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Sovereignty and Personal Rule in Zaire

by William Reno


Zaire’s (1) real political system operates outside conventions of formal state sovereignty. As formal state bureaucracies collapsed under Zaire’s president Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-97), the country’s ruler increasingly exercised authority through control over markets, rather than bureaucracies. Control became less territorial and more centered on domination of an archipelago of resources that could be used to generate income and attract powerful allies. Abjuring “development,” administration became incidental to the profitable exploitation of resources for personal gain. Bureaucracies, feared the ruler, acquire their own interests and powers (2). Rather than providing security to citizens, the regime held on to power through opposite means. Even outsiders’ recognition of Zaire’s sovereignty has become contingent to what are violent, essentially private commercial arrangements as a means of exercising authority.

This reconfiguration represents a stark contrast to earlier characterizations of Zaire’s political system, particularly what Callaghy called a “Zairian absolutism” of effective accumulation and exercise of patrimonial control in the 1970s and 1980s within the framework of a centralized (if ineffective) state administration (3) As reliable Cold War era outside sources of income faltered, Mobutu’s first response to crisis was to intensify old strategies, consolidating power not through state structures, but via patronage to loyal strongmen. His apparent monopoly over the distribution of resources to a single patronage network discouraged him from innovating, even as the pace of change quickened in the late 1980s. Strongmen quickly discovered, however, that changing conditions brought them new opportunities to profit on their own. Enterprising politicians used old positions of privilege to take advantage of new opportunities and resources that came with defection from the president’s network. Yet how did Mobutu weather for so long the collapse of not only Zaire’s state institutions, but also his presidential network of strongmen and aspiring politicians that really ran Zaire before the 1990s? And after Laurent Kabila finally removed Mobutu from power in May, 1997, how has the nature of state collapse under Mobutu influenced Kabila’s own construction of authority?

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