Give the devil his due: How Mobutu gave birth to Nigeria’s Nollywood

Zaire’s music chased Western pop out of Africa…but Mobutu failed with the economy after urging party members to ‘take a little, but not too much’.

Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko is infamous for corruption and plundering his country to its bones. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) rundown infrastructure and grossly inefficient public services are testament to this. 

But one good thing Mobutu did which he hardly gets recognition for is sparking a cultural revolution in then-Zaire, the impact of which is felt all across Africa today.

In October 1971, Mobutu’s carried out a cultural coup he tagged “Authenticity’’. Congolese were to return to their ancestral roots. The colonial name Congo became “Zaire’’. He toured his vast country three to four times annually, and gave mesmerising speeches to huge rallies for four to five hours to drum down “Zaire Citoyen’’ identity. 

Mobutu replaced his own name of “Joseph Desire’’ with the more Afrocentric authentic “Sese Seko Kukubendu Wa Za Banga’’, underlining his will for power and domination. The name change aimed to uproot the hold of the colonial Catholic Church that de-Africanised converts and gave them Jewish names instead.  

“Authenticity’’ flourished in Lingala music becoming a robust trans-African export.  More popularly described as “Congolese’’, Zaire’s music bands took root in nightclubs from Uganda-Kenya-Tanzania to South Africa; and from Gabon to Senegal. Zaire’s music chased British, French and American pop music out of Africa.  Zaire’s Tabu Ley and “Misa Luba’’ hit music shops in New York; sharing popularity with Cameroon’s Manu Dibango and Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo Kuti in manifesting Africa’s authentic musical genius. 

Take a little, not too much 
In many ways, the current sweep by Nigeria’s Nollywood films is a current inheritor of the appeal of Zaire’s music, which, in turn, was given a shot in the arm by Mobutu. Mobutu also attempted a similar economic revolution, but it was far less successful. 

In 1973 he decreed the policy of  “Zaireanisation’’.  Plantations, businesses and mining enterprises owned by Belgians and other foreigners were to be given to Congolese.  He urged party members to “take a little, but not too much’’, disastrously stoking the thieving wave that saw officials looting the economy, ministries and government-owned agencies. 

Immigration officers at airports demanded bribes brazenly. Budgets for hospitals were stolen. Military top brass pocketed soldiers’ payments and they preyed on their own citizens.  

In villages, destitute soldiers stole chicken, cassava, potatoes, bananas, beans and other foodstuffs from women on market days.  

Mobutu gave assets built through decades of suffering of the people back to the Congolese; using state power the way Belgians had done to enrich foreign groups. But “nationalised” farms, shops, mines deteriorated because their new Congolese owners lacked experience having been excluded from planning and administering the colonial political economy. 

Similar measures by General Yakubu Gowon in Nigeria and Uganda’s Field Marshal Idi Amin suffered degrees of the same fate.  Mobutu may have been strongly influenced by the plundering ruthlessness of King Leopold of Belgium; and the insults he endured as a “bastard’’ - because his mother was pregnant when his father married her. 

Both bred a deep insecurity in him, and a reflex to crush challengers. As a child, the white wife of a Belgian judge his father worked for as a cook, adopted him as a companion in a racist Belgian colony. That experience bred skills for manipulating people into believing that he really cared for them; turning officials against each other; spotting and eliminating talented potential rivals, and seducing loyalty with bribery.

Rwanda ill omens
On April 6, 1994 a plane crash in Kigali killed Mobutu’s ally Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana. That trigged the Rwanda genocide in which nearly one million people were killed. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) of Paul Kagame took power, in the fighting eventually. 

Millions of Rwandese fled into Zaire, and Mobutu is alleged to have supported them. His own army crossed into Rwanda in 1996 and trashed the border areas inside Rwanda. These events led to Uganda, Rwanda and Angola sending troops to victoriously carry veteran rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila into Kinshasa. 

Mobutu’s army led by 50 generals and 600 colonels in 1997 - and well armed by the United States, France, Belgium, and Britain - collapsed “like a maggot-eaten fruit’’ (according to writer Michela Wrong), as Kabila raced over 1,000 kms to capture power. Mobutu had undermined the military with a nepotism that favoured his own ethnic group, fanning internal rivalries, and corruption. 

Because he lacked training in leadership and met Congo’s civil service with only three Congolese university graduates at independence, Mobutu manipulated and dominated untrained manpower that lacked resilience in the face of turmoil. Mobutu was largely isolated, and missed help from an Africa bereft of a similar “Congo policy”.  

Mobutu has received little credit. His anxiety to match King Leopold’s personal wealth looted out of Congo has overshadowed his political patriotism. His failures help only help demonstrate the need for Africa to train its young and give them skills for building an “Empire Africana”. 

Africa’s diplomats should, with funding by oil-rich countries, feed this vision by publishing diplomatic histories for Africa. 

•The author is executive director of the Africa Vision 525 Initiative in Nigeria

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