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Editor's Note: This essay was written in April 1997 during the initial days of the rebel uprising in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then called Zaire.

The roots of Zaire's unrest

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In this story:

From Correspondent Garrick Utley

(CNN) -- Imagine being mugged as you walk down a street. But you can't turn to the authorities for protection because -- chances are -- they are the muggers. Now, imagine an entire country of 45 million people being mugged by their own leader. Unfortunately, there is nothing imaginary about this -- if you are in Zaire.

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Once it was known as the Congo: a place of mystery for adventurers and explorers, an Eldorado of natural riches for colonialists and exploiters.

In the heart of Africa, it had no borders, until Europeans arbitrarily drew them in 1881.

The Belgians ran the Congo, often brutally. Cutting off hands was a common form of punishment.

But in 1960, time ran out for the Europeans. The Belgians pulled out and the Congo gained its independence.

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Independence brought chaos

Then, the chaos began. Law and order collapsed, the army disintegrated, and the template for Zaire today was quickly established.

"No one on the Congo side had been given any experience whatsoever in how to run a country," says Sir Brian Urquhart, a former United Nations under secretary-general who was there at the time. "There were (only) 17 people with university degrees in the whole Congo in those days."

Eighteen thousand U.N. troops were rushed in, but they could not impose any political coherence or control. Then, the United States got involved.

The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was seen as a potential ally of the Soviet Union.

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"(The U.N.) actually took a lot of trouble to protect him," Urquhart recalls.

"What we didn't know was that the CIA was planning to assassinate him and, in fact, sent two people down, one sharpshooter and one poisoner to do it. Both of whom, I am glad to say, were frustrated by the U.N. troops."

Mobutu's coup, corruption

A short time later, Lumumba was murdered. A former army sergeant named Joseph Mobutu saw his moment coming and seized power in 1965.

As head of the army, Mobutu led a coup that deposed President Joseph Kasavubu, ending a power struggle that had been going on since independence.

The Congo's new leader would change his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, and rename his country Zaire.

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He would court and win the support of western leaders, and financial institutions, who saw him as a convenient anti- communist leader.

And for three decades he would rob his country blind, taking government revenue for his own pleasure.

Whether at his villa in the south of France, palatial homes elsewhere in Europe or on his lavish personal plane, Mobutu has not hid his love of luxury.

His personal fortune is estimated conservatively at $5 billion.

'All-powerful warrior'

Looking back at Mobutu's rise to power, Urquhart describes him now as a self-absorbed opportunist.

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"It was predictable he would not turn out terribly well as the head of a very very large and complicated and rich country," Urquhart says.

Now, Mobutu's legacy is a bankrupt country, where salaries are not paid. Where hospital patients have to supply their own anesthetic, scalpel, surgical thread and gloves before a surgeon can operate.

And where rebel forces have now toppled the old and ailing dictator.

When young Joseph Mobutu changed his name it was to more than Mobutu Sese Seko. The full name translates as "the all- powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win sweeps from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."

How right he was.



FOCUS: CONFLICT IN ZAIRE

ANATOMY OF A CRISIS  ·  KEY FACTS  ·  ESSAY ON ZAIRE

CAST OF CHARACTERS  ·  QUIZ


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