Zaire Table of Contents
View of Kinshasa, with Pool de Malebo on the
Congo River in the background
Courtesy Zaire National Tourism Office
Modern buildings on the outskirts of Kinshasa
Courtesy Zaire National Tourism Office
After the bedlam of the First Republic, 1960-65, the preceding colonial regime seemed to offer an alternative model of order and discipline (see The First Republic, 1960-65 , ch. 1). Thus, as he moved to depoliticize the legislative and administrative structures of the First Republic, Mobutu consciously restored structures of the colonial era. Mobutu and his associates attempted to establish a nation based solely on the colonial state, but without the colonial trinity, which also included the Roman Catholic Church and colonial companies (see The Apparatus of Control , ch. 1). In essence, Mobutu attempted to develop a political religion to replace the imported Christian faith, and a single party, the MPR, was to be the "church" of that religion.
Mobutu and his associates consolidated their control of the country's security apparatus by eliminating professionally autonomous military units, gradually suppressing rival ethnic and regional secessionist rebellions, establishing an effective state security agency, and maintaining linkages with external backers, who provided extensive training and equipment. To achieve greater national independence, Mobuto's regime diversified relations with external patrons (France, China, Israel, the United States, Belgium, and the conservative Arab states) and expropriated colonial enterprises. The Congo (Zaire was formally called the Republic of the Congo from independence to August 1, 1964, when it became the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which name was used until October 27, 1971.) solicited a multitude of new links to Western multinational corporations and banks. The revenue needs of the state were to be met by sharp increases in fiscal impositions on the colonial corporate structure, which had been very lightly taxed, by perpetuation of the taxes imposed on the peasant majority, and by drawing in major new resources from abroad through loans, aid, and investments as well as by mortgaging the country's rich natural resource base.
What began as a collegial alliance of the Binza Group (a group of Mobutu supporters named for the prosperous suburb where its members lived); the top military command; some former supporters of Patrice Lumumba, who was the Congo's first prime minister; and young, often radical university graduates, gradually became an assemblage of courtiers doing the bidding of the presidential monarch (see The Second Republic, 1965-90: The Rebirth of Bula Matari, ch. 1). Mobutu carried out this transformation by suborning former colleagues and adversaries, thereby sapping the autonomous power bases of influential First Republic officials. Systematic rotation of high office was practiced, and a pool of vacant positions was sustained through the continuous pensioning of former collaborators into lucrative business opportunities. Access to high rank in all state agencies depended upon presidential favor. The sanction for not cooperating in this new elite was exile or imprisonment on trumped up or real charges of corruption, nepotism, or subversion.
The term presidential monarch became increasingly appropriate as applied to Mobutu. Mobutu's retinue was reported to consist of some 600 courtiers, and members of his family were treated as royalty. His son, Mobutu Nyiwa, was trained to succeed him, occupying a series of ministerial posts. President Mobutu increasingly spent more and more time at the several palaces he had built in his ancestral village, Gbadolite, which was transformed into a modern town, endowed with an international airport, satellite television antennae, street lights, and other amenities that most Congolese centers lacked. The president often met with his cabinet at Gbadolite, and he received foreign dignitaries there.
In 1973, espousing what Mobutu claimed to be Zairian nationalism, the regime embarked on a quest for economic and cultural emancipation in a sweeping program known as Zairianization (see Glossary). In the economic sphere, however, Zairianization resulted in an ill-advised and costly nationalization and confiscation program, highlighted by the personal aggrandizement of President Mobutu's ruling political and commercial class. Zairianization also advocated cultural pride and autonomy and aimed at rejecting and eliminating foreign cultural influences. Christian names of individuals and colonial place-names were dropped in favor of "authentic" Zairian names (see Zairianization, Radicalization, and Retrocession , ch. 1; Zairianization , ch. 3).
By 1974 the official ideology had metamorphosed into Mobutism (see Glossary), in which the acts and sayings of the leader were glorified. The state was personalized, and state and party were fused together. But Mobutism soon degenerated into a parody of Maoism. To "Founder-President" were added ever more extravagant praise-names: "Guide of the Revolution," "Helmsman" (borrowed from Mao Zedong), "Mulopwe" (emperor, or even god-king), and finally "Messiah." Important places in the president's political career were designated as pilgrimage sites. At this point, the ideology of the regime had become so overblown that many Zairians and most foreign observers found it impossible to take seriously. But as Zaire specialist Michael G. Schatzberg points out, the paternalistic strand of Mobutu's ideology corresponds to a "deeply rooted ideological and symbolic moral matrix undergirding both Zairian state and society." As he explains, "legitimate governance, in Zaire and in much of Africa, is based on the tacit normative idea that government stands in the same relationship to its citizens that a father does to his children." Yet this same moral matrix also provides the basis for opposition. When African political leaders violate the implied cultural norms and underlying premises of political "fatherhood," "legitimacy erodes, tensions mount, and instability, repression, or both, ensue."
A number of the themes in the Mobutist ideology--the yearning for cultural and economic autonomy and for strong, paternalistic leadership--resonated with deeply held opinions on the part of Zairians, among both the elite and the people in general. At the same time, however, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this ideology served to justify the domination of the political system by a self-serving ruling class that lived off the profits to be extracted from Zaire's interface with the world economy.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents