Good Book

Book Review: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo

by Michela Wrong.

Review by Alagi Yorro Jallow .

Fatoumatta: Another good book by Journalist Michela Wrong. Of her books, I shared. Her books are worth reading for students of Political Science, public policy influencers, and journalists interested in corruption. As a foreign correspondent stationed in Zaire/Congo, the author, Journalist Michela Wrong, witnessed the strangeness and tragedy of former President Mobutu Sese Seko’s gangster dictatorship up close. For three decades of kleptocracy, Bretton Woods (the World Bank and the IMF) did not just look the other way – they acquiesced in Mobutu’s corruption, allowing him more than $3 million per month for his “presidential endowment:” personal security, an entourage, and travel expenses. Bretton Woods kept doing business with Zaire even after Mobutu sanctioned the police beating of a BW official and the rape of his wife and daughters. Wrong’s chapter on the ways Mobutu played the development and diplomatic communities and how they allowed themselves to be played makes for eye-opening reading. Not supporting Mobutu would be the equivalent of calling for a coup, State Department officials continually felt; in the Reagan administration, Alexander Haig and George Schultz’s answer to the Mobutu problem was always “Who else is there?”

Fatoumatta: Zaire had rich mineral resources, which, managed properly, should have been a source of national wealth. Instead, they were looted and wasted over many years, which should warn those who think Afghanistan’s recently announced lodes will automatically lead to prosperity and other good things. (For a good discussion of how mineral resources often have little to do with national wealth and GDP, see John Kay’s Culture and Prosperity: The Truth About Markets – Why Some Nations Are Rich but Most Remain Poor, which led me to this book.) By the end of the 20th century, Wrong notes, Congo’s annual operating budget for what was “potentially one of Africa’s richest states was dipping below the daily takings of the US superstore Wal-Mart.”What funds Mobutu did not distribute to regional and local tribal leaders pork-barrel style to maintain power tended toward his Louis XIV-style aspirations. Instead, he routinely chartered the Concorde, which was “often to be glimpsed idling on the tarmac” in the rainforest town of Gbadolite, where he was building a luxurious personal compound dubbed by the foreign press “Versailles in the Jungle.” The main villa featured 7-meter malachite doors, which required two men to open. Mobutu’s favorite beverage, Pink champagne, constantly flowed (12,000 bottles/year), and lunch was mussels flown in from Zeebrugge (a Belgian village). In addition, looters and Laurent Kabila’s rebels would barbeque large imported herds of sheep and cattle in later years.

Fatoumatta: Wrong’s writing is lively and colorful, as in this description of Mobutu’s estranged Belgian son-in-law: “Yet his fleshy, sun-kissed face hardly spelled deprivation. …he had the cocktail-goers’ habit of avoiding eye contact, constantly scouring the expensive Chinese restaurant we had retired to for someone more interesting to talk to. As his search was rewarded (‘Look, there’s John Galliano’)…”The following piece is excerpted from Michela Wrong’s “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the brink of disaster in Mobutu’s Congo.”If ever there was a country/society so blessed with EVERYTHING save leadership, I would put Zaire/Congo right up there with them. The country has natural riches that are seemingly boundless, almost infinite. Aside from minerals – strategic and of the run-of-the-mill variety – the country’s people have a joie de vivre that is unmatched and welcomed/revered globally. Even more impressive are the circumstances under which the latter – the people’s zest for life and their creativity – is and has been happening for years: Near-abject poverty and total gross mismanagement of ALL – people and natural resources. The author captures this sad dichotomy – a very apt metaphor for the continent writ large – in the chapter titled “The Importance of being elegant” – (p171-191)>>>>>BEGIN QUOTE: “It was hard not to wince as a series of electronic whines shrieked from the stage, followed by the monotonous ‘Hallo, hallo, testing, testing, hallo, hallo. Wenge Musica 4×4, as the pop group called itself, was trying its system ahead of a concert scheduled a few days hence. The equipment was rudimentary, the amplification turned too high, and a fuzzy roar in which voices and instruments blended into one painful, deafening mess. It was a shame because few sounds sweeter to the ear than the music known across Africa by the generic term “Lingala.”If Congo has failed in most sectors, music must qualify as its one, most glorious exception. Across the continent and in the Afro-Caribbean nightclubs of Paris, Brussels, and London, fans snub home-grown bands to dance to the lilting melodies coming out of Congo’s slums. The mystery is how painful conditions can give birth to tunes so infectiously light-hearted and innocent in tone.

However, somehow, they do. As a music expert once wrote, if the critic’s jibe that Congolese guitarists often play three notes has an element of truth to it, the fact that those three notes have managed to entrance a continent for more than thirty years is something of an achievement…..Lingala is Congo’s greatest export, its commercial success the most reliable escape strategy ever made available to its youth.” (p176)<<<<<END QUOTE

Fatoumatta: Michela Wrong was at her best when she offered nuances into the psychology of corruption. It is interesting to describe absolute power and an attempt to look at former President Mobutu’s legacy of leaving one of Africa’s most prosperous states in terms of natural resources as one of its poorest institutions. However, Wrong’s tendency to indulge the adjectives and become strangely didactic (as when she tells us that Mobutu had his Brutus moment with former Prime Minister of Democratic Republic of CongoPatrice Lumumba, like when Brutus says “Et Tu Brutus.” In Julius Caesar. By Shakespeare. Just in case we did not know.) detracts from the work. Her willingness to trust one version of events at times is disturbing, especially when the only account we get of Lumumba’s murder is from the CIA man who was assigned to poison his toothpaste. Moreover, I know she is a journalist, but I know a true journalist will not disclose her sources. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is the story of Mobutu’s ascension to power (installation would be more accurate here) picking up just as the Congolese received independence in the 1960s, through the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the subsequent thirty-year rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko in what he renames Zaire (1971 – 1997). Mobutu is remembered chiefly for his kleptocratic, nepotistic regime and absurd signature style: leopardskin toque, Buddy Holly glasses, and carved cane.

However, although this book delves into Mobutu’s extravagances, irresponsible spending of state resources, and complete incomprehension of basic economic principles – it also addresses questions about far more. To start with, it puts the Congo’s story into the context of broader geopolitics of the time, competitive forces around mineral resources like uranium, and the mismanagement of foreign aid, which, though still deeply flawed, was entirely non-interventionist and non-evaluative meaning, in Mobutu’s case, that the books could quickly be cooked and instead of developing or supporting state institutions, private Versaille-like palaces could pop up in the middle of the Congolese jungle; palates of 1930s pink champagne could be flown in (1930 because it was the year he was born); Swiss villas and Belgian apartments purchased, and millions handed out without a legitimate paper trail to follow.

Fatoumatta: It is well-publicized that the CIA intervened in the affairs of Congo’s independence, played a role in Lumumba’s assassination, and propped up Mobutu and his cabinet (‘the Vegetables’) in Kinshasa. The US’s motive was originally political – there was a real fear that the country might turn communist as Lumumba was seen to be a likely ally of the Soviets – however, the consequence of that intervention was complete devastation of the economy that remains insolvent today. President Mobutu, also known as the Leopard, came up with an apocryphal story to explain his foundations. He had this story from his childhood where he was walking through the jungle with his father, and they were attacked by a leopard, which he subsequently killed and claimed to be afraid of nothing. This myth became an apparent symbol of how he wanted to be perceived: banknotes were printed with roaring cats, and his hats were covered with leopardskin.

His first wife’s name was Marie Antoinette (for a bit of twist of irony). After that, he would turn to voodoo, freemasons, or Gregorian chants (well-remembered from his childhood education with Belgian priests). Throughout his rule, the aid provided from the West functioned as a deterrent for him to build a genuine base of support – beyond mythologizing – or to adopt responsible spending policies, and the result was catastrophic. Mobutu had a shallow boredom threshold when it came to economics as well as a well-known temper, so he would quickly agree with whatever sounded to be the easiest solution, even if that meant pillaging national profits from the diamond mining companies, printing more money, or holding healthy patients (even corpses of those who succumbed to their illnesses) hostage until their families were able to pay their medical bills. (Nevermind that the medical staff were not being paid and often had to wait for family members to bring medical supplies – even bandages – before they could help a patient). During his rule, inflation ballooned to 9,800 percent.

When a new bill was being produced, the government would cross their fingers that it would be accepted as legitimate, considering there was no backing. The World Bank now evaluates governance issues as a critical factor in granting aid. However, at the time, this evaluation was treated to be forbidden to avoid accusations of neo-liberalism. So why is Mobutu likened to Mr. Kurtz? Michela Wrong explains, “Mobutu traced a Kurtz-like trajectory from high ideals to febrile corruption.”

Fatoumatta: A fascinating read. For a shorter piece on the CIA’s operations and motives, I found this Foreign Affairs helpful article: What Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu. Excellent pre-reading would also have to include King Leopold’s Ghost. The Congo bears a putrid history as a fruitful land constantly being pillaged and destroyed by leaders corrupted by endless greed. The reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, trademarked with the notorious leopard-skinned hat and pink champagne with which the greedy tyrant thrived, sickeningly juxtaposed the poverty, disease, and neglect that plagued the nation he robbed. Michaela Wrong declares, in her book “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz,” “In Mobutu’s hands, the [Congo] had become a paradigm of all that was wrong with postcolonial Africa.” After six years of observing the country firsthand as a news correspondent for London’s Financial Times, Wrong has created an account of Mobutu’s kleptocratic governance, its consequences, and specifically the final days of his crumbling regime she witnessed. Furthermore, Wrong divvies up the blame for the Congo’s demise, which traditionally resides solely on Mobutu’s head, amongst the meddling of many global and Western parties, including the IMF and World Bank. With likeness to a giant, 300-paged newspaper article, this informative book combines her firsthand anecdotes, numerous interviews, and meticulous research to illustrate how Mobutu sucked the Congo dry.

Mr. Kurtz, the memorable character from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” lay on his death bed, deep within an African jungle, uttering his last words. He muttered, “The horror, the horror,” and these words still seem to resonate through present-day Africa in the form of disease, corruption, war, and poverty. Mr. Kurtz may have implied his transformation from a formidable ivory trader to a cannibalistic “native.” Hence the title of Wrong’s book, Mobutu, seems to have followed Mr. Kurtz’s destructive path, caving to the “monstrous passions at the core of the human soul,” which lead him to use his power for the sole purpose of stealing everything he could get his hands on. However, Michaela Wrong also infers that Mr. Kurtz’s horrors were directed more towards “rooted Western values, the white man’s inhumanity to the black man, than, as is almost always assumed today, black savagery.”

Fatoumatta: Since there seems to be a great responsibility to go around, Wrong meticulously counts the faults of ‘outside interferences,’ which allowed Mobutu, one of history’s most corrupt leaders, to thrive blatantly thieve for 32 long years. Amongst the guiltiest Western or world components are King Leopold, Belgium, the USA, France, the IMF, and the World Bank. Wrong starts her book with a brief glimpse of how Kin Leopold’s bloody colonization and exploitation of the Congo set the stage for a future of corruption. Belgium’s abrupt abandonment of the shaky new nation, sporting only 17 university-educated Africans, was like unrolling an ominous welcome mat for the absurd regimes to come. Later, Wrong claims that external interference acted as a new, ‘insidious form of colonialism.’

According to the interviewee, CIA agent Devlin, the US was involved in attempts to assassinate Lumumba to bring Mobutu to power. Mobutu continued to keep strong ties with the US, particularly aware of the Congo’s richness in raw materials, especially during the Cold War. According to Wrong, the IMF continued to feed the Congo loans, pressured by Western countries not to cut off relations, even as Mobutu blatantly pocketed most of the $9.3 billion of financial aid. The lack of intervention of Mobutu’s outrageous financial actions and even the temptation of offering more loans by these organizations have sunk the Congo deeper into financial disaster, which will take decades into the future ever to repair. The blameworthiness of associations like the IMF or other nations over Mobutu is a controversial subject up for debate. So naturally, Michaela Wrong receives significant censure for going soft on Mobutu and pinning the blame on the IMF and World Bank for doing their job. I feel that there is no debating that Mobutu is the foremost delinquent.

However, it is essential for the IMF and World Bank to fully understand the outcome of their ‘aid’ and be impartial to individual countries’ agendas but work towards holistic global benefit. Moreover, no matter where people fall on this controversial issue, Wrong still has one major shortcoming in her argument; a gaping void in citations. Her bibliography is sparse in the number of numbers, statistics, and questionable claims she uses, and footnotes are nonexistent. The credibility of information or sources constantly comes into question when Wrong makes claims such as Mobutu’s ordering of the rape of an IMF official’s spouse when his flow of financial aid was jeopardized by reform.

Fatoumatta: All in all, Michaela Wrong’s “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz” is an informative read. However, the book faults periodically being one-sided and lacks analysis of points of view other than her own. Also, the loose chronological structure of many of her vignettes may confuse people with no previous background knowledge of the Congo’s plight. To ensure readers will be able to understand the book and form their own opinions, I would recommend the book to an audience already familiar with the topic. This book is especially for those who have read about Congo’s colonial era (i.e., King Leopold’s Ghost) and are interested to learn about its postcolonial history. Overall, I applaud Wrong’s efforts to help disperse ignorance in a too often ignored field. I hope that authors like her will continue to labor to ensure that these accounts of Africa stay on the forefront of people’s minds.

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