In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz

The Book of the Week is “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo” by Michaela Wong, published in 2001.

Various dictators have looted the Belgian colony alternately known as “Zaire” and “Congo” in recent centuries. The late 1800’s saw light-skinned people enslaving the dark-skinned to try to enrich themselves by poaching, harvesting, mining or drilling for the colony’s ivory, rubber, timber, cocoa, diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, uranium and oil on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. However, many died of malaria, typhoid or sleeping sickness.

Belgium was still greedy even after Congo, still racked by unrest, declared its independence in 1960. The Soviets wanted a piece of the action, sending troops in to pretend to quell the violence. The United Nations troops entered, throwing soldiers with good intentions, after bad. For the next thirty years, what did change was that the United States and other countries wasted an inconceivably large amount of money supporting the lavish lifestyles of the Congolese dictator and his family and friends, until the CIA discreetly decided it was time for the dictator to go.

In late September 1960, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (Mobutu, for short) came to power. That translates to “the all powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” He ran the nation’s one political party, called “Movement for the Revolution.” He had the charisma, and lack of academic-smarts but plethora of street-smarts of the late American president Ronald Reagan.

However, Mobutu used divide and conquer in his palace politics– telling naive individuals that others were slandering them behind their backs. They believed him. He also assigned the same tasks to subordinates who hated each other without telling the others of the duplicated project-teams. When they learned that the boss had favorites other than them, petty jealousies arose. The hostilities between Mobutu’s underlings kept them busy fighting among themselves, and kept him in power.

Mobutu held rallies all the time. He created jobs galore for his people, in the rubber and cocoa industries. Foreigners who had previously been running operations that exploited Congo’s resources, fled the country. The new native Congolese who were given businesses to run, had no clue how to run them. When the economy crashed, Mobutu, his family, his cronies and his private army had no worries, because their real estate in Brussels, Paris and South Africa, and their Swiss bank accounts remained safe.

In the mid 1980’s, the journalists and diplomats in Kinshasa could spot the Congolese elites by their SUVs and mobile phones from Telecel. Congolese peasants, in order to eat, were forced to grow vegetable gardens throughout the city.

In the 1990’s, desirous of a better life, native Congolese were able to obtain student visas that allowed them to secretly become low-level restaurant or construction workers, or drivers in Brussels. They fled their native country rather than collectively revolt in order to fight for it, having adopted the pessimistic attitude of every man for himself. They had seen with their own eyes that “… politics is a game played by conmen and hypocrites.”

Congo’s cycle of dictatorship had yet to be broken due to the education system, which didn’t teach Congolese history. The younger generation knew nothing of how their recent leaders had come to power. “Knowing nothing about the past of course, frees a population from any sense of blame for the present. How convenient was all this forgetting…”

May 1997 was crunch time similar to that in 1986 in the Philippines and Haiti. In Kinshasa, Tutsi youths were shot in the streets, Japanese journalists sought photo opportunities, journalists of other nationalities and Belgian tourists sought haven in the Hotel InterContinental.

Read the book to learn much more about the history of Congo and its one nuclear reactor, Mobutu, the Congolese people in the 1990’s– rich and famous, poor and unknown, their black markets, their Mutual Benefit Society, their religions, corruption at their airport and with the IMF and World Bank, and about the lingering colonialist nostalgia of Belgium and France.