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Mobutu, Self-Proclaimed Father of the Nation

Ever since 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko has dominated the political life of Zaire, restructuring the state on more than one occasion, and earning his self-appointed title of "Father of the Nation." Any discussion of Zaire's political structures and processes must therefore be based on an understanding of the man who literally gave the country its name.

Mobutu was born in the town of Lisala, on the Congo River, on October 4, 1930. His father, Albéric Gbemani, was a cook for a colonial magistrate in Lisala. Despite his birthplace, however, Mobutu belonged not to the dominant ethnic group of that region but rather to the Ngbandi, a small ethnic community whose domain lay far to the north, along the border with the Central African Republic.

Mobutu referred frequently both to his humble background as the son of a cook and to the renown of his father's uncle, a warrior and diviner from the village of Gbadolite. Although officially known as Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Mobutu was also given the name of his great-uncle, Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga, meaning "allconquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph." When, under the authenticity (see Glossary) policy of the early 1970s, Zairians were obliged to adopt "authentic" names, Mobutu dropped JosephDésiré and became Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga--or, more commonly, Mobutu Sese Seko (see Zairianization, Radicalization, and Retrocession , this ch.).

Mobutu, who had completed four years of primary school in Léopoldville, took seven more years to reach the secondary level, moving in and out of different schools. He had frequent conflicts with the Catholic missionaries whose schools he attended, and in 1950, at the age of nineteen, he was definitively expelled. A seven-year disciplinary conscription into the Force Publique followed.

Military service proved crucial in shaping Mobutu's career. Unlike many recruits, he spoke excellent French, which quickly won him a desk job. By November 1950, he was sent to the school for noncommissioned officers, where he came to know many members of the military generation who would assume control of the army after the flight of the Belgian officers in 1960. By the time of his discharge in 1956, Mobutu, had risen to the rank of sergeant-major, the highest rank open to Congolese. He also had begun to write newspaper articles under a pseudonym.

Mobutu returned to civilian life just as decolonization began to seem possible. His newspaper articles had brought him to the attention of Pierre Davister, a Belgian editor of the Léopoldville paper L'Avenir. At that time, a European patron was of enormous benefit to an ambitious Congolese; under Davister's tutelage, Mobutu became an editorial writer for the new African weekly, Actualités Africaines. Davister later would provide valuable services by giving favorable coverage to the Mobutu regime as editor of his own Belgian magazine, Spécial.

Mobutu thus acquired visibility among the emergent African elite of Léopoldville. Yet one portal to status in colonial society remained closed to him: full recognition as an évolué depended upon approval by the Roman Catholic Church. Denied this recognition, Mobutu rejected the church.

During 1959-60, politically ambitious young Congolese were busy constructing political networks for themselves. Residence in Belgium prevented Mobutu from the path of many of his peers at home, who were building ethno-regional clienteles. But their approach would have been unpromising for him in any case, since the Ngbandi were a small and peripheral community, and among the socalled Ngala (Lingala-speaking immigrants in Léopoldville) such figures as Jean Bolikango were potential opponents. Mobutu pursued another route, as Belgian diplomatic, intelligence, and financial interests sought clients among the Congolese students and interns in Brussels.

Fatefully, Mobutu also had met Patrice Lumumba, when the latter arrived in Brussels. He allied himself with Lumumba (whose school background, like that of Mobutu, inclined him to anticlericalism), when the Congolese National Movement (Mouvement National Congolais- -MNC) split into two wings identified, respectively, with Lumumba and Albert Kalonji. By early 1960, Mobutu had been named head of the MNC-Lumumba office in Brussels. He attended the Round Table Conference on independence held in Brussels in January 1960 and returned home only three weeks before Independence Day, June 30. When the army mutinied against its Belgian officers, Mobutu was a logical choice to help fill the void. Lumumba, elected prime minister in May 1960, named as commander in chief a member of his own ethnic group, Victor Lundula, but Mobutu was Lumumba's choice as chief of staff.

During the crucial period of July-August 1960, Mobutu built up "his" national army by channeling foreign aid to units loyal to him, by exiling unreliable units to remote areas, and by absorbing or dispersing rival armies. He tied individual officers to him by controlling their promotion and the flow of money for payrolls. Lundula, older and less competitive, apparently did little to prevent Mobutu.

After President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as premier on September 5, and Lumumba sought to block this action through parliament, Mobutu staged his first coup on September 14. On his own authority (but with United States backing), he installed an interim government, the so-called College of Commissioners, composed primarily of university students and graduates, which replaced parliament for six months in 1960-61.

During the next four years, as weak civilian governments rose and fell in Léopoldville, real power was held behind the scenes by the "Binza Group," a group of Mobutu supporters named for the prosperous suburb where its members lived.

When in 1965, as in 1960, the division of power between president and prime minister led to a stalemate and threatened the country's stability, Mobutu again seized power (again with United States backing). Unlike the first time, however, Mobutu assumed the presidency, rather than remaining behind the scenes.

Data as of December 1993

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