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The Leopard is back: Mobutu’s sons return to reclaim the nation plundered by their father


By Declan Walsh in Kinshasa

Friday, 28 November 2003

Nzanga Mobutu stared out over the chocolate-brown sweep of the Congo river, and remembered his father. Mobutu Sese Seko was one of Africa’s most reviled dictators.

Nzanga Mobutu stared out over the chocolate-brown sweep of the Congo river, and remembered his father. Mobutu Sese Seko was one of Africa’s most reviled dictators. For 32 years he ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo, then called Zaire, with an iron rod and stolen wealth. Then rebels toppled him, sending him to exile and death.

Six years later, the “Leopard” is back. Standing outside the family’s recently reclaimed villa in Kinshasa, 33-year-old Nzanga wore a green shirt with his father’s beaming portrait. The legend read: “We will never forget you.” Mobutu’s family and friends are returning home as Congo’s war, one of Africa’s most terrible conflicts, grinds to a halt. The Mobutists are not fondly remembered. Their leader bankrupted the country, using its legendary wealth to buy political loyalties and build palaces where pink champagne flowed like water. Enemies were ruthlessly suppressed, often with the connivance of Western Cold War sponsors.

When rebels toppled Mobutu in 1997, the ailing autocrat fled to Morocco, where he died four months later. His cronies followed, clutching suitcases stuffed with designer clothes and offshore bank details. Many relieved Congolese thought they were gone for good.

But as five years of war ­ an orgy of rape, murder and plunder that left more than three million dead ­ draws to an end, the Mobutists are coming home. A transitional government uniting rebels and government has been cobbled together in Kinshasa. Since the door of national reconciliation was wedged open, the monied exiles have flooding in.

“It is good to be home,” said Nzanga at the riverside villa returned to his family this week. The urbane son, who, until recently, ran a media company in Morocco, apologised for the lack of furniture. The previous tenant, an army general, left reluctantly, he explained, taking everything with him. All that remained was the echoing marble floors.

In the past two weeks, Nzanga has been joined by his older brother, Manda, who flew in from Paris, and Leon Kengo wa Dondo, a former prime minister. Lesser Mobutists, some of whom fought in the rebellion, have also returned, some with ministerial positions.

The mood of change has filtered down to the tattered streets of Kinshasa. Mobutu shirts and leopard-print hats are worn openly, a practically treasonable offence only six months ago. But the return of the Mobutists has also sparked recriminations. Angry residents rained stones on Mr Wa Dondo’s motorcade as it entered the city two weeks ago.

Dr Mwembe Kabamba, a surgeon at the dilapidated general hospital and leading opposition figure, said: “They represent bitter memories ­ dictatorship, corruption, human rights violations. Their return does not bode well for the future.” Ostensibly, the Mobutu brothers have returned to arrange for their father to be buried at his spiritual home. They also want to recover their houses scattered across Kinshasa, and coffee farms and cocoa plantations upcountry.

Nzanga said: “As far as we know, all were looted,” even the vast jungle palace in Gbadolite, with its Chinese gardens, private zoo and an airstrip where Concorde once landed. “Ouf,” he said in lightly accented English. “Don’t even mention it.”

But the Mobutus also have political ambitions. Manda already has his own political party. About 200 people cheered as he arrived at Kinshasa’s N’djili airport on Sunday, although a police officer said they had been bribed with $12 (£7), a T-shirt and a beer. Nzanga says he might run for parliament in elections slated two years from now. “I belong to a generation that needs new leaders; other personalities,” said Nzanga. “It can’t be a one-man system any more. I’m thinking of teamwork.”

Uniquely, the sons of Congo’s three post-independence dynasties now live in Kinshasa. The confluence is loaded with blood-soaked ironies.

The Mobutus returned thanks to the blessing of President Joseph Kabila, whose father, Laurent, drove them from Kinshasa six years ago. Also present is Francois Lumumba, son of murdered independence hero, Patrice.

Many Congolese believe Mobutu had a hand in Lumumba’s assassination in 1961, along with Belgian and US spies. Mr Lumumba, his beard and untucked shirt a contrast with the starched collars and gold cufflinks of the Mobutists said: “I hope [the return] is not a sign. Nobody will allow the Congo to take a step back in time. But if they come with a spirit of rebuilding the country, we will hold out ours hands to them.” Western powers were instrumental in propping up Mobutu Sese Seko’s extravagantly corrupt rule. During three decades, the US gave more than $1bn in aid; European countries, particularly France, gave more. In return they got a pliant Cold War ally the size of Western Europe.

Mobutu encouraged lavish follies, including palatial houses in Switzerland, Belgium and Spain; luxury yachts; glittering parties on the French Riviera. In one year he sent the state airliner 32 times to Venezuela to ferry 5,000 long-haired sheep back to his ranch in Gbadolite.

But, at home, his extravagance was sinking the economy. Unpaid soldiers went on looting rampages in 1991 and 1993.

Mobutu’s last hours of power in May 1997 were marked by high drama. As the rebels neared, his raging son Kongulu, nicknamed “Saddam Hussein” by locals, stormed the luxury InterContinental Hotel with a death squad, searching for suspected traitors.

Panicked cronies and their families piled on to boats, escaping across the river to Congo-Brazzaville.

The dictator, who was dying from prostate cancer, fled his bolt-hole at a military base. The family boarded a Russian cargo plane for Togo and, eventually, Morocco. Nzanga Mobutu, who had been his father’s spokesman in the final months, was aboard.

Nzanga said: “I’m not saying it was the best of regimes but to say my father was the worst dictator is just wrong. At least then there was peace, and people could eat. Those are the facts.” But the Mobutu flame quietly burned on during the Kabila years under Catherine Nzuzi wa Mbombo, one of the few who refused to run.

A former vice-president of Mobutu’s Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR) party, Mrs Nzuzi was charged with high treason and jailed for 20 months under Laurent Kabila. “Why should I have left?” she said in explanation.

“I stole nothing. Everything you see here comes from the sweat of my brow.” Draped in gold jewellery and sporting thick-framed, Christian Dior glasses, Mrs Nzuzi is, in appearance at least, the heir of Mobutism. Like the Leopard, she walks with a cane, but hers came from injuries sustained during her time in prison.

Now she has been appointed Minister for Solidarity and Humanitarian Affairs, and Congo’s poor are her charges. But as there are no offices yet, Mrs Nzuzi works from home, the opulent penthouse of a four-storey apartment building she had built in the 1970s, at the height of Mobutu’s powers.

The return sparked divided opinions at the “pavement parliament”, an informal meeting of politics junkies at a newspaper stand in the rundown Matonge neighbourhood. The Mobutu brothers coming back was “not a big problem”, said Andre Pembe. “They are sons of this country. That is it.”

But Jacques Benameyi, a human rights activist, disagreed. “When the children of the Leopard appear before those who have been devoured, we look on them with suspicion,” he said.

Fears that the Mobutists could galvanise into a fresh political force appear premature. The MPR has split into two factions. Mrs Nzuzi, who leads one wing, recently slapped her rival on the face in public. One Western diplomat said: “For now the Mobutists are a diffuse lot … their return shows the astonishing capacity for reconciliation in Congo.”

Picking the morsels from the Leopard’s teeth is Mobutu’s last mystery. Estimates of the wealth frittered away by Mobutu vary wildly, between $4bn and $14bn. Switzerland impounded $4m and a lakeside villa. But the location of the remainder ­ some doubt it still exists ­ remains a puzzle.

Are Nzanga and his family sitting on the missing billions? He shrugs impatiently. “I’ve been asked the same thing for years. Wherever you go, in Europe or the US, families of heads of states have the means to live,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned it’s pure nonsense.”

Like father, like son?

The Mobutus

Mobutu Sese Seko was born Joseph-Desire Mobutu to a cook and hotel maid. In 1949 he was conscripted into colonial Congolese army. He left the army at 25 and became editor of Actualités Africaines, a radical paper launched by Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba appointed him army chief-of-staff when he was 29.

He seized power in 1965 in a CIA-backed coup. He renamed the country Zaire, and was President for 32 years. Arrogant and corrupt, his dictatorship was propped up by the US, France and Belgium. He was believed to have a fortune of £6bn, roughly equivalent to the country’s national debt. In the 1970s he changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa za Banga or “the all-powerful warrior who because of endurance and an inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”.

In 1996 he was treated for prostate cancer in Switzerland and Laurent Kabila’s rebels took a large swath of Zaire’s territory. Hewas forced into exile in Morocco where he died in 1997.His eldest son Manda, 43, has now returned to Kinshasa.

The Kabilas

Laurent Kabila, born in Belgian Congo in 1939 and studied political philosophy in 1950s in Paris and East Germany before returning to Congo in 1960.

A keen supporter of Patrice Lumumba, he was forced into exile a couple of years later and decided to take up armed struggle against Mobutu. His troops were defeated in 1965 he went into exile again.

With the help of Uganda and Rwanda, he forced Mobutu out of Zaire in 1997, declaring himself President of the Democratic Republic of Congo on 17 May. He installed his oldest son, Joseph, right, as chief of the army.

Widely seen as a buffoon, Laurent alienated Congo from the international community and ran the economy further into the ground. His reign ended in January 2001 when his own bodyguard assassinated him. He was succeeded by Joseph, who was 30. Joseph has been praised for steering the DRC towards the current peace agreement.

The Lumumbas

The liberation hero, Patrice Lumumba, founded the Congolese National Movement and became, at the age of 35, the first elected prime minister of independent Congo in 1960. But within weeks the breakaway province of Katanga tried to secede and the United States and Belgium encouraged President Joseph Kasvubu to dismiss Lumumba. He fled but Joseph Desire Mobutu, the head of the Army, had him arrested and tortured and delivered him to enemies in Katanga. Mr Lumumba was flown on a Belgian airline on orders of the Belgians. On 17 January, 1961 he was shot by execution squad led by a Belgian. His body was sawn up by a Belgian police commissioner and dissolved in acid. A parliamentary inquiry in Belgium said the Belgians should accept “moral responsibility” and in 2002, Lumumba’s sons Roland and François, right, received an apology.



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