Mobutu Sese Seko: The Rise and Fall of Congo’s Infamous Dictator

Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the Congo for 32 years. His infamous reign is characterized by brutality, corruption, and decadence.

May 9, 2024By Thomas Bailey, BSc Geography

mobutu congo great dictator


Mobutu Sese Seko, once a hopeful political journalist, became one of the world’s most infamous dictators. He achieved his astronomical rise through calculated exploitations of political instability. To tighten his grip on his nation, he would lead a brutal campaign of terror to eliminate any opponents. Mobutu would become one of the world’s richest men while the people of his country starved. Despite his many abuses, Mobutu would gain the steady support of the United States throughout the Cold War and would catapult his country to the forefront of African politics.


Early Life & Political Involvement

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Mobutu opening the Central Office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Leopoldville, 1960s. Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa


On October 14, 1930, in the city of Lisala, Northwestern Belgian Congo, Joseph-Desire Mobutu was born. His mother Marie was a hotel maid, and his father Alberic worked as a cook for a Belgian judge. Alberic died when Mobutu was just eight years old, and as a result, Mobutu was raised by his uncle and grandfather.


Mobutu earned a good education at a Catholic mission boarding school and excelled at numerous academic subjects. He was also well known for his sporting accomplishments and for his humorous, likable personality. However, the young Mobutu also became well known for his disregard for rules and authority. In 1949, Mobutu ran away from school, stowing away on a boat. Priests from the school found him downriver several weeks later, and as punishment, he was sent to serve in the colonial army.


At a height of 6 feet 3 inches, Mobutu was known for his physical presence, which was accompanied by the strong discipline he attained during military service. During his time in the army, Mobutu became increasingly involved in politics and began writing about politics for a magazine called Actualités Africaines.

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In 1956, at the end of his service, Mobutu began working as a journalist for L’Avenir. During this time, he was introduced to circles of other young Congolese intellectuals. He became well acquainted with Patrice Lumumba, a key figure of the Congolese independence movement. Mobutu joined Lumumba’s Congolese National Movement and acted as Lumumba’s personal aide. It was later rumored that, around this time, Mobutu was recruited as an informer by the Belgian intelligence services.


Rise to Power 

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Mobutu speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, 1973. Source: UN Photos, Yutaka Nagata


The Congo achieved independence from Belgium in 1960. Patrice Lumumba was elected as the country’s first prime minister, and Mobutu was appointed as Secretary of State to the Presidency, a position of significant authority.


Shortly after independence, a number of army soldiers mutinied over poor working conditions. In the aftermath of the mutiny, Mobutu was promoted to Army Chief of Staff and awarded the rank of Colonel.


The Congo’s independence also led to a period of political upheaval known as the Congo Crisis. Two Congolese provinces, Katanga and South Kasai, attempted to secede from the new country with the support of Belgium. Amid the crisis, the relationship between Lumumba and President Joseph Kasa-Vubu collapsed. Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba from office, and in retaliation, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vubu deposed. Each ordered Mobutu to arrest the other. Facing immense pressure from both sides, Mobutu ordered a coup on September 14, 1960 to “neutralize” the government.


Following the coup, Mobutu ultimately returned power to Kasa-Vubu, who in turn named Mobutu Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, making him one of the most powerful men in the Congo. Lumumba condemned this move and fled to his residence in hopes of establishing his own government. Mobutu later ordered Lumumba’s arrest and handed him over to Belgian and Secessionist forces. Lumumba was consequently murdered by those forces on January 17, 1961.


In 1965, Moise Tshombe, the former leader of one of the secessionist Katanga provinces, won a significant majority to become the country’s next prime minister. Kasa-Vubu, however, refused to accept the election results and attempted to appoint his own prime minister, Evariste Kimba. The Congolese parliament refused to confirm Kimba’s position. This left the country in a position of turmoil and uncertainty. On November 24, 1965, Mobutu launched a second coup, seizing control of the Congo.


Consolidation of Power

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Mobutu sworn in as President of Zaire for the third time, 1984. Source: The Guardian


Upon his ascension to power, Mobutu moved quickly to consolidate his control and suppress any opposition. Mobutu claimed he would assume absolute power for five years so that he could revert the damage done by politicians. He permanently suspended parliament and banned all political parties except for the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), his own party.


An authenticity campaign was launched in order to legitimize Mobutu’s leadership. The campaign was fueled by nationalism, which Mobutu utilized to gain popular support from the people. The Congo was renamed Zaire to promote an African identity and remove the remnants of European colonialism. Cities were also renamed, with the capital Leopoldville becoming Kinshasa. The adoption of African names was also promoted, with priests being threatened with imprisonment if they baptized a Zairian child with a Western name.


Mobutu would also rename himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which translates to “the all-powerful warrior who will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” Mobutu’s new name is not only largely telling of his eccentricity, extravagance, and self-indulgence, but also a forewarning of the Congo under his rule.


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Portrait of Mobutu Sese Seko, Former President of Zaire. Source: The Guardian


Individuals who sought to challenge Mobutu’s rule were dealt with brutally. In 1966, four cabinet ministers were accused of plotting a coup against Mobutu. They were publicly executed in front of 50,000 people. Earlier, in 1964, Pierre Mulele, the former Minister of Education under Lumumba and leader of the 1964 Simba Rebellion, was lured out of exile under the promise of amnesty. While still alive, Mulele’s eyes were gouged out, his genitals removed, and his limbs amputated. His torture and execution were ordered by Mobutu.


In 1970, at the end of his promised five years in power, Mobutu held elections. Mobutu, however, was the only candidate. Electors had the option of voting yes for Mobutu or no to Mobutu. When the results had been counted, Mobutu had gained over 10 million yes votes and just 157 no votes. In 1974, a new constitution was introduced. The MPR was made Zaire’s sole institution. The nation’s president would be elected every seven years. The sole candidate for the presidency would be the president of the MPR, who, unsurprisingly, was Mobutu.


Mobutu had now successfully crushed all opposition to his rule.


Mobutu the Dictator


Zaire under Mobutu can be best defined as a kleptocracy. Mobutu embezzled and misappropriated substantial amounts of public funds. In 1970 alone, it is believed that Mobutu siphoned 60% of the national budget. Across his reign, Mobutu amassed a personal fortune believed to be upwards of $5 billion. Mobutu was also known for his nepotism, promoting family and friends to high-ranking positions in both government and the military, regardless of the individual’s aptitude for the role.


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Mobutu with Muhammed Ali before his 1974 fight with George Foreman, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight hosted in Zaire, 1974. Source: Africa is a Country


Mobutu used the nation’s wealth to live an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle. Gbadolite, often referred to as “the Versailles of the Jungle,” was Mobutu’s personal residence. There, Mobutu constructed for himself three large palaces and an accompanying town with a hospital, schools, supermarkets, and malls, far more opulent than anywhere in Zaire. Gbadolite airport was also constructed to the specific landing requirements of a Concorde that Mobuto would frequently charter for shopping trips to Paris.


While Mobutu made himself one of the world’s richest men and lived a life of decadence, the lives of the Zairian people were considerably different. Upon gaining power, Mobutu seized many foreign-owned businesses. However, he again distributed much of these to close friends. Similarly, to Mobutu, they also used their position for their own gain. Mobutu’s corruption encouraged others to follow suit. Even public servants engaged in corrupt practices because the economic situation in Zaire became so severe. The embezzlement of public funds led much of Zaire’s infrastructure to fall into complete disrepair.


In 1993, approximately three million people in Kinshasa alone were unemployed. Mobutu’s mishandling of the economy led the inflation rate to skyrocket to 4,400%. A civil service worker in Zaire earned roughly $25 per month. To put this into perspective, a 110-pound sack of corn flour, which was enough to feed a family of four for a week, cost $50. By 1993, 5.2% of the country’s population, roughly 1.8 million people, suffered from acute malnutrition. Zaire had some of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and many people died because they could not afford medical treatment.


Cold War Relations & Collapsing Regime

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Mobutu meeting with President Ronald Reagan, 1984. Source: The Reagan Files


Despite Mobutu’s authoritarian regime, he received significant support from the United States. At the invitation of Ronald Reagan, Mobutu visited the White House three times. Under President Jimmy Carter, Zaire would receive half of the aid budget distributed to Sub-Saharan Africa.


Mobutu’s warm relationship with the US occurred under the backdrop of the Cold War. The United States was increasingly concerned about the potential spread of communism within Sub-Saharan Africa. Mobutu, however, was a staunch anti-communist. Thus, the US believed that Mobutu could act as a regional strongman. The power and influence Mobutu wielded, with US backing, would allow him to mediate regional issues and dissuade the spread of communism. As such, the US was willing to overlook Mobutu’s oppressive regime.


Following the end of the Cold War, the US began pressuring Mobutu to improve human rights in Zaire. Furthermore, civilian discontent was growing, and calls for Mobutu to relinquish power were increasing. On May 11, 1990, students at the National University of Zaire protested against Mobutu’s rule. That night, a special military unit of the Zairian army entered the campus and killed as many as 150 students. Worldwide condemnation followed, and the international community withdrew all non-humanitarian aid from Zaire. Facing monumental pressure, Mobutu promised elections and appointed a transitional government.



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Laurent-Désiré Kabila, leader of the AFDL and future Congolese President, 2000. Source: BlackPast


Regardless of Mobutu’s attempts to cling to power, it would be events in neighboring Rwanda that would ultimately decide the future of Zaire. In 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic group killed approximately 600,000 ethnic Tutsi in what is known as the Rwandan Genocide. In its aftermath, thousands of Hutu, including perpetrators of the genocide fled into Zaire, fearing retribution. However, from the safety of displacement camps in eastern Zaire, Hutu militants launched an attack back into Rwanda and attacked Zairian Tutsi.


The new Tutsi Rwandan government, led by Paul Kagame and Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, believed that Mobutu was not doing enough to dispel the violence. Rwanda and Uganda allied with the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (AFDL); an anti-Mobutu coalition force led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila.


On October 24, 1996, Rwanda, Uganda, and the AFDL, along with Burundi and Angola, invaded Zaire to overthrow Mobutu. The coalition’s forces faced little resistance as Mobutu’s forces capitulated. After six months of fighting, Mobutu was deposed, and Kabila became the new President of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Following his overthrow, Mobutu fled to Rabat, Morocco. He died in exile on September 7, 1997 of prostate cancer.


Mobutu’s Legacy

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The ruins of Mobutu’s palace at Gbadolite, 2015. Source: Sean Smith for The Guardian


Today, Mobutu’s palace of Gbadolite lies abandoned and derelict as it is slowly reclaimed by the jungle. Its remnants stand as a somber reminder of Mobutu’s extravagance and a powerful symbol of his regime’s collapse.


For the Congolese people, Mobutu’s overthrow would not lead to lasting peace. In 1998, Rwanda and Uganda, the very forces that toppled Mobutu, invaded once more to remove Kabila from power. The ensuing Second Congo War claimed the lives of 5.4 million people, the deadliest conflict since World War II.


Presently, there are as many as 150 armed groups currently active in the county. These groups, of varying sizes, continue to threaten the Congolese people with indiscriminate violence. The Congo, to its people’s dismay, remains broken and volatile.


Mobutu Sese Seko is the embodiment of what is often imagined of a dictator. He was a corrupt, brutal, and extravagant individual, an exaggerated, larger-than-life character. A man who grasped Zaire in his iron grip, who bathed in luxury while the Zairian people languished in poverty.


Mobutu’s regime can be best characterized by its kleptocratic governance and ruthless treatment of political opponents. Despite this, Mobutu was able to maintain strong foreign relations, particularly with the US during the Cold War, and remained a prominent actor on the international stage.


His impact on the Congo and Sub-Saharan Africa cannot be understated. His reign and overthrow have contributed to the deaths of millions, through war and malnutrition. Even today, many of the region’s political grievances can be attributed, in part, to Mobutu. He will always be a complex and contentious figure in Congolese and African history. Though he remained true to his name, Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, certainly left fire in his wake.

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By Thomas BaileyBSc GeographyThomas is currently studying for an MA in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth, England, and holds a BSc in Geography from Bangor University. He is passionate about African history and politics, having written his master’s dissertation on the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.