Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Political Undead: Is It Possible to Mourn for Mobutu's Zaire?

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Political Undead: Is It Possible to Mourn for Mobutu's Zaire?

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Following the successful coup d'état of Laurent Kabila's forces in May 1997, the Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was forced into exile in Morocco, where he died. This article looks at a lively transnational debate about what should be done with the former president's remains, and through this debate reflects on attempts by people in the Congo to determine what version of history should be told and how to understand the impact of Mobutu's political legacy.

Résumé: A la suite du coup d'état réussi des forces de Laurent Kabila en Mai 1997, le dictateur zaïrois Sese Seko Mobutu fut exilé au Maroc, où il est mort. Dans cet essai, je m'intéresse à un débat actif transnational sur la décision à prendre concernant les restes de l'ancien président, et au travers de ce débat, je propose une réflexion sur les tentatives du peuple congolais de déterminer quelle version historique doit être choisie pour comprendre l'impact de l'héritage politique laissé par Mobutu.

WHEN MOBUTU LEFT ZAIRE in the spring of 1997-not as "president for life" but as "recently ousted dictator"-there was a strange, heady feeling in the air. Because he had survived one of the longest dictatorships in the history of African politics, most people in Kinshasa were excited about the idea of a change in leadership, but many were incredulous. Like Mobutu, people living in the capital were caught off guard by the ability of Laurent Kabila's rebel movement to cover such large distances in so little time, and by the ease with which his troops sent Zairian soldiers running. Congolese and foreigners in the Congo were asking similar questions: If it was so easy to get rid of Mobutu, then what exactly had been keeping him in power? Would he ever return? Was he really gone"? The question of Mobutu's whereabouts struck a particularly sensitive chord with people in the Congo since Mobutu died abroad and his body has still not been repatriated, making it impossible to feel the sense of closure that mourning is intended to achieve. In this article I will look at a lively transnational debate about whether or not the former president's remains should be repatriated to the Congo, and what this repatriation would mean in terms of the country's current political crisis. Through this debate I will reflect on attempts by people in the Congo to determine what version of history should be told, and how to understand the impact of Mobutu's political legacy.

In the fall of 2002, the Congo lost a local cosmopolitan luminary who was advancing our thinking on the relationship between popular culture and politics in Mobutu's Zaire. T. K. Biaya would certainly have had a great deal to say on the topic of mourning; he published a number of articles that spoke to the subject of the elaborate end-of-mourning ceremonies in the Congo known as matanga, and he would have been the first to remind us that funeral ceremonies are just as much about the living as the dead (Biaya 1997, 1998). My interest in the relationship between popular culture and politics is due in part to the influence that Biaya's thinking has had on my own research, and thus I see this article as an attempt to inventory Biaya's intellectual legacy. But this article is also written in response to Bogumil Jewsiewicki's thought-provoking proposition that the passage of time and shifts in political imagination make it possible for us to talk about lifting the mourning on Belgian colonialism, at least in the Congo. In order to assess the timeliness of such a proposition, it may be helpful to look carefully at what people in the Congo are thinking and saying about more recent historical developments, since in the minds of many Congolese the two are inextricably linked. If, as Johannes Fabian has suggested, the events of the colonial past are good material with which to think the present (1996), to what extent do current or recent events enable us to shed light on the experiences of the deep colonial past? …

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