The Cold War Legacy in Zaire

In These Times magazine, May 1997


In May, 1960, in the newly independent Belgian Congo-now known as Zaire-Patrice Lumumba and his party won a plurality in elections for the nation's new parliament. Lumumba was not only a charismatic leader but also a leftist. When Katanga province seceded with Belgium's backing, Lumumba naturally turned to the Soviet Union, the enemy of his country's former colonial masters, for assistance. It was a fatal error, one that provided President Dwight Eisenhower with an excuse to move against him. A month later, carrying out Eisenhower's instructions, the CIA successfully pulled off a coup. Four months after he was elected, Lumumba found himself out of office.

But he was still alive-and still a national hero, now threatening to form a new government. How to prevent this? For the CIA, the answer was simple: Kill him. The agency made elaborate plans to do so, but Katanga leader Moishe Tshombe conveniently solved the problem for them. His troops captured Lumumba and beat him to death.

Enter Joseph Mobutu, now known as Mobutu Sese Seko. The CIA recruited him to help displace and then replace Lumumba. His was a one-man regime from the beginning because the United States and the former European colonial powers did not trust the people of Zaire to elect a leader who would let the West control their country's resources. At a time when national liberation movements were sweeping the Third World, true democracy would likely have resulted in socialists of one kind or another taking control in many places. That would have been bad for business.

The Cold War presented a rationale for preventing such an outcome. Thus, in the '60s and '70s, dictatorships became the norm in areas controlled by the West. Such states were considered more manageable, and the cost of protecting corporate interests was relatively low-for all except the people living in those countries. The U.S. government could downplay the brutality visited on the natives or, if publicized, explain it away as necessary to prevent the greater evil of Soviet footholds in the contested areas of a bipolar world.

On the other side of the great Cold War divide, dictatorships were also the rule. The Communists believed in a one-party state. In their areas of control or influence, they some times allowed other token parties to exist, notably in Europe, where multi-party systems had been well-established before World War II. But in the Third World, where few of the newly emerging countries had experience with parliamentary democracy, and where political parties were weak and the authoritarian traditions of colonialism strong, one-man rule backed by military force was a natural outcome of Soviet policy.

These policies on both sides took an enormous toll both in human suffering and in the disruption-and corruption-of the process of independence and development. In Zaire and the new states surrounding it, this was especially true. While Mobutu and the Western corporations he served made billions, his country sank deeper and deeper into misery. And beyond Zaire's borders, at the CIA's urging, Mobutu helped prevent other peoples from going freely about the business of nation-building.

In Angola, for example, which became independent after the leaders of Portugal's 1974 socialist revolution decided to abandon their African colony, Mobutu helped the United States prevent the left-wing MPLA from consolidating its new government. Acting as a conduit for the CIA, Mobutu supplied arms both to his brother-in-law Holden Roberto, who led a group called the FNLA, and to strongman Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. The FNLA didn't last long, but Savimbi, who got aid from China and South Africa as well as the United States, managed to keep that nation in turmoil- and in poverty-up to the present. Only with Mobutu's imminent demise has Angola been able to form a coalition government

Now, after the fall of the leader that the CIA created and kept in power with massive amounts of military aid, just about everyone in the media acknowledges that Mobutu was our man. But instead of pointing out the United States' central role in Zaire's stunted development, the media have bombarded us with putdowns, usually in the form of laments, of the failure of the country to modernize peacefully.

The Cold War is over. But as the firestorms in Zaire and Angola make clear, the Third World is still bearing the bitter fruits of neo-colonial intervention.

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