Letters From The Congo: A Deadly Cast of ‘Characters’ (Long Read)

This article follows on from last week’s Letter from the Congo.

What’s more, the characters that populate the DRC’s history are luminous. They are magnificent, horrifying and absurd.

There is Henry Morton Stanley, who grew up in a Welsh workhouse and spent his entire life attempting to purge any trace of his lowly provenance. After having located Dr. David Livingstone in 1871, he then forged the Congo Free State, as the colony was pitilessly named, for King Leopold II of Belgium. This mercurial explorer wrote enthusiastically, “In every cordial-faced aborigine I meet, I see a promise of assistance to me in the redemption of himself from the state of unproductiveness in which he at present lives. I look upon him with much the same regard an agriculturalist views his strong-limbed child; he is a future recruit to the ranks of soldier-laborers.” There is not a scintilla of equivocation about how Stanley foresaw the Free State’s “glorious” and profitable future.

Then there is Leopold himself, the vain and manipulative monarch of a small and insecure European country. He controlled the Congo Free State as his personal possession from 1885 to 1908. Yet, despite the tremendous wealth he derived from it and the immense misery he imposed upon it, the king never once stepped foot in his fief, 80 times the size of Belgium. Exercised by his country’s puniness and bitterly jealous of the colonial domains headed by other European kings and queens, securing and exploiting an empire consumed Leopold’s life, and those of countless millions of his African subjects. Despite the veneer with which he coated his ambitions in the Congo — the promise that he would free the benighted forest dwellers from the fear of the Arab slavers’ yoke and nourish them with the boons of western civilization — Leopold, much like Stanley, was unembarrassed about his baser motivations. Turning to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to grumble about the march of European democracy, he once whined: “There is really nothing left for us kings except money!”

Leopold’s great-nephew, King Baudouin, also deserves mention. This is not on account of anything especially noteworthy about the last Belgian ruler of the Congo. Rather, the manner in which he gracelessly ceded control of the territory to Patrice Lumumba tells us a great deal about the myths Belgium constructed and why even now the country has scarcely begun to face up to its colonial legacy, which amid plenty of competition is abnormally poisonous.

Standing before assembled Congolese and Belgian notables in 1960, the 30 year old monarch produced a performance of preternatural haughtiness. Possessed of a comical dearth of self-knowledge, Baudouin compounded the insults his country had dispensed in the Free State by patronising the black faces sitting before him in Leopoldville’s Palais de la Nation and requesting that they show gratitude for their 85 year-long humiliation. The king solemnly intoned that: ‘It is now up to you, gentleman, to show that you are worthy of our confidence. The independence of the Congo constitutes the culmination of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II, undertaken by him with a tenacious courage and continued with perseverance by Belgium’. Baudouin demonstrated how little he had learnt as he continued to bloviate: ‘For 80 years, Belgium has sent to your land the best of her sons – first to deliver the Congo basin from the odious slave trade which was decimating her population, later to bring together the different tribes which, though former enemies, are now preparing to form the greatest of the independent states of Africa. These pioneers deserve admiration from us and acknowledgment from you.’

Only now do we reach the first Congolese in this pantheon of individuals who forged today’s DRC. That is no surprise given the extent to which the Belgian administrators excluded them from political participation, making use of them solely as tools of economic extraction. But Patrice Lumumba has the distinction of being the only Congolese leader who has, even if only for a brief flicker, successfully presented a truly national vision in this land of hundreds of ethnicities, languages and dialects. In the general election of 1960 his Mouvement National Congolais was the only party to win votes throughout the whole country. It won the most seats in parliament and Lumumba became the Congo’s first prime minister. An unalloyed illustration of what rendered Lumumba exceptional, and ultimately doomed, is provided by his reaction to King Baudouin’s patrician grandstanding. After a short and unremarkable speech from Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the Congo’s inaugural president, Lumumba rose to his feet and cleansed the formal atmosphere of its euphemistic stink. His words are worth quoting at length:

“For eighty years … we have known harassing work, exacted in exchange for salaries which did not permit us to eat enough to drive away hunger, or to clothe ourselves, or to house ourselves decently, or to raise our children as creatures dear to us. We have known ironies, blows that we endured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes. Who will forget that to a black one said ‘tu’, certainly not as to a friend but because the more honorable ‘vous’ was reserved for white alone? We have seen our hands seized in the name of allegedly legal laws which in fact recognized only that might is right. We have seen that the law was not the same for a white and for a black, accommodating for the first, cruel and inhuman for the other. We have seen that in the towns there were magnificent houses for the whites and crumbling shanties for the blacks, that a black was not admitted in the motion-picture houses, in the restaurants, in the stores of the Europeans; that a black travelled in the holds, at the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins. Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown?”

Two further quotes attributed to Lumumba – one probably real, the other likely apocryphal – underscore the erratic and idealistic prime minister’s allergy to consensus or charting the safer course. First, he allegedly told a friend ‘If I die, tant pis (so what). The Congo needs martyrs’. For Lumumba this was not mere bravado. In January 1961 he was beaten to a pulp by Luba soldiers, whose tribesmen had been massacred by the Congolese army the previous year, then shot by a firing squad commanded by a Belgian officer. The quotation of more dubious authenticity has nonetheless become part of the Lumumba mythology which makes it significant regardless of whether he uttered the words. While there is no evidence of the remark in the transcripts of the Independence Day speech which are available on the internet, for many it is not doubted that Lumumba ended it with the declaration: ‘We are no longer your monkeys!’

Next comes the man who was born Joseph-Desiré Mobutu but would become Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which means ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. The self-aggrandizing name change was part of Mobutu’s short-lived flirtation with a state ideology, a mantra known as ‘authenticité’, which encouraged a clean break from the legacy of European colonialism and a reassertion of ‘traditional’ values. Many of the reforms Mobutu introduced were superficial and often silly. In 1971 he renamed the country Zaire. He urged the population to abandon their Christian names and adopt Zairean replacements. He introduced the abacost, a short-sleeved suit often worn with a cravat, as Zaire’s national dress. He wore his trademark leopard skin hats, presenting himself as the traditional chief of the nation.

Mobutu was many things but he was not a pan-African philosopher-leader in the mould of Senegal’s Leopold Senghor or Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Mobutu’s ‘authenticité’ was organized without rigor and constructed on flimsy foundations. On closer inspection his tinkering does not appear to have been at all authentically African. Zaire – the very word Mobutu chose to give expression to his nation-building project – is thought to be a Portuguese bastardisation of a Kikongo name for the river which Diogo Cão “discovered” in the 1480s. The abacost was Mobutu’s personal invention and inspired by a visit to Maoist China. His hats were made for him by an upmarket Parisian couturier. Indeed, there was nothing particularly African or traditional about his predilection for buying French and Belgian chateaux or building an airport capable of accommodating a Concorde in his ancestral village or stocking thousands of bottles of pink champagne in his wine cellars.

The economic plank of ‘authenticité’ was known as Zaireanization. In 1973 Mobutu announced the nationalization of all foreign-owned assets – farms, plantations, shops, factories and the mining industry. The mass appropriation proved hugely lucrative for Mobutu – who, among other choice morsels, selected 14 plantations for himself – and the ‘gros legumes’ but was cataclysmic for the long-term prospects of the Zairean economy. The Belgians, Greeks, Portuguese, Italians and Pakistanis swiftly disappeared and took their expertise with them. The Zairean elite feasted on their juicy cuts but had neither the intention nor capacity to run them as viable businesses which would support and enrich the majority of the population. The state mining company Gecamines performed creditably for a while but by the 1990s was managed so poorly that it was no longer economically viable or operationally possible to get the country’s world-beating deposits out of the ground. For Mobutu, Zaireanization meant little more than institutionalizing a kleptocracy. For him and his sycophants: European castles, private jets and Swiss bank accounts. For everyone else: live on your wits, hustle, debrouillez-vous. ‘If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way’, Mobutu once advised his people in a televised address.

Neither of the presidents who have succeeded Mobutu have possessed comparable chutzpah or bestrode the international stage with such brio, indulged by the leeway afforded by the realpolitik of the Cold War. Yet, the Kabilas –père et fils – swiftly put the stricken leopard, atrophied by cancer, out of his misery, then emerged triumphant from a conflict of hellish dimensions, and continue to hold the best cards in the pack. Old rivals – such as the detained Jean-Pierre Bemba and the octogenarian Etienne Tshisekedi – have been vanquished or are dwindling.

Yet, new adversaries – whether the charismatic governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, or re-energised youth movements – present themselves. Next year, in 2016, despite widely-held suspicions that Kabila is preparing a pretext for a postponement, the DRC is scheduled to hold presidential elections, from which – if the constitution remains in its current form – he is barred from standing. I have learnt a few things quickly in this country. Among them: No one has a clue what is going to happen next year and few think Kabila will simply depart meekly. This January thousands took to the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, to protest plans to amend the constitution. More than 40 civilians, mostly angry young men, were killed by the security forces over the course of several days.

Much is unclear, but one thing seems apparent. If President Kabila seeks to delay the election or put himself forward for a third time, he will be playing with fire. Presidential efforts to tinker with constitutions against the popular will have already provoked backlashes which have undone Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campaore and almost unseated Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza. Those confrontations were doubtless nasty but this is the DRC and would be on a different scale altogether.


This piece is part of a series of pieces titled “Letters from The Congo” from William Clowes on his time in the DRC. 

For further references please see the following books:

“In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz.” by Michela Wrong

“The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith

“King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

William Clowes, UK


William Clowes is a freelance journalist based in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Previously he was a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at The Risk Advisory Group, a political risk and commercial due diligence firm headquartered in London.

  • nancy

    William, I have been reading your posts this week to check my own details that appear in my novel about Zaire, set in 1988-89. I have learned some interesting things from you that I would like to check out, such as: did Mobutu ever entertain in Kawale–if not, I have to rewrite a two chapters of my book. Also, have you ever seen photos of the palaces before 1997? If so, where? Is there a way to contact you?

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