Absent strongman retains aura Zaire: Seriously ill with prostate cancer in France, the longtime president may yet return to exercise his legendary power in this troubled country.

Sun Journal

November 10, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Michael Hill | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GOMA, Zaire -- On a lakeshore outside this once pleasant resort town lies a ruined palace, testimony to the opulent lifestyle of President Mobutu Sese Seko and the violence that is pushing his country into the annals of African suffering.

Soldiers for one of several rebel armies now guard the sprawling mansion where Mobutu used to sit on ornate chairs with lions thrusting their gilded heads from the armrests. Above him was his own portrait, hammered out of local copper. In one of the bathrooms, there is still a gallon-size jar of French cologne with the label "Je Reviens" -- "I am coming back."

Perhaps Mobutu will indeed come back, and somehow rescue Zaire from joining Rwanda as a humanitarian nightmare. The United States and the nations of Central Africa are waiting to see whether Mobutu -- seriously ill with prostate cancer -- will leave his villa in southern France for Zaire and whether he has the physical and political strength to stop his country's collapse.

Mobutu has much to answer for: a 31-year grip on absolute power; a willful failure to prepare for a smooth succession; his amassing of a personal fortune now estimated in the billions of dollars; and a policy of divide and rule that has left the country all but ungovernable. He has made an awful prediction come nearly true -- that Zaire and Central Africa face a choice between Mobutu and chaos.

He is a leader who likes the grand entrance. At the height of his rule, Zairian television viewers were treated almost nightly to the image of heavenly clouds metamorphosing into the man they have long been indoctrinated to accept as their sole savior. And if ever there was a moment in his country's troubled history when dramatic intervention was needed, it is now.

"Mobutu could come back, appearing out of the clouds as he does on TV, and set this aright in some way," says I. William Zartman, director of African Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

This is some measure of the aura that still surrounds Joseph Desire Mobutu, a former journalist and army sergeant major who seized power in a CIA-backed military coup in 1960 and assumed the name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga. His assumed name translates as this: "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."

Clearly not short of self-esteem, Mobutu, now 66, has also imbued his people with a sense of his almightiness.

"The Zairians have a very clear sense of what Mobutu is -- he is magic," says Jan Vansina, who established the African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin in l965 after Mobutu expelled him from Zaire.

"He is superhuman in a sense. And those who are his enemies as well as his friends feel that," Vansina says. "He has some sort of supernatural power which has enabled him to fall on his feet through all the crises so far. The thing they are wondering about now is whether he still has that power."

In recent years, Mobutu has abandoned Kinshasa, the capital, for a palace in his native village of Gbadolite. He has kept control of central power through a loyal palace guard but allowed regional chieftains and warlords to establish their own fiefdoms in many of the 21 provinces of the country, the size of Western Europe.

And this decentralization is turning out to be a recipe for disaster.

"You have a situation where those who have might will rule," says Kathi Austin, an analyst with Washington's Institute for Policy Studies who recently returned from Zaire. "It's very similar to Somalia. It's the same old story" -- of a state created by colonial powers fracturing into small, mutually hostile parts.

Mobutu's power has its roots in the 1960 independence of the Congo -- later renamed Zaire -- from Belgian colonial rule. Under the Belgians, Mobutu rose to the highest military rank open to a native-born soldier, sergeant major. After independence he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and then appointed army chief of staff.

It took him just three months to stage the CIA-backed coup, to counter post-independence anarchy. Mobutu ousted President Joseph Kasavubu and the pro-Soviet prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu relinquished power to Kasavubu within a few months and engineered the arrest of Lumumba, who was later killed while reportedly trying to escape. Lumumba's death was widely viewed as a political assassination. This did not stop Mobutu from declaring Lumumba a national hero a year later.

Kasavubu rewarded Mobutu with promotion to major general and then as commander in chief of all armed forces. Five years later, in 1965, Mobutu ousted Kasavubu and declared himself president.

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