Apocalypse Now

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Ever since british-american adventurer Henry Morton Stanley set off to explore the origins of the Nile River and central Africa's interior in 1874, the vast jungle-covered country of Congo has held a strange fascination for Westerners. It is an interest largely fueled by the written word. Popular Congo tomes include Through the Dark Continent, Stanley's 1877 account of his trip down the Congo River, Joseph Conrad's 1902 classic Heart of Darkness, which explores the cruelty of Europeans "developing" the region (and not African barbarism as is commonly thought), and Adam Hochschild's more recent King Leopold's Ghost. But these books all focus on the early colonial period.

A new book by London Financial Times journalist Michela Wrong provides a gripping version of what has happened in the post-colonial years. In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (Fourth Estate; 324 pages) concentrates, naturally enough, on Mobutu Sese Seko's rise to power and kleptocratic 32-year rule. While Wrong fails to uncover the whereabouts of the billions of dollars Mobutu and his cronies allegedly stashed in bank accounts around the world, she does supply details of how he made his money and in so doing made normal "the notion of state as ravaging predator." At one stage, Wrong writes, officials "were stealing at least $240 million a year" from the state-owned copper mine and logging it in company reports "under the wonderfully ambiguous term-exceptional recovery deficit.' "

The book is built around colorful vignettes describing aspects of life in Africa's third-largest country. One of the most interesting concerns the small nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital. Built in the 1950s with American and Belgian help by Luc Gillon, an obsessive Belgian priest-turned-nuclear physicist, the reactor became a symbol of the newly independent Congo's wealth and a source of pride for Mobutu, who attended any special events at the site and provided extra funding when needed. Today, the reactor, built in an area prone to landslides, is held together with locally made do-it-yourself parts and is turned on for a few minutes once a week to make sure it is still working.

The book is the result of meticulous reporting-sources include Mobutu's son, a former head of the intelligence service known as the Enforcer, and the cia's man in Kinshasa in the early '60s. It gives readers a firsthand account of the frightening craziness in Kinshasa in the last days of Mobutu's reign when he was dying of cancer, unwilling to trust any of his advisers and forced to borrow a Russian cargo plane to escape the advancing rebel attack. His exile in Morocco did not last long. Less than four months later he died; relatives buried him in Rabat's main Catholic Cemetery. His supporters in the Democratic Republic of Congo hope that one day they can bring his remains home. Until then, they say, Mobutu will not rest.