Mobutu and the Collective Congolese Memory: Reconstructing the Past as a Survival Tool
IN THIS ARTICLE
Despite the focus of scholars on the repressive elements of Mobutu’s Reign, “The rumble in the Jungle,” abacost jackets and the return to “authenticité” instead form the core of the 32-year reign of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the collective Congolese memory. In the nearly 24 years since his removal from office, Mobutu’s memory has been collectively reconstructed by the Congolese people, complicating our scholarly understanding of Mobutu’s reign and its place in contemporary imagination. The once despised dictator is now often admired as a symbol of national pride instead of being remembered as a brutal and bloody dictator. This article analyzes three pieces representative of what I refer to as, in the style of Maurice Halbwachs, the Congolese “collective memory” of Mobutu: a music video, a documentary, and a comedy sketch which all present romanticized versions of Mobutu that seem to contradict the brutal reality of his reign. I conclude that Mobutu’s memory has been reconstructed on the basis of the DRC’s dire present situation, with individuals reconstructing the past as a vital survival tool.
Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (commonly called Mobutu) ruled Zaire with an iron fist for 32 years from 1965 to 1997. The scope of Mobutu’s authority is perhaps best exemplified in his “authenticité” campaign which consisted of renaming the country and all the major cities, removing all statues of European figures such as King Leopold and eliminating European names in favor of traditional Congolese names for the sake of fostering a national identity and national unity (Adelman 135). However, Mobutu’s main goal was not the social and economic prosperity of his people, but rather the consolidation of power into his own hands. He and his regime were notorious for their extreme repressiveness and corruption. Numerous Congolese people have retold their experiences of being arbitrarily arrested, stripped naked, and beaten by Mobutu’s agents (Dellios). Yet, despite Mobutu’s reputation, I have rarely heard older Congolese people in my community speak negatively about him, even among those no longer living in the DRC. While they would certainly acknowledge some shortcomings of the Mobutu era, such as the suppression of free speech, they have an overwhelmingly nostalgic view of the era. They wax nostalgic about major events such as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” Zaire’s appearance in the 1974 FIFA World Cup (the first sub-Saharan African nation to make an appearance at the World Cup), and the popularization of Congolese Rumba music. In this article, I first present several key pieces of evidence which demonstrate the nostalgia held by Congolese people for the cultural flourishing and national unity often associated with the Mobutu era: a music video, a documentary, and a comedy sketch I take as representations of the Congolese collective memory on Mobutu. Following this, I analyze this evidence with a critical application of Maurice Halbwachs’ theory on collective memory. Ultimately, I conclude that Congolese people have reconstructed their collective memory of Mobutu as a way of reflecting upon their present political situation, thereby creating an idealized version of Mobutu which seems to contradict the reality of his oppressive regime. Furthermore, I build upon Halbwachs by putting forth a theory which holds that society pressures people to reconstruct the past not only as a means of creating a shared reality, but as a means for ensuring their very survival.
Literature ReviewMuch of the scholarly work done on Mobutu begins with studying 1965, the onset of his tenure as head of state. David Schmitz writes that the United States and its allies welcomed Mobutu’s ascent to power, viewing him as “the savior of the Congo from chaos and communism” who would allow “for continued western access to the Congo’s raw materials” (10). Similarly, Mabiengwa Naniuzeyi writes that Congolese people were initially welcoming of Mobutu as they saw him as a leader who would immediately change their socioeconomic status after they had suffered through colonization (679). Other scholars have written that Congolese people were welcoming of Mobutu because they believed in his carefully crafted image. Congolese philosopher Ka Mana once said that Congolese people viewed Mobutu as a liberator, a leader, and the emblem of power in the DRC because those were the images he had sewn into their social imagination (Amutabi 64). The scholarly work done on the early years of Mobutu’s tenure presents his ascent to power as a net gain for all parties involved. The west was able to stop the spread of communism in the DRC while maintaining its control of the nation’s raw materials. On the other hand, Congolese people were given a promising leader who would erase the wrongs of colonization. However, the predominately positive narrative on Mobutu was only reflective of his early years as dictator. As time progressed, much of the hope and love expressed by the Congolese people was replaced by hate and fear.
The latter portion of Mobutu’s tenure brought about many changes to the public perception of his regime. Naniuzeyi writes that the same Congolese people who initially viewed Mobutu as a liberator, leader and emblem of power began to instead view him as a dictator who ran the DRC’s state as a “neocolonial one” and whose primary goal was to serve himself and his collaborators (671). Similarly, Ka Mana changed his perspective on Mobutu, stating that Mobutu’s carefully crafted image was a façade for his true identity as an “agent of neocolonialism” (Amutabi 66). Though many Congolese people despised Mobutu, they rarely publicly spoke out against him due to fear of retaliation from his security forces. Instead, they used code words such as “the responsible ones” to refer to politicians while corruption was referred to as “cooperation,” obfuscating their dissatisfaction with the regime (White 68). In the end, Mobutu left power in similar fashion to the way he had taken power: through a bloodless coup, to the joy of many Congolese people who saw the new leader Laurent Kabila as a savior (Dizolele 145). The scholarly narrative presented to explain the end of Mobutu’s tenure is the mirror image of that presented for the beginning of his tenure. The once-beloved leader, previously hailed as the Congo’s savior, finished his tenure as a despised dictator. However, the scholarly consensus on Mobutu fails to adequately explain why appreciation for Mobutu is currently experiencing a resurgence among Congolese people, as it lacks an appreciation for the contextualizing factors brought on by the events that have plagued the DRC since Mobutu’s ouster. In similar fashion to how Mobutu’s image shined in comparison with the grim era of colonization, his image is a subject for nostalgia in the grim new era brought upon by the Rwandan genocide and subsequent Congo wars. In light of these events, I demonstrate that Mobutu is no longer viewed as an “agent of neocolonialism” or a façade, but rather a strong-willed leader who united the nation and endowed it with an identity.
The complexity of Mobutu’s ever-changing image in the collective memory of Congolese people is best understood with a critical application of the scholarly work of Maurice Halbwachs. In his book, On Collective Memory, Halbwachs introduces this concept of collective memory: the collection of all individual memories in a society. Interestingly, Halbwachs claims that “the past is not preserved but is reconstructed on the basis of the present” (40). In other words, collective memory is not constituted by a perfect recollection of the past. Instead, it exists as a recreation of memories of the past filtered through the lens of the present. Halbwachs then explains that this phenomenon does not simply happen on its own: people begin to recollect the past because they are pressured by their society to do so. Furthermore, in recollecting a past that they can no longer relive, people will be obligated to adjust and take pleasure in the present, regardless of how unfortunate it may be (51). While Halbwachs’ work does provide some basis with which we can begin to understand the Congolese collective memory on Mobutu, it fails to paint the full picture. Yes, the past is reconstructed based on the present. But is this reconstruction always meant to benefit the present? In other words, do Congolese people prefer their current situation post-Mobutu, simply because it is the present? As we will discuss later, that is not the case. Mobutu’s memory has been positively reconstructed and such providing evidence to prove that the past does not get reconstructed to benefit the present, creating a collective memory which is the basis for potential political change rather than societal stagnation.
Mobutu in the Collective Memory
As representations of the current Congolese collective memory on Mobutu, all three works discussed below present an idealized version of Mobutu. The first piece of evidence, a music video by artist Yekima entitled “Les Années Zaire” (The Zaire years) idealizes Mobutu’s reign through a combination of wardrobe and lyrics. Throughout the video, Yekima is seen with an abacost coat, a leopard hat and a cane, all fashion choices exemplary of Mobutu’s style during his tenure as head of state. He also stands next to a woman wearing a dress made of pagne (traditional African fabric). Yekima’s wardrobe is reminiscent of the “authenticité” campaign which emphasized the unique cultural heritage of the nation, requiring Congolese people to reject all aspects of European culture. The wardrobe’s symbolism mythologizes Mobutu as the father of the Congolese identity, presenting him as the originator of a Congolese style and elegance that was unvalued and belittled by colonizers prior to his arrival. Yekima also employs lyrics to further idealize Mobutu. Throughout the song, Mobutu is never once referred to as a dictator or by his official titles. Instead, Yekima opts to refer to him as “King” and the “god of Zaire” (1:26), deifying him as a larger-than-life figure, framing him in almost superhuman terms, transcending the role of political leader and entering the realm of myth. Additionally, the song repeats excerpts from some of Mobutu’s speeches: specifically, the phrases “Tata Bo” (one father), “Mama Bo” (one mother), and “Ekolo Bo” (One nation) (0:49 - 0:55). These words romanticize Mobutu as a father who unified the nation into one large family, implicitly contrasting nostalgia for unity under Mobutu with dissatisfaction with present day politics.
France 24’s documentary “Billet retour à Gbadolite: la nostalgie de l’ère Mobutu persiste en RD Congo” (Return to Gbadolite: Nostalgia for the Mobutu Era Persists in DRC) sets out to explore Mobutu nostalgia present in the DRC through interviews with Congolese people, the majority of whom present fanciful versions of Mobutu, contrasting with the narrator’s claim that Mobutu was a violent and repressive dictator. Throughout the documentary, not a single interviewee refers to Mobutu as dictator. Instead, they refer to him as “Marechal” (Marshal) one of his official titles while he was in the military, with one person even going as far as calling him the “father of democracy” in the DRC (13:47-13:50), an ironic claim given his involvement in the coup that ended in the death of the DRC’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. One particularly telling interview is that of Congolese historian Kambayi Bwatshia, who credits Mobutu with giving Congolese people their own identity and a style to go along with that identity, referring to the abacost suits popularized during the “authenticité” campaign. Bwatshia states that people are quick to compliment those who still don the abacost suits on the streets of Kinshasa, saying: “This man is elegant, he is a Mobutuist” (11:28-11:59). Bwatshia’s take reveals how Mobutu has now been idealized to represent elegance within Congolese society. Not only is Mobutu paradoxically hailed as the founding father of Congolese democracy, individuals who emulate his style and carry on his legacy are regarded as “elegant” and classy, demonstrating that nostalgia for Mobutu not only carries political meaning, but social value as well.
Mobutu nostalgia is further defined through a performance by actor Sonny Kamana, who impersonates him during a live comedy show hosted by B-One, a Congolese television network. While it is labeled a comedy show, the skit was more reminiscent of a reenactment of the Mobutu rallies of the past. Kamana, wearing an abacost jacket, leopard hat and cane while walking on stage to the sound of an adoring choir, recreated much of the ecstasy of the Mobutu rallies of past, exhibiting nostalgia for the fallen dictator and the allure of his tenure in office. By remembering the joy of the rallies over the terror of military rule, an implicit contrast is created with political figures today. Kamana’s monologue is filled with many jokes, including an overarching joke about how Mobutu now lives in an alternate world for the dead and how he is the author of the returning abacost fashion trend. However, above and beyond a discussion of fashion trends, Kamana’s message to the Congolese people is perhaps the most interesting part of the skit. The main message of the monologue is one of unity, calling on all Congolese people to work together for the development of the nation. Kamana says in Lingala, “Moto na moto a bongisa” (“Everyone, at their individual level, should work for the nation’s development”) (4:14-4:20), and further challenges Congolese citizens, saying “Mobutu asali boye, Mobutu a bomi boye, yo epayi ozali osali nini?” (“You always say Mobutu did this Mobutu did that, but what have you done for the Congo?”) (4:44-4:53). Kamana’s message while impersonating Mobutu reinforces the idea of Mobutu as a man who fought to foster national unity. Furthermore, Kamana’s portrayal along with the crowd’s enthusiasm separates Mobutu from his upopular successors who have failed to foster any semblance of national unity. While the “unity” of the Mobutu era came at a cost, by commemorating that unity without discussing the brutality, modern citizens of the DRC are able to critique contemporary leaders through a socially acceptable lens.
While it is factual that Mobutu was a corrupt and oppressive dictator, many Congolese people seem to choose not to remember or preserve this aspect of Mobutu’s reign. Instead, they reconstruct their memory of him on the basis of the present: the current dire political and social situation in the DRC. The end of Mobutu’s tenure brought many traumatic events to the Congolese people. The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the ensuing two Congo wars left 5.4 million and counting Congolese people dead, with over 4.5 million internally displaced (Council on Foreign Relations). Many Congolese people are still suffering from these conflicts and feel that no one, not even the government in Kinshasa, cares about them. With these events placed in context, Mobutu’s 32-year reign as dictator is now reconstructed in the memories of the Congolese people as a time of national peace and unity. No longer is Mobutu’s memory one of an “agent of colonialism” who sought to govern for his sole benefit. Instead, his memory is reconstructed into the Mobutu idealized in Yekima’s video: as “tata bo” (one father) who gave the nation its identity through his “authenticité” campaign. No longer is Mobutu’s memory one a repressive dictator who responded with violence at the thought of democratizing the nation. Instead, his memory is reconstructed into the Mobutu portrayed by Kamana; a leader who worked to develop the nation while encouraging his constituents to do the same: “Moto na moto a bongisa” (everyone at their individual level should work for the nations development). Furthermore, the relationship between Mobutu and the Congolese people is no longer remembered as the hostile relationship described by scholars in 1997. Now it has been reconstructed as a strong relationship, one resembling a father and his children. In reconstructing their memory of Mobutu, Congolese people have filled the void created by his departure, giving themselves a father with whom they can identify and a leader with whom they can continue to develop their nation.
In reconstructing their collective memory, Congolese people have also changed the titles which they associate with Mobutu. Though he was known to the world as a dictator, Congolese people in all three sources refuse to refer to Mobutu in that manner. In Yekima’s song, Mobutu is referred to as a “King” and the “god of Zaire,” portraying Mobutu as a larger-than-life figure who was supernaturally ordained to lead the DRC. In France 24’s documentary Mobutu is referred to as “Marechal” and the “father of democracy,” portraying him as a strong military leader while simultaneously elevating him as a founding father of the DRC. Lastly, in Kamana’s comedy show, he refers to himself—Mobutu—as “the boss” even thanking the audience for giving him a welcome worthy of his stature (1:46 – 2:00), acknowledging the grandeur and authority that are now synonymous with Mobutu. The recognition, or lack thereof, of Mobutu’s title of dictator is yet another example of how the collective memory of the Congolese people has been reshaped on the basis of the present. Instead of calling him a dictator, they opted to call him the father of Congolese democracy, god of Zaïre, king, boss, and marshal. These titles all have more positive connotations than dictator and frame him in terms that are martial and mythic, elevating his stature to that of a myth which can be used to critique the present. Mobutu is not preserved in the memories of Congolese people as the dictator that he was because of the nature of his two successors and the events that coincided with their tenures. Laurent and Joseph Kabila both ruled in similar dictatorial fashion to Mobutu (Dizolele,145-148), yet both failed to encourage the sense of national identity that Mobutu had cultivated during his reign. Furthermore, both of the Kabilas’ tenures were plagued with wars which killed millions of Congolese people. As such, Congolese people collectively altered their memory of Mobutu in repudiation of the two Kabilas. The positive elements of Mobutu’s reign, less relevant during the brutal years of military dictatorship, are suddenly far more useful to the collective memory. Mobutu is no longer remembered and labeled as a dictator; instead, being labeled a king, a god, a boss, and a father of democracy, all labels describing a leader who takes care of his constituents, a quality individuals nostalgic for Mobutu seek to critique in current leaders of the DRC through their enshrining of Mobutu’s memory.
Due to the trauma, suffering, and lack of visible leadership brought by the post Mobutu years, Congolese people have reconstructed their memory of Mobutu into that of a strong, supernaturally ordained leader who fostered a national identity and peace, in contrast to the disunity and bloodshed that have predominated recent decades. While much of the findings here are guided by the scholarly work of Halbwachs, there is an important difference between our conclusions. In his book, Halbwachs concludes that people are pressured by their society to recollect a past they can never relive to force them to find pleasure in the present. If this was true for the situation in the DRC, the collective memory around Mobutu would have been recreated to be extremely catastrophic, painting the Mobutu era as a time of mourning and depression for the Congolese people in order to force them to adjust and find happiness with the present Kabila administrations. However, in the DRC, the opposite of Halbwachs theory actually takes place. Instead of negatively reconstructing the past as a means for enjoying the present, it seems Congolese people have positively restructured the past in repudiation of the present, utilizing the memory of Mobutu as a means for collective dissatisfaction with the hegemonic political order. Because the end of Mobutu’s tenure brought conflicts that killed millions of people along with administrations that failed to bring serious progress to Congolese society, many Congolese citizens have had no choice but to positively reconstruct their memory of Mobutu in repudiation of the present. In other words, it can indeed be said that, à la Halbwachs, the past is reconstructed on the basis of the present. However, this is not a result of a societal pressure to adapt to the present in the sense of utilizing the past to cope. Instead, I demonstrate a case in which society pressures people to reconstruct the pass as a means of survival, reminding them of better times in hopes that they will one day return after persevering through the hard times. If Congolese people remember the Mobutu era as a time of national unity and peace, they can continue to persevere through the tough times in hopes of once again reaching this era of national peace and unity. A past that was difficult and violent is reconstructed as a beacon of hope, in order to act as a mythic alternative to what is and lead individuals to focus on what could be.
Mobutu’s relationship with the Congolese people can be described as complex and continually evolving. The dominant scholarly narrative describes an initially optimistic relationship that ended in turmoil as Mobutu was ousted. However, in the nearly 24 years since Mobutu left power, his relationship with the Congolese people has changed for the better, despite no change in the facts of how Mobutu’s regime treated its citizens. No longer is he hated for being a harsh dictator. Rather, he is admired for being a charismatic leader and father of the nation who brought peace and gave Congolese people a national identity. Furthermore, this analysis indicates that this is not the image of Mobutu that will continue to dominate the collective Congolese memory of future generations. Because Mobutu’s memory is not preserved, but rather reconstructed by the present, future Congolese generations will reconstruct Mobutu into whatever they need him to be whether that be a dictator, a national hero, or a Congolese fashion icon. The nature of national myths is permanently in flux, reconstructed to the political needs of its citizens.
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