Life And Death In The Congo

In May 1997, as rebel forces approached Kinshasa -- the capital city of the vast African country then known as Zaire -- Mobutu Sese Seko fled the city to his palace in the north. Near the airport, a surface-to-air missile sat mounted on a jeep, waiting to shoot down the plane carrying the brutal dictator of 32 years. Just such a missile had killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in April 1994, touching off a chain of events that eventually included invasion, civil war, genocide, and massive refugee flows into Zaire, all of which helped lead to Mobutu's downfall.

This time the plot failed. The missile was there on the orders of Mobutu's own cousin, a Zairian general named Nzimbi Ngbale. But Mobutu had been tipped off in advance, and his plane circled away from the waiting jeep on takeoff.

The dictator made it to his lavish palace in Gbadolite unharmed. But members of the Mobutu clan quickly realized that even this redoubt was no longer safe, and the aging and cancer-ridden strongman was soon hustled out of the country on a Russian cargo plane borrowed from the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. As that plane took off, members of the abandoned presidential guard fired on their fleeing patron, but Mobutu escaped yet again. This time, however, the end was near. After a brief stop in Togo, Zaire's ousted dictator ended up in Rabat, Morocco, where he died of prostate cancer in September of that year.

The story of Mobutu's demise is recounted in In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, written by Michela Wrong, who covered Zaire and Africa for the Financial Times for six years. Having witnessed the last days of this dying regime -- what she calls "a paradigm of all that was wrong with post-colonial Africa" and "a parody of a functioning state" -- Wrong has now produced a gripping, gracefully penned, conscience-wrenching account of Mobutu's tyranny in the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Much of the story has already been told, but rarely with such a combination of powerful anecdote, fine research, mesmerizing reportage, and subtle understanding.

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