Mobutu and the CIA, a marriage made in heaven
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
By 1975, President Mobutu Sese Seko (nee Joseph Mobutu), the
Zairian strongman regarded by the CIA as one of its "successes"
in Africa, had ruled over his hapless impoverished subjects for
10 long years. In the process, with a flair for conspicuous corruption
that ranks amongst the best this century has to offer, Mobutu
amassed a person fortune estimated to run into the billions of
dollars sitting in the usual Swiss, Paris, and New York banks,
while most of the population suffered from severe malnutrition.
It can reasonably be said that his corruption was matched
only by his cruelty. Mobutu, One observer of Zaire has written,
rules by decree with a grotesque impulsiveness that seems to shock
even his former [CIA] case officers. One recalled that in June
1971 Mobutu had forcibly enlisted in the armed forces the entire
student body of Lovanium University. "He was put out by some
student demonstrations," remembered the official Mobutu finally
relented, but ten of the students were sentenced to life imprisonment
for crimes of "public insult" to the Chief of State....
One intelligence source recalls a fervent Mobutu approach, eventually
deflected, that either Zaire with CIA help or the Agency alone
undertake an invasion against "those bastards across the
river" in the Congo Republic (Brazzaville). He's a "real
wild man," said one former official, "and we've had
trouble keeping him under rein "
... in April 1976, the CIA gave Mobutu close to $1.4 million
to distribute to US-backed Angolan forces, thousands of whom were
refugees in Zaire, desperate and hungry. Mobutu simply pocketed
the money. The Agency had been aware of this possibility when
they delivered the money to him but, in the words of CIA Africa
specialist John Stockwell, "They rationalized that it would
mollify him, bribe him not to retaliate against the CIA."
Stockwell added this observation:
'It is an interesting paradox that the Securities and Exchange
Commission has since 1971 investigated, and the Justice Department
has prosecuted, several large U.S. corporations for using bribery
to facilitate their overseas operations. At the same time, the
U.S. government, through the CIA, disburses tens of millions of
dollars each year in cash bribes. Bribery is a standard operating
technique of the U.S. government, via the CIA, but it is a criminal
offense for U.S. business.'
The same can be said of murder. A few months earlier, in January
1976, the Justice Department had concluded that no grounds existed
for federal prosecution of CIA officials involved in plots to
assassinate several heads of state, including Patrice Lumumba
of the Congo.
In early March 1977, during a pause in the Angola war, members
of the Lunda (or Balunda) tribal group of Zaire who had been in
exile in Angola and fighting along with their Angolan tribal kin
on the side of the MPLA, crossed the border and invaded Zaire
in a resumption of their own civil war. The invaders, numbering
at least 2,000, were composed largely of former residents of Katanga
(now Shaba) province who had fled the Congo during the early 1960s
following the failure of their secessionist movement.
Mobutu urgently requested help from Zaire's traditional arms
suppliers, Belgium, France and the United States, to put down
this threat to his control of the mineral-rich Shaba province
which accounted for about 70 percent of Zaire's foreign exchange.
The United States responded immediately with some $2 million of
military supplies, reaching $15 million worth within a month,
while Belgium and France provided large amounts of arms and ammunition
as well as 14 Mirage jet bombers from the latter.
Why ... did the United States intervene at all?
The day after the first American shipment of military aid,
Washington expressed concern about the possible "loss"
to American mining interests in Zaire. However, there was not
necessarily a logical connection between a Lunda capture of Shaba
province, or even toppling Mobutu, and a threat to foreign investment
and loans, and the Carter administration offered no elaboration
of its statement. No matter who controlled the mines, they would
be looking to sell the copper, the cobalt, and the other minerals.
In 1960, the secession movement of these same Lunda forces in
then-called Katanga province had been supported by both Washington
and Belgium ... And in neighboring Angola, ... when the "Marxist"
MPLA took over control of oil-rich Cabinda province, it cooperated
fully in business-as-usual with Gulf Oil Company. The Zaire government,
on the other hand, in 1974, took over most small businesses and
plantations without compensating the owners, and divided the spoils
among political leaders loyal to Mobutu, which went well beyond
anything the MPLA did.
The expressed concern about US investments may have been no
more than one type of "throwaway" remark that has often
been put forth by Washington officials to make a particular foreign
involvement sound more reasonable to the American public (most
ironic in this case in light of traditional Marxist analysis),
while giving the administration time to decide what it is they're
actually trying to achieve. No further reference to American investments
The American intervention in this case seems to have been
little more than a highly developed cold-war reflex action triggered
by an invasion originating in a country classified as a member
of the Soviet camp, and against a country ostensibly in the American
or Western camp. Subsequent developments, or lack of them, may
have inspired second thoughts in the administration, producing
a dilemma which was succinctly summed up by a New York Times editorial
observation a month into the war: "The instinct for intervention
seems great but the case for it is not at all clear."
Earlier, the Washington Post had expressed similar doubts.
In an editorial entitled "Why Zaire?", the newspaper
stated that it was "a highly dubious proposition for the
United States to deepen its involvement in the murk of Zaire in
the way that it has." President Carter, it added, "has
not explained the contingencies or stakes which require such an
abrupt American response, nor the risks of delay''.
By his second year in the White House, Jimmy Carter had managed
to acquire the unfortunate image of an "indecisive"
man, a president who was yet to demonstrate the proverbial sterling
qualities of leadership. His moderate response to the events in
Zaire the previous year had contributed to this reputation, particularly
amongst the hard-line anti-communists in the United States and
amongst some of the European and African nations which had come
to Mobutu's aid.
Thus it was, in the middle of May 1978, when the Lunda again
left Angola and invaded their home province in Zaire, that the
Carter administration was once again drawn into the conflict,
for reasons no more compelling than in the year before ... "determination
this time, particularly with a meeting in 11 days in Washington
of heads of NATO Governments, to act decisively", was the
way the New York Times paraphrased "high administration officials".
Within days the United States had sent several million dollars
more of "non-lethal" military aid to Mobutu (condemned
for human-rights violations only three months earlier by the State
Department, under a president who championed human rights) while
a fleet of 18 American military transport planes began ferrying
Belgian and French troops into Zaire in a rescue mission of (white)
foreigners trapped by the war. In the process of evacuating the
foreigners, the French troops took a markedly active part in the
war against the rebels, inflicting a serious military setback
Subsequently, the American airlift was extended to delivering
Moroccan armed forces into Shaba province, then army units from
Senegal and Gabon, and transporting French troops out of the region
as they were replaced by African forces.
The fighting in Shaba this time was over in less than a month.
At its conclusion, the New York Times reported that "Discussions
with officials in recent days, have produced no single cohesive
explanation for American policy in Zaire."
The Times apparently was not placing too much weight upon
the explanations already put forth by the administration. There
were several of these in addition to the rescue mission and the
need to act decisively. The president, for example, had discovered
something which, it seems, he had not realized the year before;
namely, that aiding Zaire was "in the national security interests
of the United States". As is customary with such crucial
declarations, it was not felt necessary to explain what this actually
meant in real-life terms.
Administration officials also professed "concern for
the territorial integrity of all countries in Africa and elsewhere".
This marvelous platitude not only managed to do away with the
previous 80 years of American foreign policy, including the very
recent intervention into Angola, but was irrelevant in the context
of a civil war ... more throwaways
Several African governments which came to the aid of Mobutu
during these two years likewise expressed regard for the territorial
integrity of African states, but what these states found disquieting
was that a victory for the Shaba rebels might encourage tribal
dissidents within their own vulnerable borders.'
Another reason offered by the administration was the belief
that Cuba and the Soviet Union, and even Angola, were, after all,
somehow responsible. (Mobutu added Algeria and Libya.) But no
more evidence to support these charges was forthcoming from any
quarter than had been the case the year before, and Carter was
obliged to fall back on an accusation of guilt by omission. On
25 May 1978 he declared that Cuba "obviously did nothing"
to hold back the invasion. It then came to light that Castro had
informed the US government a week earlier that he had learned
of the rebel plans to invade Shaba and had tried unsuccessfully
to stop it. Administration officials, clearly embarrassed, had
no choice but to reply that they had not believed him.
"It is not a half-lie," commented Fidel Castro to
charges of Cuban involvement. "It is an absolute, total,
Two days later, the president rejoined: "Castro could
have done much more had he genuinely wanted to stop the invasion.
He could have interceded with the Katangese them selves; he could
certainly have imposed Cuban troops near the border."
In the final scene of this light comedy, Mobutu announced
that he was holding Cuban prisoners captured in the fighting-the
long-awaited proof of Cuban involvement. But when the American
embassy in Zaire checked into the matter it found nothing to substantiate
the claim. "Let's call it charitably a mistake," said
It remains a mastery why Mobutu Sese Seko commanded such support
from the Western powers. In 1978 a "key European diplomat"
told the Washington Post: "There's no alternative to the
[Mobutu] regime. So we have to support him in hopes of reforming
him." No further explanation, from the diplomat or the newspaper,