keith harmon snow
This is a slightly modified version of a report submitted to EXTRA! in late summer 1997. Editors of EXTRA! felt that the original article didn’t capture the essence of the media reportage at the time. True or not true, the report was assembled after massive research of western media reportage on Zaire and Mobutu, and written at the height of the U.S. sponsored invasion of Zaire, but it was produced with little insight into, or knowledge of, the unfolding U.S. role at the time. Few people could have anticipated that the “rebellion” in Zaire was really a massive U.S. covert operation in progress. In any case, the article remains an apt reflection of media reportage on Mobutu’s Zaire, and a telling forerunner on the media’s biases in reporting on the DR Congo today.
Eighteen years ago,
in “Zaire Could be Very Rich, but Now it Faces Ruin,” (New York Times, 2/1/79), John Darnton accurately wrote that Zaire was “on the brink of ruin,” that looting “was not done by rebels but by Zairian soldiers,” that “the masses are close to starvation”, and that President Mobutu was “an isolated figure, unpopular at home, ignored by much of Africa, disparaged by the East, and embarrassing to the West.” Darnton later cited Zaire’s prisons “among the worst in Africa,” and refugees “interrogated” in “harsh conditions” often “accompanied by beatings,” (NYT, 2/5/79).
Noting the “natural resource potential” and the failure of huge “development” schemes, the article is framed in service to neocolonial economic exploitation. Language and assumptions are based on the imperatives of the West, and there is no mention, for example, of high international banking profits, the banks behind the IMF, the African Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Export-Import Bank, or arms sales enabled by lucrative IMF loans. Noting that “Zaire’s slide into bankruptcy and economic chaos is not merely a product of one man’s misrule,” the underlying truths are not examined. The destitution and chaos in Zaire was then, as today, relegated to the inevitable background of the “Third World”. This is Africa, after all, and the media consistently manipulates the realities to prove it.
Darnton further ignored¾a.k.a. he never reported on¾the resignation of U.S. Embassy officer Robert Remole, who revealed in testimony before the U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Africa (3/5/80) that he was prevented from filing reports about Zaire, even to the Human Rights Division of the U.S. State Department, unless they concerned incidents that had already been reported in the press. According to Human Rights Watch, Remole’s experience was not unique.
Steven Greenhouse (NYT, 5/23-24/88) found “rampant corruption,” “capital flight,” “arbitrary harassment, physical mistreatment and detention of ordinary citizens,” though “Zaire won praise for trying to put its economic house in order.” Quoting unnamed Western sources, Greenhouse revealed his contempt for Zaire and his favor for Washington in saying “the political repression is nothing compared with the economic incompetence.” The propensity to downplay repression is a common theme however.
At a political rally on January 17, 1988, Mobutu’s elite shock troops, the Military Action and Intelligence Service (SARM), indiscriminately attacked thousands of people. Eyewitness testimony taken by the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights noted that plain clothes “security forces attacked at random, using clubs and batons,” and uniformed forces “used live ammunition.” A handful of people died on the spot; 500 were arrested and detained. The attacks were not reported at the time, and they were not mentioned in the Greenhouse articles in May.
While ignoring or marginalizing blatant state repression, the media instead manufactured evidence designed to mislead. On April 19, 1988, Zairian security forces attacked 30 women, and this incident and others like it were ignored or forgotten in major press articles on Zaire.
“A dozen women stood on [Kinshasa’s] main boulevard recently,” wrote Stephen Greenhouse (NYT, 5/23/88), instead, in a later article that serves to obscure the legitimate protest and attacks, “handing out leaflets criticizing the Government of President Mobutu until security police arrested them minutes later.”
Treated as an isolated though “extraordinary event in Kinshasa, because Zairians rarely have the courage to stand up to their leader,” Greenhouse entirely ignored and thereby obscured the previous, and much more significant, women’s protest.
“Coffee workers marching in the May Day parade in Goma, Zaire,” reads the caption of a then Greenhouse photograph. “Sign praises President Mobutu.” There was no mention of the April 19 attack.
Like the exemplary courage of these elderly women, who faced daily starvation and disenfranchisement by design, the April protest was neither unusual in its realities nor in the U.S. media’s dismissal of it. Contrary to the Greenhouse photo of smiling marchers praising Mobutu, the women in the more significant protest that went unreported carried placards of Patrice Lumumba, the people’s martyr, “mysteriously assassinated in 1961,” (NYT, 9/18/96), in a now well-documented manhunt orchestrated by the CIA.
Marching from U.S. to Belgian and French Embassies, the women were beaten by Mobutu’s Garde Civile, forced into the trunks of cars, interrogated, tortured, and banished to the Zairian bush. Witnesses said “the women were old; some about 70. When they beat them the women said ‘we have lived long enough, we protest because we have to.’ They (women) took off all their clothes, symbolizing that the women bear the children.”
On February 23, 1990, women intent on demonstrating “that it was not only the men who were pressing the government for reforms,” were harassed by the elite civilian intelligence service, the Agence National de Documentation (AND). After security forces stripped and brutalized one of some 80 women marching with placards and banners demanding release of political prisoners and opposition party freedoms, other women began to undress in solidarity. Security forces broke up the demonstration and arrested approximately 60 women, with eight babies. This women’s protest and the subsequent repression went unreported.
In contemporary reportage, details and facts necessary for an accurate comprehension of Zairian events are similarly obscured, manipulated, or stripped of meaningful context, creating aberrant portraits of civil society, military oppression, or foreign relations. Paramount is the media’s obfuscation of Mobutuism, his cronies and shock-troops, and the grotesque neocolonial and fascist entity otherwise recognized and legitimized as the Zairian “state.”
In “Economic Collapse Withers Lush Zaire,” (Washington Post, 3/31/92), Keith Richburg reported “monumental official corruption” and rioting “which touched off angry army troops who had not been paid in months,” an article which completely displaces the context. The masses were agitating for a legitimate transition to democracy¾not the imperialist U.S. model then being imposed¾but systemic collapse orchestrated by the regime is attributed to an enigmatic people who, as subtitled, “display a limitless capacity for suffering.”
Richburg employed additional themes often carried into the present. “The situation defies logic,” he quoted one unnamed Western expatriate, without question a “vital cog in the economy,” to say, though “it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the current crisis.” The difficulty to attach blame goes without saying, since an objective media would have no trouble following trails of blood to the security apparatus supported by every U.S. president since Eisenhower.
Noting that “the cost of food is out of reach of most Zairians,” Richburg (Washington Post, 3/31/92) wrote that “at least one Western diplomat has begun bringing cookies and pastries to her office so her Zairian staffers can have something to eat.” By implication the woman deserves a humanitarian award, notwithstanding that it is her raison d’etre in Zaire that has most likely insured the indignities¾starving workers¾that confront her daily. Secure with privileges of diplomatic and economic immunity, no doubt she should be commended for her charity.
Zaire as “enigma” persists, as does the timeless reportage. “What is sometimes difficult to fathom, is how a society like the one that flourished” in Colonial days, “could have fallen so far so fast,” (NYT, 2/14/97). The “breakdown” and “chaotic independence” (NYT, 1/3/97) is “sudden” or “in recent days,” (NYT, 12/5/96), and there are plenty of fond memories from which to rewrite 36 years of suffering by millions of unworthy victims. Zaire is a land “whose futures have come and gone.” With its “mighty Congo,” its “broken clocks,” and its mementos of the African Queen, even “to hear accounts of the series of collapses, booms and uprisings... is almost dizzying,” (NYT, 2/14/97).
Perhaps more dizzying would be media investigation of unfathomable terrorism exercised at torture facilities run by security and intelligence forces, closed to international inspection and the Zairian courts. (The media portrait of a “tribal” Zaire excludes evidence that courts might, let alone do, operate.) Similarly, U.S. propaganda campaigns launched by the Zairian Press Agency (AZAP) or the Department of Citizen’s Rights and Liberties (DCRL) are ignored. Created in 1986 and highly touted by Mobutu, the DCRL—Mobutu’s “human rights” ministry—is never investigated.
Said the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, “[I]nstead of protecting the rights of Zairians from abusive security forces, the DCRL has devoted its resources to defending Zaire’s human rights record and promoting the Zairian government in its dealings with international organizations and foreign governments.”
The media consistently rehashes the specter of student massacres at Tiananmen Square (6/89), where human rights abuses committed by a non-client government are ever resurrected to manipulate public opinion, but comparable then-contemporary massacres—if reported at all—retain the obscure and aberrant frameworks in which they were initially and sporadically reported. As with the Lagoon de Be’ massacre in Togo (April 1991), the Umeuchem (fall 1990) and Kaa (fall 1993) incidents in oil-befouled Nigeria, and the Port Gentil massacre in Gabon (May 23-31, 1990), the state perpetrated repression against students in Zaire remained entirely off the record.
February 1989 saw massive premeditated repression against students in Kinshasa who had been protesting the deteriorating economic conditions faced by university students. Security forces (SARM) launched an offensive on February 14, 1989, with helicopters and ground forces. Students and professors were attacked, detained and tortured, with at least 14 students killed and some 40 students and professors injured.
The attack on students at the University of Lumumbashi came after student protests and arrests in response to a Mobutu speech to the Zairian legislature on May 3, 1990. While the campus was blockaded by security forces and the electricity cut-off by governor’s order, commandoes of the Special Presidential Division (DSP) reportedly flown in from Kinshasa raided the campus, attacking students with knives and bayonets, pursuing them into dorms and dragging them out of their beds. Estimated dead ranged from 12 to 150, but reports by Zairean nationals have since estimated that perhaps more than 1000 students were killed. The government’s version of events was falsified, and all independent investigations were blocked. It has never received attention in the western press.
In an iconoclastic expose’ “Years of Corrupt Rule Drain Zaire’s Resources,” (Washington Post, 3/24/97), James Rupert mentions “Camp Tshiatshi, the main base of the Special Presidential Division,” (DSP) where “a billboard bears a smiling image of Mobutu.” Exemplifying journalistic selectivity consistently employed by the western press, this article mentions nothing of the terrorism of the DSP, the existence and use of the underground torture centers at Camp Tshiatshi, or the nearby “OAU2” torture center. Subtitled “Ingenuity is the Key to Survival,” the article is an affront to the millions of people tortured, executed, imprisoned without trial, raped¾or the victims of starvation and disease¾over three decades, to focus on the inevitable hardships of ingenious citizens like Citoyen (citizen) Crispin Tshiwene and family. Thus is attention diverted by the media, for example, from the internationally sanctioned state policies accelerating Zaire’s shift from major food producer to net food importer, and onto the “inconveniences” suffered by ordinary citizens or Western diplomats.
Indeed, “so concerned with the survival of the regime and the expropriation of the countries resources for private use,” wrote Mondonga Mokodi, that the government invented a program of agricultural and rural development—based on conscription and terrorism of the peasantry—to “mobilize rural people, indoctrinate them with the ideology of the decadent Movement Populaire de la Revolution, and put an end to their organizations and political actions.” While the benefit for Mobutuists has entailed expropriation of capital and realization of enormous profits, he reported, “the result for others has been repression, alienation, anger, diseases, illiteracy, etc.”
Attention is often shifted away from roots causes, and legitimate “news” is displaced by dubious gossip, such as Mobutu’s cancer, ever resurrected to derail the discussion which threatens Zaire’s benevolent keepers in the West: A people’s revolution. The U.S. power base was not concerned about a change of leadership in Zaire, but about threats to high finance and debt-service, arms sales, minerals (diamonds, cobalt, columbo-tantalite, gold), oil, and timber extraction. Hidden objectives of reportage are to silence the history of exploitation, the history now in the making, and to preempt a popular revolution. To do this, systematic propaganda is required. Fact is displaced by fancy, specificity by speculation. The roots of the crises are never explored.
Critical to an objective record is the Sovereign National Conference of 1991-1992, with its Committee for Civil Society or Committee for The Return of Ill-Gotten Gains, where the Mobutu criminals secured one-for-one status with honest agents of the people, where former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen worked to insure that efforts to institute a people’s democracy were derailed.
Mild media exposé’s cited above always serve more to shield Mobutu¾no matter the human cost of his vicious, devious, corrupt, sadistic rule¾than to expose his fascist enterprise to legitimate threats. His discredited agents, like former Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo, and, possibly, “opposition” leader Etienne Tshisekedi, are often cited by the media. This legitimizes their roles in the unprecedented transfer of wealth orchestrated from “Independence” to present day. Infrequently dubbed a dictator or despot, rarely a tyrant, and never a fascist, Mobutu was “leader,” “President” and “Guide.” Such titles of dignity distance Mobutuists from their roles as destroyers, assassins, traitors, executioners and organized criminals.
(Writer’s note, April 23, 2004: Just as the title “president” legitimizes the organized crime of the U.S. executive branch.)
“Since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960, Mr. Mobutu has repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary talent for political survival,” wrote Howard French in the New York Times (11/8/96)¾the complete suffocation of civil society aside. Inferring Mobutu’s immunity to that uniquely “African” inferiority “measured” by eugenicists, French went on to say that “few would dispute that in this part of the world his political instincts remain unparalleled.” Likewise from Time (11/25/96), only “Mobutu’s will and wizardry have held [Zaire] together for this long. His style of rule combines charisma with a flair for draconian repression.”
Central to media cult of Mobutu is the ubiquitous flair for chaos and “charisma” in the regime’s deployment of shock¾troops integral to the security and intelligence apparatus of the state. Troops serve up a perverse and bloody terror always attributed to “unexplained chaos” or to “unhappy,” “ill¾paid” or “demoralized” soldiers (NYT, 2/24/97), as if this were by accident and not by design. Noting that the Mobutu Government “had accused the [Tutsi] rebels of using drugged young people as human shields,” (NYT, 1/24/97), Paul Lewis forgets that it was just such tactics as these that secured the state “stability” (Washington Post, 10/26/96) ever trumpeted by the West.
In a variation on the omnipotent Mobutu theme, James Rupert dubbed Mobutu’s illness “a key element in Zaire’s civil war and political chaos,” (Washington Post, 3/24/97). Thus, even as his utility to the West evaporated, Mobutu was described more favorably than not. He is “like an aged lion cornered by hyenas,” wrote Howard French (NYT, 3/21/97). The image is touching, the “King of Beasts” revered for its courage, strength and fearlessness, while “hyenas”¾often depicted as cowardly, sniveling and untrustworthy¾was attached to Mobutu’s “opposition” and to “rebel” leader Laurent Kabila. Still, Mobutu was “long the unchallenged master of the political game,” wrote French.
“Although many have grown weary of his rule,” wrote Lynne Duke, (Washington Post, 12/19/96), with classic understatement, the “still frail” Mobutu “is widely viewed as the sole figure able to rescue Zaire from the economic and military drift that threatens.” Perhaps no theme was so consistently regurgitated over 36 years of Zaire’s “independence” as that of a “disintegration” in Mobutu’s absence¾unlike that in his presence.
“Mobutu’s great achievement is being able to keep” Zaire “from disintegrating,” (NYT, 12/15/86). “American and European diplomats say that although Mr. Mobutu has his flaws, they are frightened to think what would happen if their countries were to withdraw their support,” (NYT, 5/24/88). “Mobutu is an absolutely critical dynamic in the situation,” (Christian Science Monitor, 8/23/95). “Indication’s are mounting that Africa’s second largest nation has begun to implode,” (NYT, 12/5/96). Indeed, less Mobutu, “it’s going to be chaos. People will fight each other to position themselves to take over,” (Washington Post, 3/9/97).
The media continues to destroy the complex contextual history of Zaire. The term “rebels” was more often than not attached to Laurent Kabila and the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire (AFDL), and with classic Cold War Red hysteria the media ever reinforced that Marxist Kabila was “once assisted by Marxist Revolutionary Che Guevara,” (Chicago Tribune, 3/20/97). The media fiction was that “the rebellion [1996-1997] began with Tutsi who have lived in Zaire for centuries,” (NYT, 2/12/97), in a “limited uprising by ethnic Tutsi,” (NYT, 3/25/97), who “took up arms in October,” (NYT, 3/18/97).
Tiny clips first reporting the “new” violence declared that: “Rwandan Hutu refugees armed with assault rifles and machetes hunted down hundreds of Tutsi,” (NYT, 5/17/96) and “slaughtered at least 12,” (L.A. Times, 5/17/96). Then came “Stoked by Rwandans, Tribal Violence Spreads in Zaire,” (NYT, 6/16/96). Time declared “A Contagion of Genocide,” (7/8/96), a noteworthy but shallow report that misportrayed the victims and the killers. To the Washington Post it soon became “Zaire’s Haven for Murderers,” (7/14/96).
August and September 1996 saw spotty clips on “ethnic” and “tribal” fighting as the media ignored the “new” crisis, which shortly claimed tens of thousands of lives, until the Clinton reelection was secure (11/4/96). Late October saw a full-blown propaganda campaign “trapping” some 220,000 refugees in a “long-running feud” between “Zairian soldiers and local guerrillas,” (NYT, 10/22/96). Calling it “a communist movement of the 1960’s” newly “enflamed in 1993,” most framed the violence on “ethnic” hatreds “brewing since September,” (Washington Post, 10/26/96). Tired of repackaging the old crisis, the media finally reported a “popular uprising cutting across ethnic lines,” (NYT, 11/6/96). Reports consistently, but wrongly, continue to site the crisis as a Tutsi uprising begun in October (NYT, 3/9/97).
In unison with the U.S. Government’s rhetoric of hand-wringing amidst rising body counts ¾ or “watching helplessly as four African nations head for the precipice,” (NYT, 11/2/96) ¾ the media consistently declared that the U.N. was unable “to coax the refugees to return” to Rwanda “despite public relations campaigns and other gentle persuasion,” (NYT, 10/28/96). Forgotten was a report that verified that the Rwandan government was responsible for massacres of returning refugees.
In “U.N. Stops Returning Refugees,” (NYT, 9/28/94), Raymond Bonner reported that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had documented the new Rwandan (RPF, Paul Kagame) Government’s “unmistakable pattern of killings and persecution” of returning refugees. Written by USAID consultant Robert Gersony, the report was later reportedly “discredited” by a team of U.N. experts, and, subsequently it fell from view and disappeared forever. (The report was buried because the Kagame government¾all “Tutsi survivors of genocide”¾was, and remains, a U.S. client government responsible for massive human rights atrocities, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.)
But the hostilities in Zaire’s Kivu region were no “contagion of genocide,” even if legitimate refugees infiltrated by “genocidal” Hutu extremists did fan the Zairian flames. On the other hand, they were clearly a “contagion of genocide” in the framework whereby the Rwandan (RPF) and Ugandan (UPDF) forces deliberately massacred hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians targeted as hostile to their immediate agenda: empire.
Deliberate and systematic reprisals in Kivu began prior to 1985, when Mobutu ordered elite “green berets” of the Forces Armee Zairois (FAZ) to indiscriminately terrorize the local population. Forewarned by human rights groups, the media had sufficient capacity for accurate reporting even as the conflict slid into the 1990’s. Like the massive and transparent preparations for Rwanda’s “genocide” (1994), state terror in Kivu was first ignored, and later manipulated.
Also obvious is the media’s unequal treatment of combatants. While sometimes publicizing massacres of Hutu refugees by AFDL forces (NYT, 11/30/96) “trying to pull off a genocide of their own,” (NYT, 2/12/97)¾which they did¾atrocities committed by Zairian forces received far less attention, though details of atrocities by both sides are manipulated in service to the themes of chaos and tribe. Veiled by U.S. newspaper and newsweekly blanket coverage of returning refugees (Oct.-Dec.) were the numerous arbitrary and politically motivated arrests, tortures, massacres and “disappearances” perpetrated by FAZ and AFDL forces.
Amnesty International issued regular alerts noting the systematic and sustained persecution of women, members of religious groups, and human rights defenders. Unmentioned, for example, were the (Nov.-Dec.) rapes, kidnaps and murders at the Lycee Likovi secondary school in Bunia, where FAZ troops “raped the young girls savagely and systematically, leaving seven of them dead,” (Amnesty International, 2/20/97). With classic institutional detachment and superficial generality, the New York Times reported only that soldiers “looted” and “destroyed homes” in Bunia, (“Zaire Forces Abandon Key Gold Town to Rebels,” 12/11/96).
The “rebels” are involved “in dangerous businesses, including smuggling gold, arms and other contraband,” (NYT, 10/31/96), unlike Mobutuists. Indeed, “Central Africa’s military messiah [Kabila] is accompanied by a bizarre band of apostles,” who “never amounted to much more than a nuisance,” like “Mai-Mai tribesman, who smoke marijuana, worship water, and festoon themselves with bathroom fixtures, mainly faucets and hoses,” (Time, 3/24/97). Though Zairian soldiers “dancing naked” were first linked to (read: irrational and immoral) “Mai-Mai” (NYT, 11/2/96), these now permanent media fixtures are also rebel “voodoo warriors who believe they are bulletproof,” (U.S. News & World Report, 3/24/97).
Photos of Kabila’s festooned “apostles” and voodoo warriors are never provided however. Equally lacking are photos belying the bloody realities of war. There are no photos of soldiers¾festooned in fatigues or faucets¾in or returning from combat, in medical tents, body bags or mass graves. With thousands of reports published since 1994, few photos reveal any of the sophisticated military equipment in use. Nor does the media reveal any trace of “modern civilization” in Central Africa¾but for a few photos framing the U.S. troop heroics.
“The rebels advanced from three sides with columns of tanks,” (Washington Post, 3/19/97). Yet such equipment is never seen and the articles hardly allude to sophisticated weapons. (Worse still, the rebels were supported at the deepest levels by the U.S. military.) Meanwhile the images of hopelessness and destitution proliferate because this, after all, is Zaire. Heart of darkness. And Zaire, or so the media would have us believe, is uncivilized. It is a landscape of hopelessness. Of tribes and savages and filthy refugees suffering from Ebola or the African condition. From the “contagion of genocide,” from “The Coming Anarchy” (Atlantic Monthly, 2/94) and the stinking equatorial heat.
the end (quite literally, for millions of innocent people).
U.S. Congress, Senate, Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, Interim Report: Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, 94th Congress, 1rst Session, November 20, 1975, at 14.
For further discussion of the role of the west in the January 17, 1961 murder of Patrice Lumumba, see: Lumumba: A Biography, Robin McKown, 1969; and The Assasination of Lumumba, Ludo De Witte, Verso, 2001.
See: Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights interview with Union Pour La Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS) opposition party leader, in Kinshasa, March 1990 [name withheld upon request].
Zaire: Repression As Policy, Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, 1990.
State Against Development: The Experience of Post-1965 Zaire, Mondonga M. Mokoli, Greenwood Press, 1992.
The Political Economy of Third World Intervention: Mines, Money and U.S. Policy in the Congo Crises, David Gibbs, Chicago University Press, 1991.
Wayne Madsen, Genocide and Covert Operations in Africa, 1993-1999, Mellon Books, 1999.