Zaire 1975-1978

Mobutu and the CIA, a marriage made in heaven

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

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 was made.

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 upon them.

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, complete lie."

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 one official."

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, was recorded.

Killing Hope