Joseph Mobutu, former dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ruled for over thirty years. He committed numerous human rights atrocities and enriched himself and his family and friends off the wealth of the country, while its citizens suffered from widespread poverty. Mobutu was able to stay in power, mostly due to the support of the US because of his anti-communist stance, even though the West was well aware of his actions.


Joseph-Désiré Mobutu was the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which at some point he renamed Zaire) from 1965 to 1997. Mobutu, a member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, was born in Lisala, Belgian Congo. In 1956, after serving in the Belgian Congolese Army, he became a full-time journalist. Around this time, he became friends with Patrice Lumumba and joined Lumumba’s “Mouvement National Congolais” (MNC). Mobutu was eventually chosen to be his personal secretary, once Lumumba became prime minister after independence, and was later appointed to the position of Chief of Staff of the Congolese Army, during the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s.

The Congo Crisis emerged due to secessionist violence in the south provoked by a Belgian government determined to preserve its access to rich Congolese mines and natural resources. Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance and received massive military aid. The U.S. government saw the Soviet involvement there as a ploy to spread communist influence in Central Africa. Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the president of DRC at the time, incensed by the USSR’s presence, dismissed Lumumba and, in turn, Lumumba did the same to Kasa-Vubu. Both Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu then ordered Mobutu to arrest the other because, as Chief of Staff, he was expected to handle the situation. The embassies of Western nations, which helped pay the soldiers’ salaries, as well as Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu’s aides voted to rid the country of the Soviets.

On September 14, 1960, Mobutu took controlof DRC in a CIA-sponsored coup. Mobutu placed Lumumba under house arrest for the second time and kept Kasa-Vubu as president. Mobutu ordered all Soviet advisers to leave DRC. Next, Mobutu, in an effort to gain US support, accused Lumumba of pro-communist sympathies. Lumumba fled to Stanleyville, where he set up his own government. The USSR again supplied him with weapons, but in November 1960, he was captured and sent to Katanga. Mobutu still considered him a threat and had him arrested and beaten publicly on January 17, 1961; Lumumba was later murdered that same day.

For the rest of his time in office, Mobutu had an authoritarian regime and accumulated massive wealth for himself and his family and friends. In 1971, he attempted to purge the country of all Western cultural influence, including renaming all DRC cities and the country itself with African names. In addition, in 1972, Mobutu rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”) or Mobutu Sese Seko for short. Despite these actions, the US continued to support him because Mobutu maintained an anti-communist stance. However, after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, Mobutu lost his backing from the US, and he was later overthrown in 1997.


The story of Mobutu is similar to other stories of leaders from developing nations of that period who took advantage of the Cold War between the US and USSR in order to further themselves politically and financially. For a lack of a better word, Mobutu was not a “good” man or a “good” leader. While he, his family, and friends lived the life of luxury, his nation suffered from poor infrastructure and economic growth. In addition, he was known for having an atrocious human rights record. If it was not for the support he had from the US, he more than likely would have been overthrown much sooner. However, due to America’s obsession with communists vs. anticommunists, he led DRC, or Zaire, virtually unchecked for over 30 years.

28 Comments so far

  1.    Haywood on February 28, 2012 11:10 pm      Reply

    Mobutu tried the nationalism gambit, requiring African names and a daily pledge of allegiance, and I believe he fashioned more of a national consciousness than most people believe exists in Congo. His grossest failure, I would say, was the massiveness of his corruption, which lay not only in amassing private wealth, but also in overweening self-importance and capriciousness. We had superb ambassadors in Kinshasa in those days who who reported to Washington what a catastrophe he was, but we had little influence over him. He knew how to say the right things about the USSR and got away with being the arch-kleptocrat.

  2.    Kelsey Lilley on February 29, 2012 9:18 pm      Reply

    I always think its fascinating how the US during the Cold War attempted to “pick winners” in the fight against Communism. Clearly, in this case, the aid only intensified an already ineffective and corrupt government.

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