Zaire: An African Horror Story

Observers search for a suitable analogy—the next Bosnia, another Somalia—to the shaky, predatory despotism of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga

The losers in all this, needless to say, are the long-suffering Zairean people. Last year inflation soared to more than 6,000 percent. Unemployment is at 80 percent. Gross domestic product has by some estimates been contracting by as much as 30 percent a year since the pillage. Hospitals and schools have repeatedly shut down. Teachers in Likasi had been on strike for more than a month when I was there; their average monthly salary of 30 million zaires was worth four bottles of beer. Many Zaireans eat just one meal a day, some only one every other day. The public-service sector has largely stopped functioning. Tax collection has ceased—except for the "direct taxation" of army shakedowns. The country's banking system has all but collapsed. The nation of nearly 40 million, four times the geographic size of France, is heading deeper into anarchy by the day.

Yet it is precisely these conditions that have made Mobutu's tactics effective. Most Zaireans see a method in his seeming madness, a deliberate strategy of destabilization as a means of discrediting the movement toward democracy and undermining the capacity of the people to mobilize against him. "Mobutu tries to keep the population in fear," a lawyer in Kolwezi told me. "The population is traumatized. Mobutu wants to keep them in this position for a long time. That's how he maintains his position."

Foreigners living in Zaire often marvel at the "passivity" of the Zairean people; one I spoke to speculated about a version of the "battered-woman syndrome." But Zaireans point out that Mobutu and his allies still have all the guns and all the money. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Kinshasa, they reminded me, and more than thirty of them were shot dead. In any event, a clergyman said, "when the population is hungry and tired, it doesn't have the energy to go into the streets."

A U.S. State department paper of earlier this year raised the specter of Zaire's becoming "Somalia and Liberia rolled into one, with vast potential for immense refugee flows, regional destabilization, and humanitarian disaster." Whether Zaire is headed down that path is far from certain. The country is not armed to the teeth as Somalia was, and it is blessed with a lush tropical climate that makes widespread famine less likely. Moreover, the country is so huge and diffuse—Shaba alone is nearly the size of France—that it lacks the implosive potential of Liberia, where the importation of large quantities of arms touched off a conflagration that consumed the entire country in less than a year. What does seem clear is that the longer Mobutu's strategy of progressive disintegration lasts, the more widespread and irreversible will be the forces of anarchy. Already reports of "ethnic cleansing" much like those from Shaba are emerging from the northeastern region of Kivu.

That is why many Zaireans are in favor of foreign intervention. A Katangan executive at Gecamines put it this way: "The West and the United States have a moral obligation vis-a-vis Africa. At the time of the Cold War, the West and the United States produced dictators. They armed them. They organized coups. Now that the Cold War is finished, the West has a moral obligation to get rid of the dictators of Africa. When they created these dictators, they didn't ask for the advice of the African people."

The American policy-makers I have spoken with are clearly at a loss about what should be done. "The solution is not obvious," I was told. Armed United Nations intervention to support an election process—the solution favored by Tshisekedi and many other Zaireans—would be unsalable in the United States even if it were feasible. The strategy of nudging the transition process from the sidelines has withered under Mobutu's endlessly subversive machinations. All along there has been concern that if Mobutu could somehow be extracted from the scene, his departure would create a vacuum into which the soldiers left behind would rush, with frightful results. By this line of argument, Mobutu has stoked the forces of anarchy to such a degree that he has made himself indispensable as a means of controlling them. Après moi, le déluge, he has implied for thirty years. At this late date he may be right.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In