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Delanceyplace: King Leopold's Ghost

In 1960, after years of protests, Belgium granted the African
colony of the Congo its freedom. In short order, newly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the assistance of the CIA, and a dictator named Joseph Mobutu soon took his place and began his thirty-two year rule, writes Adam Hochschild.

When pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire [Congolese] territory
there were fewer than thirty African university graduates. There were no Congolese
army officers, engineers, agronomists, or physicians. The colony's administration
had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people: of some five thousand
management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans.

King Baudouin of Belgium arrived in Leopoldville to grant, officially and patronizingly,
the Congo its freedom. He said, 'It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you
are worthy of our confidence.' An angry, impromptu speech in reply by Patrice Lumumba
caught the world's attention. Barely a month earlier, an election had made Lumumba
a coalition-government prime minister. It was the first democratic national election
the territory had ever had, but it produced a winner who left the Belgians deeply
dismayed. Lumumba believed that political independence was not enough to free Africa
from its colonial past; the continent must also cease to be an economic colony of
Europe. His speeches set off immediate alarm signals in Western capitals. Belgian,
British, and American corporations by now had vast investments in the Congo, which
was rich in copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, tin, manganese, and zinc.

An inspired orator whose voice was rapidly carrying beyond his country's borders,
Lumumba was a mercurial and charismatic figure. His message, Western governments
feared, was contagious: Moreover, he could not be bought. Finding no sympathy in
the West, he asked for help from the Soviet Union. Anathema to American and European
capital, he became a leader whose days were numbered. Less than two months after
being named the Congo's first democratically chosen prime minister, a US. National
Security Council subcommittee on covert operations, which included CIA director
Allen Dulles, authorized his assassination. Richard Bissell, CIA operations chief
at the time, later said, 'The President, Dwight D. Eisenhower ... regarded Lumumba
as I did and a lot of other people did: as a mad dog ... and he wanted the problem
dealt with:' In a key meeting, another official who was there recalled, Eisenhower
clearly told CIA chief Dulles "that Lumumba should be eliminated."

Alternatives for dealing with 'the problem' were considered, among them poison
(a supply of which was sent to the CIA station chief in Leopoldville), a high-powered
rifle, and free-lance hit men. But it proved hard to get close enough to Lumumba
to use these, so, instead, the CIA and Belgians still working in the Congo's army
and police supported anti-Lumumba factions in the Congo government, confident that
they would do the job. After being arrested and repeatedly beaten, the prime minister
was secretly shot in Elizabethville in January 1961. Covertly urged on by their
own government, a Belgian pilot flew the plane that took him there and a Belgian
officer commanded the firing squad. Two Belgians then cut up his body and dissolved
it in acid, to leave no martyr's grave. ...

The key figure in the Congolese forces that arranged Lumumba's murder was a young
man named Joseph Désiré Mobutu, then chief of staff of the army and a former NCO
in the old colonial Force Publique. Early on, the Western powers had spotted Mobutu
as someone who would look out for their interests. He had received cash payments
from the local CIA man and Western military attachés while Lumumba's murder was
being planned. Wearing dark glasses and his general's uniform with gold braid and
a sword, he later met President Kennedy at the White House in 1963. Kennedy gave
him an airplane for his personal use -- and a US. Air Force crew to fly it for
him. With United States encouragement, Mobutu staged a coup in 1965 that made him
the country's dictator. And in that position he remained for more than thirty years.

Further U.S. military aid helped Mobutu repel several attempts to overthrow him.
Some of his political enemies he ordered tortured and killed; some he co-opted into
his ruling circles; others he forced into exile. The United States gave him well
over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid during the three decades of
his rule; European powers -- especially France -- contributed more. For its heavy
investment, the United States and its allies got a regime that was reliably anti-Communist
and a secure staging area for CIA and French military operations, but Mobutu brought
his country little except a change of name, in 1971, to Zaire. ...

With American and European approval, the country's wealth flowed mainly into the
pockets of [Mobutu] and foreign mining companies. Mobutu's loyalty to his Western
backers made him a popular visitor to Washington, where he shrewdly abandoned his
military uniform for civilian dress, a carved ebony cane, and a trademark African-looking
leopard-skin hat that had actually been made by an elegant Paris milliner. Ronald
Reagan received him at the White House several times, praising him as 'a voice of
good sense and good will.' ...

Mobutu and his entourage helped themselves to state revenue so freely that the
Congolese government ceased to function. When he ran out of money to pay the army
and other state workers in 1993, he printed up a new kind of currency. Because shopkeepers
would not accept it, soldiers rioted, looting shops, government buildings, and private
homes. Hundreds of people were killed. For years, garbage piled up in heaps, uncollected.

Before Mobutu was overthrown, in 1997, his thirty-two years in power had made him
one of the world's richest men; his personal wealth at its peak was estimated at
$4 billion. He spent much of his time on his yacht, on the river at Kinshasa, formerly
Leopoldville. One of the big lakes he renamed Lake Mobutu Sese Seko. He acquired
palatial homes in France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

He made no distinction between state assets and his own; in a single year, he dispatched
a state-owned jet airliner thirty-two times to Venezuela to ferry five thousand
long-haired sheep to his ranch at Gbadolite. ... And he demanded, and got, a piece
of the action in almost every major corporation operating in the country.

Author: Adam Hochschild
Title: King Leopold's Ghost
Publisher: Mariner Books
Date: Copyright 1998 by Adam Hochschild
Pages: 301-304

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