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3 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

Mobutu Sese Seko is accustomed to using a strong arm. When the Zairean President flew to France two weeks ago from Switzerland, where he had been convalescing after cancer surgery since August, his arrival naturally attracted photographers eager to film the elusive leader as he entered his villa at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Minutes later, bodyguards surrounded the journalists, snatched their film and threatened to start breaking limbs.

Mobutu remains the missing man in Zaire’s latest crisis, out of sight and in questionable command of his nation. Even in the best of times, his absence would provoke perilous consequences for a country hovering on the threshold of economic collapse after 30 years of high-handed rule. But since September, when Zaire’s eastern provinces fell under attack from local Tutsi rebels, Mobutu’s uncertain condition–and continued hold on power–has been a matter of dire import. Three weeks ago, Le Monde reported that his prostate cancer had metastasized to his bones. But a guest whom Mobutu received last week found that he looked relaxed and appeared in command of himself. Mobutu planned to return to Lausanne for more tests and said he is keen to get back to Zaire. He hopes to imitate former French President Francois Mitterrand, who survived nearly 15 years with prostate cancer.

Even if Mobutu lasts that long, the integrity of his nation, a colonial creation that lashes together some 200 tribes across a region the size of Western Europe, is already at risk. Only Mobutu’s will and wizardry have held the place together for so long. His style of rule combines charisma with a flair for draconian repression. (As part of an “authenticity campaign” in the ’70s to divest Zaire of its European taint, he outlawed bow ties, public kissing and Christmas.) But he also successfully marketed his country to the West as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Africa, until the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed him of his usefulness.

While clinging tenaciously to power, Zaire’s tyrant has stockpiled much of the country’s wealth for himself: his fortune is estimated at several hundred million dollars. “The Guide,” as he has dubbed himself, lavished much of that money on empty show. When rebel looters in Goma recently entered the President’s local villa–a mansion Mobutu visited just once, but kept ready for his imminent return–they found a house full of plastic “marble” and fake antiques. Other expressions of his grandeur are not so hollow: he owns chateaus in Spain and Belgium, a town house in Paris and a horse ranch in Portugal. Such abuse of his country’s strained wealth eventually turned him into an international pariah.

Mobutu’s corrupt and incompetent army put up little resistance when the Tutsi rebels seized eastern portions of the nation. But when they began forcing the 1.2 million Hutu refugees from camps inside Zaire, Mobutu was handed a crisis tailor-made to his needs. An international humanitarian effort could enhance his global stature and buy him some time, assuming his health remains stable. But it would not address the pent-up flood of problems that are overwhelming his vainglorious leadership.

–By Kevin Fedarko. Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Peter Graff/Kigali and Adam Zagorin/Washington

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