New York Times - December 18, 1996
Zaire's Weary Capital Makes a Party of Mobutu's Return
By HOWARD W. FRENCHKINSHASA, Zaire -- Ending four months of rest and recuperation from cancer treatment in Europe, Zaire's longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, staged a triumphal return home Tuesday to a country on the edge of collapse.
Exceeding the expectations of organizers, hundreds of thousands of residents of this city turned out at the airport and lined the 20-mile route to the president's home. They ranged from jubilant supporters waving Zairian flags or portraits of a much younger Mobutu to hordes of others simply out to watch a great show.
After a 90-minute ride through the disheveled capital in an open-roofed black Cadillac, Mobutu, 66, delivered a brief address at the manicured presidential compound on a hillside overlooking the rapids of the Zaire River.
His voice breaking with emotion several times, Mobutu hinted at strong actions to come. But he provided little detail as he spoke of the uprising in the country's eastern regions in which rebels supported by neighboring Rwanda have swept a large band of territory, routing the national army and now threatening the country's cohesion as a whole.
"The enemies of our people have chosen the moment when I am knocked off my feet with sickness to stab me in the back because they know what the territorial integrity, national unity and the dignity of this great Zaire mean to me," Mobutu told the gathered dignitaries, drawn from the 300-family elite he set out to found early in his rule. "I have devoted my life to defending these sacred values."
Moments later, seeming to promise military action to recapture the lands lost in the east, Mobutu added: "Every time we have been menaced in the past, strengthened by your support, I have never moved backward. I will not start moving backward now."
However, aboard his plane on the flight home from southern France, where he had been recuperating from prostate cancer surgery, Mobutu seemed keenly aware of his physical limits and the calamitous state of the army, which has looted town after town before abandoning them to the rebels. Speaking to a French television crew aboard the plane, he played down talk of an imminent military offensive.
"I am not returning home as a man of war," he said..
Mobutu, whose speech was given on the rear terrace of the presidential bungalow, pledged to pursue a transition toward democracy that has been stalled for six years.
Mobutu, who seized power in a military coup in 1965, has never been elected to the presidency, and Zaire is the only country in Central Africa not to have organized national elections since a wave of democratization swept much of Africa in the early 1990s. Under the latest plans, national elections, without which the country will remain cut off from international aid, are supposed to be held by next spring.
Foreign diplomats here said that Mobutu would have little choice but to seek political and diplomatic solutions to his government's military setbacks, at least initially.
Many political commentators here expect him to try to form a Government of national unity, with some going so far as to suggest that the leader of the rebellion, Laurent Desire Kabila, could be invited to join.
Rather than dwell on the specifics of his coming actions, Mobutu, whose lengthy absence from the country had caused many to begin to write him off as a terminally ill has-been, played the event of his return for maximum political effect, turning it into a daylong nationalist rally.
Even before his chartered DC-8 had finished taxiing, the Zairian leader could be seen in the cockpit waving to the crowds on the tarmac.
Looking pallid but apparently cheered by the lively reception, Mobutu smiled as he descended from the plane, hand in hand with his wife, Bobi Ladaw. In a flowered tunic and his signature leopard-skin cap and carrying a walking stick, he stopped at the bottom to sing Zaire's national anthem.
Walking the length of a long red carpet, Mobutu exchanged brief greetings with supporters, from traditional chiefs in plumed headgear to members of government in somber suits. He then mounted a reviewing stand where he watched gravely as troops goose-stepped past him.
For hours, tens of thousands of people had been gathering under a hot sun at the airport. Many were apparently drawn to the carnival-like celebration out of curiosity rather than support for the returning president. Others, including many critical of Mobutu, said they hoped his return would put an end to a period of deep political uncertainity.
In the Matongue neighborhood, where on Monday almost no one could be found on the street who was willing to express support for Mobutu publicly, sidewalks, storefronts, roofs and balconies were chock-a-block with people who watched and often cheered the president's passage.
The triumphant, even delirious, reception sometimes given Mobutu along his motorcade route stood in dramatic contrast to the widespread contempt that he has long suffered in the capital.
Mobutu's deep unpopularity forced him to move to a riverboat at the turn of the decade, and finally, in 1991, to his village in northern Zaire, where his grip on day-to-day affairs slowly but inevitably declined.
With effigies of a much younger and more vigorous leader hanging everywhere, and chants to his honor resuscitated from a past era of absolute rule, Tuesday's welcome had the inescapable feel of a last hurrah. Even from the man who has ruled this country ruthlessly for 31 years, there was a surprisingly humble admission.
"I cannot do everything alone by myself," said Mobutu, whose most fervent supporters had expected ready-made solutions to the country's crisis. "I need your help and the help of God."
New York Times - November 9, 1996
Riviera Villa Shelters Zairian President
By ROGER COHENROQUEBRUNE-CAP-MARTIN, France -- In the fine light and scented air of a Mediterranean fall, President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire has ensconced himself at the Villa del Mare, a mansion he acquired a decade ago from a Saudi billionaire and has used only once before -- on a visit to his dentist in Monaco.
A world away, his country is in danger of fragmenting and war has sent a million refugees fleeing into the jungles of eastern Zaire.
But here on the Cote d'Azur, Africa and its agony are but a dream. Nothing stirs save the sea breeze in the olive groves, the rich and the retired walking their dogs, and the white geese that waddle across the pine-shaded acres of the Mobutu estate.
The villa has ripe lemons on its trees, extravagant floral arrangements in its stone urns, a black Mercedes in its drive, two pet sheep on its grounds, and a view over the shimmering sea to the high-rises of Monaco. It provides, in short, a perfect image of the fruits of three decades of absolute power in an African country bled to the bone.
The beautiful, rocky headland at Roquebrune has long attracted famous visitors, among them Winston Churchill and Coco Chanel. But this small town near Nice is not sure what to make of Mobutu. The mayor, a member of President Jacques Chirac's party, has opted for silence. The tourist board is torn between delight and unease over the publicity, depending on how it turns out.
"People are talking about Roquebrune and that's good," said Patrick Alvarez, an official at the tourist bureau. "But you can't help wondering how many of those refugees Mobutu could feed if he sold the property. And that gives us an uneasy feeling."
Officially, the president of Zaire, who arrived at the villa on Monday and declined to be interviewed, is convalescing from surgery for prostate cancer that he underwent in Switzerland in August. Unofficially, he is making a political comeback in France, where he was dismissed a few years ago as a "walking bank balance with a leopard-skin hat."
That phrase came from Bernard Kouchner, a former health minister and long a leader of the campaign to provide international aid and medical attention to the destitute, people like the one million refugees, most of them ethnic Hutu, who have fled fighting in eastern Zaire without adequate water and food. The Rwandan-backed uprising by ethnic Tutsi Zairian rebels, who have taken major cities in eastern Zaire, is not an attempt to secede, but to overthrow Mobutu, the fighters say.
Still, Mobutu's departure, which has been sought intermittently by many Western capitals in recent years, has come to look distinctly less attractive. A cold-war Western ally in Africa who appeared redundant and vaguely embarrassing at the cold war's end, he has reemerged as a friend with a role in a different game: that of regional strongman at a time of tribal fracture.
"We believe that, in the current situation, Mobutu is a kind of guarantee of stability," said Jean-Francois Bouchard, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry. Such stability, he added, should be accompanied by measures encouraging economic and democratic reform. Meanwhile, Mobutu was free to remain in France as long as he wished.
Richard Banegas, an adviser at the foreign ministry who has been troubled by the French welcome of Mobutu, said: "The line is now that it's Mobutu or chaos. But the fact is that it's always been Mobutu and chaos."
The preparations for the arrival of Mobutu in France were made during visits to him in recent weeks by Charles Pasqua, a former interior minister, and Dominique de Villepin, a senior aide to Chirac.
They saw Mobutu in his $2,000-a-night suite at the Beau-Rivage hotel in Lausanne, where the Zairian president, who is 66, and more than 20 bodyguards stayed for two months after his operation. The hotel bill, according to Swiss newspaper reports, came to about $1.6 million.
The same reports put Mobutu's fortune in Swiss banks at $4 billion. But the fact is that the extent of the president's obviously considerable wealth is unknown. In 1990 he said that he had a bank account in Europe, that he had a fair amount of money in it, but that the sum, less than $50 million, was trifling given his two decades at the head of a very big country.
For a time, in the early 1990s, the money siphoned out of Zaire, the collapse of its industry and the gathering chaos throughout the country led France to shun Mobutu. But of late he has proved useful.
When about 1.2 million Hutu fled Rwanda in 1994 because they feared reprisals from an advancing Tutsi army for the massacre of at least 500,000 Tutsi civilians, Mobutu supported the dispatch of a French intervention force. Now he has promised to give full backing for a plan being energetically pushed by France for the dispatch of a U.N. force to provide food and shelter for these same Hutu refugees who have fled camps in Zaire.
Broadly, Banegas said that Mobutu and the Hutu have emerged as French allies in what is widely seen as a battle for influence against areas of "Anglo Saxon" influence in Africa -- areas that are dominated by ethnic Tutsi. The fault line between these two zones lies in an area where fighting recently raged.
Thus, as an ally in a new contest for Africa's wealth, Mobutu has been welcomed to his Roquebrune residence. Officials close to him say he is likely to remain there for a few more weeks. Certainly, any U.N. force is likely to arrive in Zaire before he does. What is not clear is whether the ailing Mobutu, who is said to be finding inspiration in former President Francois Mitterrand's ability to rule for 14 years despite suffering from cancer, will be fit enough to rule his shattered country again.
So Roquebrune will have to get used to its new resident. As Roland Mathan walked his dog past the Villa del Mare, he shrugged in amazement. "The world is made that way," he said. "There are corrupters and there are the corrupted. It was like that 2,000 years ago, and it will be like that in 2,000 years. What do I know? Perhaps we get diamonds or uranium in exchange for our hospitality."
Seven years after he seized power in a military coup in 1965, the man then known as Joseph-Desire Mobutu instructed his subjects to call him Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga: "The all-powerful warrior who will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake."
A quarter-century later, the fire looks contagious and the wake -- from Roquebrune to Kinshasa and Goma -- extremely long.
New York Times - November 8, 1996
As Mobutu Fights Death, War Offers Him Political Rebirth
By HOWARD W. FRENCHKINSHASA, Zaire -- There is a story making the rounds these days among this city's political class that President Mobutu Sese Seko, watching recently from his sickbed in Switzerland as tensions between his country and neighboring Rwanda grew, blocked the shipment of heavy weapons to the border region. This, the story goes, ultimately allowed the Rwanda-backed rebels to capture major Zairian cities in the area.
In a country where myths and reputations are often more powerful than objective realities, the truth of the matter is far less important than what these stories say about Zaire and its leader. Since the country's independence from Belgium in 1960, Mobutu has repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary talent for political survival.
Whether he calculatingly allowed eastern Zaire to be overrun by ethnic-Tutsi-led forces, which are allied to Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, in order to return home as a savior may never be known. But what is certain is that after years of shrinking power at home and growing isolation elsewhere, Mobutu, who is seriously ill with cancer, has suddenly moved from near-irrelevance to the center stage of an international crisis.
At stake are the fates of several countries and millions of lives in Central Africa.
For the last few years, Mobutu has been the object of international outrage. Under his rule, Zairians have been subjected to human rights violations, the brutal derailing of a transition to democratic government and some of the world's most blatant official corruption. This has made him persona non grata in most Western countries.
Even in Switzerland, where he went for cancer treatment in August, there was official eagerness to have Mobutu, reputedly one of the world's richest men, depart as quickly as possible. This week he went to the French Riviera, leaving Lausanne, where he had been receiving cancer treatment. The cancer, first detected in his prostate, has since spread to his bones. He is continuing his convalescence from radiation and chemotherapy at his luxurious private estate in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, near Nice, France.
Devastating riots protesting his rule broke out in 1991 in Kinshasa, where Mobutu has since felt unwelcome. He retreated, first to live on a luxury yacht on the Zaire River, and then to his native village, in the northern town of Gbadolite, his home since.
This week, however, President Jacques Chirac of France called Mobutu the "best man to represent his country and find a political solution" to the refugee crisis. France has initiated a drive for international intervention to save more than a million Rwandan refugees in Zaire.
Mobutu's aides say he is preparing a return home to rally his country against the rebellion, a trip that may well prove triumphant.
At his estate on Wednesday, Mobutu, looking weak and drawn, received Raymond Chretien, the new U.N. envoy to Central Africa, making his first public appearance in weeks.
"Mobutu's whole history is that of a man who is ready to give his life for his country," said Atundu Liongo, one of his senior aides. "What has been happening in the east of our country is not just a danger to Zaire, but to the whole of Africa, and it is normal that in these circumstances the world should turn to a man of his experience for solutions."
Although many people might object to that description of Mobutu, few would dispute that in this part of the world his political instincts remain unparalleled.
The ethnic Tutsi Zairian rebels, who have seized control of all the main cities in North and South Kivu provinces in the last two weeks have played down the ethnic or separatist dimensions of their offensive, saying instead that their goal is to overthrow Mobutu and invite other regions to rebel against him.
That strategy appears to have backfired. With Zairians worried about the potential for a violent disintegration of their country, many observers suspect that Mobutu senses a chance to rehabilitate his reputation with the population.
"Zairians can accuse Mobutu of every kind of sin," said Kamitatu Massamba, a historian and longtime opponent of the president. "But where he has earned a medal, in the public's mind, is in incarnating national unity.
"He couldn't have returned to Kinshasa a couple of months ago, but if he returns now, you will be surprised to see what a very enthusiastic reaction he gets. His days might be numbered, but his luck is now such that he can go out defending the country."
Most of Mobutu's past comebacks occurred in the context of Cold War competition over Africa, when Zaire was an important rear base for Western support of anti-Communist rebels in neighboring Angola.
This time, if international support for Mobutu has dwindled, so too, many say, has the ability of the rest of Zaire's discredited political class to challenge or even stand in for him.
Mobutu's prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, faces almost blanket opposition from both politicians and the general populace. He seems to have been kept in office for the last two years only with the steady support of Western embassies here, which have urged Mobutu not to replace him.
In the current crisis, Kengo faces the extra liability of his ancestry. He is part Rwandan Tutsi, which earns him the outright hatred of many. Thursday, for example, thousands of students demanding his resignation filled the National Assembly building bearing the coffins of two youths killed in a similar demonstration last week.
Their anger was focused on Kengo, and there was no reflection of feelings against the absent Mobutu. There were other protests in Kisangani in the country's northeast.
Almost every other prominent politician in the country, meanwhile, has been co-opted and later discredited by Mobutu, one of whose many nicknames is the Eagle, because of the ease with which he manages to stay above the political fray.
And for all the yearning for change in this country, which has been drifting steadily downward for years, no other figure stands out as an obvious national leader.
"Every time," said one prominent Zairian politician who insisted on anonymity, "the West turns back to Mobutu, figuring the devil it knows is better than the unknown that lies ahead.
"They are clearly doing that again this time. But the future grows scarier all the time, and if Mobutu's illness serves any purpose, it should remind all of us that this tactic is no solution."