Sunday, January 27, 2013


I'd be remiss if I didn't provide you with this book's secondary title as well: "LIVING ON THE BRINK OF DISASTER IN MOBUTU'S CONGO". Michela Wrong, who wrote this book about Mobutu Sese Seko's Congo in 2002, spent a good chunk of the 1990s living in this country as a correspondent during Mobutu's last days, and put together a fine overview of how this cunning and complex dictator came to power, and the ruin of a country he presided over as he was chased out of the country in the 1990s. Moreover, it doesn't approach its subject from a political angle – it's very much a work of social science and sociology, seeking to make sense of this Central African country and its strange mores, morals and otherworldly essence, while trying to pin down just how much of it Mobutu was responsible for.

Michela Wrong is the classic swashbuckling sort of journalist-caught-in-the-third-world-maelstrom. We see her struggling to keep from getting robbed, from being caught in the middle of warring functions and from eating the wrong thing. By getting so close to her subjects, she's able to see something close to nuance in how she appraises Mobutu and his scared, loyal and sycophantic minions. Certainly, she pulls no punches in describing how Mobutu looted the country. His gaudy, decadent palaces and ostentatious pink champagne parties take place amongst unbelievable squalor. He's an excellent stand-in for the template of "corrupt African dictator", who milks the IMF and guilt-ridden Western nations and funnels most of the money to himself and his asinine schemes. Yet Wrong also at least attempts to see the man at the center of the chaos, and by the book's end, I felt (as she most certainly did) that he was more a product of his crazy environment than one who stood apart from it. He was no Idi Amin – and could even be argued to be a man who brought some (thuggish, corrupt) order to Congo's post-colonial era.

The depressing colonial history of the Congo, which as I understand it is masterfully laid out in Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" - which is on my night table ready to be read very shortly – is well told here. Belgium essentially came here in the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s and raped it for all it was worth, leaving behind a dependent people and a shambles for all intents and purposes. Into the void stepped Mobutu. His  rise coincided with the Cold War, and Wrong describes how the combination of the West and USSR fighting over this mineral-rich country and Western guilt over the colonial legacy combined to pretty much give Mobutu everything he wanted and then some. He had a dictatorial free hand to plunder and make stupid, Soviet-style decisions, even getting his hands on a little bit of nuclear material, in one of the book's more pathetically comic sections. African-style independence and black pride combined in the 1970s to make Congo seem like a beacon to other African nations as well – remember the Muhammed Ali fight in Kinshasa? (Watch Ali documentaries for some amazing footage of killer clothes and music).

It's hard to find too many flaws in the book, but I wasn't as riveted as I probably could have been, given the richness of the material. It's a very good read, however, and certainly a strong text to get into if you're interested in modern Africa and its travails in the latter half of the 20th century.