Joseph-Désiré Mobutu was born in 1930 to a modest family in the far north of the Belgian Congo.  From a young age, his schoolteachers recognized his potential and encouraged him to pursue higher education.  Congo gained independence in 1960, and by 1965, Mobutu had become the commanding general of the Congolese army.  He led a coup d’état and became President, holding office until rebels overthrew him in 1996.


“Despite his international reputation for buffoonery and for power going to his head, those of us in the international community, both governmental and private, who dealt with Mobutu on a regular basis, found him quite rational and relatively sophisticated, at least during his earlier years in power.” (Page 77)

“In those days, a full state visit included three nights in Washington and four days touring different regions of United States and an Air Force VIP passenger aircraft.  Mobutu decided that he wanted to go to Disney World in Florida. He had an entourage of about 30 countrymen. At the end of his first day in Disney World, Mobutu called me and said that he could not get over his delight at Disney’s “ride” Down the Congo River, with electric crocodiles and all sorts of African phenomena. He wanted the whole family to see it. He asked me to arrange for Pan-American airways to provide a charter aircraft, at his expense, to bring over about another 30 people. That was my first experience as a diplomatic travel agent.”(Page 83)

“During my first visits to Kinshasa in 1989, to make sure our access to Zairian facilities was still intact, and to talk with Angolan insurgent leader Jonas Savimbi, Mobutu invited me to have dinner on his official riverboat, the Kamanyola.  During drinks before diner, Mobutu was quite animated.  He boasted about a fresh shipment of pink champagne from France, as the butler was popping the first cork.  Before Mobutu could pour a glass for me, I tried to decline, as I have an allergy to that type of champagne.  I said, ‘Maréchal, I would prefer a Coca-Cola.’ He couldn’t believe it and continued to insist that I have his version of bubbly.  After five animated exchanges, he finally relented and said to the butler in French: ‘Bring Minister Cohen a Coca-Cola.’  He then turned to me and said in heavily accented English: ‘I do not wish to violate your human rights.’” (Page 89)

“Although the majority of his people were happy to see him finally go, Mobutu left a legacy that continues to be significant today, two decades later.  The Congo was stable during Mobutu’s long tenure. He ruled with a strong hand.” (Page 92)

Mobutu’s Background

  • Born in 1930 in Lisala.
  • Attended a Catholic mission boarding school before traveling to Belgium in 1957 to pursue journalism and military training.
  • Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, which led to disorder and chaos.
  • In 1965, Mobutu led a coup to take power, strong indications that he was supported by the CIA.
  • In 1975, his administration became increasingly corrupt and isolated.
  • In August of 1989, Mobutu sponsored a peace conference to bring together President Dos Santos and UNITA leader Savimbi to put an end to the war in Angola.  A few weeks after the conference, Savimbi reneged and continued the war, embarrassing Mobutu.
  • By 1990, his international support was dwindling.
  • In 1996, his government was overthrown by rebels.
  • In 1997, Mobutu retreated to Morocco and shortly after died of prostate cancer.