Immediately after the coup, Mobutu proclaimed himself president. In a few years, He empties the republican constitution and creates a real dictatorship. He is granted or grants himself exceptional powers: he combines the functions of prime minister, army chief and legislator. He appoints the ministers. The MPR (Popular Movement of the Revolution) is the party-state to which all the population must adhere. The Mobutu regime is based on authority and nationalism, which are the secrets of its longevity. At first, Mobutu introduced himself as the liberator of the blacks, nationalizing the mines (1966) and debunking the colonial statues in the capital Leopoldville renamed Kinshasa the same year. The Congolese who come out of the colonial era are then very sensitive to this propaganda.

Political police search, intimidate or torture political opponents. Following trips to China and North Korea, Mobutu sets up the cult of his personality. His portrait appears on television just before the evening newspaper. Signs in the streets extol his policies; songs celebrate his virtues11.

Zairianization and recourse to authenticity

As early as 1971, Mobutu took a series of steps to detach himself from anything that could remind the West. The country is renamed “Republic of Zaire”. The Congolese must adopt African names (deletion of Western names, and addition of a “postnom”) to the image of Mobutu who calls himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Zabanga. Abacost dress is imposed on men in lieu of the suit and tie. A new currency – zaire divided into 100 makuta (singular likuta) – replaces the Congolese franc. Many cities are renamed: Stanleyville becomes Kisangani, Elisabethville Lubumbashi.

On the sixth anniversary of independence, a parade summarizes the history of the country, showing the Belgian imposing the chicotte. In the background, the relations between Belgium and the president are good: in 1968, on a trip to Brussels, Mobutu receives the Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold12. King Baudouin was in turn received in Zaire in 1970 and 1985.

Realized in the course of 1974, “Zairianization” was one of the most important events of the policy pursued by the Mobutist regime, namely the gradual nationalization of commercial properties and land properties belonging to nationals or foreign financial groups. In fact, if this measure was formally part of an effort aimed at the national reappropriation of the economy and the redistribution of wealth acquired during colonization, it is mostly a failure.


After the first Congo war, Mobutu, the new head of state, pledged to regain the confidence of the foreign business community. In 1966, the powerful mining industries of Kasai and Katanga were nationalized. This is the golden age of Congo, now independent: in 1967 1 Congolese franc is worth 2 US dollars, public schools are growing and the rural exodus is accelerating; prices for coffee, copper or other minerals are flourishing. The carrying out of major works (the Inga hydro dam on the Congo) and the financing of a space program give the impression that Zaire, like some emerging Asian countries, is an African dragon. However, the economy of the country is still, as in the colonial era, too export-oriented and therefore fragile.

From 1973, the country is hit by an acute economic crisis, caused by the decline in copper prices and the increase in those of oil. Corruption spreads and inflation becomes galloping while Mobutu privatizes many companies in his name or the names of his relatives (“Zairianization”) 13. The country produces large quantities of coffee for export but does not cover its food needs, Mobutu has imported cereals and meat from South Africa and Rhodesia instead of modernizing the agriculture of the country which, given its climate, could easily support itself. In the 1980s, the Congolese economy turned to a slump: GDP grew slightly as population growth exploded.

In general, new owners of economic and financial assets are not sufficiently prepared to provide medium and long-term management of the production tool. Those who have not gone bankrupt have made huge investments in the West. Mobutu diverts state currencies in such a way that in 1984, he is one of the richest men on the planet with $ 4 billion, the equivalent of the country’s external debt. Debt increases even more with the pharaonic construction of the Inga hydroelectric dam, a site left by colonial Belgium, which Zaire did not need. While the Inga dam brought money back to French (EDF) or Italian companies, the latter, like the Maluku steelworks, operate at a reduced capacity, due to a lack of maintenance and competent staff14,15.

Dictatorship, persecution and impoverishment drive the brains out of the West (Belgium and France in the lead).

Political structures

The provision of commercial funds and economic assets has also been a relay of patronage maintained by the authorities. The clan surrounding the head of state was thus able to benefit from the fruits of the policy of nationalization, just like those who in the different regions of the country, pledged allegiance to the regime in exchange for a trade or a land property. Many Western countries have signed agreements with Zaire to compensate the stripped parties, but in the vast majority of cases these agreements have never been implemented. Corruption becomes one of the characteristics of the regime.


Although the Mobutist regime was inscribed from the beginning in the wake of the cold war, favoring close ties with the former colonial power of Belgium, the United States and France, we can nevertheless speak in general terms of political schema particular.

• November 24, 1965: The coup d’etat orchestrated in Kinshasa could not have taken place without Western support, who fear a shift of the African giant into the sphere of the Soviet Union. Colonel Mobutu represents in their eyes the only alternative to the policy advocated by Panafricanist Lumumba and the inability of President Kasa-Vubu to stabilize his government.

From 1970 to 1980, Zaire was a form of anti-communist bulwark in Africa, a situation all the more attractive for Western countries as the containment of the Soviet sphere (eg Congo-Brazzaville), is accompanied by access to the very important mining subsoil (copper, uranium, cobalt, etc.).

Thus, in parallel with military cooperation with countries such as Belgium and France, Zaire also served as the main rear arms supply base for the rebellion of FNLA’s National Front for the Liberation of FNLA Holden Roberto UNITA by Jonas Savimbi, supported by the United States and South Africa, against the Angolan Marxist regime. A key element of the conflict in South West Africa transits through the channel of the Zairian regime, in exchange for external political support but also internal.

• 1977: “Katangese” rebels from Angola invade Shaba, Mobutu’s troops are powerless, rebels are repulsed by Moroccan troops transported by French aviation16

• May 1978: Again, 4,000 rebels from Angola, “the Katangese gendarmes”, attack the mining town of Kolwezi, as they are accused of massacring Europeans, the French Foreign Legion and Belgian soldiers intervene to mater rebellion17.

In both of these operations, some have seen an attempt by Angolan Marxists to weaken Mobutu, who supports UNITA and the FNLA. The rebels, in any case by drowning the Kolwezi mines, are also forcing engineers to flee for good, which weakens the Zairean economy in the long run. This war interposed between Luanda and Kinshasa also shows the importance of Zaire in the eyes of Westerners. However, despite close ties with Western capitals, President Mobutu does not close the door at any time to countries in the Soviet orbit and China. In reality, it was more affinities of the Zairian regime for the tinsel of the different communist systems than for the basic ideology. Thus, the model of the cultural revolution of Mao inspires the Zairean leader, who adapts it to his country:
• birth of the abacost (“down the suit”) surmounted by a mao collar,
• publication of the little green book (1968), collection of quotations from Mobutu, equivalent of the little red book of Mao
• return to the “authenticity” of individual surnames.

Although largely inferior to Western aid, support from Eastern bloc countries is nonetheless existing, such as the provision of co-operatives in education or the financing of micro-projects. of development.

Fall of Mobutu (1989-1997)

With the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Mobutu regime lost most of its Western support. The arrest and execution of his friend Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania seems to have shaken the dictator. Demonstrations, strikes, protest marches stir Kinshasa and other urban centers. On April 24, 1990, in the “Discourse of Democratization”, Mobutu announced a series of political reforms for his country: abandon the presidency of MPR, multiparty, elections within two years18. A prime minister is appointed at the end of April. Buoyed by this reversal, the Zairian episcopate proposes the organization of a National Sovereign Conference to support the democratic transition. Mobutu agrees. For about a year and a half (August 1991-December 1992), the Conference, meeting in Kinshasa, discusses a new constitution to replace that of Luluabourg (1964) but leads to nothing. A “march of hope” organized by the Christians of Kinshasa is repressed in the blood on February 16, 1992. 19 Unlike the vow of the street, Mobutu does not intend to give up power. The election of Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, leader of the radical opposition, as prime minister by the Speakers20, does not bring change. Mobutu removed him from his post on 5 February 1993.

The liberalization attempts of the regime do not solve the economic crisis. In the 1990s, GDP declined. The country can no longer assume the debt service. Public services collapse, rampant inflation ruins purchasing power (+ 9769% in 19942). On 21 September 1991, unpaid soldiers looted shops in Kinshasa and other cities. New scenes of looting, from 28 to 30 January 1993, in the capital, much more violent: there are about a thousand dead including the ambassador of France21.

Arrival in power of Laurent-Désiré Kabila

The genocide in Rwanda gives Marshal Mobutu international credibility. He agreed to host Rwandan refugees in Ituri fleeing the area of Operation Turquoise. Zaire hosts 1.5 million people. In Rwanda, the Tutsi have taken power but are worried about the presence on the Zairian border of these mainly Hutu refugee camps: they fear that they will take up arms and enter Rwanda. Already, these Hutu refugees are accused of persecuting the Tutsis of Zaire. In 1996, Rwandan President Paul Kagame excites tensions.

Physically, Mobutu is sick: he suffers from prostate cancer. His prime minister Kengo Wa Dondo is exercising more and more power. The army of Zaire is deliquescent. Only the Presidential Special Division maintains the regime.

Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda and Zairians are coming together in a motley movement called AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo). This armed rebellion, backed by Bill Clinton’s United States and Angola’s Dos Santos, officially aims to overthrow Mobutu but also serves as a cover for the penetration by Rwanda and Uganda of Zaire to hunt down Hutu refugees and gain access to to the riches of the subsoil22. A former Congolese Marxist, Laurent-Désiré Kabila is at his head. Muluba, born in Moba in Katanga, he militated for the independence of the Belgian Congo, fled the civil war of 1960-1965 in Tanzania, become there trafficker of ivory and gold. The AFDL receives funding from American and Canadian mining lobbies. Kabila will sign mining agreements with the companies American Mineral Fields (the future Adastra), Barrick Gold, First American Diamond, Horsham Corporation, Anglo Gold Ashanti.

The low motivation of the Zairian soldiers to resist, the corruption of their officers, the weariness of the population compared to Mobutism facilitates the advance of the AFLD23. As the rebellion approaches Kinshasa, Mobutu fled to his hometown of Gbadolite, then flies to Togo and Morocco. Without fighting, the AFDL forces entered Kinshasa on May 17, 1997, soon joined by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who proclaimed himself president of the country. The historical and nonviolent opposition of Étienne Tshisekedi is ignored by the new power.

Notes and references

1. ↑ Mobutu king of Zaire, documentary film of Thierry Michel, 1999
2. Gauthier de Villers, From Mobutu to Mobutu: Thirty Years of Belgium-Zaire Relations, De Boeck Superior, 1995, p.33
3. ↑ The Mobutu years (1965-1989): the exponential increase of an odious debt [archive]
4. ↑ Jean-Claude Willame, Zaire: The epic of Inga, Chronicle of an industrial predation, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1986
5. ↑ The Inga Dam, the iconic example of a white elephant pp.22-26 [archive]
6. ↑ Crawford Young, Thomas Edwin Turner, The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State, 1985, p.256-257
7. ↑ Crawford Young, Thomas Edwin Turner, The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State, 1985, p.257-258
8. ↑ Ngimbi Kalumvueziko, Congo-Zaire: The tragic destiny of a nation, L’Harmattan, 2013, p.179
9. ↑ Kambayi Bwatshia, The tragic illusion of power in Congo-Zaire, L’Harmattan, 2007, p.148-149
10. ↑ Ngimbi Kalumvueziko, Congo-Zaire: The Tragic Destiny of a Nation, L’Harmattan, 2013, p.181-189
11. David Van Reybrouck, Congo. Een geschiedenis, 2010 (French translation: Congo: A story, Actes sud, 2012)
12. ↑ Ngimbi Kalumvueziko, Congo-Zaire: The tragic destiny of a nation, L’Harmattan, 2013, p.195
13. ↑ Ngimbi Kalumvueziko, Congo-Zaire: The tragic destiny of a nation, L’Harmattan, 2013, p.201