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The Party-State as a System of Rule

The initial orientation of the Mobutu regime was antipolitical and antiparty. The announcement of the November 25, 1965, coup began by contrasting the performance of the armed services, alleged to be "satisfactory," with the "complete failure" of the previous political leaders, who had "shut themselves up in a sterile struggle to gain power without any consideration for the well-being of the citizens of this country." Although the proclamation made no explicit mention of political parties, there were signs of danger for the existing parties in the message Mobutu sent to the joint session of the legislature on the afternoon after the coup. The message reiterated that the new government (whose members represented areas of the country, not parties) would serve for only five years, and that a régime d'exception (in essence a state of emergency) would be imposed throughout the country. Political activities by parties were suspended. The parties themselves were not dissolved, however, and several of them issued communiqués in support of the coup.

One reason for taking no action against the political parties during the early weeks of the regime was that Mobutu still needed their support. The first government after the coup, headed by Colonel Léonard Mulamba as prime minister, relied to a considerable extent upon the politicians of the 1960-65 era. But that reliance was nowhere acknowledged in Mobutu's public pronouncements. On the contrary, his continuing verbal assaults on the politicians presaged his attempts both to reduce their participation in his government and to create a personal instrument of power.

Mobutu claimed to depoliticize the nation by abolishing conventional political parties but then formed his own sole party, the MPR. Unlike the sweeping measures of later years, instituted almost overnight on the basis of little apparent preparation, the creation of the MPR was an incremental process, occurring over a period of about sixteen months. The first step was the creation of the Corps of Volunteers of the Republic (Corps des Volontaires de la République--CVR).

The Mobutu coup had taken place in the context of intense activity on the part of the political "youth movements" in the capital. Two days earlier, the League of Young Vigilantes (Ligue des Jeunes Vigilants) had organized a militant demonstration of 200 people at the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa. According to its statutes, the purpose of the league was "to fight resolutely and firmly against the forces which destroy national consciousness and the sense of responsibility, to assure the education and the encadrement of the people in order to build a truly free Congo, rid of the fear of imperialism, of the exploitation of man by man, [and] of obscurantism, [and] oriented toward the route of progress of the popular masses." The CVR, and later the MPR, would echo the diffuse radicalism of this pronouncement. Mobutu seems to have viewed such groups both as a threat to be harnessed and as potentially valuable allies in the struggle against the old politicians.

The formation of the CVR was announced to the public on January 9, 1966. A serious attempt was made to co-opt the leadership of the General Union of Congolese Students (Union Générale des Etudiants Congolais--UGEC), the most articulate and radical of the youth organizations. Both UGEC president N'Kanza Dolomingu and former UGEC secretary for international affairs Kamanda wa Kamanda figured on the initial list of CVR leaders, but both declined to participate. Subsequent events suggest that either the ideological gap was too great to be bridged, as in the case of N'Kanza, who was imprisoned, or that such elements had to be co-opted on the highest level, e.g., in the case of Kamanda, who was named secretary general of the presidency in December 1966, after the prime ministership had been abolished in October and Mobutu became head of government (see The Presidency , this ch.).

The CVR established branches throughout the capital and in at least some of the provinces. At its first national seminar (in Kinshasa in December 1966), the group declared its ideology to be "nationalism." "Economic independence" and "nationalization of the education system" were set as major objectives.

The CVR referred to itself as a vanguard movement rather than a party, and its contradictory statements regarding parties doubtless reflected the fact that Mobutu's own opinion on the subject was evolving. In fact, Mobutu faced a dilemma. The term politician had become virtually synonymous with thief or traitor. At the same time, particular parties and politicians retained substantial credit with their respective constituencies. The May 1967 Manifesto of N'Sele, charter of the MPR, affirmed that the government administration would have to be reorganized and new personnel brought in. It would have to be "detribalized" and "depoliticized." Little was said as to how this would be accomplished. Administrative personnel were upgraded, but no major reorganization took place. Rather than being "depoliticized," the administration was merged with the MPR.

At first the MPR was given a separate structure on all levels below that of the president. Then, following a series of disputes between government and party officials on the same level, e.g., regional commissioner and regional president of the MPR, the duality was eliminated. At the beginning of 1972, the regional commissioner became head of the MPR on the regional level, the collectivity chief, head of the party in the local collectivity, and so on.

Under such a system, "politics" (competition for rewards and for control over distribution of rewards) still existed, but in the hands of the administrators. There were party committees at each level of the administrative structure. In a typical rural zone, the MPR committee comprised the zone commissioner and his two assistant commissioners, the director of the Youth of the Popular Revolutionary Movement (Jeunesse du Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution--JMPR), the commander of the gendarmerie, the secretary of the National Union of Zairian Workers (Union Nationale des Travailleurs Zaïrois--UNTZA), and the chiefs of the collectivities that made up the zone.

Paradoxically, the fact that the party was everywhere undermined its significance; everyone was included in it (all Zairians were considered to be members by birth; the MPR was regarded as the "nation politically organized"). The only distinguishable MPR institutions were the Political Bureau and (later) the Central Committee and the JMPR, or party youth wing.

Suffrage was universal and compulsory at age eighteen, but the system offered no real political choice. All electoral choice or competition supposedly took place within the MPR. All presidential elections (1970, 1977, and 1984) were essentially plebiscites, with Mobutu as the only candidate.

Parliament was restored in 1970, but it had very limited ability to influence the policy-making process. Nor were individual members of parliament able to play a linkage role between their constituents and the center to any significant extent. Under the system instituted in 1970, the population was asked to approve a single list of candidates for people's commissioners, or members of the legislature. The single-party list was put to the electorate, which had no choice but to vote yes or no (by casting a green or red ballot).

In 1977, under pressure from the United States, the International Monetary Fund ( IMF--see Glossary), and other outside forces, Mobutu began to pay lip service to the notion of democracy for Zaire. Multiple candidacies were permitted, but within the MPR framework. The result was that the National Legislative Council served as a lightning rod for the population's resentment of its treatment by the regime. In 1982, for example, 310 members of parliament (one per 100,000 persons) were elected from among 1,409 candidates presented by the MPR. But only sixty out of 310 members were reelected.

The move toward multipartyism and democratization initiated in 1990 did, indeed, result in the formation and, ultimately, legal recognition of numerous political parties and coalitions (see Political Reform in the 1990s; Opposition since 1990 , this ch.). The logical consequence would be free multiparty elections, and initially hopes ran high for a transition leading up to the presidential and legislative elections due in early December 1991. But those elections did not take place, and Mobutu made very clear his intention to stay in power beyond his constitutional mandate. Thus, in the early 1990s, free electoral choice remained an unfulfilled dream in Zaire.

Data as of December 1993

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