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!”
Robert checks in with headquarters to report “Mission Accomplished!”
Less than 30 minutes later, I could feel my bowels loosen. Knowing I’d never make it to dessert, I pulled Bruno aside and went outside for a smoke. “There’s something I’d like you to do for me,” I whispered. “You said the president is the most generous man you know.” Bruno nodded eagerly. “So… do you think you could get me his hat?”
“His what?” Bruno asked, thinking he’d misunderstood.
“You know, his leopard toque.” Bruno considered this request, one I’m certain he’d never received before, much less from a visiting journalist.
“I’m sure he has more than one and it would mean a lot to me. Whaddaya think?”
“This would be a gift for you?”
“Of course. I’d wear it proudly.”
“OK,” Bruno said. “Let me see. You know he has already sent a present to your bedroom.”
A present? What could it be, I wondered. During the Ali-Frazier “Rumble in the Jungle,” Mobutu had dispatched a bevy of Zairian beauties to entertain selected reporters who were covering the fight. But the last thing I wanted was an African hooker. “No… no, it’s not that,” Bruno laughed, as if reading my mind. “Something else. But very special.”
A while later I retired to my bedroom, which was illuminated by a lamp in the form of a golden palm tree that almost reached the ceiling. It was decorated with cheap, imitation baroque and rococo furnishings, in a style best described as Louis-Farouk. My suitcase had been placed at the foot of the bed. After taking care of business and a quick shower, I donned my kikoy and tried to relax. It had been a long day.
The air conditioner hummed softly as I fixed myself a night-cap and grabbed a final smoke. It was then I noticed a videotape atop the TV. The tape didn’t have a corresponding box and was labeled by hand with the letters yhbw. I popped it into the machine and moments later, when the title, Young, Hot, Black, and Wet!, appeared on the screen, I realized it was Mobutu’s gift to me. In the interest of discretion and good breeding I will forego further details.
As usual I was up at dawn and in need of coffee. (This was long before I traveled with a portable espresso machine.2 ) After my morning ablutions, I joined Gary and our sound tech, David, at breakfast. Gary, I soon learned, had not been provided with in-room entertainment. David, on the other hand, confessed that he’d stayed up all night watching YHBW over and over again until he ran out of Kleenex and toilet paper.
At ten sharp, Bruno appeared to say there would be a brief delay. I reiterated my concerns about making our connecting flight to Abidjan. As usual, Bruno took my consternation in stride and assured me we could count on the president’s plane to ferry us onwards. Then, changing the subject, he coyly inquired if I’d enjoyed the film. From the tone of his salacious critique, he considered it a classic!
Knowing there was no such thing as a “brief” delay, I suggested to Bruno that we make use of our downtime by shooting some exteriors of the palace. It was a pretty remarkable piece of engineering, this fortress carved out of the jungle. The spectacular views from the multitiered terraces and fountains dotting the grounds made it easy to envision the estate as sort of a Congolese Camp David where “Le Roi de Zaire” could swim, kick back, and commune with six caged leopards, the pride and joy of his private zoo. A man who clearly abhorred the slightest inconvenience, Mobutu’s private airstrip was long enough to handle the supersonic Concorde, which he often chartered for long flights to North America and Asia.
For all its luxury, Gbadolite was also a sanctuary, as remote as Mars from the chaos of Kinshasa. It was not surprising Le Maréchal preferred to use the retreat as his headquarters even during periods of relative stability. And because this was his native village, Mobutu bestowed special favors on the locals, giving them menial jobs as groundskeepers and custodians who maintained the palace and guest quarters. It was common for Mobutu to roll through town in his red Land Cruiser, dispensing wads of newly minted cash to the populace who eagerly cheered his every appearance. Unlike everywhere else in this vast country, Mobutu was viewed as a benevolent savoir. Meanwhile, back in the capital, soldiers, unpaid for months, were on a rampage.
A little past 11 we were back in the “salon” where the change in atmosphere was palpable. Two aides hurriedly appeared, breathlessly announcing, “He’s coming.” A moment later Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“the all-powerful warrior, who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”3 ) strode into the room. He was dressed casually but smartly in a colorful silk shirt, black trousers, and well-shined shoes… but he was bareheaded. Shit, I thought. No goddamn hat!
Le Chef seemed to look through me from behind his large black-framed spectacles as he offered me his beefy hand. While I fastened the microphone to his shirt, Bruno explained this “exclusive” would be seen on CNN around the globe. But Mobutu couldn’t give a shit where it was seen or who might be seeing it, dismissing Bruno’s obsequious explanation with a flick of the wrist that indicated he simply wanted to get down to business. The interview lasted about 35 minutes, and despite Gary’s persistence, Mobutu didn’t offer any real news. The news was simply getting him.
Mobutu said reports of heavy fighting in the southeast were exaggerated and dismissed the pillaging in Kinshasa as a temporary and unfortunate setback. And while he acknowledged “some” soldiers hadn’t been paid for a while, he claimed it was a clerical error that would soon be righted. Several times he reiterated that he had the situation under control and no one need worry because, after all, “Je suis Mobutu!” When Gary pressed him on his nation’s abhorrent human rights record, he spouted the usual pap about addressing all of Zaire’s problems and then lectured us on the geopolitical challenges of running a country larger than Western Europe. Finally, he assured us of his commitment to multiparty democracy and holding free elections as soon as possible.
As expected, Le Maréchal lived up to his reputation. He was charming, witty, and articulate. Anyone unfamiliar with the politics of Zaire could’ve been forgiven for being impressed by his confident tour d’horizon. Of course, everything he said, with the exception of “I am Mobutu,” was total bullshit. It was easy to picture him visiting Capitol Hill, as he did over the years, hoodwinking naive legislators and their appropriation committees. The guy was as smooth as shit through a goose.
Following our sit-down, we headed outside to shoot some B-roll of Mobutu surveying his domain while Bruno conferred with his colleagues about our return flight. As David packed up the gear, Mobutu explained he was a simple man at heart and it “pained” him to know most of his country was struggling to survive. Little did he realize with the Cold War over his days were numbered. He would no longer be needed by the West to counteract Soviet influence in Africa. Moments later he was gone, retreating to some luxurious nook to take a call on his personal satellite phone, which was always close at hand, carried by an aide.
Bruno asked if I was happy with the interview. I said it was fine but asked about the hat. He shot me a sly smile just as the Big Man returned, accompanied by a butler carrying a silver tray. Upon it rested the Holy Grail.
“I am told you wanted a special souvenir,” Le Maréchal said, grinning like a cat that had swallowed an aviary full of canaries. “With my compliments.” And with that he gave me the leopard toque—one of six he owned, tailored in Deauville.
Later that evening at the bar in Abidjan, happy as clams and fueled by Stoli, Gary and I reviewed our latest adventure and agreed on the valuable lesson it reaffirmed: In journalism, persistence is everything. What’s more, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Robert Wiener has been a journalist more than 40 years, covering virtually every war and revolution on four continents since Vietnam. He is the author of Live From Baghdad and coscreenwriter of the eponymous HBO film. Wiener retired as CNN’s senior executive producer in December 2001. This, his first contribution to VICE, is also the first installment of his new column, My Life with Big Men, which will be appearing monthly on VICE.com.
1 WAWA: West Africa Wins Again. Anyone who has covered Africa will tell you that 90 percent of your time is spent waiting: for visas, transport, permission, appointments, and so on. Reporting is relegated to the other 10 percent.
2 I recommend the traditional Italian Bialetti Electric (110–230V).
3 The official interpretation of Mobutu’s full name has always been debated. Most agree, however, that the conquests referred to were purely sexual.