History of a U.S.-Backed Dictatorship

By Helen Winternitz Los Angeles Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

History of a U.S.-Backed Dictatorship


Helen Winternitz Los Angeles Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In the Kivu region of eastern Zaire, 1 million refugees are fleeing war and rebellion. As one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in modern history, it is certainly deserving of media attention and of international efforts to help.

This is just one tragedy, though, in a much larger catastrophe that engulfs the entire country of Zaire and its 45 million people. Zaire, which borders nine other countries and is the vast centerpiece of Africa, is falling apart.

The catastrophe of Zaire has been long in the making, beginning in the era of colonial greed and ending after decades of the Cold War, during which the United States used Zaire as a giant pawn. The troubles on its eastern border with Rwanda and Burundi are but symptoms of the greater malaise that has come to a head under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. The performance of the Zairian army in Kivu is one such symptom. Its soldiers, men in uniform with a mission to protect the helpless, pillaged the offices and commandeered the vehicles of international relief agencies. They fled before a force of rebels, deserting the key town of Goma, whose airport served as a lifeline for the refugees. The reaction of Zaire's citizens to the fall of Goma is another symptom. They looted the stores and the dictator's palace, throwing worthless Zairian currency in the air like confetti and dousing themselves with Mobutu's imported perfumes. This behavior, of army and citizen, is a desperate response to living with a broken economy, a crumbled infrastructure and a corrupt government whose only efficiency is repression. Salaries no longer exist or are rendered negligible because of astronomical inflation. To make ends meet, civil servants sell permits for buildings, teachers sell grades, physicians sell medicines, nurses sell beds, police stage robberies. Zaire's tortured history began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese sailed down Africa's west coast and found the Kongo Kingdom. They forged an alliance of trade and the exchange of ideas with the Africans. Then the Portuguese discovered that fortunes could be made by selling their allies into slavery. Central Africa became a major supplier of slaves, and its indigenous civilizations were ruined. Still, when independence came in 1960, it stirred hopes that the country would become one of Africa's richest, a nation endowed with minerals, forest, farmland and the immense hydroelectric potential of the Congo River. However, since grabbing power in 1965, Mobutu and a clique of insiders syst ematically have plundered the domain. Mobutu himself has amassed a fortune of at least $5 billion. Mobutu has succeeded in maintaining his "kleptocracy," as Zairians call their government, until now for two principal reasons: his ruthlessness and U.

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