Mobutu’s legacy gets a facelift

2009-09-19 14:40

THE first gunshot Philémon Efolote ­ever heard in Bandal, his Kinshasa neighbourhood, was at 5pm on Saturday May 17 1997. It was three days before the arrival of Laurent Kabila and his motley army of hungry, unpaid rebels, who had just forced Zaire’s long-time president, Mobutu Sese Seko, to run from Kinshasa like a dog.

“We never knew war and I never heard gunshots in Mobutu’s time. I could go to any corner of Congo without being harassed. Even my wife comes from a different tribe to me,” Efolote tells City Press.

“There was no tribalism or regionalism. Mobutu advocated unity and peace.”

Efolote is now a co-ordinator for the Union of ­Democratic Mobutuists (Udemo), led by Mobutu’s son, Nzanga, who is working with the Congolese ­government to bring his father’s body back from ­Morocco for reburial at his jungle retreat, Gbadolite.
A decrepit museum has also been set up in Bandal to honour Mobutu.

The return of Mobutu’s remains would signal the reintegration into the Congolese political memory of a man who imposed “unity and peace” at tremendous cost, killed political opponents at will and ­siphoned an estimated $5?billion (about R37?billion) of public money into private bank accounts for his own use and that of his friends.

Under his rule, Congo’s independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered with the blessing of Belgium and the US after he became too friendly with the Soviet Union. In 1966 four cabinet members were hanged in front of 50?000 people at Kinshasa’s Stade des Martyrs (Martyrs’ Stadium) for daring to cross Mobutu.

When Pierre Mulele, a former secessionist, returned to Kinshasa to take up an amnesty offer in 1968 his eyes were gouged out, his genitals ripped off and his limbs amputated one after the other by security police, wrote Michela Wrong in her seminal account of Mobutu’s reign, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz.

Sakombi Inongo, a former information minister, told a documentary film crew in 1999 he once saw Mobutu drink human blood (Mobutu, roi du Zaire).

But on a visit to the Mobutu museum, housed in Mobutu’s first Kinshasa house and not yet open to the public, a different picture emerges. On the mouldy, dirty walls, Mobutu the statesman is ­pictured with John F Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and former French presidents Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac. It’s all smiles as ­Mobutu poses with Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, ­Belgium’s King Baudouin and boxers George Foreman and Muhammad Ali at 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle boxing spectacular in Kinshasa.

At a reception at the White House in 1989, then President George Bush snr hailed Zaire as “one of America’s oldest friends” and President Mobutu as “one of our most valuable”. Chirac, too, spoke in 1988 of his “great friendship” with Mobutu when he was still mayor of Paris.

Mobutu had allies in Pretoria too. Former South African foreign affairs minister Pik Botha recounted to City Press several trips he made to meet Mobutu in the 1970s and 1980s to discuss political and trade interests at a time when South Africa and Zaire were supplying Unita’s Jonas Savimbi and the ­FNLA’s ­Holden Roberto with arms.

The Unita link was “the unifying factor”, said Botha, who accompanied former president PW Botha to Gbadolite in 1988. Like PW Botha, Mobutu made no secret of his disdain for democracy. When a Belgian reporter challenged his creation of a one-party state in 1967 he retorted: “MPR is a national party, not a single party. There is no opposition. We need no opposition. We are Bantus.”

Now Congo’s Kabila government is collaborating in bringing Mobutu’s body back to Kinshasa and eventually reburying it at Gbadolite, where Mobutu built several large palaces and a runway long enough for the Concorde he chartered several times in 1989.

“Arrangements are being made (to bring the body back). We are now only facing what we can say are logistical (problems),” said Lambert Mende Omalanga, minister of information in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the name with which Kabila wiped Mobutu’s “Zaire” off the map.

This comes after Nzanga Mobutu won a post as deputy prime minister in the 2006 elections. He has been serving with Kabila ever since.

“For us it is a conviction that we need reconciliation in this country,” Omalanga says. “To work with the son (of Mobutu) was a signal to our ­majority to show them we are not here to avenge (sic) against innocent people.”

Udemo secretary-general Jean Marie Gapemonoko also says Mobutu’s followers have decided to “work with Kabila in the interest of unity and peace”.

In much the same way as Mobutu himself restored the name of Lumumba years after his death, it is becoming more acceptable in DRC in 2009 to claim Mobutu as a Congolese hero.

Last week a ceremony was held in his honour at Notre Dame cathedral in Kinshasa to mark the 12th year since his death. Even government admits he was not all bad.

“As far as national unity is concerned, Mobutu delivered,” says Omalanga. “He worked for national unity. He used force and brutality, but still the results are there. Congolese believe they are one nation, but we are very poor today because he did not manage the country very well economically and financially. So there are mixed feelings.”

Omalanga estimates that Mobutu stole about $5?billion during his 32-year reign. Many believe much of it was given to friends and family or stolen from him by some of his most trusted aides.

In July Swiss banks ended a 12-year freeze on some $7?million of Mobutu’s money, releasing it to his family instead of to the Congolese state.

“We expressed our regrets,” said Omalanga. “It is beyond doubt that there are huge amounts of the Mobutu fortune which we are after.”

For some, bringing back Mobutu’s remains is not enough.

“We struggle in Udemo to come to power again,” said Efolote. “It is my wish that a Mobutu becomes president again.” – Media24 Foreign Desk

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