Zaire: The Rise and Fall of Mobutu

CIA's Strongman in Central Africa on the Way Out

Revolutionary Worker #903, April 20, 1997

For over 30 years, Mobutu Sese Seko has ruled over Zaire with an iron hand--and with backing from the U.S. and other Western powers. Now, the Mobutu regime is on the verge of falling. And the imperialist vultures are scrambling to keep their claw-hold on this large country which sits right in the heart of the African continent.

Zaire, a country of 45 million people, is a land rich in natural resources--with fertile soil and huge deposits of precious minerals such as cobalt, copper and diamonds. But the common people of Zaire are desperately poor. Malnutrition and illnesses kill almost one in five children before the age of five. Unemployment is reportedly around 80 percent. Health care is practically non-existent, and diseases like cholera, measles, Ebola and AIDS run rampant.

At the same time, Western corporations take in huge profits from mining operations in Zaire. And Mobutu himself is filthy rich with billions of dollars from exploitation and corruption. He has become one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, with secret accounts in Swiss banks and palatial homes on French beaches. Mobutu and his cronies have protected their wealth and power by unleashing their vicious armed forces against the people.

But Mobutu's power has greatly eroded over the last several years. The U.S. and others poured billions of dollars into the Mobutu regime during the '70s and '80s to counter the moves of the rival Soviet social imperialists in Africa; but with the end of the "Cold War," that Western aid dried up. Hyper-inflation has devastated the economy, and unpaid government troops have gone on looting rampages. Whole parts of the country have slipped out of central control, with some regions even issuing their own currency. And Mobutu is seriously ill with cancer.

In particular, the eastern region of Zaire, bordering Rwanda and Burundi, has been in much turmoil since 1994 when hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the area. Most of the refugees were Hutu people who left Rwanda after the former Hutu-dominated government was overthrown. That regime was responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mainly Tutsi people. When the regime was defeated by a Tutsi-led force, many Hutu officials, soldiers and militia--with protection of the French imperialists--fled along with the refugees into camps in east Zaire. These armed Hutus--known as the Interahamwe--held the refugees as virtual hostages and carried out cross-border raids against the current Rwandan government. The Interahamwe, joined by Zairean government troops, also attacked Tutsi people living in eastern Zaire.

Starting at the end of last year, an armed force called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) began defeating the Interahamwe and Zairean government troops. After taking control of the eastern border region, the ADFL advanced westward in a lightning campaign, often taking towns and cities with little resistance from the demoralized government troops. The soldiers either retreated or joined with the ADFL forces. Mercenary troops imported by Mobutu from Serbia and elsewhere also turned tail in the face of ADFL advances.

By early April, the ADFL had captured almost half the country, including the key mining areas and all major cities except for the capital, Kinshasa. Trying desperately to hang on, Mobutu has tried various maneuvers such as appointing new prime ministers and offering to negotiate with the ADFL. On April 9, the streets of Kinshasa were thick with tear gas as Mobutu's troops attacked anti-government protesters.

As we go to press, the ADFL leader Laurent Kabila had reportedly issued an ultimatum: Mobutu must resign in three days or the ADFL will continue its military advance westward and take the capital by force.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and other Western governments--seeing that their strongman in Zaire is on a sinking ship--have tried to distance themselves from Mobutu by officially calling for him to step down. Hundreds of U.S., French and Belgian troops have moved into Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring country of Congo --in position for possible direct intervention in Zaire.

U.S. officials hypocritically denounce what they refer to as "Mobutism" and call for "democracy" in Zaire. But the rise of Mobutu, and his brutal rule as strongman over this oppressed country, would not have been possible without another "ism"--imperialism.

As the following account shows, Mobutu was a monstrous creation of the CIA. And for over three decades, his regime has served as an instrument of Western imperialist intrigue and crimes in Africa.

From Old-Style Colonialism to Neo-Colonialism

Military intervention, economic plunder and fierce exploitation and oppression of the people have been hallmarks of imperialist rule in Zaire for over a century. In the late 1800s, King Leopold II of Belgium laid some straight edge rulers on a schoolbook map of Africa and carved out a huge chunk of central Africa as his personal colonial possession. The people of Zaire--then called the Belgian Congo--suffered under one of the most ruthless and barbaric colonial regimes in Africa. The Congolese people were forced to labor in slave-like conditions in the mines and on the rubber, cocoa, tea, coffee and palm oil plantations. One method used by the Belgian colonialists was to hack off the hands of Congolese laborers who failed to meet their quotas.

By the late 1950s, rebellion and upheaval against the colonial powers were erupting all over Africa. In many countries, the imperialists tried to undercut the people's struggles by replacing their old colonial rule with neo-colonial regimes fronted by African collaborators. Backed up by the aid and military might of the old colonial powers, these collaborators served to safeguard and intensify imperialist oppression and exploitation. In some cases, nationalist forces opposed to the imperialists were actually able to come to power for brief periods of time.

As the situation began to heat up in the Congo, the Belgians were forced to grant formal independence to the country in 1960. The neo-colonial government that emerged was sharply divided between those who wanted to maintain close ties with Belgium and other colonial powers, and more radical nationalist forces led by the new prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

U.S. Hand in the Murder
of Patrice Lumumba

Shortly after independence was declared, a major civil disorder broke out when Congolese soldiers rebelled against the Belgian officer corps of the army. The country was plunged into total chaos. In the name of "protecting European settlers," Belgian troops began to wage war against the new government. Faced with this crisis, the country nearly broke apart into warring territories as all of the various forces in the government fought to implement their program. A secessionist movement, led by a pro-imperialist reactionary named Moise Tshombe, was headquartered in the mineral-rich Katanga province (now called Shaba). Government forces friendly to the U.S. imperialists--led in part by a CIA operative, Colonel Mobutu--were based in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). And the radical nationalist forces around Patrice Lumumba were based in Stanleyville (now Kisangani).

This crisis situation was viewed by the major Western powers--especially the U.S. and France--as an opportunity to expand their influence in central Africa. France joined with Britain and Belgium to throw its military and economic support behind the Katanga secessionist movement. The French imperialists hoped to weaken Belgium's position and to strengthen their own economic and military hand in Africa by pulling the mineral-rich Katanga region into the massive French colonial empire in Central and West Africa.

For its part, the U.S. under the Democratic Kennedy administration was in the midst of elbowing out the old-line colonial powers in order to replace them with U.S.-style neo-colonialism. The U.S. imperialists aimed to establish themselves as the dominant power in the Congo and use that position to extend their reach and domination into the rest of Africa. This involved trying to keep the country intact, maneuvering against the Western allies, moving to block attempts by the Soviets to establish a hold in the area and smashing the anti-imperialist upsurge of the Congolese people.

The U.S. saw Lumumba as an obstacle to their plans. The CIA was ordered to figure out a way to remove him, and they actively investigated and experimented with various plots for assassinating this nationalist leader--including lacing his toothpaste with poison.

At the same time, the U.S. did not want to be directly identified with the intrigues in the Congo. So their moves involved establishing U.S. domination through the stationing of thousands of United Nations troops as a "peacekeeping force"--with a supposed mission of "protecting" the Lumumba government.

From the moment of their arrival, the UN troops worked to isolate Lumumba and promote the more pro-U.S. sections of the government and military. By September 1960, the attack against Lumumba was in full swing. President Kasavubu, Lumumba's coalition partner and a pro-U.S. force in the government, dismissed Lumumba from his position as prime minister. The UN troops allowed Lumumba's opponents to broadcast from radio stations and travel freely around the country, while Lumumba's supporters were denied such opportunity.

As the situation intensified, Mobutu temporarily seized power with U.S. backing. In December 1960 Mobutu--working closely with the CIA--arrested, beat and tortured Lumumba to within an inch of his life. In January 1961 Mobutu--again with CIA assistance--transferred Lumumba to Katanga. This move was a guaranteed death sentence. The local CIA station sent off a cable saying, "Thanks for Patrice. If we had known he was coming we would have baked a snake." The night of his arrival in Katanga, Lumumba was murdered in the presence of Tshombe and his reactionary secessionist army.

The Making of a U.S. Strongman

The murder of Lumumba showed the U.S. gaining the upper hand in the Congo. However, the U.S. still faced a widespread revolutionary upsurge of the people. Tens of thousands of peasants and youths had taken up arms against the government. The U.S. brought in Tshombe as prime minister in 1964 in an effort to control the situation. But the U.S. was forced to intervene directly. The U.S. troops, along with the Belgian military, South Africa mercenaries and Congolese puppet troops, carried out a bloody campaign, killing many thousands of peasants, workers and anti-government activists.

When a few U.S. citizens were killed in the Congo during this period, Malcolm X reminded people in the U.S. about the CIA assassination of Lumumba and pointed out sharply, "The Congolese have been killed year after year after year, and whatever the United States gets in the Congo, she is getting what she asked for; the Congo killings is like the chickens coming home to roost."

Mobutu, meanwhile, was being groomed as the main U.S. strongman. With the help of U.S. military aid and advisers, he built up his faction of the army into the strongest military force in the country. The Zionist government of Israel also pitched in, developing a special training program for 200 paratroopers from Mobutu's army.

By 1964 Mobutu's army had been molded into a powerful force, equipped with modern arms and having the upper hand over all of his opponents. The other Western imperialist powers had no choice but to get in line behind the U.S. and their man in Zaire. In 1965 Mobutu seized sole control of the government through a coup--and the first real U.S. neo-colony in Africa had been firmly established.

Zaire Under the Made-in-the-USA Dictator

One mark of the long and close relationship between the U.S. and Mobutu is that he was given face-to-face meetings with every U.S. president from Lyndon Johnson to George Bush. Reagan praised him as "a friend of democracy and freedom."

With this U.S. seal of approval, Mobutu has headed a brutal regime that has brought nothing but horrors and misery to the Zairean people. Those considered a threat to the Mobutu regime have been shot down in the streets, imprisoned, executed or forced into exile. Mobutu and his clique have been raking in an estimated $400 million a year--while the masses of people starve and live under the constant threat of murderous rampages by the government troops.

The entire economy has been severely distorted and warped to serve imperialist needs and interests. In over 30 years of ruling Zaire, the Mobutu regime has not built so much as one hospital or school. Roads and electricity are non-existent in most of the country. The few infrastructure projects that have been built serve the capitalist mining operations, bypassing the towns and villages. This was once an extremely fertile farming area. Today, all but 1 percent of the farming in Zaire is subsistence farming--which barely feeds those working the land.

For the U.S. and other imperialists, their interests in Zaire focus on two aspects. First, Zaire sits smack in the middle of an area sometimes called the "Persian Gulf of Minerals." The country supplies the U.S. and other powers with huge quantities of non-fuel minerals which are crucial to military and industrial production--from copper to cobalt, gold and industrial diamonds.

Second, Zaire--which borders on nine other countries--has been used as a key player in, and a springboard for, U.S. economic, political and military maneuvers throughout Africa. This was especially important during the period of fierce contention between the rival U.S. and Soviet imperialist blocs in the '70s and '80s. The U.S. sent billions of dollars in aid and loans during that period to build up Mobutu's military and prop up his regime. And the U.S. imperialists--along with France--sent troops several times to come to the direct rescue of the Mobutu regime when it was threatened by Soviet-backed secessionist forces in Katanga.

Mobutu played a key role in helping the U.S.-backed forces in Angola, and Zaire was used as a supply conduit and base for the efforts to destabilize the Soviet-backed Angolan government throughout the 1980s.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zaire has held less strategic significance for the U.S. But because of its size and central position in the continent, Zaire is still seen as an important part of any U.S. moves in Africa. Zaire and the nearby areas have also become a focus of intensifying contention between the U.S. and the French imperialists, who see Central and West Africa as their main stomping ground.

And the mineral deposits of Zaire continue to be a target of the big power vultures. The British newspaper Financial Times recently wrote, "Zaire may be short of many things, but untapped mineral wealth is not one of them." This callous remark reveals how the imperialists have no interest in the plight of the people of Zaire--but their cold hearts beat faster at the prospect of making big bucks off of this oppressed country.


Since they first set foot in Zaire, the U.S. rulers have claimed that their actions and policies are motivated by a desire to "help the people," "defend human rights," "promote democracy" and so on. History shows the reality: Behind all U.S. actions and policies have been the naked imperialist interests of profits and domination. Today, as the U.S., France and other powers talk once again about coming to the "aid" of the people of Zaire, this history lesson must not be forgotten.

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