Friday 21 September 2012
Last Update 21 September 2012 2:42 am
He was certainly one of the strangest leaders I have ever met. Even in Africa, following its independence from the European colonial rule, which was certainly one of the continent’s worst disasters, he was bizarre and brutal.
I met him in Jeddah during his official visit at the guest palace that had been commissioned by the late King Faisal. It remained for a long time one of Jeddah’s best landmarks and received a large number of prominent guests.
Mobuto Sese Seko held a small press conference probably reluctantly as was revealed during the proceedings. He was arrogant, discontented and altogether uneasy. His answers and comments were curt and at times way out of the subject. He spoke in French because at the time he did not know English well.
He seized power in Congo after a disastrous control by the Belgians who went there for one reason — to milk it dry of its fabulous wealth from diamonds to gold to raw materials of all sorts. Books written and published recently make a mockery of the so-called white man’s burden, there was no mission as such. And if the British and French colonialists were able to do something good the Belgians did not. Diamonds were plundered for peanuts.
The press conference was pathetic as very few of those present cared to ask any question fearing fierce reaction from Mobuto. Subsequently, very few paragraphs of the press conference were printed.
Mobuto was born in l930 and had a checkered career under Belgian hegemony that meant almost total control and plunder. He eventually became president of Congo also later known as Zaire and remained president from l965 to l997. He had become a virtual dictator amassing vast wealth, which according to sources, who were overseeing it, amounted to $ 5,000 million or equal to the country’s national debt. When the report was published and circulated by the news agencies it shocked the world. The report was prominently played up by news agencies and newspapers.
Obviously the diamond companies and the donors must have known about it. But the man did not seem to care and went on as if nothing had happened. Strange enough only three and a half million dollars were found in the Swiss banks in his name. The rest must have been deposited in other names.
While in power he owned fleets of Mercedes cars and traveled abroad by chartered Concorde aircraft, which must have cost a fortune each time as he kept the planes and their crews waiting for him until he decided to return home.
Following independence on June 30, l960, a coalition government was formed led by popular Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. But the nation quickly descended into a bloody civil war fanned by foreign powers intent on holding on to their wealth and influence on the unbelievable riches of a country without a proper government or army. When the army mutinied, Mobuto as chief of staff toured the country convincing the mutineers to return to their barracks and at the same time consolidating his hold on power. Encouraged by the Belgian government which was intent on securing its access to diamonds and gold secessionist uprisings erupted in the south. Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union and the Cold War became very hot with Congo as its main theater. Soviet arms, money and troops poured in while the United States too was sucked into the war. Mobuto spearheaded a coup sponsored by the CIA and got rid of Lumumba.
According to his biography he consolidated his power by publicly executing scores of perceived political enemies before a crowd of 50,000 spectators. The victims included former Prime Minister Evasrista Kimba and three ministers.
His end came when he was overthrown in the first Congo war by Laurent Kabila, who was supported by the governments of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. He was suffering from cancer when he went into exile in Morocco where he died in l997. He was buried in Rabat.
According to Transparency International, Mobuto embezzled five billion dollars from his country, ranking him as the third most corrupt leader in the past two decades, and the most corrupt African leader during the same period.
n Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.