My Life with Big Men
A Weird Holiday at Mobutu’s Jungle Hideaway
Dec 28 2012
Photos courtesy of Robert Wiener
Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko (on the right) and Robert pose for a souvenir photo in Gbadolite, June 1993.
The world has seen tyrants more evil than Zaire’s ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, even among Africa’s legion of Big Men who snatched power and held it when Europe relinquished its colonial chokehold on the continent. But no despot was quite as colorful. A case could be made for Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic who proclaimed himself emperor in 1977 and enjoyed feasting on the flesh of his enemies. The closest Mobutu ever came to cannibalism was simply downing the occasional beaker of human blood.
Mobutu managed to control Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for 32 years before being deposed in 1997, and during that time he bled the country dry while enjoying a lifestyle a real emperor might have envied. Once, after flying with Mobutu on his private DC-8 from France to Zaire, I watched with astonishment as he sent the jet immediately back to the Riviera to retrieve a fashion magazine Madame Mobutu had forgotten.
In June 1993, CNN’s Africa correspondent Gary Striker wanted to interview “Le Maréchal” about what amounted to a civil war in the southeastern part of the country while his army, unpaid for months, pillaged Kinshasa, its capital. I was Gary’s producer, but sensing we’d never get the truth from “The Helmsman” (Mobutu had a laundry list of unofficial titles), I had a secret agenda. I wanted Mobutu’s hat: that trademark jaunty leopard-skin number he sported everywhere.
As the military began ransacking Kinshasa, Mobutu literally headed for the hills to his native village of Gbadolite, where he’d erected a lavish presidential palace for himself in the heart of the equatorial forest. Of course, getting there—as well as convincing Mobutu to grant an interview—posed herculean challenges, even for Africa.
I’d been in contact with Mobutu’s advisors for weeks while we covered other news in Gabon: the second African/African-American Summit in Libreville, the capital, as well as Albert Schweitzer’s famed leper colony in Lambaréné. The hospital was still functioning, along with a small museum containing the doctor’s fabled organ (with Bach sheet music) and other personal items that belonged to the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suzanne, the museum’s guide, was only a child when Schweitzer ran the place and said Big Al, who believed promptness to be a virtue, savagely beat both girls and boys if they were late for school—a juicy historical tid- bit the Nobel Committee obviously overlooked. “Oh, yes,” Suzanne insisted, “he slap us VERY hard across zee FACES.”
Back in Libreville, I finally received confirmation that Mobutu would be sending a plane to shuttle us to his jungle outpost. We were instructed to be at the airport early the next morning where we waited about 14 hours for a flight that never arrived. It was yet another WAWA1 moment. Two days and $600 in telephone charges later, we were back at the airport... still waiting. After standing around for another 12 hours with our dicks in our hands, a white 727 with Zaire’s distinctive red-and-gold torch livery on its tail landed and rolled up the tarmac. Finally, less than ten minutes later, we were airborne.
The luxurious jet was previously owned by Jordan’s King Hussein. It had a two-man crew and a stunning Zairian hostess. We were the only passengers. I snuck a peek inside Mobutu’s private bedroom and bath but the hostess explained it was “off limits.” It was clearly not off limits to her, especially when “le patron” was onboard. Without much prompting she admitted she was proud to service—in every way—the leader of her country.
Steam wafted off the red-clay earth as we landed in Gbadolite. You could actually smell Africa, a sensation that never fails to delight me. It was a short drive to Mobutu’s jungle palace, where we were quickly ushered into an immense “salon” that seemed more suitable to a European head of state than the leader of an authoritarian African regime. The room was awash with Louis XVI furnishings, Gobelins tapestries, paintings by Renoir and Monet, and, at the far end, a magnificent mahogany bar stocked with fine cognacs, calvados, and assorted spirits. Each bottle was about the size of a Balthazar of champagne. Zaire is renowned for its exceptional sculpture, but nothing in the place resembled anything even remotely African. I’ve seen my share of dictators’ digs but this one was over the top. There was something very twisted about Mobutu’s taste. Nothing he owned even hinted at his African heritage.For all his bluster about the continent’s rich history, having thrown off forever the yoke of colonialism, Mobutu made his hometown haven into a simple reflection of his greed. He was the Gordon Gekko of Africa and his bizarre proclivities confirmed it.
A white-gloved butler served drinks while two presidential toadies ran through the program: We would dine later with a visiting minister and some of the Mobutu clan but not with “Le Chef” himself. The interview was scheduled the following day at 10 AM. “His Excellency is at his best in the morning,” one of his staff said. “Surely we must understand his fatigue after working all day to solve regrettable problems.”
My contact and point man, Monsieur Bruno, jumped in as I rolled my eyes. “Robert, please trust me,” he implored, sensing my discomfort. “The interview will happen. You have my assurance.” I wasn’t worried about Bruno’s sincerity; he was a standup guy. But I’d been down this road before, held hostage to the whims of other despots who had little use for the concept of time. My mind raced as I anticipated another round of logistical nightmares. I explained it was imperative that we return to Gabon by mid-afternoon to make the last flight out to Abidjan. All the president’s men insisted there would be no problem—in other words, shut up and enjoy the ride.
Before dinner we watched the evening news, which opened as usual with a musical tribute to “The Guide.” Mobutu’s likeness appeared on the screen, his head floating effortlessly through the clouds. Of course, there was no mention of the violence wracking the country. Bruno and the others seemed more interested in the latest soccer results, prompting spirited speculation about Zaire’s chances in the upcoming African Cup.
Dinner was served, which made me think of my pal and former CNN correspondent Richard Blystone. He and I once toyed with the idea of writing a handy phrase book for journalists abroad, each expression phonetically translated into numerous languages and dialects. At the top of the list was, “Huuum... Tastes like chicken!” It was a phrase I repeated several times that night as mounds of stews and local “delicacies” were ladled onto my plate of gilded-edge presidential porcelain. Gary—who at the time had more experience covering Africa—cunningly informed the butlers he was a “strict vegetarian” and picked away at a small portion of steamed tomatoes and corn while only eating the inside of his tiny baguette. More than once he shot me a look that implied, “Enjoy the rest of your night on the toilet!”