Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Historical Setting


Wooden figurine

THIRTY YEARS AFTER ITS BIRTH as an independent state, Zaire still bore the imprint of its colonial past. Behind the omnipresent apparatus of control forged by President Mobutu Sese Seko since 1965 lurked the shadow of King Léopold II of Belgium, whose absolute and arbitrary sovereignty found symbolic expression in the Kikongo (language of the Kongo people) phrase bula matari ("he who breaks rocks"), a name also applied to the colonial armed forces, the Force Publique, and generally evocative of brute force. The modern version of the bula matari state was nowhere more evident than in the Mobutu regime's extreme centralization of authority, highly personalized style of governance, and readiness to use force whenever the circumstances seemed to require it.

The Mobutist state is, however, the product of a complex concatenation of forces that go far beyond the eighteen years of Leopoldian autocracy. Between the formal proclamation of the Congo Free State in 1885 and Mobutu's second seizure of power in 1965, a number of events occurred that had a profound and lasting effect on the Zairian polity and on society. The first occurred in 1908, when the Belgian parliament assumed full administrative and political responsibility for the colony, which until independence in 1960 would be known as the Belgian Congo. The second involved the rise of organized nationalist activity, symbolized by the 1956 manifesto of the Alliance of the Kongo People (Alliance des Bakongo--Abako) calling for immediate independence. The crisis of decolonization, dramatized by the mutiny of the Force Publique in July 1960, constituted the third, and by far the most consequential, event. The final stage in Zaire's precipitous leap to independence began with the proclamation of the First Republic immediately after independence, extended through the convulsive aftereffects of regional secessions and rural insurgencies, and reached a plateau of sorts after the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1965.

In Zaire, as elsewhere in Africa, both indigenous and Western influences have been significant. The impact of the West has been felt most strongly through the import of institutions, policies, and culture that were radically new to the area. Zairian traditions are represented by many different ethnic groups with historically different beliefs, loyalties, and tensions. Whatever their exposure to these various historical influences, modern-day Zairians are alike in being repressed or neglected by a small and highly centralized political elite.

Data as of December 1993