Congolese journalist and writer, Mvemba Dizolele, discusses the legacy of the country’s long-time ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: With me today is Mvemba Dizolele, who is a writer and journalist. Thank you and welcome to the show.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Thank you very much, Bridget, for having me.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you take us back a little bit to the time you have Congo coming out of its colonial period. What are the questions that the Congolese people are struggling with? What are the questions that will frame this new country?
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: The big questions of the day in 1960 or before 1960. One is freedom. People want freedom. Enough already, because the Belgians had been here since 1885. So people wanted independence.
The other question is: What kind of country will we have? We will have a country that is based on the federal system or will we have a country that is based on a strong central government system? That set the stage for the showdown, if you will, between people like Lumumba on one side, Lumumba advocated a strong central government.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Patrice Lumumba?
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Patrice Lumumba, that’s correct, the first prime minister. So he very much advocates this, advocates for a strong central government, a unity, we’re all one, we’re all Congolese. On the other side you have the president, Joseph Kasavubu, who advocated federalism. The various provinces should be autonomous, but linked together by a central government that represents everybody. That really didn’t go well. That has been a problem from that time on until today. I will argue that the tradition of the leaders we’ve had have been more in the mode of what Lumumba wanted and that does not serve the country. So Lumumba leaves, as a prime minister is dismissed. Kasavubu stays, but the system is set more as a unitarian system, a strong government. So even during Kasavubu, Mobutu comes. It even becomes more strong. The number of provinces shrink, so it becomes much more stronger.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you talk about what you thought Mobutu brought to the country? You said obviously the idea of a strong single unitary state. What were the positive sides of that and what were the negative sides of that?
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Mobutu comes to power, as I said, at this time where he positioned himself as the unifier. Mobutu, by unifying people, pushes this nationalism.
One level of nationalism was just down with the Belgians; let’s be free. That’s one stage. But now that you are “free,” what do you do? You have to create your own identity. There’s a sentence that he uses a lot. It says, … “one father, one mother, one family, one country.” For those of us who grew up under him, we bought into the system. So it takes people from a civil servant from the north, from the south, from the west, a really strong integration of every civil servant leaders which means people from various regions… Zaire is -- the Congo, Congo is the size of the United States west of the Mississippi River or, if you will, the size of Western Europe. It’s a huge country. You can live on one side and you don’t know anything about the people or the ethnic groups that live on the other side. They are Congolese like you, but if you don’t speak French, you might not be able to interact with them.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Everyone obviously speaks their own local language.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Exactly. So Mobutu manages to create this new identity through his rhetoric and through his investment in this. He raises a strong army with the help of his allies in the west--U.S., France, and others. He does away with all the other political parties. He creates one that supposedly is with him, in which everybody finds themselves. Then, three, he appeals to the very basic sense of who we are. So while Congo has more than 250 ethnic groups, he stresses the use of all the five languages. On TV you have five languages that in use. Your French is one of the official languages, but you have four national languages that are also used. So nobody ever felt left out in that sense at a very basic level. The news comes in four languages, Tshiluba, Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili. Regional representation is very important for all the ministries. The military at first it goes very well. So even the generals and officers have to come from the various regions. The military school again, you have to follow that stuff. Eventually that changes.
But the other thing that helps a lot is Mobutu has a keen sense of projecting power overseas for the country. So one thing that happened, and this may be minimal, but it’s not minimal when you look back at what happened, right? Zaire through sports and other events dominates the continent in many ways. In soccer, for instance, which is the staple.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: It’s not something to be belittled.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Exactly. Soccer, for instance, Congo goes and wins the African Cup of Nations twice. First I think in 1969. I need to check that. But then in 1974 again. Then Congo -- Zaire -- goes to the World Cup. It’s the first sub-Saharan country that goes to the World Cup in 1974.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: It’s the first African country?
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Sub-Saharan African country to go to the World Cup. I think Egypt had gone in 19-whatever and Morocco might have gone as well. But this is for the first time, if you will, a black nation goes to the World Cup. This is 1974. This is raw talent, raw local talent. All the players that go to the World Cup -- today you have players who go to the World Cup who play in Europe -- none of those places ever set foot on European soil. They always trained in Congo. There’s a sense of pride.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you talk a little bit about the change of name and what was the logic?
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: In fact, that’s very important. That’s a subject I overlooked. In 1971, Mobutu decided that, in many ways he singly decided, but it’s not his idea, his advisors -- again, there’s an entire cadre of very sharp minded people working with Mobutu to see where the country can go. And they’re young; they’re all young. There’s a lot of idealism, there’s a lot of “we are invincible; we can do this.” One thing they decided is they would change the name of the country. The reason that is advanced is that the name Congo comes from the old Kongo kingdom, with a K. That was the kingdom that really came in contact with the foreigners, meaning the Portuguese in 1482. That kingdom had a relationship with the Vatican, with the Portuguese and had embassies and all that stuff. Then the slave trade comes and eventually that gives the name to the entire region by the time the Portuguese give the region to the Belgians.
Mobutu’s reasoning is simple. He says Congo is a name that represents one ethnic group, only one part of the country. We need to come up with something that is more unifying. Again, talking about the sense of nationalism, we’ll have this nation creation or nation building. So he comes up with the name Zaire. Zaire is the name derived from-- it’s a Portuguese perversion of the name Nzadi. The word Nzadi means the big river. The big river, which is the Congo River. Nzadi is a Congo name. So that’s where the Congo Kingdom, they used to call the big river. But Diogo Cão, who was the Portuguese explorer who arrived there, when he noted it down, he put Zaire. So that stayed Zaire. But Mobutu took that as the name of the country.
But with the change of the name of the country came something even much more important. There’s a political philosophy called authenticity, which meant that Congolese would not only use European names. Now they use Congolese names. Hence, Mobutu became Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga whereas in the past he was Joseph Mobutu. We had gone to school one day and the teacher told you to remember to bring in your names when you come tomorrow. You want to ask your parents and they will give you new names.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Even as you talk, you can get a sense of the enthusiasm and an intense pride in taking back control and taking back the language, the names, the country, and what the country can do in its riches and all its potential. The other side of having this highly centralized government where all the regions are equal and power no longer exists separately is also then the power resides in one location.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: That’s correct. And I think that’s the side that I need to address as well. On one level you have the sense of a new emergence. We are Congolese. We are Zairian. There’s a new national anthem. So everything that was Belgian reminding us of colonial days is gone. At the same time, it creates a system so that eventually some people feel marginalized, because that’s bound to happen. Some regions, certain ethnic groups that are closer to Mobutu benefit a little more. You start setting systems of quota. Of course, every time you set a quota-- remember, all the regions are not equally endowed. Some regions are much more powerful economically, like Katanga, which at that time accounts for over 50% of the national revenues because of the mining and all this stuff. You have provinces like Bas-Congo. Because Bas-Congo has only been exposed to Europeans since 1482, the level of education is very high. They’ve had schools since the Portuguese showed up. So the level of education is very high. Therefore, you have a bigger representation for places like universities and stuff. But you have provinces like Equateur, where Mobutu’s from, or upper Congo or Zaire where the level of education is not that high, because the mission didn’t start building schools until maybe 1922, if not later. They want to be brought up to speed. So he starts establishing quotas in schools in every region. It should be proportionate. Well every time you do proportional stuff, somebody’s being left out and it’s always hard to justify why are you telling the other person. Even though it makes sense on one level, but why my son cannot go to school or why my son didn’t get to the military academy.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Or get this job.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Or get this job.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: These are issues, obviously, that every country faces, to some extent.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: And that became a very serious problem. Some people start feeling not part of the system. If they hear the same name at the top of the political party, what about our region? How come we’re not represented? Then the other thing is with all that control in Kinshasa, Mobutu starts gathering more power. With more power, as Lord Acton says, absolute power corrupts absolutely. So things start being overlooked. Now you start clinging to power for the sake of your own power.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What are the lingering issues that are part of the questions of the Congo nation that Mobutu struggled with in his way? How do they stay with us today? How are they part of the fabric of Congo politics?
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Mobutu’s struggle with building the unity of the country has succeeded. He did build the unity of the country. In fact, today the strong sense of nationalism that exists in the Congo, in spite of the weak government, in spite of the conflict, in spite of everything that is not working. Every political scientist outside thinks Congo should have been broken down in various states by now. The reason that’s not happening is because everybody wants to be Congolese. I’ve never met a Congolese that says, “I want to be part of Rwanda” or part of-- it doesn’t exist. So Mobutu is able to build that.
Today the issues remain: The issue of if we’re so rich, where is our wealth remains. The Congolese love to talk about their wealth, even though it’s underground and no money is there. So if we’re so rich, why are we still poor? The question of a weak national army that kind of splits along ethnic, tribal allegiances and loyalties and those kinds of things. Today, of course, that transfers into militia loyalties and armed group factions. Representation. In this era of post-Mobutu, is the entire question of democracy. Where are we going? One thing that Mobutu succeeded in doing, Mobutu established himself as a big man, kind of a reflection of the size of the country. Nobody messed with Mobutu. For 33 years he was able to project that image, but also to deliver in many ways. Nine neighboring countries, Congo established as the epicenter. All of the political foreign leaders around the Congo in neighboring countries wanted to be like him. But during that time, as much as people want to dismiss Mobutu, he was able to protect the territorial integrity of the country. Today people are asking How can Rwanda just walk into here? How can Uganda walk in? What happened to our borders? Those questions are all tied together today very much no different than they were during the days of Mobutu, except Mobutu is able to transcend, at least address them in the ways that were, for the most part, convincing to his fellow Zairians.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: The challenges that remain are obviously to find a way to make that dream of what the nation could be a reality, rather than an externalization of the dream into one person.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Yeah. I think in many ways Mobutu for once, he is one of the rare Congolese leaders who kind of was able to take the Congolese and show them a vision of what they can be. He did that very well. Okay, this is a country of milk and honey, if you will. He showed them a peek of that. Going to the World Cup. Hosting the Rumble in the Jungle. This is Muhammad Ali and George Forman. All these things, he was able to show them.
For those of us who lived under him, for many ways some of us understand there was social stratification, the classes and depending where you were. But in terms of your education, you can go to-- even the basic needs. Every Congolese can go to university for free. By that I mean the government will pay your way and they pay you a stipend, granted that you get-- not everybody could go. For those who could qualify. Those are the steps that he had shown. The big mystery for him is that he built this thing and then he undid it himself. Exactly what you are saying. Currently, if you ask me, I’d say the biggest challenge for Congo is the leadership. There’s a leadership vacuum. That’s where the Congolese hurt the most. That’s when people once in a while miss Mobutu. Then you know when you get to that point there’s some serious problems.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Mvemba, thank you very much for joining us again.
MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Thank you very much, Bridget, for having me.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.