This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday on 20 January 2013
Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (born Joseph-Desiré Mobutu; October 14, 1930, died September 7, 1997), commonly known as Mobutu or Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu, an ethnic Ngbandi, led an unsuccessful coup against the nationalist government of Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and eventually seized power in the Congo in 1965 with the help of the CIA, held the country which he renamed Zaire for 32 years. As VS Naipaul wrote “like Leopold II, Mobutu owns Zaire”. According to Naipaul, Mobutu continued the despotic legislation of the Belgians but presented it as a kind of ancestral African socialism.
In less than 25 years, this young sergeant of the colonial army became one of the world’s richest kleptocrats. With western support, Mobutu sustained an autocratic regime, handing out favours and punishment, and wielded absolute rule over the ruins of a country ravaged by corruption. He attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence while also maintaining an anti-communist stance.
Tensions had existed between various ethnic groups in eastern Zaire for centuries, especially between the indigenous agrarian tribes and the semi-nomadic Tutsis (known as Banyamulenge) who had migrated from Rwanda. The Belgian colonizers forcibly relocated Rwandan Tutsis to Congo to perform manual labor. Another wave of the Rwandan social revolution of 1959 brought the Hutu to power in Kigali. Mobutu gave the Banyamulenge political power in East Zaire hoping they would prevent the more numerous ethnicities from forming an opposition.
From 1963 to 1966, the Hunde and Nande ethnic groups of North Kivu fought against Rwandan emigrants in the Kanyarwandan War, which involved several massacres. In 1981 a restrictive citizenship law was adopted, which denied the Banyamulenge citizenship. From 1993 to 1996 Hunde, Nande, and Nyange youth regularly attacked the Banyamulenge leading to a total of 14,000 deaths. In 1995, the Zairian Parliament ordered all peoples of Rwandan or Burundian descent to be repatriated. The Banyamulenge developed ties to the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) as early as 1991.
Following the end of the Cold War, the USA stopped supporting Mobutu in favour of what it called a “new generation of African leaders, including Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. By 1991, economic deterioration and unrest led him to agree to share power with opposition leaders, but he used the army to thwart change until May, 1997, when rebel forces with the support of predominantly Tutsi Rwanda, led by Laurent Kabila expelled him from the country in what became known as the first Congo War.
Destabilization in eastern Zaire that resulted from the genocide in Rwanda (See: http://www.nation.lk/edition/feature-viewpoint/item/5231-reconciliation-in-rwanda.html) was the final factor that brought down the corrupt and inept government in Kinshasa. Kabila renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Kabila soon alienated his allies and failed to address the issues that had led to the war. The second Congo War, began in 1998, mere months after Kabila came to power. Kabila purged ethnic Tutsi from the DRC government. In response, Congolese Tutsi rebels instigated violence and civil unrest, beginning in August 1998 with the support of Rwandan troops. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and was replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila.
A transitional government was established in 2003, but it failed to halt violence in the eastern provinces. UN troops failed to prevent massacres in Ituri province. The Second Congo War directly involved eight African nations as well as about 25 armed groups. The UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, helped organize Congo’s first democratic elections in July 2006. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. Millions more were displaced.
The illicit trade in what are known as conflict minerals provides rebel groups and units of the national army with tens of millions of dollars a year to buy guns. There are four main minerals being mined in the Congo: cassiterite (the ore for tin), coltan (the ore for a rare metal called tantalum), wolframite (tungsten ore), and gold. The electronics industry is one of the main destinations for these metals, which end up in mobile phones, laptops, and other consumer products. Tin is used as a solder in circuit boards; tantalum goes into capacitors, small components used to store electricity; tungsten is used in the vibrating function of mobile phones; gold is also used by the electronics industry, as a coating for wires.
Elima, Mobutu’s official daily, stated “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 palaver [la palabre], accustomed, that is, to discussions that established each man in his rights”.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Conflict-related deaths continue to rise, and tens of thousands of women and girls suffer crimes of sexual violence. What hope of reconciliation?