The demons of history keep reincarnating. A hundred years later, the Congo – now renamed Zaire, a word with Portuguese roots – came to be ruled by another despot, a homegrown one: Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, which translates roughly to “an all powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” That is how the man called himself.
The world knew him simply as Mobutu. He wore a leopard hat and carried a cane. He was America's ally in Africa's cold war intrigues. He ransacked Zaire, embezzled huge amounts of money, and built palaces everywhere. But he lavished special attention on his ancestral home, near Zaire’s border with the Central African Republic. There he created a gaudy town called Gbadolite. As Richard Dowden writes in Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles:
“As if spraying his territory, he built a palace in every major town in Congo, but at Gbadolite there are three. The rest of the town is there simply to serve them. So it has an international-sized airport so that Mobutu’s family could hire Concorde to go shopping in Paris or New York and a Coca-Cola factory in case they needed a drink…In other words, an incongruous but not unusual juxtaposition: a flagrant display of wealth in an extremely poor place. A century ago, King Leopold sucked the wealth out of Congo and built mansions in Europe, but his 20th century reincarnation built mansions in Congo in addition to building some in Europe. But let me not go on and on about this – all my knowledge about Congo comes from books, and a real engagement with a place is possible only after some serious, focused travel.
Kawele Palace was the private home. The entrance is a triumphal arch and at the back there is a vast swimming pool on two levels and a banqueting hall of royal proportions. From the terrace you can see across to what was once Mobutu’s zoo and a European-style farm with cows flown in from Switzerland and sheep from Argentina.”
Let me instead finish with an anecdote about Mobutu which shows what a bizarre life he led (the anecdote is from Dowden's book as well). Like many rich and powerful men, Mobutu had a wife and a mistress. The mistress was the wife’s twin sister. To please his wife and ensure she did not know of the time he spent with his mistress, Mobutu played an elaborate game of hide and seek:
And the middle of the town [Gbadolite] on a low hill is a palace for Kosia, the twin sister of Mobutu’s wife, Bobi. In public the twins accompanied him, dressed identically. In private, I am told by a former guard, it was a different matter. Bobi was very possessive and when Mobutu wanted to spend time with Kosia, he would tell his wife that he was going to Kinshasa. The presidential convoy would swoosh off to the airport but Mobutu would sneak back to Kosia’s palace. A Mobutu lookalike complete with leopard hat and cane, would mount the steps of the plane and wave to Bobi – you can see the runway from the presidential bedroom – then the plane would leave for Kinshasa. A few days later the process would be done in reverse. The guards at Kosia’s place were under separate command from those at the President’s house and were forbidden to talk to each other on pain of death.Imagine that: a Concorde takes off with an impostor in it; it travels all the way to Kinshasa, 710 miles away, and then returns a few days later. Just to keep the rigmarole going. It’s both hilarious and grotesque.
Update: Please see Alex Engwate's thoughtful comment, where he clarifies where the name Zaire comes from (I have mistakenly called it a word with Portuguese roots).