabinet minister. "He uses sex as a tool to dominate the men around him. You get money or a Mercedes-Benz, and he takes your wife and you work for him." Says a former longtime resident of Gbadolite: "The complaints of those he has cuckolded only add to his mystique as a virile and powerful ruler."

Outside Gbadolite, Mobutu's hold on power is more tenuous. More than a thousand miles away in the teeming slums and decaying center of Kinshasa, Zaire's capital, hundreds of people have died in the past month in clashes with Mobutu's Israeli-trained security forces. Looting by unpaid military units has ravaged the city, obliging Belgium and France to send troops to rescue most of their remaining nationals. Both countries, joined by the U.S., have demanded that Mobutu proceed immediately with a transition to democracy that he initiated in 1990 and has since halted.

Until recently, Mobutu was considered a close strategic ally and personal friend by President George Bush. This week, however, the Clinton Administration may announce tough economic and diplomatic sanctions targeted personally at the Zairian leader. "I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the U.S.," the dictator says bitterly. "The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing."

An unarmed opposition is precariously united behind Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, a human-rights activist and a bitter personal enemy of the President's. Last week each accused the other of treason as Mobutu tried to dismiss Tshisekedi, who adamantly refuses to step down. "The killings in recent weeks have only made Mobutu stronger," cautions a senior Western diplomat, who notes that the dictator's demise has often been forecast before. "He clearly calculates that the physical elimination of a few of his enemies will have a deterrent effect on the rest of the population."

The danger is that Zaire, a vast territory 20% larger than Mexico, could begin to disintegrate, plunging its 250-odd tribal groups into a nightmarish civil war of the kind that has left tens of thousands dead in Somalia and Liberia. Shortages of food and gasoline are severe; road and rail links between major cities have been virtually swallowed by the encroaching jungle. Even in the capital's Mama Yemo hospital -- named for Mobutu's deceased mother -- children suffer without medication, and hundreds of victims of the AIDS epidemic die untreated. In the trackless bush, where millions of peasants and tribesmen still live, the scourges of leprosy, trypanosomiasis and malaria are again pandemic.

With inflation at 7,000%, banks are closed and people shop clutching sacks full of almost useless paper currency. Zaire's central monetary authority, which Mobutu has in the past treated as a personal piggy bank, is virtually bankrupt. Not long ago, a private German printer, claiming it had not been paid, halted shipments to Kinshasa of thousands of metric tons of new Zairian currency needed to keep up with local inflation.

Mobutu rose to power in part because of his native ability as a leader and orator and his physical courage in the face of danger, qualities that impressed the CIA and other sponsors. "I was given a number of individuals to spot and assess," recalls Larry Devlin, the CIA agent who guided Mobutu in the early 1960s. "Even though he was only 29 at the time, everyone who saw him recognized his intelligence and personal presence; he acted like an African leader -- understanding his supporters as well as his opponents; he was the best political mind on the scene." Mobutu's personal ambition meshed with America's strategic needs. As Devlin says dryly, "We needed him and he needed us."

With the CIA's help, Mobutu stepped into the power vacuum that followed the Belgian Congo's chaotic independence in 1960. Staging a bloodless coup, he took power, only to hand it back to a civilian President. The next year, ousted Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who had turned increasingly to the Soviet Union for support, was assassinated in an operation that benefited both Mobutu and the CIA. "I received instructions to see that Lumumba was removed from the world," recalls Devlin. "I received poison toothpaste, among other devices, but never used them." Mobutu seized control for good in a second coup, in 1965.

During Mobutu's early years as President, he was hailed as an exemplar of the new breed of postcolonial African leader. He brought a fragile unity to his country, built schools and hospitals and forged a nonaligned approach to foreign policy. But as Zaire reeled under his economic mismanagement, compounded by the 1973 oil shock and a sharp drop in the price of copper exports, Mobutu resorted to calamitous improvisation. Following a trip to China, he launched a showy "authenticity" campaign designed to reduce Western influence and return his country to its African roots. Many foreign assets were nationalized, giving Mobutu tighter control over those sources of income.

Mobutu still managed to cut a dashing if reptilian figure on the international stage. Resplendent in his leopardskin toque, symbol of his authority as a traditional tribal chief, the jovial dictator has had little difficulty charming nearly all U.S. Presidents stretching back to John Kennedy. Political friendships with a long line of leaders in China, Romania, France, North Korea, South Africa and Israel (where he trained as a paratrooper) made him a widely traveled statesman. Some were seduced by Mobutu's eagerness to serve as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the heart of Africa, others by Zaire's natural treasure trove of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, and the uranium used in the American nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.

As Mobutu never tires of saying, whenever the U.S. needed a favor, he was usually delighted to oblige. He turned over facilities to the CIA in support of Jonas Savimbi, an American client in the still festering Angolan civil war, and helped train forces loyal to Hissene Habre, the West's ousted candidate for leadership in Chad. Zaire chaired the U.N. Security Council in January 1991 when the crucial votes were taken to approve military action against Iraq in the Gulf War. A senior U.S. official says Washington suggested to Kuwait that Mobutu's vote in favor of allied military strikes be generously rewarded. That initiative could be viewed as an attempt to circumvent U.S. law, which has for several years banned all but humanitarian aid to Zaire.

Impulsive and generous to a fault with relatives and friends, Mobutu must contend with their incessant demands for money and favors. One major distraction has been a feud between children of his late first wife Marie- Antoinette and those of his second, Bobi Ladawa. Another has been rivalry between Bobi Ladawa and her identical twin, a widow whom Mobutu took as a mistress some years ago and with whom he promptly had several children. Though such behavior has roots in African tradition, it has led to raucous family turmoil that represents a significant drain on the time Mobutu devotes to statecraft.

As he sits on his terrace and watches an array of computer-controlled fountains dance to the easy-listening melodies from his sound system, with an officer in camouflage fatigues standing at attention nearby, Mobutu shows no signs of fearing the turmoil that threatens to engulf him. "I have rendered my country and people an enormous service," he says, beckoning to a servant who rushes up with an iced Baccarat tumbler of Coca-Cola. "They owe me everything." Then why not hold elections? "I plan to. I would win them." Then he leans back in his gold thronelike chair, staring into the distant jungle. "If ever I leave power, it will be only in conditions of beauty, never under pressure."