Welcome to my 7-part series on dictators, an irreverent guide to some of history’s worst people and part of my effort to bring geopolitics and history to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but are too lazy to read The Economist.
Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about dictators!
HIGH HEELS, WIGS, AND FLAMBOYANT ROBES
I love dictators.
Before you jump all over me and remind me in righteous tones about how horrible dictators are, I know: Dictators are just the worst. But I’ll remind you that, despite this, many of our freedom-loving governments have had no problem kissing up to dictators when it serves their national interest. I believe Henry Kissinger called that Realpolitik.
I will also point out that some countries thrived better under their dictators than they do now under all the freedom and democracy we have so generously spread. But I will leave that for the historians to debate and the politicians to distort. Because when it comes to dictators, I am a sucker for the cult of personality.
My favorite dictator, hands down, is Mobutu Sese Seko. For 32 years that went by like a blink for most of his adoring people, he ruled Congo, a country he renamed Zaire and that is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (side note: the word “Democratic” is often used rather loosely in naming countries; this is a good example).
A brief history of the Congo: At the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold II was jealous that he didn’t have his own colony like his European neighbors, so he declared the Congo—which he had never actually seen in person and which he never did see in person (in fact, he never once went anywhere in Africa)—was his property. He then got all the other white people to agree to this arrangement.
He named it Congo Free State (again, “Free” was used rather loosely) and proceeded to use the country’s vast resources to stuff his own wallet while he did horrendous things to the Congolese people.
Mobutu must have studied history, because after he took power in 1965 in a coup d’état, he pretty much did the same thing. Mobutu was extremely motivated to be the most solid personification of a kleptocracy ever. Using state funds, he built an elaborate Chinese pagoda in the most logical place imaginable: the middle of the African rainforest—an overgrown garden oasis in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, which must have really lowered construction costs. He then imported fish from China to fill the pond in the yard.
He also razed enough trees to be able to build an extra long runway to accommodate a Concorde, which he chartered from Air France and used for shopping trips to Paris, because really, how much time can one spend in one’s pagoda? It’s in the middle of an inhospitable rainforest, for fuck’s sake.
In case using state coffers as his own wasn’t enough to endear him to his people, Mobutu knew a strong name would certainly convince them to love him. So shortly after taking power, the former Josephe-Desire Mobutu changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, 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.”
It’s a great name.
If you come across someone named Leopold, you’re probably in a sandbox and you want to throw mud at him. But the all-powerful warrior who leaves fire in his wake? I will follow this guy to hell and back. Which is kind of what Mobutu’s people did, except they made it to hell and the country pretty much stayed there for Mobutu’s entire rule.
In another wonderful parallel to Europeans who deeply understood their people’s needs, Mobutu’s first wife was named Marie Antoinette, making a fantastic companion for sipping pink Champagne in that jungle pagoda while asking her people why don’t they just eat if they’re so hungry?
After she died, Mobutu took his mistress as his second wife. That meant he needed a new mistress, and for that, he chose his new wife’s identical twin sister. That’s either really weird or incredibly genius. It’s kind of like wanting to spruce up your wardrobe but buying the same leopard-skin hat you already have so you never have to apologize to the first hat because you thought it was her all along.
One thing Mobutu didn’t manage to do, besides lift his country out of devastating poverty, was get himself named President for Life, which is too bad because he almost was. In May 1997, Laurent Kabila, with a little help from the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, overthrew Mobutu in a new coup. Mobutu fled the country and died later that year in exile in Morocco.