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Shaky Mobutu

In response to:

A New King for the Congo from the June 26, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

V.S. Naipaul’s criticism of the Mobutu dictatorship [NYR, June 26] is on target, but it is flawed by serious errors of interpretation. His notion of the tyrant’s “African chieftaincy” providing an obedience-inclined populace with what “they have long needed, an African king,” and his further observation that “the ideas of responsibility, the state and creativity are ideas brought by the visitor: they do not correspond…to African aspirations,” are all too reminiscent of colonial social science with its stereotyped and ahistorical concept of the “Bantu mentality.” Compare Wyatt MacGaffey’s recent portrayal of the political system of the Bakongo, Zaire’s largest ethnic group:

The formal structures of government are administrative frameworks; only with the addition of historical and processual data can we see how power is distributed in them. When concentrations of power occurred, the social structure became hierarchical and approached the extreme royalist model of kimfumu; when power was relatively diffuse, the more egalitarian, network-type structure associated with the idea of kinkazi predominated. [Custom and Government in the Lower Congo, page 238]

Naipaul also underestimates the role of modern Western institutions in the shaping of the regime and its persistent contradictions. Rather than being “dismantled,” the colonial state continues to provide the underpinning for an export-oriented, internationally dependent political economy. “Zairianization” campaigns, such as the one recently directed at Greek and Pakistani traders, do not challenge the fundamental interests of the onrushing American, Japanese, and European investors; even the chastened Belgians have been compensated for their lost copper mines which they still manage and do the marketing for under contract. However tormented he may be by racial slights and anomie, Mobutu can hardly be described as a “nihilist.” Reputedly one of the ten richest men in the world, he conscientiously places a portion of his government’s levies on production and trade into his personal accounts in Europe. With his family, he owns the Bank of Kinshasa, the largest taxi company in Zaire, a substantial chunk of the country’s wholesale and retail trade and numerous foreign villas. Foreign support remains an important safeguard of Mobutuism. If the leader “made himself king,” he did so with the help of CIA station-chief Lawrence Devlin (see my American Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960-1964) who has since “retired” and become the American representative of a US business in Kinshasa. According to an authoritative Western diplomatic source, the CIA is still in charge of Mobutu’s personal bodyguard and provides him with information about opponents and conspirators.

Naipaul concludes too readily that “there can now be no going back on the principles of Mobutuism.” He ignores the entire modern left-nationalist movement starting with Patrice Lumumba which has recurrently threatened the regime. To call that Lumumbist turned African Maoist, Pierre Mulele, a “nihilist” is to deform history, just as it is to place Mulele at the head of the Stanleyville Terror in 1964 when he was conducting a more coherent and radical campaign in rural Kwilu a thousand miles away. Far from “decaying,” as Naipaul would have it, the modern towns are expanding rapidly (a third of the population is now urban), and Mobutu is hardly as popular as suggested among the increasingly vocal urban masses (at the scene of the Ali-Foreman fight, the crowd’s reply to the Leader’s query, “Do you understand me?” was “We want money!”). If Naipaul finds most university students “Mobutuist to a man,” this was not so when I was in Zaire in 1971 and Mobutu conscripted the whole student body of Lovanium University into his army, nor in 1969 when student protest culminated in several dozen deaths.

Stephen R. Weissman

New York City

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