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The Mobutu Years, Authenticity and Kleptocracy

Mobutu Sese Seko, traditional African dress, kleptocracy, Congo River, Popular Movement

In 1970 Mobutuís political party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), was declared the only legal party, and all citizens were obliged to join. Unopposed, Mobutu was elected to a seven-year term as president. He undertook a major program of ďAfrican authenticity,Ē in which ostensibly traditional African values and practices were promoted over Western ones. In 1971 the countryís name was changed to the Republic of Zaire, after an old, supposedly more authentic local name for the Congo River. In 1972 the president renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko and compelled other Zairians to drop their non-African names and adopt more traditional African dress. In a policy dubbed ''Zairianization,'' Mobutuís government took over some 2,000 foreign-owned businesses in 1973. Most of the newly nationalized companies were distributed among Mobutu and MPR loyalists. Many later failed because of inexperience, mismanagement, and corruption. Some economic development projects were completed, but Zaire remained dependent on income from copper and other mineral exports. World copper prices fell sharply in the mid-1970s; Zaireís export earnings dropped, and the countryís foreign debt rose to nearly $4 billion by 1980. At the same time, Zaire experienced high rates of unemployment and inflation. Nevertheless, Western nations backed Mobutuís regime as a bulwark against the spread of Communism in Central Africa. The West provided military aid to Zaire, particularly in the late 1970s, to repulse invasions by Katangan secessionists backed by Communist forces in Angola, who were backed in turn by the USSR and Cuba. Mobutu crushed political dissent, using propaganda, executions, censorship, imprisonment, intimidation, and other forms of harassment to solidify his control. In 1982 opponents of Mobutuís one-party rule formed the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). The leaders of UDPS were frequently imprisoned throughout the 1980s.

While the nationís economy struggled, Mobutuís wealth grew to an estimated $4 billion. After coming to power Mobutu profited from personal sales of huge amounts of state-owned mineral reserves and occasional transfers of millions of dollars directly from the Bank of Zaire. He purchased hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate in Morocco, South Africa, and throughout Europe. Mobutuís supporters in the countryís administration and industry were regularly rewarded with large sums of money. This system, often described as a kleptocracy, played a key part in Mobutuís firm grip on power. In this atmosphere, corruption prevailed at all levels of Zairian administration and business, choking the nationís economy. The countryís foreign debt was rescheduled in 1981, and the IMF provided a $1 billion dollar loan. In exchange for further aid, Zaire agreed to devalue its currency and adopt other austerity measures in 1983 and 1984. However, seeing little economic improvement, Zaire abandoned the IMF program in 1986, and its economy took a downturn. The government was forced to embrace economic reform again in 1989. In 1990 the United States, which had supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Mobutu since 1965, cut direct military and economic assistance to Zaire because of the regimeís corruption and human rights abuses.

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