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

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

4.6 6
by Michela Wrong
In a country rich with diamonds, gold, copper, uranium, oil, and timber, the average worker was reduced to a living income of $120 a year under the rule of Mobutu. From 1965 to 1997, his regime bled the country of some $4 billion. This is both a brilliant journalistic account and a grimly humorous story set amid the heart of the apocalypse—a nation plunged back


In a country rich with diamonds, gold, copper, uranium, oil, and timber, the average worker was reduced to a living income of $120 a year under the rule of Mobutu. From 1965 to 1997, his regime bled the country of some $4 billion. This is both a brilliant journalistic account and a grimly humorous story set amid the heart of the apocalypse—a nation plunged back to the Iron Age, whose citizens miraculously continue to survive.

Editorial Reviews

The Mr. Kurtz of the title is, of course, the shadowy ivory dealer Marlow seeks in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Michela Wrong describes a more modern, yet equally bizarre embodiment of evil, Joseph Mobutu, the now-deceased president of Zaire. From 1965 to 1997, Mobutu ruled this mineral-rich country, converting its diamonds, gold, uranium, oil, and copper into bankable wealth. While the average Zaire worker was attempting to survive on an annual income of $120, Mobutu was bleeding his country of at least $4 billion. Wrong's supercharged story wrings the truth of one of recent history's most monstrous misdeeds.
Financial Times
A superb book...the absorbing, witty, and wryly observed account of Mobutu's reign and collapse.
London Times
Michela Wrong has written a cool, glittering, kaleidoscopic book. Her acount of the fall of Kinshansha and Mobutu's flight have something of the flavor of Evelyn Waugh's African travel books.
William Shawcross
A superb book ... the absorbing, witty, and wryly observed account of Mobutu's reign and collapse. —Financial Times
Jonathan Yardley
Wholly unsentimental ... Wrong gets it right ... [a] chillingly amusing cautionary tale. —Washington Post Book World
Sunday Times
Provocative, touching, and sensitively written ... an eloquent, brilliantly researched account and a remarkably sympathetic study of a tragic land.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The beauty of this book is that it makes sense of chaos. For the past few decades, the Congo, one of Africa's richest countries in natural resources, has been in an economic decline that has resulted in violence and lawlessness. Wrong, a British journalist who spent six years covering Africa as a reporter for European news agencies, skillfully balances history with nuanced reportage. She details the "discovery" of the Congo by the British explorer Lord Stanley, the land's subsequent exploitation by the Belgian King Leopold II for his own personal benefit and the role of the United States and other Western nations in propping up Joseph Mobutu. Without apologizing for his brutal regime, Wrong explains how the cold war dictator used a mixture of terror and charisma to maintain his hold on the country for three decades. But although the roots of the country's downfall are traced to Western policies the book's title comes from Joseph Conrad's famous anticolonialist novel this book is no anti-imperialist screed. What Wrong finds is a widespread refusal, among Westerners and Congolese alike, to accept responsibility for the country's deterioration, which has led to a situation in which "each man's aim is to leave Congo, acquire qualifications and build a life somewhere else." And when Wrong uses her keen eye to describe contemporary life in Congo as in her portrayal of the handicapped businessmen's association the streets of this now-wretched nation come alive. Illus. (Apr. 29) Forecast: Wrong will come to the States to do a three-city tour: New York, D.C. and Boston. This fine book should benefit from being one of several books on Africa coming out, including Ryszard Kapuscinski's (see above) and Bill Berkeley's The Graves Are Not Yet Full (Forecasts, Mar. 26). Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is a terrific if disheartening book. A foreign correspondent and eyewitness to the demise of Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire in 1997, Wrong combines travelog with astute political analysis. In lively prose, she traces the country's dysfunction to its history of permitting outsiders to exploit its wealth of natural resources, including diamonds, timber, and oil. Indeed, the very borders of Zaire, now Congo, reflect not geographic or ethnic realities but bargains struck between late 19th-century European firms and tribal chiefs. The key to Mobutu's survival despite his infamous corruption and ordinary citizens' professed loathing for him was his ability to forge a sense of nationhood amid the chaotic conditions he inherited. Whoever succeeds Laurent Kabila who ousted Mobutu before being assassinated early this year will gain not the presidency of a viable nation-state but the power to barter natural riches for political support abroad. Recommended for all academic collections. James R. Holmes, Ph.D. candidate, Fletcher Sch. of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts Univ., Medford, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A.L.A. Booklist
"A riveting inspection of the legacy of European colonialism in Africa"

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.49(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.27(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave

Kinshasa, 17 May 1997

Dear Guest,

Due to the events that have occurred last night, most of our employees have been unable to reach the hotel. Therefore, we are sorry to inform you that we will provide you only with a minimum service of room cleaning and that the laundry is only available for cleaning of your personal belongings. In advance, we thank you for your understanding and we hope that we will be able soon to assure our usual service quality.

The Management

At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, a group of guests who had just staggered back to their rooms after a heavy drinking session in L'Atmosphère, the nightclub hidden in the bowels of Kinshasa's best hotel, heard something of a fracas taking place outside. Peering from their balconies near the top of the Tower, the modern part of the hotel where management liked to put guests paying full whack, they witnessed a scene calculated to sober them up.

Drawing up outside the Hotel Intercontinental, effectively barring all exits, were several military armoured cars, crammed with members of the Special Presidential Division (DSP), the dreaded elite unit dedicated to President Mobutu's personal protection and held responsible for the infamous Lubumbashi massacre. A black jeep with tinted windows had careered up to the side entrance and its owner -- Mobutu's own son Kongulu, a DSP captain -- was now levelling his sub-machine gun at the night receptionist.

Kongulu, who was later to die of AIDS, was a stocky, bearded man with a taste for fast cars, gamblingand women. He left unpaid bills wherever he went with creditors too frightened to demand payment of the man who had been nicknamed 'Saddam Hussein' by Kinshasa's inhabitants. Now he was in full combat gear, bristling with grenades, two gleaming cartridge belts criss-crossed Rambo-style across his chest. And he was very, very angry.

Screaming at the receptionist, he demanded the room numbers of an army captain and another high-ranking official staying at the Intercontinental, men he accused of betraying his father, who had fled with his family hours before rather than face humiliation at the hands of the rebel forces advancing on the capital.

Up in Camp Tsha Tshi, the barracks on the hill which housed Mobutu's deserted villa, Kongulu's fellow soldiers had already killed the only man diplomats believed was capable of negotiating a peaceful handover. With the rebels believed to be only a couple of hours' march away, Kongulu and his men were driving from one suspected hideout to another in a mood of grim fury, searching for traitors. Their days in the sun were over, they knew, but they would not go quietly. They could feel the power slipping through their fingers, but there was still time, in the moments before Mobutu's aura of invincibility finally evaporated in the warm river air, for some score-settling.

The hotel incident swiftly descended into farce, as things had a tendency to do in Zaire.

'Block the lifts,' ordered the hotel's suave Jordanian manager, determined, with a level of bravery verging on the foolhardy, to protect his guests. The night staff obediently flipped the power switch. But by the time the manager's order had got through, Kongulu and two burly soldiers were already on the sixteenth floor.

Storming from one identical door to another, unable to locate their intended victims -- long since fled -- and unable to descend, the death squad was reaching near-hysteria. 'Unblock the lifts, let them out, let them out,' ordered the manager, beginning to feel rattled. Incandescent with fury, the trio spilled out into the lobby. Cursing and spitting, they mustered their forces, revved their vehicles and roared off into the night, determined to slake their blood lust before dawn.

The waiting was at an end. May 17, 1997 was destined to be showdown time for Zaire. And it looked uncomfortably clear that the months of diplomatic attempts to negotiate a deal that would ease Mobutu out and rebel leader Laurent Kabila in, preventing Kinshasa from descending into a frenzy of destruction behind the departing president, had come to precisely nothing.

The fact that so many of the key episodes in what was to be Zaire's great unravelling took place in the Hotel Intercontinental was not coincidental. Africa is a continent that seems to specialise in symbolic hotels which, for months or years, are microcosms of their countries' tumultuous histories. They are buildings where atrocities are committed, coups d'état consecrated, embryonic rebel governments lodged, peace deals signed, and when the troubled days are over, they still miraculously come up with almond croissants, fresh coffee and CNN in most rooms.

In Rwanda, that role is fulfilled by the Mille Collines hotel, where the management stared down the Hutu militiamen bent on slaughtering terrified Tutsi guests during the 1994 genocide. In Zimbabwe, it used to be the Meikles, where armed white farmers rubbed soldiers with sanction-busters during the Smith regime. In Ethiopia it is the Hilton, where during the Mengistu years some staff doubled as government informers; in Uganda, the Nile, whose rooms once rang with the screams of suspects being tortured by Idi Amin's police.

In Congo the honour most definitely goes to the Hotel Intercontinental. I know, because I once lived there. With one room as my living quarters, another as dilapidated office and a roof-top beer crate as the perch for a satellite telex -- my link with the outside world -- I soon realised that the hotel, as emblematic of the regime as Mobutu's leopardskin hat, offered the perfect vantage point from which to observe the dying days of the dinosaur.

The hotel was built on a whim. On a visit to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, President Mobutu saw the Hotel Ivoire, and decided he wanted one too. For once, his impulses were based on canny business instincts.

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Copyright © by Michela Wrong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Jonathan Yardley
"Wholly unsentimental ... Wrong gets it right ... [a] chillingly amusing cautionary tale.
Anthony Sampson
This is the most gripping and illuminating book about Africa I have read in years, and it throws its light way beyond the borders of the the wider problem of preventing the drift to corruption and tyranny in other parts of Africa.

Meet the Author

Michela Wrong has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She has written about Africa for and is a frequent commentator on African affairs in the media. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, won the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Nonfiction. She lives in London.

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