In This Review

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo
By Michela Wrong
HarperCollins, 2001, 336 pp.

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.

Composed primarily of a series of often chilling vignettes, the book allows readers to feel for themselves the experiences of this haunted country -- the victim of brutal autocrats, including Belgium's King Leopold II, and many years of misguided Western assistance. Wrong may make some mistakes when she doles out individual blame for the Congo's ongoing suffering. But there is plenty of responsibility to go around, and the story she tells remains a compelling one, with lessons for both Africa and the West.


Wrong's first vignette is set at Kinshasa's Hotel Intercontinental. During the days after Mobutu's downfall, rebel leaders occupying the building had to go outside to urinate; fleeing members of the old regime had plugged the hotel's toilets by frantically stuffing them with evidence of the perishing autarchy. From there, Wrong moves back in time, presenting the reader with a fine analysis of the actions and obsessions of Leopold II, "the only European king to ever personally own an African colony." This early emphasis on Leopold is deliberate, for Wrong sees Mobutu as the Congo's "second Great Dictator," following in the footsteps of the Belgian king. By this logic, rather than being an aberration or "a monster out of time and place," Mobutu simply represented another step in the Congo's exploitation. Leopold's bloody legacy, reinforced by subsequent Belgian colonial rule, provided fertile ground for the seeds of Mobutu's tyranny.

Wrong fails to appreciate, however, the equally powerful precolonial roots of the Congo's oppression. Long before the Europeans arrived, the country already had a tradition that emphasized personal power and authority, ostentatious displays of wealth, and politics based on patron-client relations maintained through the distribution of resources. The Kingdom of the Kongo, for example, which lasted from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century -- and which Wrong does mention briefly -- ruled using patterns of power similar to Mobutu's, basing its support on tribute collected and distributed by the king, the ManiKongo.

If Wrong pays too little attention to the Congo's precolonial history, however, she does a much better job sketching Mobutu's early life and rise to power, lacing the story with commentary from the American Larry Devlin. The key CIA player in this drama, Devlin cites the British historian Lord Acton's famous maxim about the corrupting influence of absolute power to describe Mobutu in the 1970s. The dictator's kleptocracy came to life through the connivance of the Grosses Legumes (slang for "big shots"), the barons of the political class that Mobutu created, who were the main beneficiaries of what became a brilliantly manipulated patronage system. The essential characteristic of Mobutu's reign was not his much celebrated vulgar ostentation. Rather, it was his adroit use of money as "a method, an instrument, the most effective of techniques" for "maintaining, extending, and preserving his power."

In the early 1990s, however, the Grosses Legumes turned the tables on Mobutu, slowly seizing control of the government from him. Preoccupied solely with extraction and extortion, Zaire's criminal government allowed the rest of the state to simply fade away. As a result, Zaire in the third decade of Mobutu's rule became a country running on depleted power supplies -- or, as its citizens, using an evocative phrase derived from the widespread use of cell phones, call it, a country "on low batt."

As Mobutu voluntarily withdrew from everyday political life into what Wrong calls an insidious decade-long sulk, the Grosses Legumes grew in power. The dictator sank into the bosom of his grasping family, especially the identical twin sisters who were his wife and concubine, or "second office," and into the thrall of key aides. As Mobutu retreated throughout the 1990s, Zaire came increasingly to be run by the "Inseparable Four" -- rapacious senior military officers who "swiftly emerged as the real powerbrokers in Kinshasa." When the rebellion finally came, these four cynically exploited the tinderbox in the east to satisfy their own greed.

Wrong's version of Mobutu's decline, however -- the withdrawal scenario -- is ultimately unsatisfying. Its emphasis on passivity greatly underplays Mobutu's active role in the long-running democratization charade of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this period, the hated dictator became fixated on eventually winning some form of election, which would allow him to return to Kinshasa in triumph. To this end, for example, he legalized political parties and then, in order to create chaos in the opposition, funded many of the more than 300 that emerged.

But the pretense of liberalization fooled no one, and throughout it, the pillage of Zaire's vast natural resources -- what Wrong labels its "asset curse" -- by Mobutu and his cronies continued. Meanwhile, the structures of government eroded around them. Instead of "Kin-la-belle" (Kinshasa the beautiful), the capital came to be known as "Kin-la-poubelle" (Kinshasa the garbage pail) for its ubiquitous rubbish heaps. Kinshasa's hospital lacked basic medicine, and relatives would simply abandon their dying family members there to be buried in mass graves.

When the end finally comes, Wrong paints Mobutu's fall with deft strokes. A first-rate novelist could not have dreamed such a complicated story, and Wrong tells it with verve. Mobutu's military collapsed "like a maggot-eaten fruit" as several of Zaire's neighbors moved in to defend him against other neighbors trying to overthrow him, and France organized the hiring of mercenaries -- including "Serb psychopaths fresh from Bosnia's killing fields" -- to help fight the rebels. Once Mobutu finally realized how desperate his straits were, he made frantic appeals to erstwhile backers in Washington, Brussels, and Paris. These calls were rebuffed, and the Americans urged Mobutu to exit gracefully. But Mobutu, convinced the Americans were plotting against him, angrily refused. Even as French commandos escorted his prime minister into a waiting helicopter bound for exile, Mobutu never grasped what was happening: the Cold War was over, and Mobutu, a relic of an earlier age, was being consigned to the dustbin of history.


In depicting these events, Wrong argues that Mobutu was not the only one responsible for Zaire's tragedy. Rather, as she puts it, the disaster had its roots in a history of extraordinary outside interference. ... Zaire's free fall was generated not by one man but thousands of compliant collaborators, at home and abroad.

Wrong correctly posits that it was a combination of external factors -- an "insidious form of colonialism" -- that "locked the society into one slow-motion economic collapse" and allowed Mobutu to get away with "the most outrageous behavior." Foreign assistance only made matters worse; "whether for hard-headed or high-minded reasons, intervention did no more than fix the country in a kind of purulent agar."

Unfortunately, although her diagnosis is right, the author goes astray in analyzing the responsibility of the various external actors. In particular, Wrong places more blame than is warranted on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank -- more blame, indeed, than her own data support. Although Wrong fails to see it, far more of the responsibility for Zaire's collapse belongs to key Western states than to multilateral organizations.

According to Wrong, Zaire developed a "sick relationship" with the IMF and the World Bank, one characterized by the "breathtaking naivete" of Bretton Woods officials, by their "insidious" need to push loans on the country, and by their inability to insist on better governance in return. Officials turned a blind eye to corruption and kept aid money flowing into Zaire long after evidence of Mobutu's abuses had come to the fore. Even when, in 1982, a German IMF official named Erwin Blumenthal published a damning account of financial improprieties and widespread wrongdoing in Zaire, the international bodies still did not cut Mobutu off. Zaire's dictator was an expert at the ritual dances of reform, and, according to Wrong, Bretton Woods officials seemed happy to play along. By the time they finally stopped assistance, in 1990, the damage to Zaire had become enormous.

Although the IMF and the World Bank are the major targets of Wrong's anger, when her book is read carefully it becomes clear it is really a "troika" of three countries -- the United States, France, and Belgium -- that was most at fault. Each of these states had its own interests to pursue in the region, and Mobutu brilliantly exploited differences in their Cold War strategies and interests. It was these nations, and not the IMF or the World Bank, that were the true prime movers in Zaire's drama. Wrong herself suggests as much when she recounts an incident that undermines her thesis about the primary fault of the Bretton Woods twins. Pressure from the troika on the World Bank and the IMF to lend to Zaire was usually discreetly applied, but on occasion it could be made explicit. When the World Bank was about to cut off relations with Mobutu, the U.S. ambassador to Zaire stormed into

the Washington office of Kim Jaycox, the World Bank's regional vice president for Africa. Despite his loathing of the Mobutu regime, the ambassador warned Jaycox that Washington opposed the idea of breaking ties and that there would be "consequences" for the institution if it froze out Zaire. The cutoff went ahead nonetheless, but the threat helps explain why it took so long in coming. Indeed, this is only one example of the kind of pressure that the troika exerted on multilateral bodies. In 1987, a senior IMF official resigned over the extension of a new loan, "claiming the U.S. had applied undue pressure." And over the years between 1976 and 1989, despite Mobutu's miserable record, major creditor countries rescheduled Zaire's debt nine times.

Further undermining Wrong's assessment of blame is the fact that, even while tremendous external pressure was being brought to bear, many in the World Bank and the IMF actually worked very hard to bring about reform in Zaire. Wrong herself recounts some of these failed efforts to control the revenue from Zaire's vast copper- and diamond-mining operations. The two institutions also struggled to regulate the dotation presidentielle (presidential endowment) -- a part of the formal budget that went to Mobutu for his own personal use. As Wrong admits, international officials attempted to conduct these reforms against enormous odds; Mobutu harassed them both verbally and physically, even having the wife and daughters of one IMF official raped while his house was attacked. "He would cajole, bully, threaten and browbeat."

Wrong also admits that at times the World Bank's and IMF 's optimism about Zaire's potential was not totally misguided. In late 1982, for example, Zaire's situation had become so bad, "with national bankruptcy now a concrete threat," that it looked like "Mobutu might see the need to knuckle down. For three years the calculation seemed the right one as, under the tutelage of Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo, Zaire set in place a reform program regarded as a model of its kind," one that staggered into 1986 before collapsing.

Furthermore, given pressure from the troika, it is not entirely clear what the IMF or the World Bank should have done differently. And what exactly were the consequences of what Wrong calls their "insidious colonialism"? Wrong argues that these bodies should have pulled out earlier; as she writes, "It is hard to see how, if the World Bank and the IMF boycotted Zaire early on, the situation could have been more disastrous." But in practice, it is rarely clear when attempts at economic reform should be given up on, and just when the IMF and the World Bank should throw up their hands and pull out. With increasing numbers of failed states in Africa, this is becoming an ever more urgent question. But one need look no further than Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, or Zimbabwe for recent examples of just how difficult and complicated it is to push economic reforms on a country from the outside. And look what happened to Zaire after the Bretton Woods institutions finally abandoned it: Mobutu stayed in power another seven years and Zaire's plight grew even worse. If the IMF and the World Bank had cut off Mobutu earlier, Wrong argues, his government would have fallen sooner and a better one might have emerged. But Mobutu managed to hold on for a long time after the tap was turned off. After being declared obsolete by Western diplomats in 1990, Mobutu "succeed[ed] in stretching Zaire's so-called transition to democracy out for seven long years ... a remarkable achievement, by anyone's standards."

And what came next was not necessarily any better. As one European official put it, "[President Laurent] Kabila ... simply replaced Mobutu with Mobutuism." With ongoing civil war and foreign invasion, the scenario dreaded by major powers had "finally come about: Congo was effectively divided in two as greedy neighbors plundered its mineral spoils."

Still, Wrong sees a ray of light amid Congo's travails. She insists that "it is from just such ghastly experiences that political maturity, inspirational leadership and a sense of direction are eventually born." Such optimism seems unfounded, however; certainly the track record of Africa does not support such a hope. Wrong argues that, with the Cold War over and Mobutu dead, "[Congo] has lost the last excuse for its predicament. ... The question must now become 'What do the Congolese want?'" But deciding this will not be easy, even if the regional war being fought in the country is somehow brought to an end. Having grown used to a politics based not on national loyalty but on the dispensation of favors, still-powerful local warlords and political barons will judge any new political order by how it affects their direct interests.

As for the role that Congo's population will play, Wrong does a masterful job sketching the wily survival tactics the Congolese evolved under Mobutu to cope with their failed state. With "fend for yourselves" an unofficial national motto, postal workers stole expatriates' Time and Newsweek magazines to sell on the street; "bully-boys" shoved their way onto buses to clear seats for their clients; handicapped river traders on tricycles, taking advantage of the small ferry discount accorded them, bought goods on one side of the Zaire River and sold them on the other at prices that just undercut those of their able-bodied competitors.

All the same, Wrong chastises the Congolese for their "dull political acquiescence," writing that Congo's population was "steeped in passivity" and lived in a place "where everyone seemed to complain about how awful things were but no one seemed ready to try changing the status quo." Wrong attributes this passivity to the repressive legacies of Leopold II and Belgian colonial occupation, as well as what she refers to as "a proud tradition of nonviolence." Yet this account almost totally neglects the quite active opposition to Mobutu that emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wrong fails to credit the importance of opposition leaders such as Etienne Tshisekedi and the coalition they headed -- the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. And by blaming the quiescence of the Congolese people on their inherent character, Wrong greatly underplays the extremely oppressive nature of Mobutu's regime, which tolerated little dissent. This is an odd omission from an author who knows the country so well and who refers to "the quiet thud of fear" she always felt during her time in Mobutu's Zaire.


As suggested by the book's title, Wrong uses Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a theme throughout her work. But she deploys the comparison between Conrad's Congo and Mobutu's in a forced and inconsistent fashion. The literary allusion may be catchy, but it does not help to organize Wrong's arguments. Conrad's book, according to Wrong, is concerned with "the monstrous passions at the core of the human soul"; as she writes, Conrad was "more preoccupied with rotten Western values, the white man's inhumanity to the black man, than, as is almost always assumed today, black savagery." Perhaps. But this theme is not well explicated in Wrong's own book, nor is it used to make the point that, given her main argument, one would expect Wrong to emphasize: the negative impact of the Western intervention in Zaire that Wrong excoriates in such detail.

Moreover, it is Mobutu himself whom Wrong depicts as a villain out of Conrad. In her epilogue, Wrong refers to the dictator's "brutal, ruthless and greedy" nature; he possessed, she writes, "the instincts of the neighborhood thug," and lacked "the imagination, the sustained vision required to build a coherent state from Belgium's uncertain inheritance." The book's wonderfully designed jacket proclaims that Mobutu "plundered the country's copper and diamond resources, downing pink champagne in his jungle palace like some modern-day reincarnation of Joseph Conrad's crazed station manager." The closest Wrong ever comes to linking Conrad's criticism of colonialism to Western support for Mobutu is when she concedes that "if Mobutu traced a Kurtz-like trajectory from high ideals to febrile corruption, he did not pursue that itinerary alone, or unaided." Wrong is correct in emphasizing how Mobutu, the cunning Machiavellian prince, managed to acquire considerable outside help. But if she means to suggest that he could never have "traced a Kurtz-like trajectory" without such assistance, she is wrong.

Still, despite these weaknesses, this remains a highly readable and frequently incisive book. Africa's "first world war," now being fought in Congo, may soon end, and the country's new leader, Joseph Kabila -- son of the man who toppled Mobutu and was himself assassinated in January -- may be able to bring all parties to a sensible resolution of the conflict. Finding any such resolution will be extremely difficult, however. The prospects for Kabila's ability to put these terrible genies back in their box are not promising. But whatever happens, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz offers hope that Zaire -- and the lessons of its terrible history -- will not be forgotten any time soon. By setting down this story, Wrong has helped combat what she calls "the world's amnesia towards Zaire ... a country that no longer exists" and toward "Mobutu's worst human rights violation: the destruction of an economy that quashed a generation's aspirations." By helping to remember the Congo's past, Wrong has contributed to this benighted country's future.

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  • Thomas M. Callaghy is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and coeditor of the forthcoming book Intervention and Transnationalism in Africa: Global-Local Networks of Power.
  • More By Thomas M. Callaghy