Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents


Chapter 4. Government and Politics


Celebrants below a billboard of the flaming torch in the national flag, 20th of May Stadium, Kinshasa

SINCE 1965, JOSEPH-DÉSIRÉ MOBUTU, or Mobutu Sese Seko as he has called himself since 1971, has thoroughly dominated the political life of Zaire, a fact reflected in the title that he awarded himself, "Father of the Nation." Mobutu presides over a political system that has the formal trappings of a republic but is in reality the personal fiefdom of the president, who uses the national treasury as his personal checkbook and disburses both rewards and punishments at will. Corruption, nepotism, and cronyism, as well as maladministration and inefficiency, are pervasive and widespread in the Zairian political system.

From 1967 until 1990, the primary instrument of Mobutu's control of the government was the country's sole legal political party, the Popular Revolutionary Movement (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution--MPR), a Mobutu creation. In theory, the party was a separate entity intended to parallel the state apparatus and to guide and control it. But in reality the party had virtually no independent existence from the state, so the state and party were effectively fused.

On April 24, 1990, Mobutu radically transformed the political environment by announcing the establishment of a competitive multiparty system. But his move, generally regarded as a calculated attempt to quell domestic and international pressures for change rather than a sincere commitment to reform, unleashed volatile forces that threatened to topple the regime, although Mobutu did everything in his power to retain his hold on the government. Independent political parties were permitted to register, with the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social--UDPS) emerging as the main opposition party.

In mid-1991 Mobutu finally convened a long-promised national conference, ostensibly designed to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and to manage the transition to a democratic, multiparty political system. But inevitably conflicts arose between a conference determined to assert its sovereign powers and a president equally determined not to cede control of the government, and the conference was very much an on-again-off-again institution throughout 1991 and most of 1992.

In August 1992, the conference passed a Transitional Act to serve as a provisional constitution. The Transitional Act established a parliamentary system with a figurehead president, a High Council of the Republic (Haut Conseil de la République--HCR) to serve as a provisional legislature; and a first state commissioner (prime minister) to serve as head of government. Under the terms of the Transitional Act, Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, head of the UDPS, was duly elected to head the transitional government. But the new administration, although recognized by the United States and other Western powers, has never been able to govern because of Mobutu's continued control of key military and security forces, which he has used to obstruct the functioning of the transitional government, to intimidate the opposition, to incite ethnic violence, and to promote instability throughout the country. In early 1993, Mobutu went further in repudiating the authority of the transitional government by appointing a rival administration under a different prime minister, Faustin Birindwa. Since that time, a political stalemate has prevailed in Zaire, with two parallel governments vying for international acceptance and political control over a country in crisis, its economy and social system in total disarray.

Data as of December 1993