The Congo

There are two ways of looking at the Congo. The first is to compare it with the past, and marvel. Once in turmoil, fractured, tearing apart, projecting images of brutality and savagery, the Congo these days is a reasonably calm, quiet, secure, and united country of 20 million people. A visitor can go almost anywhere without fear. The authority of President Joseph Désiré Mobutu reaches almost everywhere. Considering the Congo’s history, these are remarkable achievements.

The second way of looking at the Congo is to put aside the past, take the Congo for what it is today, and despair. The Congo is exhibiting some of the worst traits of independent black Africa—corruption, waste, elitism, luxury, grandiosity, and neglect. The government can build what the Congolese call the world’s secondlargest swimming pool, but it refused, for more than a year, to pay the bills to transport to the Eastern Congo U.S. relief food for children afflicted with kwashiorkor, the disease of advanced malnutrition. The public treasury spends millions of dollars for monuments and parades but no money to build a road from the farms of Kivu Province to their port on the Congo River. At a time when other African leaders, like President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, are trying to infuse their people with self-reliance, austerity, and honesty, Mobutu is rushing the Congo the other way.

Those who sympathize with Mobutu, including American officials, plead that an outsider must not let his second way of looking at the Congo obscure the first. They insist that waste is a small price to pay for security and that the Congo, with its history of disunity and humiliation, and its lack of confidence, may need circuses and monuments more than other countries. This argument is hard to dismiss or even discount, but it is based on some questionable assumptions.


For much of its early history, the Congo, as large as the United States east of the Mississippi, was almost ungovernable. Tranquillity lasted only a week after the independence celebrations of June 30, 1960. Troops of the Congolese Army mutinied against their Belgian officers and massacred whites and others at will. This set off an exodus of Belgian technicians, managers, farmers, and businessmen and brought on a series of bloody secessions and rebellions.

In 1961, the Congo had four governments—two rival central governments in Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) and Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville), and two secessionist governments in the states of Kasai and Katanga. In mid-1964, leftist rebels who called themselves Simbas (Swahili for “lions”) controlled two fifths of the Congo and held a thousand whites hostage.

The struggle for unity was long and arduous. United Nations troops put down the longest and most important secession—that of Moise Tshombe’s Katanga—in 1963. By the end of 1964, the central government, ironically headed for a period by Tshombe, crushed the Simba rebellion with the help of Belgian paratroopers, American planes, CIA pilots, and white mercenaries. In November, 1965, General Mobutu, commander of the Army, took over the government in a coup. He faced a challenge in 1967 when a bizarre mutiny by white mercenaries sent the Eastern Congo into turmoil again. But the mercenaries were pushed out of the country.

Today the Congo is relatively stable and united, and Mobutu claims full credit for it. Of course, order is relative in the Congo. Despite all its boasting about stability, the government still faces a pocket of rebellion in the south of Kivu Province on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. To those who remember how much of the Congo’s past turmoil can be traced to the indiscipline and brutality of the Army, reports from South Kivu are discouraging.

“A single chief”

There is one great contrast with the past: life in the rest of the Congo goes on these days as if the rebels did not exist. A visitor hardly hears about the Kivu rebellion elsewhere. Mobutu is tough and authoritarian, and this marks another contrast with the past. Ten years ago, Mobutu was a diffident young man, so nervous about seizing power in the Congo that, according to close friends, the act almost broke him. He gave up power in five months.

Today, Mobutu, wearing his leopard-skin cap and brandishing a baroque cane, exudes confidence and authority. Once an almost inaudible, frightened speaker, he now addresses adulating crowds of thousands for hours, his voice hysterical, strident, yearning, cajoling, firm. There is a sureness in his measured walk and a dignity in his bearing. His authority was demonstrated last November in the Congo’s sham presidential election. The final tally showed 10,131,669 votes for Mobutu and 157 against him.

The main source of Mobutu’s power is his six battalions of Israelitrained paratroop commandos, including the one helping the Army deal with the rebels in South Kivu. The battalions are mobile units of 900 men each, ready to be airlifted to any part of the country should a rebellion or mutiny break out. But, not content with this, Mobutu is also trying to follow the lead of other African rulers and turn himself into a personal symbol of national unity. To some outsiders, in fact, there seems to be a touch of megalomania in him. His is a one-man show, with almost no tolerance for opposition. In one way or another, he has gotten rid of almost all the young, educated politicians who surrounded and advised him in 1965.

Mobutu’s rule has been ruthless. His security forces dealt with a demonstration by students of Louvanium University in 1969 by killing more than forty of them. Former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba and three other former ministers were executed early in his reign. In 1969, rebel leader Pierre Mulele was enticed back to the Congo on a promise of amnesty and then executed by a firing squad. Mobutu’s style includes rewriting history to make him more of a national hero. Mobutu has invoked the name of Lumumba as the great martyr of the Congo and painted himself as the natural heir of Lumumba. These efforts overlook the fact that Mobutu was the man who first arrested Lumumba and who joined other Congolese leaders in sending Lumumba to his death in Katanga.

Mobutu enjoys a style of wealth and luxury. With a nonaccountable presidential capital budget of $40 million in 1969 and $30 million in 1970, he acts as the great king or chief dispensing projects—usually grand ones —for the populace. He likes to travel luxuriously with large entourages, overtipping wherever they go, in the manner of Arabic sheikhs. Personally he has not suffered: he has built himself a home in Lausanne, Switzerland. During his presidency, he has acquired numerous business interests in the Bank of Kinshasa, newspapers, and other enterprises.

The whole style of Mobutu, the national hero and leader, raises a number of questions and doubts. The first is whether the creation of a national hero really is the sensible way to unite a nation. Supporters of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana once rationalized his dictatorship this way. Yet his grandeur and authoritarianism isolated him from the people and their complaints. Despite all the talk of Nkrumah’s charisma over so many years, people joyfully knocked down his statues after he fell. There is danger that Mobutu is worrying about only the facade of unity—adulation for the leader—and not about the government services in the bush that will really make a peasant hundreds of miles away believe that the Congo is important.

Neglect, in fact, is the hallmark of the new Congo. In the Eastern Congo, the area hurt most by the incessant rebellions of the first years, the government has done almost nothing to reactivate agriculture or maintain the roads needed to take food to markets.

The neglect is not caused by poverty. Congolese officials like to boast about a “Congolese miracle” in the economy. Because of an increase in world prices for the copper from the government-owned mines in Katanga, Congolese government revenues almost tripled in two years. In 1969, the government had $341 million more to spend than it had in 1967. Where has all the money gone? “We don’t know where all the money goes,” said one economist in a foreign embassy in Kinshasa. “Sometimes we think it goes in here.” He slipped his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket.

There is no doubt that the revenues have provided some personal enrichment. Foreign businessmen consider the Congo government one of the most corrupt in Africa. But this accounts for only part of the money. Far more has been spent on splendid projects that do nothing for economic development.

While missionaries in the interior complain that the government has failed to support their clinics, the government has just launched a $2.6 million hospital boat to go up and down the Congo River, and has installed a $1.2 million radio transmitter, the most powerful in Africa. There are plans to build a $10 million monument in Kinshasa to honor Lumumba.

The main agricultural project in the Congo these days is the President’s estate at N’Sele, thirty miles northeast of Kinshasa. With the help of technicians from Nationalist China, 590 acres are under cultivation, producing vegetables, rice, pineapples, peanuts, and soybeans. The estate also has a presidential home, a monument to the Congo’s only political party, a conference hall for the party, villas for the delegates, an enormous swimming pool, and a dock by the Congo River for the President’s personal riverboat. While the roads are neglected elsewhere, the government is building a four-lane divided highway, the best in the Congo, from Kinshasa to N’Sele.

Mobutu realizes that his splendid projects provoke criticism. In a speech on November 24, 1970, the fifth anniversary of his seizure of power, Mobutu told a crowd of thousands, “The agents of the fifth column are quick to cry, ‘politics of grandeur.’ So be it, because that is the measure of our country. We are a great people— respected and respectable.”


For an American, disturbing questions about Mobutu quickly become disturbing questions about American policy. The Congo, after all, is considered one of the few American success stories in the Third World. It is one of the few developing countries where U.S. policy-makers set down their basic goals and achieved them in a few years with little fuss and criticism.

When the Congo fell apart in chaos after independence, the Kennedy Administration decided to do what it could to make the Congo united, stable, secure, and free of Communism. In a way, this has been achieved under Mobutu. The United States, which has more influence on Mobutu and the Congo than any other outside power, can take some credit for this.

Since 1960, the United States has spent more money on the Congo than on any other country in black Africa. The U.S. Embassy says total foreign assistance since independence has come to more than $600 million. This includes military assistance and the American share (42 percent) of the $402 million United Nations military operation that ended the secession of Katanga. It does not include the cost of operations of the Central Intelligence Agency, which was openly active in the first years after independence.

After the United Nations put down Katanga, the United States stepped up its support of the Congo. During the Simba rebellion, the United States acquiesced in the Congo’s hiring of white mercenaries, supplied them with food and equipment, flew them in American transport planes, and provided B-26 bombers to support their attacks. The bombers were flown by CIA-hired Cuban pilots and maintained by CIA-hired ground crews. American transport planes dropped Belgian paratroopers on Stanleyville in 1964 in the attack that rescued most of the white hostages and broke the back of the rebel effort. During the mercenary mutiny of 1967, the U.S. government braved some testy criticism in the Senate to send three C-130 planes to help Mobutu put down the mutiny.

In the last few years, the United States has reduced its economic and military assistance programs. The new American emphasis is on private investment. Until now, total American investments have totaled only $25 to $30 million. The U.S. government wants more to come in. American officials are actively selling the Congo to American businessmen and American journalists. American officials believe that the American commitment to the Congo has paid off. The Congo no longer hits the headlines as the symbol of chaos and savagery in Africa. Mobutu, long a favorite of American officials, feels close to the United States. As he put it at a news conference in Washington, “I believe that our relations with the United States are quite special.”

This special relationship, however, raises another issue. If the United States can take credit for much of the stability in the Congo, must it also take the blame for at least some of the excesses? Does the foreign aid that once subsidized stability in the Congo now subsidize its circuses and wasteful, luxurious projects?

Take the matter of roads. U.S. officials use counterpart funds, generated by U.S. foreign aid, to pay for some Congolese road maintenance. There also are plans for the United States to join the World Bank and the European Common Market in a massive road-building project that could cost more than $100 million. Will this American road-building simply allow the Congolese government to divert more of its funds to prestige projects? Few American officials seem to ask themselves this question. Their attitude seems to be that, since the Congo needs roads, it is a good idea for the United States to help build them.

Sometimes American support of Congolese grandiosity is more direct. The U.S. Export-Import Bank, for example, has just financed the Congolese government’s $14 million purchase of two DC-8 planes for the government airline, Air Congo. At a time when the ravaged Eastern Congo is sorely in need of funds to revive its agriculture, the planes hardly seem to deserve such high priority.

American policy in the Congo badly needs a close look now. There is no longer any need for the United States to play mother hen to the Congo, hatching its $600 million investment. The United States accomplished what it set out to do. It helped achieve a stability that measures fairly well with that of other African countries.

The United States already has done all—and perhaps more than— an outsider can and should do. It is time for the Congo to fend for itself. If the Congo suddenly splits apart when the United States stops fluttering around, then the $600 million investment wasn’t worth much anyway.