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The Presidency

Mobutu deserves the label presidential monarch not simply because of style, such as his use of the capitalized, plural pronoun We, but also because under Mobutu the Zairian state has been dominated by the institution of the presidency, which controls a huge share of public expenditure. The "reforms" announced in 1990, according to which the president would be "above politics," only reinforced the long-term trend toward an ever more powerful executive office of the president.

It should be stressed that the overdevelopment of the presidency occurred entirely under Mobutu. The Fundamental Law (Loi Fondamentale), or provisional constitution, of 1960 was based on the Belgian constitution. Power was vested in the parliament. Like a European constitutional monarch, the president had very limited powers, although his role in a constitutional crisis could be substantial. The 1964 constitution--known as the Constitution of Luluabourg (Luluabourg is now Kananga)--provided for an executive presidency that coexisted with cabinet government, under the prime minister. When Mobutu seized power in 1965, he initially continued this arrangement, serving as president while Colonel Léonard Mulamba was prime minister, heading a nonparty cabinet, formally called the National Executive Council.

The first step in building a more powerful presidency came in October 1966, when Mobutu dismissed the popular Mulamba. Rather than name a new prime minister, he absorbed the functions of that position into those of the president.

The constitution of 1967 formalized the primacy of the presidency. Under its provisions, the role of the ministers was simply to execute the decisions and policies of the president. During 1977-79 and again in the late 1980s, Mobutu named prime ministers, but they were little more than vice chairmen of the cabinet, outranked by the president, who was also a member.

At the same time, Mobutu was increasing the capabilities of the office of the president. In November 1966, he created the General Secretariat of the Presidency. The secretariat comprised three general directorates (directions générales): economic, commercial, and cultural affairs; juridical and administrative affairs; and mines and energy. Some of the leading political figures of the Second Republic first emerged as members of the secretariat.

In October 1967, this small secretariat was transformed into the Bureau of the Presidency of the Republic and given responsibility for "a permanent mission of studies and of conceptualization, of technical coordination and of liaison between the public institutions and their organs." It comprised a director and four "colleges of counsellors," the fourth one being charged with "social and cultural problems." The new body, composed entirely of university graduates, gave Mobutu a higher level of expertise than that available through the cabinet. Perhaps more importantly, it gave him a means of co-opting young men, often of radical views, who might otherwise have found their careers blocked by the "old" independence-era politicians. Playing off these two groups against one another proved an effective divide-and-rule tactic.

The capabilities of the presidency were further enhanced by the creation of military services directly attached to the presidency. The maison militaire, or personal military staff of the president, and the Special Presidential Brigade--later, Special Presidential Division (Division Spéciale Présidentielle--DSP)--were loyal to the president, even more so than the armed forces in general.

The next major change in the position of the president came with the 1974 constitution, drafted by the presidency and approved by the MPR Political Bureau and the rubber-stamp legislature, formally known as the National Legislative Council, by acclamation. According to Article 28 of this constitution, Zaire was to have "a single institution, the MPR, incarnated by its President." Article 30 provided that the "President of the MPR is ex officio President of the Republic, and holds the plenitude of power to exercise. He presides over the Political Bureau, the Council of Ministers, the Legislature, and the Judicial Council." The president was to be elected by direct popular vote to a seven-year term and could serve an unlimited number of terms.

The Transitional Act of August 1992 created a parliamentary system. Mobutu, as president, was to remain head of state but was intended to serve as a figurehead with ceremonial rather than real executive powers. Mobutu refused to accept the validity of the new document, however, and continued to wield power as before, using control of the military, media, central bank, and state enterprises to his advantage. It remains to be seen what the role of the president will be in the new transitional constitution on which both pro-Mobutu and anti-Mobutu forces reportedly agreed in late 1993. It seems clear, however, that Mobutu would never voluntarily step aside and allow himself to be shunted off to a strictly ceremonial role.

Data as of December 1993

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