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Monday, September 8, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ex-Dictator Mobutu Dies In Exile -- Brutal Strongman Became Rich As Zaire Descended Into Poverty

Los Angeles Times

Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire for nearly 32 years with a combination of brutal repression and unbridled greed that impoverished his citizens while earning him millions, died in Morocco yesterday, barely three months after being driven into exile by leaders of a popular rebellion.

Mr. Mobutu, who died at 66 after a long battle with prostate cancer, was for years the epitome of the African strongman. More than a dictatorship, his was often called a "kleptocracy."

He strode the African and world stage dressed in a trademark leopard-skin hat and carrying an ebony, ivory-tipped walking stick. He looted the treasury of his mineral-rich country, spending some of it on European homes and fine champagne and, reportedly, socking much of it away in Swiss bank accounts.

Stern and imperious, he was little loved and mostly feared. When he was deposed in May by the troops of an old foe, Laurent Kabila, Mr. Mobutu was so ill that he could barely walk. Only one country, Morocco, would accept him.

Mr. Mobutu once bragged in an interview on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" that he was one of the world's richest men - this as Zaire's infrastructure crumbled. Many of the country's paved roads had been swallowed up by jungle, hospital patients were forced to provide their own medicines, and almost every police officer, soldier and civil servant had resorted to banditry to survive.

Joseph-Desire Mobutu was born Oct. 14, 1930, in Lisala, in Zaire's Equateur province. The son of a cook and a hotel maid, he first pursued a career in journalism before becoming a soldier.

In 1960, shortly after the future Zaire gained independence from Belgium, he was named army chief of staff. When the Belgians pulled out, Mr. Mobutu was one of the country's few literate, high-school-educated non-Europeans. Recognizing that the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, Mr. Mobutu sewed up a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency.

The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, whom the CIA suspected of Marxist tendencies, was quickly killed, and Mr. Mobutu spent the next few years maneuvering himself into position to become dictator.

On Nov. 24, 1965, he brought down the first post-colonial government of Josef Kasavubu and declared himself president of the "Second Republic." His hold on power remained unchallenged until the early 1990s, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe also stirred winds of democracy in Africa.

He Africanized his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga - meaning "the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."

A pro-democracy movement led by the Catholic Church began pressuring for multiparty elections in Zaire, but Mr. Mobutu easily sowed divisions among his opponents.

Although Zaire is still considered to be fabulously wealthy, with limitless timber, vast hydroelectric potential and some of the world's richest mineral deposits, it is a country in shambles politically, economically and socially.

Besides what Mr. Mobutu siphoned off and stole, he paid himself generously. His salary was 17 percent of the state budget. By 1989, he officially received $100 million a year to spend as he wished, more than his government spent on education, health and social services combined.

Besides his French Riviera villa and the immense palace that he built in his ancestral village, Mr. Mobutu's properties included a 15-acre beach resort, a plantation of orchards and a huge vineyard in Portugal, a 32-room mansion in Switzerland, and a 16th-century castle in Spain.

Mr. Mobutu had been friendly with the Hutu-led regime in Rwanda that in April 1994 unleashed a genocide against its ethnic Tutsi minority. Tutsi troops marching in from Uganda eventually drove out the Hutu government, but not before at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been slaughtered. The genocide regime decamped en masse into eastern Zaire.

Sustained by international aid agencies and rearmed with Mr. Mobutu's help, the Hutus gained in strength and bravado until they began renewing massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda and eastern Zaire. This prompted Uganda and Rwanda to team up with Kabila, a onetime Maoist anti-Mobutu guerrilla and gold smuggler.

With the help of Rwandan arms and soldiers, Kabila's rebel forces routed the Hutus from their camps, then turned their guns on Mr. Mobutu. In a remarkable 1,000-mile campaign that lasted from November 1996 until Mr. Mobutu's downfall on May 23, they walked the breadth of Zaire to take Kinshasa.

Mr. Mobutu spent the last months of his life in Morocco, undergoing operations to slow the progress of cancer. The treatment failed.

A Catholic, Mr. Mobutu is expected to be buried in the Christian cemetery in Rabat, Morocco.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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