When He Was King
"Worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass." --The Anthills of Savannah, by Nigerian author, Chinua AchebeJohannesburg's check-in area for Air Zaire's flight to Kinshasa swells with the elite of one of the poorest countries in the world. The men look about with half-shuttered eyes, rubbing the heavy gold chains like talismans around their wrists and necks. Many have two guns apiece. Their wives are dressed in brilliant African prints and dazzling metallics. They are overloaded, like beasts of burden, with a variety of basic goods--powdered milk, lampshades, children's toys--items not readily available in Zaire. They mimic, in low-rent fashion, the habits of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko, who indulges in monthly shopping jags in Paris and Brussels.Photographer Mike Persson and I are conspicuous by our California-style dress and casual demeanor. We look more at home with the rest of the Johannesburg airport's travelers. Everybody else is making cheerful preparations to go to places like Kenya, Malawi or St. Mauritius. Our airplane companions are grim, though in an almost graceful way, with the discreet manner of those resigned to their fate.Suddenly, soundlessly, a dark-skinned man wearing funeral black and inscrutable sunglasses corrals Michael and me and separates us from the other passengers. Apparently he thinks that, as journalists, we must be quarantined. The plane's stewards, doubling as the check-in attendants, search our bags for several minutes while the men with guns and knives are waved through the boarding gate without comment. This is our first glimpse of present-day Zaire and of the long-armed reach of Mobutu Sese Seko -- the man who created it.Zaire has all the marks of a country in moral and spiritual chaos. The signs become visible early on in a journey to the country. It's like trailing an epidemic: The body count gets higher the nearer you get to ground zero.The capital of Zaire is the dark epicenter of the country's soul. The name--Kinshasa--has impressive evocative properties. Since 1991, when starving, unpaid soldiers rioted and looted, shooting anybody who got in their way, Kinshasa has had a creepy, skin-crawling feeling of imminent mayhem.Mike and I, members of the media who come to gawk at Zaire, are like motorists taking in a roadside accident. We ourselves are in Zaire to interview President Mobutu, who reviles journalists and almost never shows himself in public. But relentless, reporterly insinuation with a rich Zairian close to the president, the fact that I was female, and the mock working title of our book on African leaders, Great Men of Africa, did the trick. Apparently, a man like Mobutu just couldn't resist the temptation to keep such company. Consequently, we had landed perhaps the only one-on-one interview in 15 or 20 years with Africa's longest-lasting despot.Upon arrival in Kinshasa, we are included in a select group whisked off the plane, before the other passengers, into a holding pit with velveteen couches and free alcohol. The pit is crawling with secret-agent types sporting bulletproof vests and walkie-talkies. Everyone else carries cellular telephones. (We find out later that they are a necessary luxury; the telephone system has been left unmended for years as Mobutu tries to prevent his opposition from conspiring with the outside world.)The guns, vests, walkie-talkies and even the phones are used to protect Zaire's rich from Zaire's poor. With billions of dollars in gold, diamonds and precious minerals such as uranium, Zaire is one of Africa's most resource-rich countries. But the average Zairian income is $160 a year. So everybody steals. Zaire is an unofficial "kleptocracy," where soldiers loot, policemen mug and hospital nurses won't admit patients without a bribe. Mobutu once told citizens at a public rally, "Go ahead and steal, but don't steal too much, or you will get caught." It is a country where crooked men come to do business.We meet just such a businessman in the VIP lounge at the Kinshasa airport. A cagey South African, with piggish eyes and hair scraped from the front to the back of his nearly bald head, introduces himself as Peter van Rooyan and asks us what we are doing in Kinshasa."We're journalists," I say cheerfully.Van Rooyan is visibly unnerved.I inquire: "And you?""I'm doing business here.""What kind?""Me and my assistant [jerking his arm at an overgrown blond beach-boy in a Hawaiian shirt], we're going to sell coffins manufactured in Zaire. I'll do whatever it takes to make money--you hear what I'm saying?""Coffins?""Yeah, you have no idea how much of a market there is for coffins in Africa.""Actually, I think I do."The day after our arrival, we met with Mobutu's No. 1 adviser, Professor Vundwawe Te Pemako, who informs us that, for expediency's sake, he will answer the questions we have for Mobutu. A driver toting an AK-47 picks us up at the hotel and drives us through the twisty streets of a once-elegant Kinshasa suburb, now crumbling from neglect. A few houses are still pristine--those belonging to members of Parliament and the president's cabinet, our driver informs us. Vundwawe's house turns out to be among the most well-preserved, standing behind a great wall, the sort that eclipses all views, like the vertiginous walls that gird high-security embassies. We are ushered past a row of very clean, very expensive imported cars--a BMW, two Mercedes Benzes and a Jeep sedan--all painted the same gleaming black. The driver tells us that we have a short wait.An American eagle that Vundwawe keeps in his garden as a pet beats its clipped wings in furious imitation of flight.After about an hour, we are ushered into Vundwawe's lushly appointed library. He greets us with a half-smile and motions for us to sit down. He himself sits down primly. Through a translator, he launches into a three-hour revisionist history of Zaire under Mobutu.His monologue bears no relation to the questions I had supplied. The thrust of Vundwawe's speech is that Mobutu is a very good leader and that the West is very, very bad, and very wrong about Mobutu. As the professor speaks, two sheepish middle-aged researchers repeat the professor's words after him, grinning and chortling at appropriate moments.After the speech, we are bustled out of the library. Back at the hotel, Mike and I resume our interview vigil under the watchful gaze of the youthful Mobutu portrait which hangs everywhere in the country. It has been implied that if we try to talk to anyone who opposes the president, the interview is off. So we go sightseeing instead.Our first destination is the black market for money, where we know our dollars can be traded at an absurdly inflated rate. With inflation at more than 1,000 percent, $1 equals 3,800 Zaires. This is because, over the length of his reign, Mobutu and his inner circle have stolen all the hard foreign currency out of the Bank of Zaire. Then, when Mobutu couldn't pay his soldiers and they threatened to riot, he printed a new five-million Zaire bill to placate them. The strategy backfired when businesses refused to accept the new bill.Mobutu's critics say there is no mystery about the president's character. A poor, barely educated boy who stole when he was young, he simply grew up into a bigger and better thief. When Mobutu was 8, he was shipped off to a Catholic mission school. There he remained until the age of 19, when he was booted out, according to Zairian historian Daniel Monguya Mebenge, because of his "adventurous character, his proclivity for delinquency and his burglary of the mission library."So Mobutu learned to take what he wanted at an early age. But from the beginning, he was much more than just a thief. He was wily and savagely ambitious. And he was, and is, a man whose self-worth is directly linked to the mass of his loot and the size of his fastidiously constructed personal myth.Mobutu had an eerie understanding of the vacuum left behind in Africa in the wake of colonialism. He didn't quite have the charisma to step into the role of Zaire's first president. But he knew that the next best thing was to shadow the man who did. That man was the gifted intellectual and revolutionary freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba.Lumumba was a leader of heroic proportions--a man of utter, sentimental, profound conviction. His ideas rallied the fractured Zairians to the cause of independence. As long as he was alive, there could never be a President Mobutu, Father of the Zairian Nation.Mobutu's first major act of thievery took place when he stole the presidency from Lumumba in 1961.Mobutu's ambitions conveniently dovetailed with Cold War paranoia. A CIA operative convinced Congress that Lumumba was a Soviet puppet and that it was only a matter of time before what was known then as the Congo became the "Congo Rouge." Congress approved the "removal" of Lumumba from the political scene, and Mobutu as his replacement. Meanwhile, Mobutu built a cabal of Congolese politicians to foment a coup. According to Zairian political scientist Kabasu Babo, Lumumba was captured in January 1961 by Mobutu loyalists who were aided by CIA operatives, then dragged to a remote province and beaten to death.From that moment on, Mobutu never looked back. He has spent the last 33 years building two things: a pirate's fortune of $5 billion to $8 billion and a personal mythology so aggressively perpetrated that even he seems to believe it.The moment Mobutu became president, he adopted the most alluring habits of an African chieftain but retained the European luxuries--expensive automobiles, jets and palaces. He took on an African name befitting his newfound power--Mobutu Sese Seko wa za Banga, meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake." Official rumors have been spread of his supernatural feats--the lion he killed with his bare hands at the age of 7, or the battle he fought against Zaire's enemies where bullets and spears bounced off his chest.Mobutu expanded his immense patriarchal stature with a very clever invention: "Mobutuism," also known as the "authenticity campaign."The idea was simple: rename everything--buildings, people, the country itself--with an African name (though none so grand as the president's). There was a mandatory return to African traditions in food, dress, dance and culture. Mobutu's regime claimed authenticity would unify the colonially and tribally shattered nation.Of course, those who could pay for it were allowed and even encouraged to cling to the finer things in life--French champagne (preferably pink Laurent Perrier), Mercedes Benz sedans (Zaire has more per capita than any other African nation) and shopping trips to the capitals of Europe.Evidence of fear and greed is everywhere in Kinshasa. We see it in the unpaved streets, the dilapidated townships, the overwhelming tribe of street children. We see it in the bowing bureaucrats. And we see it in the hardened mouths of anyone who finds out who we are and why we're in Zaire. We see it reflected back at us in the eyes of our very own taxi driver, Jonas.At first, Jonas has a bountiful smile and an easy laugh. He tells us he is a family man and that he used to be in business before the economy went bad. We chirp along in halting English and French for several minutes. Then he gets around to asking us what we do for a living. "We're journalists," I offer, and Jonas peers at us with round eyes in the rearview mirror. He barely talks after that, though he does keep grinning--his version of whistling in the dark.When we ask Jonas to take us to some government buildings, his perpetual smile slides from his face. But he agrees. The Parliament building is a leftover monolith of 1960s modern architecture, dissolving into a scaly shambles. Almost from the moment Mobutu took power, maintenance of the building was abandoned--just like the country's telecommunications, electricity and water systems and its roads. (Zaire had 31,000 miles of roads at independence. By 1980, fewer than 3,700 miles were usable.)The entrance gate is surrounded by soldiers outfitted in camouflage and RayBans, their guns lying in their laps like well-loved books.We ask to see the building. The soldiers scowl and hitch their guns to their hips with a kind of leisurely menace, and suddenly Jonas is pleading and pulling us to go. Safely back in the taxi, he stops to wipe his abruptly wet brow. It takes him a moment to gain control of his jagged breathing."These men, when they get suspicious, they follow you in a white Peugeot and corner you," he says between gulps of air. "They will catch me and make me tell them you are journalists. Then they will beat me up and come find you."For the first time since we have arrived, the lurking, omnipresent fear among Zairians has rubbed off on us. Now we are scared."Can we go to the market now?" Jonas begs.This is the moment we decide our room might be bugged. After all, we had not been allowed to choose our own hotel. We begin to perceive strange, subtle disruptions in our possessions; changes that take place at the wrong hour for room service. A closed suitcase now yawns open. Audio tapes move from a table to a chair. Never sure if our anxieties are founded, we pace our hotel room in front of the endless loop of CNN's World News. It feels as if the world has come to a standstill, as we gaze at the same broadcast of the same Chinese press conference four times in one day. We hold hysterical pantomimed conversations in defiance of our imagined eavesdroppers, sometimes collapsing in giggles when we catch sight of ourselves.On the fourth day, when we are beginning to think we can take no more, Professor Vundwawe calls. He's decided that the authors of Great Men of Africa would benefit from an official field trip to the Presidential Museum.Our guide tells us he, too, is a professor. His specialty--"Mobutuism." It turns out that the Presidential Museum is nothing more than a dusty shrine of photos of the president, in interesting and often dubious company. Mobutu and the Shah of Iran, Idi Amin, Quaddafi. Mobutu with Ronald Reagan, who once referred to him as a "voice of good sense and goodwill." Mike starts to take a photo of a Mobutu portrait, and the young museum guide instinctively raises his hand to block it, a look of raw terror contorting his features."It's all right," the professor of Mobutuism says contemptuously. I realize I have seen the museum guide's look before, on Jonas' face when we approached the soldiers at the Parliament building.As the professor of Mobutuism drops us at our hotel, he tells us that President Mobutu will receive us the next day. We thank him, nodding and smiling tiny, grave smiles, so as to convey the sense of honor and privilege he wants us to demonstrate. But once safely in the lobby, we whoop and holler. Later, we celebrate with a couple of large Zairian beers and even invite the coffin salesman over for a drink."You guys are meeting Mobutu, huh? You'll put in a good word for me, eh?" We do not say no to his face.At 6 the next morning, Mike and I are driven to the airstrip, where a chartered plane is waiting. We will be traveling with the reluctant new German ambassador, his assistant, and four of Mobutu's minions--including Vundwawe and a man named Honore Nguanda.Nguanda is otherwise known as "The Terminator" for his Himmler-like role in Zaire's version of the SS, the Special Presidential Division, according to political scientist Kabasu Babo. But for now he seems pleasant, if reticent, apparently preferring to work on his French crossword puzzle.We are flying to Mobutu's palace hideaway, his "Versailles in the Jungle," 1,500 kilometers north of Kinshasa in his home village of Gbadolite. Where Gbadolite had once been a scattering of shacks and skeletal cows, there is now a small, mock-industrial city, with its own international airstrip and Concorde airplane for presidential shopping sprees and fast getaways.While Kinshasa is plagued by blackouts and poisoned water, Gbadolite has its own billion-dollar hydroelectric dam. While the roads in Kinshasa and everywhere else turn to mud, the roads in Gbadolite are maintained in the manner of an orderly American suburban county. But since the improved Gbadolite has no other function than to serve the president and his entourage, the place turns into a ghost town when they are away.The presidential palace eclipses everything. The pink marble monolith boasts stadium-sized gardens, computer-operated fountains, artificial lakes, and flowers imported exclusively from South Africa. To further assist the transformation of this desolate equatorial region, Mobutu once sent a government jet to Venezuela 32 times to bring back 5,000 long-haired sheep.The palace itself has dozens of massive rooms, overstuffed with gaudily expensive decor. There are gold fixtures in the bathrooms, goldleaf on the walls, and an excess of European antiques and crystal. Babo says Mobutu is practicing an age-old form of tribal one-upmanship. Mobutu's tribe, the Ngbandi, is traditionally at the low end of the caste system. The remaking of Gbadolite was designed to uplift his ancestral origins and serve as glittery fodder for Mobutu's myth-making machine.When we arrive in Gbadolite, a Mercedes convoy is waiting to take the passengers to the palace. Mike and I wait in a sort of antechamber while the president meets with the German ambassador. All the while, the president's personal TV news crew skids about. Each crew member has an official uniform: T-shirts with Mobutu's face printed on the front.The ambassador's visit takes minutes, but Mike and I are made to wait for another hour and a half. We pass the time by talking to our official translator. (We were not allowed to provide our own.) He is a stately, well-dressed man who seems as nervous as we are about coming face to face with President Mobutu, though he works in the palace full time. Our translator speaks fairly good English because he attended the University of Southern California more than 20 years ago. In fact, he tells us, he lived in the same dorm as O.J. Simpson. "He seemed like such a nice guy at the time," he says wistfully. We nod, barely listening. By now I am so apprehensive, I must sit on my hands to keep them still.Finally, we are summoned to an atrium. The walls are smoky gray glass--and bulletproof, we are told. Inside the room sits the 66-year-old president, unsmiling, imperious and more firmly built than I had imagined. (Later we learned that his bulk was part bulletproof vest, something he puts on first thing every morning.) He is wearing a dark Nehru-style suit but no signature leopard-skin hat. As the president shakes our hands, he looks not at us, but over us, at some point on the wall behind.Since we had been promised a lengthy interview, my strategy is pretty conventional. Get Mobutu cozy with some ego-stroking questions, then topple him with the hard ones.Heidi Kriz: "Marshal Mobutu, I understand there were recent deaths in your family. You have my condolences. At times like these, do you feel the burden of being a president is too great?"Mobutu: "You must know that I am a Christian. And when such a succession of unfortunate events occur in the family, I have only one source of reference--the Bible. It is indicated there that in such unfortunate circumstances, we must refer to Job. God gives and takes back, but his holy name be sanctified."HK: "Yes, but at such times do you feel lonely, that you want to leave off being president and go back to a normal life?"M: "You must refer to my speech on April 24, 1990, which contained my program concerning the democratization of my country. That was long before the speech of the French president, Francois Mitterand, at the conference of BAUL in France. You understand that I determined the democratization of my country two months before the French president. Unfortunately, the international opinion tends to believe that the starting point of Africa's democratization was in the conference of BAUL in France, from President Mitterand's speech."(We are interrupted by a cellular telephone call. Nguanda starts gesturing at his watch to indicate time is running out. The interview so far has run about 10 minutes. Realizing I have been lied to, I am panic-stricken.)HK: "I understand you don't have much time ... but since this is not a typical interview ... we really need more time. I would be grateful for your indulgence."M: "I know, but the professor has told me he had already answered all your questions with him. You know, an interview like this is impossible with the schedule that I have, considering that it was not planned, I am really short of time."HK: "I understand. Let's carry on and see how it goes. Marshal Mobutu, I would like to talk to you about your early influences. You had an impoverished childhood. Did that motivate your desire to be rich and successful, to become the president?"M: "Once again, madame, I come back to the Bible, which says all authority comes from God. It is God who wanted it. If God did not want it, I would not be president today. Even in your country, madame, all presidents are not of rich origins. There are also some who come from poor rural classes. It is true for the U.S.A. and other countries in the world."HK: "So you knew at some early point ... divinely or otherwise, that you would become the leader of Zaire?"M: "Not as a child. However, as an adult, as a political and military leader, I came to realize some facts of my past. When I was young, in my environment at school, I was always chosen as leader of the class. ... When I became an adult, I realized I was being prepared for something. In the fourth year of primary school, when the teacher wanted to go to the toilet, he told me, 'You are responsible. If something happens while I am gone, I will ask you.'"Then in Lutabourg [a site for military training] back in 1950, 1951, 1952, each year sports competitions were organized. All military units which were there had to compete and win trophies. They had to choose captain of soccer, volleyball, running, basketball. All my colleagues only chose me. One morning, the captain of each team had to present himself in front of the Belgium officer responsible for the sports. As they called for captain of the soccer team, I presented myself, captain of basketball, I presented myself, captain of volleyball, captain of running, I present myself.The Belgian officer was furious and said to me, 'Who are you?' I introduced myself. Then he said, 'In your class there are not other people who can be captain, only you?' I was a little bit brutal. I said, 'Is it my problem if my colleagues find that I am most qualified?' The Belgian officer was terribly irritated and shouted 'Can't you answer me in a more decent manner?' "(At this, Vundwawe, Nguanda, and the translator all laugh and clap for about half a minute. Mobutu ignores them.)M: "And if you look at my records from the military school ... they indicate, concerning my personality, 'kind, sociable.' "HK: "So, these are the qualities that made you president?"M [Ignoring my question]: "You see, for instance, in the face of the political degradation of the country in the early '60s, as generals gathered to find a solution to the problem faced by the state ... it is interesting to wonder why they had chosen only me."Vundwawe and Nguanda: "Courage, courage, they needed somebody like the president, who had courage." (Then Vundwawe and Nguanda scowl at me and strike their watches again.)M: "Also because I have many ideas, and they like my way of leading. ... If you want to know more about my way of leading, you can speak to friends, people who saw me lead my men in the battle at Lutabourg [a famous Zairian battle in which Mobutu never actually fought, Babo says]."Then, abruptly, Mobutu, satisfied that he has rerouted my reporting efforts in a different and safer direction, stands up to leave.Until then, Vundwawe and Nguanda have been alternately grinning at the president and glaring at me, their countenances spinning like the cartoon mayor in the film Nightmare Before Christmas. Once the interview ends, however, their grinning faces snap into place for my benefit, and they assure us repeatedly, as does Mobutu, that we will have several hours with him tomorrow morning, that the president is very tired, that he has many important people to meet.Mike and i are swept along to a house where an "authenticity meal" of tongue and organ meats has been prepared, to be washed down with a deluge of pink French champagne. It is during this meal that Nguanda's nasty side, his Terminator side, emerges--and his heretofore hidden ability to speak English.As Mike and I try to choke down the exotic food, Nguanda glares at me from the other end of the table. Then, curiously, he removes his glasses. As he does, an irrational image flashes in my mind's eye, of a torturer removing his glasses so they won't be splattered by the victim's blood."Why is it that you are really interested in the president, young lady?" he says in a deep, powerful growl."Well," I say, pretending to pause in order to chew, "you are familar with the book we are working on. That is why I am interested in your president.""And the title is what again?" he barks. I imagine I see him rubbing his hands together with bloodthirsty glee."Surely you remember from our conversation this morning, Mr. Nguanda. It is, um, Great Men of Africa.""And you think President Mobutu is a great man, do you?""Don't you, Mr. Nguanda?"Nguanda doesn't answer. He just peers at me for a long, long time. Then he gulps his pink champagne, pours another full glass and resumes his conversation in French with Professor Vundwawe.When they are through with their meal, Vundwawe and Ngunada push themselves away from the table and settle on a nearby couch. They turn on a half-wound video of Martin Scorsese's gangster classic Mean Streets, and we all watch without saying a word as we wait for the plane to take us back to Kinshasa.Back in the capital city, Mike and I are once again deposited at our hotel. The professor of Mobutuism would arrive very soon, we were told, to set up our second appointment with the president.By midnight, six hours later, nobody has shown. Vundwawe isn't taking my cellular telephone calls, and I can't go to his house by myself, since the location has been kept a secret from us. Disconsolate, we wander into the bar (the one place in the hotel we felt wasn't bugged or monitored) and find the coffin-seller's assistant hunched over a beer. He tells us that his boss is having a farewell dinner at Vundwawe's house this evening to celebrate his mysterious business deals. He himself is going along later to close the deal. So I decide to join him.When the professor's servant presents me to the dinner party, L.T. Kamosi, our Zairian host, looks ill. Only Vundwawe takes my insolence in stride, clicking his half-smile into place and bidding me a good evening. He leaves me in the foyer to flip through 2-year-old copies of Time magazine. An hour later he summons me to his library.There, in a lugubrious voice, over the snores of a well-fed general--another dinner guest -- Vundwawe explains why it would be impossible for us to meet with the president again."But you told us he had plenty of time tomorrow," I insist."We were unaware at the time that he was so busy.""OK, we will wait in Kinshasa until he has more time.""Mademoiselle, you cannot simply demand more time with a chef de l'etat. He has no more time. Chiefs of state do not give lengthy interviews.""But they do, professor. I myself have read many long interviews with people like King Hussein, presidents of the United States, Golda Meir ...""Madame, Golda Meir wasn't a chef de l'etat!" the professor said triumphantly."Technically, no, but surely she had as many responsibilities and demands on her time; anyway, the others were.""But they were different than President Mobutu.""How?"At this point, Kamosi, who has been translating, interrupts in exasperation. "Don't you understand? President Mobutu is not just a chef de l'etat, he is an icon! He must be protected!""From who, me?""Anyway, mademoiselle, you can pose any questions you have for him to me.""But I explained to you several times that this is a personality profile. I can't discern a man's personality, his thoughts on a variety of issues, from another man.""Ah, but mademoiselle," Vundwawe continues, "the president's thoughts are my thoughts."There is nothing more to say.EpilogueSoon after we left Kinshasa, in October of last year, a long-simmering rebellion swept out from Eastern Zaire. Like most things in Zaire, its seeds were sown years ago, when Mobutu first gave transplanted Rwandan Tutsis Zairian citizenship and land, and then, in a politically self-serving move, revoked it all 10 years later. Backed by a contingent of Eastern European mercenaries, the Zairian army has effectively refused to fight. President Mobutu Sese Seko, battling prostate cancer, fled the country as rebel leader Laurent Kabila's troops captured Kinshasa on May 16 with a minimum of fuss. He is reportedly in Togo now, resting in a residence belonging to his old friend, Togolese dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema. Meanwhile, Kinshasa residents have already begun looting Mobutu's Kinshasa mansion.Perhaps Mobutu is taking comfort in his recent overseas status of pop-cultural icon, through his laconic but mesmerizing cameo in When We Were Kings, a film documenting the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa, for the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.