In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congoby Michela Wrong
Known as "the Leopard," the president of Zaire for thirty-two years, Mobutu Sese Seko, showed all the cunning of his namesake seducing Western powers, buying up the opposition, and dominating his people with a devastating combination of brutality and charm. While the population was pauperized, he plundered the country's copper and diamond resources, downing
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Known as "the Leopard," the president of Zaire for thirty-two years, Mobutu Sese Seko, showed all the cunning of his namesake seducing Western powers, buying up the opposition, and dominating his people with a devastating combination of brutality and charm. While the population was pauperized, he plundered the country's copper and diamond resources, downing pink champagne in his jungle palace like some modern-day reincarnation of Joseph Conrad's crazed station manager.
Michela Wrong, a correspondent who witnessed Mobutu's last days, traces the rise and fall of the idealistic young journalist who became the stereotype of an African despot. Engrossing, highly readable, and as funny as it is tragic, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz assesses the acts of the villains and the heroes in this fascinating story of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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Chapter One You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave
but you can never leave
Kinshasa, 17 May 1997
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.
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.
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Michela Wrong has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She has written about Africa for Slate.com 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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ANd Congo has no hospitals no electricity no phonrs and no schools. What a legacy! But you knew what you were getying, at least the US did, we were the ones that set him up in the business. Oh the horror, the horror!
In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz follows the history of Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire. The Mr. Kurtz in the title is, of course, Joseph Conrad's character from The Heart Of Darkness; a European who came to conquer the African Congo but instead found failure and madness. Mobutu was a young scholar and military leader when he took over the reins of the newly independant Zaire. Unlike many African leaders who reign for short periods of time, Mobutu reigned for over thirty years, and took a vibrant, thriving economy to ruins in the process. Michele Wrong follows and tries to understand what went wrong. The biggest part of the problem was the sheer amount of money that Mobutu and his family and friends took out of the country. Hundreds of millions of dollars were diverted from trade, aid, and thriving businesses to their secret bank accounts. While Mobutu was a master manipulator of people and understood how to do that, he was bored by economic concepts and ignored what his policies did to the country. Wrong covers all the areas in this tragedy. Those who had thriving businesses but were not African had their properties confiscated. Aid meant for refugees was diverted, and by the time Mobutu left, the average life expectency had fallen to the mid-fifties and diseases that had been reined in were once again rampent. Trade with other countries had dried up, as no one could count on contracts being honored. One of the richest countries in resources was left with a crumbling infrastructure and everyday services such as phones or electricity worked on a hit-or-miss basis. This was an interesting book. I found the history itself interesting, as well as the blame that could be apportioned to international agencies like the IMF, which continued to give huge loans to Zaire when it was evident they would not be repaid, or the governments of Belgium, France and the U.S., which provided help to Mobutu regardless of his actions under the theory of "better the devil you know". This book is recommended for those interested in the history of Africa, or in reading how the best of plans often go astray.
An amazingly easy to read and highly gripping book of recent history. Mobuto's reign of Zaire reads like a thriller. I found many similarities to the current situation in Zimbabwe. The book is a must for Africa fans and should be made compulsory lecture for foreign aid workers.
It's takes one in the world of modern Africa were it's every one for themselves...fighting for survival...It makes one realize how as an American one takes so much for granted and the history of foreign intervention that help create many of the problems that still exist today
Michelle Wrong provides a well constructed, yet enthralling account of a somewhat larger than life Mobutu. So multi dimensional I found it hard to put it down but needed to, simply to absord its heady impact. Having journied quite extensively throughout then Zaire, been taken off the streets of Kinshasa at gun point by Security and interrogated and under constant serveillance for three months travelling, I could readily idenify with so much in nuance and fact in her book. The difference from so many other treatise on Africa is the skillful use of humour, anecdote and historical fact. Michelle Wrong's research is remarkable for its depth and breadth and will I predict, become one of the great and lasting 'textbooks' to a region so brutually scarred and exploited by human beings/countries from around the world.Especially Belgium,France and USA who should hang their heads in shame. I laughed and almost cried at the real life pathos of Mobutu's reign. Tracing developments from the Portugese in the 17th century to Henry Morton Stanley's discoveries in the late 19th century, one can only conclude as the author does, that we've hardly learnt anything except how venal we can be. Mobutu while graphically personifying this was not alone. Nor should he be. This book deserves to be up there with Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' as a classic.
Michela Wrong's book on Mobutu and the Congo reads at times like a work of fiction, proving once again that truth is far more exciting than the product of any fiction writer's imagination. We learn early in the book that there was an entire population of both Congolese and foreigners caught up in Mobutu's web, forced to learn intricate dance steps in this dance macabre as a means of survival. Others hung on to the dictator's web in order to boost their personal fortunes in a country plagued by poverty. One quickly realizes in reading Wrong's accounts of the dictatorship that there are similarities between Mobutu and all the other autocrats who came before and after him just about anywhere in the world. The hunger for power, the wild expenses, the paranoia, the need to divide and conquer, the love-hate relationship with the military (who protect you today but can also overthrow you tomorrow), and the ultimate demise in which the dictator is left grasping at straws are universal plots that have been played out time and again in Africa, Latin America and most of the developing world. Reading about Mobutu helps recall accounts of Duvalier's Haiti or Trujillo's Dominican Republic or Cecesceau's Romania as if these men were all bred to join an elite club of despots that follow similar rules and standards. In Wrong's book, we get a glimpse at Mobutu's rise to power in a move that may have even brought hope to his people and follow his story through the country's potential nuclear fiasco, Mobutu's frequent Concorde charters, the costly race to complete his palace in the jungle as much of the population barely survived, to his final days in which we know he was reduced to wearing diapers and saw his international friends abandon him. Wrong's book is a fact-filled insider's view of Mobutu's rise and fall that should be read not only by those interested in African history and politics but also by anyone interested in the inner workings of authoritarian regimes worldwide.