CNN logo

Infoseek/Big Yellow

Pathfinder/Warner Bros

Barnes and Noble

World banner

Mobutu dies in exile in Morocco

Mobutu Sese Seko

Ruled Zaire with iron grip for 3 decades

September 7, 1997
Web posted at: 10:55 p.m. EDT (0255 GMT)

RABAT, Morocco (CNN) -- Mobutu Sese Seko, who held an iron grip on Zaire during his more than three decades in power, died Sunday, less than four months after he was forced into exile. He was 66.

The former president of what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo died at about 9:30 p.m. (2130 GMT) at a military hospital in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, according to a report from the Moroccan news agency MAP. He had been hospitalized there since early July.

Hospital workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the report of Mobutu's death to The Associated Press.

The cause of death was described as a "long illness." Mobutu had reportedly been suffering from advanced prostate cancer and had traveled to Europe for medical treatment during the last year of his rule.

Mobutu fled from what was then called Zaire in May after forces led by rebel leader Laurent Kabila marched from strongholds in the eastern part of the central African nation to the outskirts of the capital, Kinshasa -- meeting surprisingly little resistance from Mobutu's collapsing army.

After seizing control from Mobutu, Kabila discarded the name Zaire, which Mobutu had adopted in 1971 in a drive to Africanize the country and replace names from its Belgian colonial period.

In Congo, there was no immediate mention of Mobutu's death on radio or television.

Mobutu seized power in 1965

The man who would one day become his young country's dominant political force was born Joseph Desire Mobutu on October 14, 1930, in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. In later years, he would Africanize his name to Mobutu Sese Seko.

After the vast colony with significant mineral wealth gained independence in 1960, Mobutu, a journalist by training, was named army chief of staff and later commander-in-chief.

In 1965, Mobutu seized power with the backing of the military and tacit support of Western countries, who saw him as a bulwark against communist expansion in Africa. He established a one-party state, banning all other political organizations but his own.

Over the next three decades, Mobutu led one of the most enduring regimes in Africa -- and, said his critics, one of the most dictatorial and corrupt.

Despite the country's obvious natural resources, including copper, gold and diamonds, much of Zaire's population continued to sink further into poverty. But Mobutu, known for his trademark leopard-skin hat, amassed a personal fortune estimated to be as much as $5 billion, with homes in Switzerland and France.

Mobutu also pursued a policy of "Zairianization," a nationalistic attempt to expunge remnants of colonialism. In addition to changing the names of the country and many of its cities, major industries were nationalized. And emulating Mobutu, government workers and ministers had to wear Mao-style jackets and drop their Western names.

West dropped Mobutu after Cold War

However, as the Cold War waned in the early 1990s, so too did Western support for Mobutu, especially in light of allegations of human rights abuses and rampant corruption. Belgium, France and the United States all suspended military and financial assistance to the regime, undermining Mobutu's grip on power.

As the economic and political situation worsened, Kabila, a long-time rival of Mobutu's and now president of Congo, began a military drive from eastern Zaire in October 1996 to depose him. As the rebels advanced, Mobutu -- who had been out of the country receiving medical treatment -- returned to Zaire, vowing to crush the rebellion.

But by May, with his regime in shambles, Mobutu fled, first to Togo and then to Morocco. He had reportedly requested permission to travel to France for medical treatment, but the French government refused.

A diplomatic source told Reuters that Mobutu, a Roman Catholic, would be buried in Rabat's Christian cemetery. But a family member, speaking in Kinshasa on condition of anonymity, said Mobutu had requested that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered over the land he once ruled.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Zaire section
CNN Plus

Related stories:

Related sites:

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window

External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Infoseek search  

Message Boards Sound off on our message boards

You said it...
To the top

© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.