Sunday, September 20, 2009

In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong


In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz follows the history of Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire. The Mr. Kurtz in the title is, of course, Joseph Conrad's character from The Heart Of Darkness; a European who came to conquer the African Congo but instead found failure and madness.
Mobutu was a young scholar and military leader when he took over the reins of the newly independant Zaire. Unlike many African leaders who reign for short periods of time, Mobutu reigned for over thirty years, and took a vibrant, thriving economy to ruins in the process.
Michele Wrong follows and tries to understand what went wrong. The biggest part of the problem was the sheer amount of money that Mobutu and his family and friends took out of the country. Hundreds of millions of dollars were diverted from trade, aid, and thriving businesses to their secret bank accounts. While Mobutu was a master manipulator of people and understood how to do that, he was bored by economic concepts and ignored what his policies did to the country.
Wrong covers all the areas in this tragedy. Those who had thriving businesses but were not African had their properties confiscated. Aid meant for refugees was diverted, and by the time Mobutu left, the average life expectency had fallen to the mid-fifties and diseases that had been reined in were once again rampent. Trade with other countries had dried up, as no one could count on contracts being honored. One of the richest countries in resources was left with a crumbling infrastructure and everyday services such as phones or electricity worked on a hit-or-miss basis.
This was an interesting book. I found the history itself interesting, as well as the blame that could be apportioned to international agencies like the IMF, which continued to give huge loans to Zaire when it was evident they would not be repaid, or the governments of Belgium, France and the U.S., which provided help to Mobutu regardless of his actions under the theory of "better the devil you know". This book is recommended for those interested in the history of Africa, or in reading how the best of plans often go astray.

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