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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Mobutu's legacy: Show over substance
Former President Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko
A fashion icon? He kept leopards as pets
By author and journalist Michela Wrong

When Mobutu Sese Seko, late president of Zaire, was at the height of his powers, he decreed his citizens should no longer wear Western jackets and ties.

As part of a great return to African values, the population must adopt the "abacost" - a collar-less jacket worn with a cravat whose complex folds seemed worthy of a Regency dandy.


Mobutu wearing a cravat
Spot the cravat - a facade like the regime itself.
You would see government officials sweating in the ugly outfits, as ill-suited to the equatorial climate as it was possible to imagine, out of loyalty to one of Africa's last political dinosaurs.

I was reminded of Mobutu's bizarre fashion sense during a visit to his villa in Goma, eastern Zaire, in late 1996.

The rebel forces that would send Mobutu into exile just seven months later had seized the town and the residence had been looted.

Light fixture in Gbadolite
Mobutu had a flamboyant taste in interior decor
As we picked our way through the rooms, a kitsch medley of imitation marble and gilt, a colleague spotted one of the infamous cravats, possibly belonging to the great leader himself.

On close inspection, the sartorial trick was revealed. Far from being a sophisticated arrangement of pleats, this was nothing but a velcro bib, made from rather scratchy nylon.

Style over content

It was a small detail, but it said so much about Mobutu's regime, the triumph of show over substance.

Soldiers went without pay and often resorted to looting
By the end Mobutu boasted a weapon-less army which always fled rather than fought, a currency without value, an administration without morals and a civil service which, as the saying goes, pretended to work while the government pretended to pay them.

Yet for 32 years he was courted by the West, feared by his citizens and treated with respect by African contemporaries.

Dramatic performance

I decided to write a book to try and establish how he succeeded in getting away with it for so long.

The list of those who contributed, directly or indirectly, to one of the great dramatic performances of modern times spans centuries and continents.

Dusty cars
Mobutu left behind fleets of limousines
It takes in the Arab slave traders of the 19th century, Belgium's greedy King Leopold, an ageing CIA station chief, high-minded World Bank financiers and the Terminator, one of the most sinister members of the class of "Big Vegetables" - Mobutu's sycophants and henchmen - who cheered their patron on while their country collapsed into anarchy.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz - Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo, is Michela Wrong's first book. It is published in the UK by Fourth Estate.

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30 Jun 00 | Africa
DR Congo marks 40 years
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Timeline: DR Congo conflict
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