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Young & Kent: International Relations since 1945 2e

Joseph-Désiré Mobutu

Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1930-97) was born on 14 October 1930 in Lisala, Equateur province in the Belgian Congo. He joined the army in 1949, rising to the rank of Sergeant Major before working as a journalist and then a newspaper editor. In 1958 Mobutu joined a leading nationalist party Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) working closely in early 1960 with the future Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Following the granting of independence on 30 June 1960 he became chief of staff of the Congolese army (Force publique). Colonel Mobutu was the military leader who on 14 September replaced the government of Lumumba and Kasavubu, which was paralysed by their constitutional dispute, with a college of commissioners. This lasted until February 1961, when, after the murder of Lumumba, representative government was re-instated. In 1965, now Lieutenant-General, Mobutu seized power and removed President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Kimba before embarking on a campaign of anti-European, pro-African cultural awareness. Mobutu quickly centralised the Congo government, putting down an attempted coup in 1967. In an uncontested election for president in 1970 he then assumed sole power and under his ruthless and unprincipled dictatorship the country’s economy went into further decline. The natural riches of the Congo had brought few benefits to most Congolese people under Belgian rule, and the internal troubles after independence increased the difficulties before Mobutu completed the destruction of the Congo economy. Mobutu kept the Congo firmly in the western camp throughout the Cold War as a firm US ally and renamed the country the Republic of Zaire in October 1971. In 1972 he renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Wa Za Banga (Mobutu Sese Seko for short). Foreign-owned firms were nationalised as the exploitation of European capital was replaced by rampant African corruption. Mobutu continued to amass a personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to be nearly $4 billion, almost equivalent to the country’s foreign debt at the time. 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 led by Laurent Kabila forced him to flee. Mobutu died in September 1997 in Rabat, Morocco and the country now named the Democratic Republic of Congo has yet to recover from his rule.