MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 1

International Socialist Review, Summer 1997

Notes of the Quarter

Zaire: A U.S.-made dictator falls

From International Socialist Review, Issue 1, Summer 1997.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The U.S. government showed little sympathy for its old friend, Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, as his downfall reached an advanced stage earlier this year. In denouncing the “sad conditions that many people in Zaire live in,” White House spokesperson Mike McCurry declared in April that “Mobutuism is about to become a creature of history.”

It was an ironic choice of words. For almost four decades, Mobutu was the monstrous creature of the U.S. government in central Africa – paid off, propped up and set in motion by the CIA.

Mobutu first came to prominence as an army officer in the final days of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule over Zaire, then known as the Congo. Faced with strikes and riots – and demonstrations at home in opposition to a war in Africa – the Belgian government decided to grant independence and elections in 1960 in the hopes that a friendly government would come to power. But the new government was headed by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the main leader of the struggle against colonial rule.

Fresh from the humiliation of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the U.S. government viewed the Congo as the next domino ready to fall under the influence of the USSR. The CIA set out to buy influence, and one of its first purchases was Mobutu, the chief of staff of the army. When Lumumba threatened to go to the USSR for military support, the U.S. gave the green light for a coup. Mobutu declared martial law, placed Lumumba under house arrest and later had him murdered.

Thanks to U.S. backing, Mobutu survived the five years of civil war that followed and, in 1965, installed himself as president. In the Cold War battle against the USSR, he was the U.S.’s top ally in central Africa, counted on to safeguard Western access to the region’s mineral wealth. Zaire became a launching pad for U.S.-backed military adventures, including the CIA’s dirty war against the pro-USSR Angolan government in the late 1970s. In return, the U.S. propped up Mobutu whenever he faced opposition at home. Using U.S. aircraft and supplies, Belgian, French and Moroccan troops put down several armed revolts during the 1960s and 1970s.

So long as Mobutu helped keep central Africa safe for Western interests, the U.S. was willing to tolerate a great deal from the dictator, including his “Zairianization” campaign. Cities, provinces and the country itself were given “authentic” African names – Mobutu himself took the name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga, which, according to an official government translation, means: “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” More to the point, “Zairianization” involved the nationalization of some 1,500 foreign-owned companies, including much of the mineral industry.

The campaign was partly to give a nationalist cover for Mobutu’s relationship with Western imperialism. But it was also to get his hands on the loot. Mobutu began systematically plundering the Zairian economy, amassing a personal fortune today estimated at $5.5 billion. Mobutu and his cronies simply stole from the state-run mining company. When mineral prices began to decline in the 1980s, company executives not only pocketed every dollar of revenue but looted their own operations, selling off everything from spare parts to fuel and smuggling huge amounts of minerals out of the country.

The result was a catastrophic decline in production – Zaire produced 459,342 metric tons of copper in 1980 and just 33,600 in 1994. The story has been the same throughout the economy. According to the World Bank, Zaire’s per capita Gross National Product fell by 4 percent per year since 1970.

Yet these figures don’t capture the disastrous state of Zaire’s economy. Real wages are estimated to be at one-tenth the level they were at the end of colonial rule. Nearly nine-tenths of the country’s road system is unusable due to neglect, leaving less than 1,000 miles of paved road in a country the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Public transportation for the 4.5 million inhabitants of the capital city of Kinshasa amounts to a fleet of ancient Volkswagen minivans. Zaire may be the richest nation in Africa in terms of natural resources, but more than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

It is no wonder therefore that Zairians welcomed the armed rebellion of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). Though the U.S. began to distance itself from Mobutu in the early 1990s, demonstrators at the celebrations that greeted the rebels on their march to Kinshasa denounced the “troika” behind Mobutu – Belgium, France and the U.S.

But whether a Zaire run by the rebels will do more than replace the elite around Mobutu – whether it will challenge Western imperialism – is far from certain. Part of the guerrilla struggle against Mobutu since 1960, rebel leader Laurent Kabila is a recent convert to the free market. His rebels have signed huge deals with Western companies to revive Zaire’s mining industry – with the AFDL as part owners. Kabila’s main backers are Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame. Both led guerrilla struggles against Western-backed regimes but have since become reliable U.S. allies. What’s more, while the rebels are backed by many of Zaire’s mass of different ethnic groups, the rebel army is dominated by Tutsis and has attacked Hutu refugees from Rwanda. Some of the Hutu refugees were soldiers and militia members involved in the former Rwandan government’s 1994 genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. But the majority are ordinary Hutus who have become pawns in Zaire’s civil war.

The rebellion in Zaire is a fitting revenge against one of the world’s cruelest dictators. But whether it does more than replace the elite at the top of Zaire with a new set of rulers – perhaps more democratic but still dedicated to safeguarding their own wealth and the interests of the West – depends on whether ordinary Zairians take action.

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