Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the man who would come to rule the Congo for three decades was born under less than auspicious circumstances on the fourteenth of October 1930 in the central town of Lisala. His mother, Marie Madeleine Yemo, had fled a position as the second wife to her aunt’s husband, to whom she had already born three children, and taken up with Albéric Gbemani, a cook working for a Belgian official. In his early childhood Mobutu spent a good deal of time in the company of the wife of his father’s employer, a Belgian woman who taught him to read and write fluent French, and whom he would speak fondly of throughout his life. His father died when Mobutu was only eight years old, and from here he and his mother relied on the support of relatives to survive, a period of hardship that may have informed his later taste for decadence. The young Joseph was eventually sent to live with an uncle in Mbandaka (then called Coquilhatville) where he was able to attend a school run by Belgian priests.
At the time Mobutu’s tribe, the Ngbandi, were perceived as rustic, unrefined country people by Congolese urbanites, but Mobutu defied the stereotypes by excelling in school from an early age. He was, however, somewhat of a troublemaker, known to delight in correcting the French of his largely Flemish teachers. This rebellious side would eventually get him into trouble when, at the age of 19, he skipped school to spend a few weeks enjoying himself in Kinshasa (then Leopoldville). On his return he was sent off by the priests for a seven year term in the Force Publique as a punishment, a common practice at the time (Wrong, 2001, p.74).
Later in life his military experience would be highly important to his personal mythology; the basic idea he sold people was of a tough, practical military type who could stand above the political fray and bring stability and order, hence the uniforms, the ranks, the military parades. He would portray his time in the Force Publique as key to his personal development, a time in which he learned discipline and self-reliance. He would look back on it as one of the happiest periods in his life, and while this may well be true it is important to note his tendency to exaggerate his military credentials. As his long-time advisor Colonel Willy Mallants put it, ‘he was trained as a non-commissioned accountant typist, so he never had a lesson in tactics, much less strategy… he had no military competence’ (Michel, 1999, 1:08:00). His personal mythology as a brilliant general was not based on any notable victories against organised opposition, at least not without significant support. None the less, he was promoted to sergeant by 1956 and discharged in good standing two years later (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.241). He took a short course in accountancy then took up work as a journalist, eventually writing under a pseudonym for the popular Actualités Africaines magazine. It was during this time that he married his first wife, Marie Antoinette.
Figure 2: Mobutu in Force Publique uniform.
In 1958 he travelled to Belgium to cover the World Exhibition in Brussels, his first time leaving the Congo. He stayed for some time to train as a journalist, while continuing to publish articles at home. Patrice Lumumba, during one of his many stints in prison under the colonial authorities, read some of Mobutu’s articles and was impressed. Upon the young journalist’s return Lumumba made contact and the two met for the first time over dinner in January of 1959 (Van Rreybrouck, 2010, p.247). Mobutu would later credit this meeting as the moment he decided to fully devote himself to politics (Michel, 1999, 7:00). Whether or not this is true, it appears that the two men became friends, and Mobutu joined the MNC to work as Lumumba’s secretary and to oversee the party’s Brussels office.
It was in this capacity that he greeted Lumumba’s late arrival, having once more been released from prison, to the Brussels roundtable negations in January of 1960. Even before Lumumba’s arrival, the Congolese delegation had won the stunning concession of total independence by June 30, 1960 (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.257). Also before Lumumba’s arrival, Mobutu had supposedly been drawing attention from surprising quarters. Future CIA chief Lawrence Devlin stated (several decades later, it should be mentioned) that at a party in the American embassy thrown for the Congolese delegation, Mobutu had been noted by multiple agents as a person of interest and great potential (Michel, 1999, 8:25). If true, this marked the beginning of an infamous and controversial relationship.
After returning to the Congo Mobutu, as one of the few in Lumumba’s inner circle with military experience, was made army Chief of Staff, an unenviable role in the first months of independence as the army was faced with mutinies and secessions in Katanga and Kasai. Mobutu’s reassertion of control over the army cemented his reputation as a credible and capable individual in the eyes of the international actors in the Congo, particularly Devlin, who soon became a close confidant of the 29 year old general (Wrong, 2001, p.68). In a sense, he held the perfect position, commanding the blunt force of the army while staying above the increasingly messy fray of parliamentary politics and avoiding obvious responsibility for the errors of the first independence government. Even when troops under Mobutu’s command ran rampant in Katanga in August of 1960, it was Lumumba who shouldered the blame in the eyes of the UN, contributing directly to his eventual fall from power (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002, p.105-106).
Figure 3: Mobutu in Command during the army mutiny.
A Double Agent?
In the painting, we see that almost all the independence leaders (apart from Lumumba) are wearing shoes in the colour of the Belgian flag. On one level, this points to the duplicity of self-interested politicians who exploited the desire for liberation in the pursuit of self-enrichment (one of the first acts of the Congo’s new parliamentarians was, after all, to award themselves a 500,000 franc bonus, while the soldiers who soon mutinied were told to expect no improvement in conditions) (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.286). It can also be read as an allegory for neo-colonialism; the new generation of leaders were, after all, largely drawn from the small urbanised class that the Belgians had referred to as Évolué, ‘evolved’, implying in the colonial mind-set that they had been westernised, moulded in the image of the coloniser. In a more literal sense much has been written on the complex financial arrangements inherited by the Congolese state that essentially tied the country’s minerals, which had once been the property specifically of the colonial government, back to interest groups in Belgium (Kent, 2017, 100-101). In the specific case of Mobutu they can also be interpreted as a reference to the persistent rumours that he was in fact, before and after independence, a Belgian and later CIA double agent.
Frederic Vandewalle, then head of the Belgian Sûreté in the Congo, claimed that after his discharge from the army Mobutu had remained in the employ of the colonial police, reporting on developments in the independence movement from his position as a journalist. Mobutu’s income as a writer was likely quite meagre at this time, and we could wonder if this secondary income helped him afford a dowry for Marie Antoinette, but this is pure speculation. Vandewalle went on to state that Mobutu continued to report to the Sûreté after joining the MNC, and that his reports were being passed on to the CIA from well before his first meeting with Devlin in 1960 (which would give new significance to Devlin’s claim that Mobutu stood out as a person of interest immediately) (Kelly, 1993, p.9-11). Other sources have said that Congolese students in Belgium were systematically recruited by the Sûreté and that Mobutu could have been hired then, before he joined the MNC (Wrong, 2001, p.76).
Of course we will never know if Mobutu was really a double agent in these early years, and such conspiracy theories are so common in post-revolutionary nations as to be something of a trope (see, Eamon De Valera as a British Spy, Josef Stalin as a Czarist informer, Aghanistan’s Amin as a CIA agent). And the notion that Mobutu was some form of Manchurian candidate seems to on the one hand portray the man who held power for thirty years as some kind of empty puppet, and further robs the Congolese people themselves of any agency at all in their post-independence history, creating a narrative in which even their dictator was compliant servant of foreign powers. In the end, even if Mobutu did work as an informer in the years after leaving the army it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. In a very real sense it just further points to Mobutu’s character as a Machiavellian operator, playing both sides to his own advantage.
In the final report of the National Sovereign Conference, convened by Mobutu in 1990 supposedly to facilitate a transition to democracy, the notion that Mobutu was a spy is given a few sentences of consideration. But much more is dedicated to the interesting questions surrounding the ‘Binza Group’, the informal association of moderate-nationalist figures that assembled around Mobutu and Lawrence Devlin in the first months after independence. Based in Kinshasa they were central to the CIA’s plan to lock out the Lumumbist faction that was attempting to regroup in Kisangani (then Stanleyville) following their leader’s assassination. It was through this group that Devlin was able to have the most direct influence on Mobutu’s decision making and the course of events over the coming months (Van Reybrouck, 2010, p.305). It was through this group that Devlin liaised between the pro-American Congolese figures and the decision makers in Washington, who ultimately together arranged the death of Lumumba and the accession of Mobutu to power. The National Sovereign Conference would described this group as ‘a local relay of the Western neo-colonial strategy’ (‘relais local de la strategie néo-colonial occidental’) and charge its members with having served ‘outside interests above the national cause’ (‘intérêts exterieur au dessus de la cause nationale’) (Conférence Nationale Souveraine, 1992, pp.10-11). When we talk about the neo-colonial influence of Belgium and other western powers in post-independence Congo, conspiracy theories about Mobutu being a spy pale in comparison with the historical reality, in which figures like Devlin inserted themselves into the Congo’s political scene and acted as kingmakers, supplying Mobutu with vital funds to keep his soldiers paid and encouraging him to act at vital moments confident of their support. But as Mobutu consolidated his hold on power after the second coup in 1965, the Binza group soon went the way of all the other political organisations of the first republic; by 1969 most of its key members had been ousted or pushed to the fringes of political power in the new Congo, soon to become Zaire (Young & Turner, 1985, p.60).