(1930–1997) Congolese president
Mobutu Sese Seko, a member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, was born in Lisala, Belgian Congo, in 1930. After receiving a Catholic education from white missionaries, he began his public life by serving in the Belgian Colonial Army. He was a colonel by 1960 and appointed chief of staff of the Congolese Army by newly independent Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba.
The struggle for Congolese independence left behind ethnic fighting and soon civil war. By September 1961 fighting erupted between Congolese troops and the United Nations (UN) forces sent to quiet the growing civil discontent. Sensing growing political disarray in the Congo, Mobutu seized power on November 24, 1965, in a successful coup over President Kasavubu following a power struggle between Kasavubu and his prime minister, Möise Tshombe. Mobutu declared himself president for a five-year term, placed Möise Tshombe on trial for treason, and condemned him to death.
Mobutu took full executive powers into his own hands. The coup marked the beginning of the Second Congolese Republic and the reestablishment of minimal law and order. Mobutu appointed Colonel Leonard Mulamba as his prime minister and inaugurated a campaign of national reconstruction. This was highlighted by the 1966 establishment of the Movement de la Revolution (MPR), with himself as president. Mobutu went on to eliminate all opposition to his control while centralizing all decision making into his own presidency.
Mobutu’s rule was not made official until 1967 when he instituted a new constitution. However, the years between 1967 and 1970 saw substantial clashes with students who had become disillusioned with Mobutu and his authoritarian rule. Nevertheless he was reelected president in 1970.
Like many African leaders who would follow, Mobutu embarked on a campaign of pro-African cultural awareness, renaming the country the Republic of Zaïre in October 1971. He ordered all Africans to drop their Christian names, and priests were warned that they would face five years’ imprisonment if they were caught baptizing a Zaïrois child with a Christian name.
The Shaba Wars of 1977 and 1978 threatened Mobutu’s constitutionally entrenched presidency. Several thousand soldiers of ex–prime minister Tshombe’s former Katanga army exiled in Angola had become suspicious of Mobutu’s offers of amnesty. In 1977 these same soldiers crossed the border into Shaba province.
The continuing economic slump, combined with the attack by the Katanga troops, forced Mobutu to solicit foreign aid to restabilize the country. France, motivated by the opportunity to defeat Communist-backed troops in Africa, airlifted 1,500 elite Moroccan paratroopers into the Shaba region. The rebel army retreated but advanced again a year later in greater numbers. Mobutu persisted in his requests for international assistance and this time received helped from Belgium and France, with logistical support from the United States.
The rebels were defeated again. In return for their assistance, France and Morocco urged Mobutu to democratize his increasingly hostile regime. Mobutu responded with pseudo-elections with a secret ballot that allowed 2,000 candidates to contest 270 seats in the legislative council and another 167 candidates to contest 18 elective seats in the political bureau. Mobutu was reelected.
The remainder of Mobutu’s presidency would focus on high-profile foreign relations efforts meant to polish the tarnished image of his nation. He restored relations with Israel in 1982 and sent troops into Chad as part of a peacekeeping mission in 1983. Mobutu went on to suspend Zaïre’s membership in the Organization of African Unity in 1984 in support of Morocco’s walkout over the Western Sahara question.
Recognizing the failing economic situation in Zaïre, in 1990 Mobutu called for a dialogue between the state and the people of Zaïre. The resulting dialogue saw 100 demonstrating students massacred by troops at Lubambashi in May of that year. Mobutu announced his resignation as chair of the MPR in an attempt to rise above the problems within the party. He went on to establish a special commission to draft a new constitution by April 1991 that finally allowed free operation of political parties.
In January 1993 the High Council of the Republic declared Mobutu guilty of treason and threatened impeachment unless he recognized the legitimacy of the transitional parliament set up by the new constitution of 1991. Strikes and disorder followed while Mobutu attempted to reassert his authority. He reconvened the dormant national assembly as a rival to the High Council of the Republic and created a conclave that appointed Faustin Birindwa as prime minister. He announced the dissolution of the High Council and the dismissal of the Birindwa government in January 1994.
Mobutu was overthrown in the First Congo War by Laurent-Désiré Kabila. When Mobutu’s government issued an order in November 1996 forcing Tutsis to leave Zaïre on penalty of death, they erupted in rebellion. From eastern Zaïre, with the support of presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Meseveni of Uganda, they launched an offensive to overthrow Mobutu. Ailing with prostate cancer, Mobutu was unable to coordinate the resistance. On May 16, 1997, following failed peace talks, Mobutu went into temporary exile in Togo, but lived mostly in Morocco. Mobutu died on September 7, 1997, in exile in Rabat, Morocco.