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
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.
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.
Independence brought chaos
Then, the chaos began. Law and order collapsed, the army
disintegrated, and the template for Zaire today was quickly
"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.
"(The U.N.) actually took a lot of trouble to protect him,"
"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.
He would court and win the support of western leaders, and
financial institutions, who saw him as a convenient anti-
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
Looking back at Mobutu's rise to power, Urquhart describes
him now as a self-absorbed opportunist.
"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
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
How right he was.
FOCUS: CONFLICT IN ZAIRE
ANATOMY OF A CRISIS ·
KEY FACTS ·
ESSAY ON ZAIRE
CAST OF CHARACTERS ·
© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.