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A New King for the Congo


The Congo, which used to be a Belgian colony, is now an African kingdom and is called Zaire. It appears to be a nonsense name, a sixteenth-century Portuguese corruption, some Zairois will tell you, of a local word for “river.” So it is as if Taiwan, reasserting its Chinese identity, were again to give itself the Portuguese name of Formosa. The Congo River is now called the Zaire, as is the local currency, which is almost worthless.

The man who has made himself king of this land of the three Zs—pays, fleuve, monnaie—used to be called Joseph Mobutu. His father was a cook. But Joseph Mobutu was educated; he was at some time, in the Belgian days, a journalist. In 1960, when the country became independent, Mobutu was thirty, a sergeant in the local Force Publique. The Force Publique became the Congolese National Army. Mobutu became the colonel and commander, and through the mutinies, rebellions, and secessions of the years after independence he retained the loyalty of one paratroop brigade. In 1965, as General Mobutu, he seized power; and as he has imposed order on the army and the country so his style has changed, and become more African. He has abandoned the name of Joseph and is now known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga.

As General Mobutu he used to be photographed in army uniform. Now, as Mobutu Sese Seko, he wears what he has made, by his example, the Zairois court costume. It is a stylish version of the standard two-piece suit. The jacket has high, wide lapels and is buttoned all the way down; the sleeves can be long or short. A boldly patterned cravat replaces the tie, which has more or less been outlawed; and a breast-pocket handkerchief matches the cravat. On less formal occasions—when he goes among the people—Mobutu wears flowered shirts. Always, in public, he wears a leopard-skin cap and carries an elaborately carved stick.

These—the cap and the stick—are the emblems of his African chieftaincy. Only the chief can kill the leopard. The stick is carved with symbolic figures: two birds, what looks like a snake, a human figure with a distended belly. No Zairois I met could explain the symbolism. One teacher pretended not to know what was carved, and said, “We would all like to have sticks like that.” In some local carving, though, the belly of the human figure is distended because it contains the fetish. The stick is accepted by Zairois as the stick of the chief. While the chief holds the stick off the ground the people around him can speak; when the chief sets his stick on the ground the people fall silent and the chief gives his decision.

Explaining the constitution and the president’s almost unlimited powers, Profils du Zaire, the new official handbook (of variable price: four zaires, eight dollars, the pavement-seller’s “first” price, two zaires his “last” price), Profils du Zaire quotes Montesquieu on the functions of the state. Elima, the official daily, has another, African view of government. “In Zaire we have inherited from our ancestors a profound respect for the liberties of others. This is why our ancestors were so given to conciliation, people accustomed to the palaver (la palabre), accustomed, that is, to discussions that established each man in his rights.”

So Montesquieu and the ancestors are made to meet. And ancestral ways turn out to be advanced. It is only a matter of finding the right words. The palaver is, after all, a “dialogue”; chief’s rule is government by dialogue. But when the chief speaks, when the chief sets his carved stick on the ground, the modern dialogue stops; and Africa of the ancestors takes over. The chief’s words, as Elima (having it all ways) has sometimes to remind “antirevolutionary” elements, cannot be questioned.

It is said that the last five words of Mobutu’s African name are a reference to the sexual virility which the African chief must possess: he is the cock that leaves no hen alone. But the words may only be symbolic. Because, as chief, Mobutu is “married” to his people—“The Marriage of Sese [Mobutu]” is a “revolutionary” song—and, as in the good old days of the ancestors, comme au bon vieux temps de nos ancêtres, the chief always holds fast to his people. This marriage of the chief can be explained in another, more legalistic way: the chief has a “contract” with his people. He fulfills his contract through the apparatus of a modern state, but the ministers and commissioners are only the chief’s “collaborators,” “the umbilical cord between the power and the people.”

The chief, the lord wedded to his people, le pouvoir: the attributes begin to multiply. Mobutu is also the Guide of the Authentic Zairois Revolution, the Father of the Nation, the President-Founder of the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, the country’s only political party. So that, in nomenclature as in the stylish national dress he has devised, he combines old Africa with what is progressive and new. Just as a Guy Dormeuil suit (160 zaires in the Kinshasa shops, 320 dollars) can, with cravat and matching handkerchief, become an authentic Zairois national costume, so a number of imported glamorous ideas bolster Mobutu’s African chieftaincy.

He is citizen, chief, king, revolutionary; he is an African freedom fighter; he is supported by the spirits of the ancestors; like Mao, he has published a book of thoughts (Mobutu’s book is green). He has occupied every ideological position and the basis of his kingship cannot be questioned. He rules; he is grand; and, like a medieval king, he is at once loved and feared. He controls the armed forces; they are his creation; in Kinshasa he still sleeps in an army camp. Like Leopold II of the Belgians, in the time of the Congo Free State—much of whose despotic legislation (ownership of the mines in 1888, all vacant lands in 1890, the fruits of the earth in 1891) has passed down through the Belgian colonial administration to the present regime, and is now presented as a kind of ancestral African socialism—like Leopold II, Mobutu owns Zaire.


Mohammed Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa last November. Ali won; but the victor, in Zaire, was Mobutu. A big billboard outside the stadium still says, in English below the French: “A fight between two Blacks (deux noirs), in a Black Nation (un pays de Nègres) organized by blacks and seen by the whole [world] that is a victory of Mobutism.” But whatever pleasure people had taken in that event, and the publicity, had been dissipated by mid-January, when I arrived. I had chosen a bad time. Mobutu, chieflike, had sprung another of his surprises. A fortnight before, after a two-day palaver with his collaborators, Mobutu had decided on a “radicalization of the revolution.” And everybody was nervous.

In November 1973 Mobutu had nationalized all businesses and plantations belonging to foreigners—mainly Greeks, Portuguese, and Indians—and had given them to Zairois. Now, a year later, he had decided to take back these enterprises, many of them pillaged and bankrupt, and entrust them to the state. What, or who, was the state? No one quite knew. New people, more loyal people? Mobutu, speaking the pure language of revolution, seemed to threaten everybody. The 300 Belgian families who had ruled the Congo, he said, had been replaced by 300 Zairois families; the country had imported more Mercedes-Benz motor-cars than tractors; one third of the country’s foreign earnings went to import food that could be produced at home.

Against this new Zairois bourgeoisie—whom he had himself created—the chief now declared war. “I offer them a clear choice: those among them who love the people should give everything to the state and follow me.” In his new mood the chief threatened other measures. He threatened to close down the movie houses and the nightclubs; he threatened to ban drinking in public places before six.

Through the Belgian-designed cité indigène of Kinshasa, in the wide, unpaved streets, full of pits and corrugations, between mounds of rubbish sometimes as high as the little houses in Mediterranean colors, in the green shade of flamboyant, mango, and frangipani, schoolchildren marched in support of their chief. Every day Elima carried reports of marches de soutien in other places. And the alarm was great, among the foreigners who had been plundered of the businesses and had remained behind, hoping for some compensation or waiting for Canadian visas, and among the gold-decked Zairois in national costume. Stern men these Zairois, nervous of the visitor, easily affronted, anxious only to make it known that they were loyal, and outdone by no one in their “authenticity,” their authentic Africanness.

But it is in the nature of a powerful chief that he should be unpredictable. The chief threatens; the people are cowed; the chief relents; the people praise his magnanimity. The days passed; daytime and even morning drinking didn’t stop; many Africans continued to spend their days in that red-eyed vacancy that at first so mystifies the visitor. The nightclubs and movie houses didn’t close; the prostitutes continued to be busy around the Memling Hotel. So that it seemed that in this matter of public morals, at least, the chief had relented. The ordinary people had been spared.

But the nervousness higher up was justified. Within days the axe fell on many of the chief’s “collaborators.” There was a shake-up; the circle of power around the chief was made smaller; and Zairois who had ruled in Kinshasa were abruptly dismissed, packed off to unfamiliar parts of the bush to spread the word of the revolution. Elima sped them on their way. “The political commissioner will no longer be what he was before the system was modified. That is to say, a citizen floating above the day-to-day realities of the people, driving about the streets and avenues of Kinshasa in a Mercedes and knowing nothing of the life of the peasant of Dumi. The political commissioners will live with the people. They will be in the fields, not as masters but as peasants. They will work with the workers, they will share their joys and sorrows. They will in this way better understand the aspirations of the people and will truly become again children of the people.”

Words of terror. Because this was the great fear of so many of the men who had come by riches so easily, by simple official plunder, the new men of the new state who, in the name of Africanization and the dignity of Africa, were so often doing jobs for which they were not qualified and often were drawing salaries for jobs they were not doing at all; this, for all their talk of authenticity and the ways of the ancestors, was their fear: to be returned from the sweet corruptions of Kinshasa to the older corruption of the bush, to be returned to Africa.

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