Mobutu Sese Soko was born Joseph-Desire Mobutu on 14 October 1930 in Belgian Congo, the son of a cook and a domestic servant. His mother worked for a Belgian judge, whose wife took a liking to the young Mobutu and taught him how to read and write French. His father died when he was eight and his mother moved often, following the work and so Mobutu was schooled in a number of catholic schools. By all accounts he was a good student but he was also known for being a prankster, eventually finding himself being expelled and conscripted into the Force Publique, the colonial army of the Belgian Congo. Initially, he found the army discipline difficult but his fluency in French served him well, he was trained as a non-commissioned officer and given a desk job as an accountant. He rose quickly through the ranks reaching the rank of sergeant-major by the time of his discharge which was the highest achievable rank allowed to Congolese nationals. He continued his education, reading anything he could get his hands on, he was heavily influenced by the writings of Machiavelli, Churchill and De Gaulle. After leaving the military he began working as a journalist, rising to the position of editor of a weekly publication named Actualites Africaines. He later began writing for the daily L’Avenir, he was assigned to cover the 1958 World Exposition in Belgium, he stayed on, attending the Brussels School of Journalism. He began moving in circles of Congolese intellectuals who were to be the movers and shakers of post-colonial Congo. He also made very influential contacts with CIA agents, wealthy backers and built a close relationship with Patrice Emery Lumumba who was at the forefront of the independence movement and was to become the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mobutu returned to Congo just before independence was declared, an event which threw the country into chaos. A coalition government was formed under Lumumba but there were dozens of political parties left out who believed that they had a right to power. To compound the instability, the army mutinied against the remaining Belgian officers, Lumumba appointed Mobutu as Chief of Staff, giving him the task of restoring order. The government remained fragile and on 14 September 1960, Mobutu took control in a CIA-sponsored coup. After a brief rule, Mobutu returned the government to civilian control, however the faction fighting and instability immediately returned. In 1965, Mobutu once again took power, he made all political parties illegal, stating that they were the root cause of all the country’s problems. In 1967, he unveiled the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), which was the only political party allowed and it was obligatory for all citizens to join. It’s manifesto was apolitical, not left, right or centre; parliament was abolished and Mobutu took complete control of the media which bombarded the population with propaganda. He also embarked on a policy of Africanisation of the country, he introduced a new flag and national anthem and re-named the country Zaire and changed the name of the capital from Leopoldville to Kinshasa. All buildings, streets and even people’s names were given African names while Western attire was banned. Mobutu also developed a cult like worship of himself through all forms of media. His rule became progressively corrupt and oppressive driving Zaire into the ground, by the mid-eighties it was billions of dollars in debt while Mobutu had amassed billions in personal wealth.
Mobutu dealt with any resistance or criticism with an iron fist, publicly executing any rivals, plotters or challengers. He also used bribery, giving huge amounts of cash to keep his rivals content, he also constantly rotated people from position to position to ensure that nobody could attempt to build a power base. Bizarrely, he also played cat and mouse with people, torturing them before re-appointing them into positions of power. He nationalised all foreign-owned business and forced all Western investors to leave the country, often giving their assets to relatives and friends. Although Zaire was in dire straits, with a wrecked infrastructure and a starving people due to Mobutu’s ridiculous rule, he still enjoyed significant support from the United States and the International Monetary Fund, while France kept a close association with Zaire and it‘s preposterous ruler. In May 1990, Mobutu was forced to lift the ban on political parties and appointed a transitional government with the promise of free and fair elections. His hand was forced by the removal of American support following the end of the Cold War as well as serious economic decline. He was eventually overthrown in 1997, under the backdrop of floods of refugees arriving in eastern Zaire from neighbouring Rwanda. Amid this chaos, rebels under the leadership of Laurent Kabila rose up against Mobutu. Mobutu fled with his family, seeking exile in Morocco where he died of prostrate cancer a few months later. Kabila took control of the country re-naming it the Democratic Republic of Congo .