May 11, 1997

Long U.S. Dance with Mobutu Ends | By Jerry Meldon | published in Consortium News 1997

The toughest challenge in defending the CIA and its half-century-long record can be the fact that while the spy agency's failures have been bad, its "successes" often have been worse. One such "success," nearly forgotten amid the rush of current headlines, was the CIA operation in the Congo (now Zaire) in the early 1960s. That Cold War covert action contributed to Mobutu Sese Seko's emergence as a political power and put him in position to loot his country's riches as one of history's most corrupt dictators.

Amid Mobutu's flight into exile and the rebel takeover of the capital of Kinshasa, there has been little discussion in the U.S. media about the underlying historical causes of the Zairian tragedy. There has been a discreet aversion of the eyes away from Washington's long-term affair with the cancer-stricken despot. There is little said about the troubling U.S. role in selling out Congolese democracy at its birth.

Back in 1960, when Belgium relinquished formal control over its resource-rich African colony, Zaire's history could have been quite different. The new country had the promise of great resources, but almost no infrastructure for nation-building. There wasn't a single trained native doctor, lawyer, architect or military officer, and only about a dozen university graduates. This lack of a native elite fit the narrow financial interests of Belgium, which planned to maintain its economic grip on the Congo's bounty of copper, cobalt and diamonds.

But the Congo's first free elections brought left-leaning Patrice Lumumba to power as prime minister, a development that alarmed the Belgian mining giant, Union Miniere, and its investment partner, Societe Generale. The Belgian interests soon instigated a secessionist movement in mineral-rich Katanga (now Shaba) province. The Belgians bankrolled an unsavory mercenary army staffed by white Rhodesians and South Africans, and Nazi veterans of World War II.

The ensuing violence and instability drove Lumumba across the Atlantic, to Washington, in search of help in summer 1960. The United States, however, was in the last year of the Eisenhower era, with scant sympathy for an African social reformer like Lumumba. Foreign affairs were still colored by McCarthy era cries of "loss of China" to communism. And Eisenhower was the first president to try out the newly formed CIA as a covert instrument of U.S. foreign policy. He already had notched a couple of "successes" onto his belt.

During Eisenhower's first term, Iran's prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh had threatened U.S. and British oil interests, while Guatemala's elected leader Jacobo Arbenz had done the same to the agricultural properties of the Boston-based United Fruit Company. The two leaders were promptly deemed communists, and the White House unleashed the CIA to overthrow their freely elected governments. Both covert actions achieved the goals, but set the stage for decades of brutal and corrupt dictatorships.

When Patrice Lumumba came to visit in July 1960, the White House was still intoxicated with its new covert capability and confident those strategies were repeatable elsewhere. After all, Lumumba's visit pre-dated the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba by nearly a year and the Vietnam escalation was still on the drawing board.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Leopoldville had reported that "Lumumba is an opportunist and not a communist." But according to then Under Secretary of State Douglas Dillon, the Eisenhower administration concluded following his visit that Lumumba was a "very difficult if not impossible person to deal with, and was dangerous to the peace and safety of the world."

Former CIA Angola task force chief John Stockwell, who was raised in the Congo, has suggested that Lumumba offended his hosts when he reacted adversely to the experience of segregated washrooms in the nation's capital. 

Washington's Cold Shoulder

After getting Eisenhower's cold shoulder, Lumumba turned to Moscow for help. Interested in a low-cost initiative to expand its influence in the developing world, the Soviet Union provided some modest assistance. But the Soviet help was enough to make Washington see red. Having recently witnessed Fidel Castro's victorious revolution in Cuba (and Castro's embrace of Moscow following a rebuff from Washington), the White House turned to the men in dark glasses.

With his weak government structure already under strain from the Katanga rebellion, Lumumba soon fell victim to a CIA-engineered coup which brought to the forefront, Mobutu, then a young army chief of staff. With CIA complicity, Lumumba was arrested and then assassinated. Later, John Stockwell heard from a CIA colleague about his "adventure in Lumumbashi driving about town after curfew with Patrice Lumumba's body in the trunk of his car, trying to decide what to do with it."

Lumumba had cherished a reformist vision of using the Congo's underground riches to raise his countrymen from abject poverty. In contrast, Mobutu, who firmly seized the reins of power after another coup in 1965, chose as his role model Belgium's late King Leopold II. For two decades at the turn of the century, Leopold ran the Congo as his private rubber plantation. Mobutu would outdo even Leopold, selling off the Congo's resources and stashing billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, while his constituents continued to starve.

But Mobutu managed to survive in power by making himself useful to Washington, especially when U.S. officials needed help in influencing events in African nations undergoing difficult transitions from colony to statehood. Zaire's central location in the southern part of Africa -- bordering Angola to the southwest and the Sudan to the northeast -- made it ideal for such interference.

In 1974, the Portuguese armed forces, fed up after years of fighting against African wars of liberation, overthrew the Lisbon dictatorship of Marcel Caetano. The new military government announced its intention of awarding independence to Portugal's colonies, including Zaire's neighbor, Angola.

In Washington, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was still smarting from the U.S. defeat in Indochina. But Kissinger had been a key player in another of those CIA "successes" in ousting Chilean president Salvador Allende. A democratic Marxist, Allende had won election in Chile but soon faced a CIA destabilization campaign that ended in a brutal military coup and Allende's death. 

A Cold War Ally

Kissinger saw another opportunity to hit back against another Moscow ally in Angola. He persuaded President Ford to oppose the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which was the odds-on favorite in a three-way struggle for post-colonial power.

Mobutu was eager to help. He had his eyes set on control of Angola's Cabinda oil fields already.

With a few million in U.S. cash, Mobutu rallied to the side of the Angolan factions opposing the MPLA. Still, despite massive CIA and South Africa assistance, those forces, led by Mobutu's brother-in-law Jonas Savimbi, lost to the MPLA. In one of the bizarre twists of Cold War politics, Cuban troops helping the MPLA ended up defending Gulf and Chevron oil facilities in Cabinda, against Savimbi's U.S.-backed army.

Over the next two decades with Mobutu's support, Savimbi challenged a variety of United Nations-brokered peace accords. Savimbi also enjoyed a comeback in the 1980s when the Reagan administration included him, along with the Nicaraguan contras and Afghan mujahedeen, in its list of "freedom fighters" worthy of CIA support. Thankful for use of Zaire as a supply route to ship war materiel to Savimbi's forces, Reagan praised Mobutu as "a voice of good sense and good will."

But three years ago, Mobutu made a fatal political mistake. He offered support to hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus following their 1994 genocidal campaign against Rwandan Tutsis. When the fortunes of war turned, the Hutus fled into eastern Zaire. There, Zaire's Tutsi population reacted angrily. The anger fed a long-simmering discontent with to Mobutu and his corruption.

Mobutu's neighbors -- Rwanda, Angola, Burundi and Uganda -- were also happy to settle old scores. That animosity helped fuel the Zairian liberation movement led by long-time Mobutu opponent and gold smuggler, Laurent Kabila.

Washington, whose $1 billion aid pipeline to Mobutu dried up in 1990, denied him a visa in 1993. There would be no U.S. rescue this time. When the Cold War ended in 1989, the White House finally noticed that the excessively rich emperor, despite all his finery, had been wearing no political clothes.