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Leopold, Mobutu, and Zaire
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: living on the brink of disaster in Mobutu's Congo .
I described in the post introducing my self-set Africa project problems in journalism as I perceive them. Michela Wrong's book on Mobutu's Congo/Zaire, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz , largely escapes them, revealing as it does so the extent to which these problems of representation and analysis are connected to form; the brevity of the article forces elisions and superficial treatments where depth is required. It also reveals the connections, much more pleasant to ignore, between Europe, America, the Soviets, and African leaders and their strategies of power and domination. The Cold War ended, and with it ended certain alliances and strategical partnerships held up by the assumptions and goals of that conflict. However, the weaponry and the now unattractive personalities propped up in the Cold War remained to be used in new ways and find new shapes for their power. In the aftermath of the Cold War, paramilitaries and militaries supported by our side and theirs were left to play out rivalries and hatreds without the ideological covers of democracy and communism, largely abandoned by the international powers that had contributed to their formation and maintenance in previous years.
Wrong begins with a defence of Joseph Conrad, made necessary by the post-liberation re-reading of Conrad by Africans, most notably by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. Certainly Conrad's Congo, especially his portrayal of native Africans, is suspect when approached from Africa itslef, its people and concerns; however, Conrad was not writing about Africa or Africans, and in that is contained the problem he presents for us today. He was writing about empire and about the corruption of Europeans by empire. He was entering a European heart of darkness accidentally set in Africa, but it could have been set in any number of other places where the fact of empire made white men divine in their own eyes, guardians and murderers of more 'primitive' peoples. Africa was the where of a European fever-dream, not a real place with real people apart from European desires and illusions.
Mobutu of Zaire is the central subject of Wrong's book. She addresses his rise to power, built upon an understanding of what both the West and the Congolese desired in the years following Belgium's withdrawal from the colony. If Mobutu is cynical in his use of friendship and Cold War ideologies in the pursuit of personal power, he is no more cynical than his western counterparts and partners with their confining dualistic ideology of Communism-Democracy, a dualism that often served to support dictatorship, and their denial of the continuing economic and social effects of colonialism. One of the things that must be kept in mind when addressing modern Africa is the extreme youth of the nations involved. 1960 marks the independence of the oldest amongst them; most are much younger. This youth combined with colonial factors such as the arbitrary cartography of nationality, unstable infrastructures for which no serious effort had been made to make them self-sustaining, and ethnographic divisions of land and power that continue to affect society and politics today, form the African burden which he carries, but for which his responsibility is limited.
Mobutu made himself a singular power in Zaire and outside of it through personal cunning and an acute sense of personality. For a very long time, he knew how to manipulate European motives to his personal benefit and how to keep internal rivals powerless by purchasing their complicity or so fracturing their bases of support that they were unable to field a true threat to his power. The West was not innocent in his rise, and, though its regrets contributed to his fall, it was unprepared for his collapse. It was, at heart, a failure of imagination and the comfort of a known quality that kept the West blind; he was in power so long that no other alternative seemed both possible and without risk. And, of course, no other option was without risk, but this forms an insufficient excuse for propping up Mobutu. Cold War politics in the Third World had a disturbing tendency to ignore the suffering of Third World people as the West translated the realities it neither knew nor understood into domino theories and the chess game of its own concerns.
Wrong looks at the international aspects of Mobutu's longevity, including his ability to manipulate humanitarian efforts and institutions to his own benefit, an ability not confined to Mobutu alone, but also present in the politics of Paul Kagame of Rwanda and other troubled nations reliant on international aid for significant portions of their economies. The humanitarian crises of Africa are real, but they are also open to misrepresentation and abuse, as the picture of causes and effects are created to gain needed funds and those funds are often directed away from the vulnerable masses. Suffering in and of itself is not ennobling, and it does not result in the creation of angelic natures.
Wrong also addresses the effect of Mobutu in Zaire. He played chief to the nation, in which role his power was both created and displayed through the distribution of gifts. His gifts were access to the wealth of the country, and the recipients replicated his practice without his permanence, distributing the profits of their positions so long as they held them to cronies and dependents. This economy of plunder, kleptocracy, made the nation a treasure trove from which officials stole without return, making no investment in the future or in the present infrastructure and well-being of the nation. There was no need for that, so long as one was a successful thief, and as no one was responsible for the country's resources and infrastructure, no one was compelled to care for it. Wrong points to the example King Leopold II set in this practice, making Mobutu a more successful native version of the notorious Belgian king.
One of the most interesting sidelines in Wrong's book is her excursion into Belgium. There, in a city whose landmarks were largely purchased by the Congo's raided wealth, she finds a colonial power without a colonial history, a nation with amnesia. She also finds a lone former colonial administrator who publishes, primarily through a publishing company created by his wife, the truth as he finds it of Belgian colonialism based on the nation's records, letters, diaries, and his own experiences in the Congo. What he finds denies the image of Belgium as a force for civilization, a gentle colonial power, an image he had largely accepted until his investigation showed it to be false. This man, Jules Marchal, is a heroic figure, a champion of truth, even though his heroism is quiet and unsure. He has the fortitude to say, though his country wills not to hear him, that Belgian brutality did not end with Leopold, and that Belgium's contribution to deforming Congolese relationships did not end in 1960.
Michela Wrong does not provide the definitive history of Mobutu and Zaire, but she does invite the reader to look both wider and deeper for both the true problems of that country and possible solutions. Tribal affiliations and meanings are often not what they seem, but tribe plays the double role of social fact and illusion. Hidden within them are vital questions of belonging, of nation, land, and power. They are in many ways a fatal shorthand European empires helped to structure, providing them with new content they did not have before; inherited by post-liberation Africans they prove enduring falsehoods with deadly effects connected to new structures of being and belonging, new rivalries and sources of authority.