Nairobi — In Beyond the Storm: Treating the Powerless and the Powerful in Mobutu's Congo/Zaire, Dr. William T. Close, an American surgeon, was an eyewitness to the near stillborn birth of an African nation-state. Close would spend sixteen years in the Congo, after initially committing himself to a six weeks tour of duty with a missionary organisation. His most recent book is a fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking chronicle of not only a life lived through army mutinies, coup d'etat and civil war in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the rise and fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, the man to whom Close would become the personal physician. Africa Insight's CURTIS ABRAHAM reviews the book and talks to Dr Close.
During the post-World War II optimism of 1950s America, Close and wife Bettine Moore became involved in the Moral Re-Armament (MRA), a religious movement that was started by the American Lutheran minister Frank Buchman. Bachman's preaching's centered on personal change through the application of what he believed to be the four absolute moral standards: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love would create a "force" of men and women capable of changing the world (years later though the MRA would shift its focus from personal change to what Close calls "a highly vocal anti-Communist lobby".
In May 1960 the MRA developed a plan to send a team from their group to the Belgian Congo. The idea was for the MRA group to help with the smooth transition from Belgian Congo to independent nation-state.
"I was chosen to go because I was bilingual in French I wanted to get out of the headquarters and do something useful," Close told me in a recent interview from his home in Wyoming.
There was practically nothing that connected Close to the African continent.
No sooner had Close stepped foot off the 707 jet airliner in Leopoldville (Kinshasa today), the Belgian Congo capital, when all hell broke loose.
In June 1960 when the Belgian Congo became independent Patrice Lumumba became the country's Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu became president. However, not long after that the Congolese army mutinied against the Belgian officers who still controlled it.
Mutiny in Leopoldville
Soldiers in the Congolese army stationed in Leopoldville broke into the armouries and went of the rampage. Reports of murders and rape spread across the city. Bands of armed soldiers roamed the streets stopping Belgians or pulling them out of their vehicles in a frantic search for firearms and valuables. A massive exodus of Europeans occurred from the city. Close estimates that some three thousand Europeans, boarded ferries and barges from Leopoldville heading to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo (RC) just across the Congo river.
Meanwhile, Close looked for some way of putting his medical skills to good use. He had heard that the majority of the Belgian doctors had also fled the chaos and there were no Congolese doctors for the simple reason that none had been trained by their colonial masters. Darting through the besieged streets of Leopoldville Close managed to push his way through an unruly mob and into the Hopital des Congolais, the city's largest hospital.
During that first day, Close was given a crash course in developing and fixing film for x-rays by the long suffering Belgian doctor Marcel Pirquin. Close, Pirquin and other hospital staff took care of the numerous victims and perpetrators of the violence, both Congolese and Belgian alike.
In the weeks that followed Close went from taking x-rays to making plaster casts for fractures and eventually to surgery. However, hospital conditions were appalling. There was no blood in the blood bank. Used gauze pads were retrieved from the bins, washed and re-used. There was no laboratory to speak of. However, Close quickly became a master at surgical improvisation. He concocted his own gas-oxygen-ether anesthesia and taught Makila, the floor sweeper, to push on the balloon in rhythm with his own breathing to administer the anesthesia. He would use a brace and a drill bit from a carpentry shop to make a burr hole in a small boy's skull to relieve the pressure on his brain- "primitive craniotomy," he called it.
During these turbulent days Close and the surgical staff were conducting many of their operations at gunpoint. Once a Congolese soldier who had been shot in the thigh by a Belgian paratrooper was stretchered into the operating room by three fellow soldiers dressed in full combat gear. When Close tried to get more catgut from an adjacent room
Two of the soldiers blocked his way with one declaring: "You can't leave. If you don't save our man, I'll kill you."
Mobutu enters the scene
Meanwhile Joseph Desire Mobutu had been appointed Chief of Staff with the rank of colonel. The Force Publique would now be called the Armee Nationale Congolaise and according to Close: " Mobutu, addressing the troops in Lingala, the official language of the army, announced that they should elect their officers, designate which white officers were acceptable, and restore order in the camps."
But this did little to prevent the mutiny from spreading to Elisabethville, capital of the mineral-rich Katanga (Shaba) province. Secessionist Moise Tshombe, who was also a client of Close, declared Katanga independent from the rest of the Congo. This move was said to be backed by Belgium and the United States. Belgium's colonial policy cared only for natural resource exploitation and gave no thought to good governance. An estimated sixty percent of the Congo's national income came from the mines in Katanga.
While the Congo struggled with its growing pains as a newly independent nation, Close was having his own personal struggles. His dedication to Hopital des Congolais led to conflict with his MRA colleagues. Peter Howard, who became leader of the MRA following the death of Frank Buchman in 1961 and who had been a political correspondent and investigative reporter for the London Daily Express, wrote to Close saying that he, Close, had an unhealthy obsession with the Hopital des Congolais and advised him that: "You must, can, and will cut with that hospital."
Instead, Close decided that his responsibility as the only surgeon at the hospital greatly outweighed obligations to an evangelical movement and resigned from the MRA rank and file.
Close's first encounter with Mobutu occurred within the background of the unfolding violence in Leopoldville and the Congo generally. "At the time I had just become the physician for the First Parachute Battalion and Mobutu's house was in the paratrooper's camp", says Close, "We were having huge amounts of trauma in the operating rooms and I had been told by the British military attaché, Colonel John Sinclair, that Colonel Mobutu was the most effective guy in the army. So as a sort of typical naïve American, I waved for his car to stop as he was leaving his house and said: 'Bonsoir, mon colonel. I am the surgeon at the Hopital des Congolais, and I wondered if you can do something about all the violence in town so we can catch up in the operating room.' He looked at me and sort of raised his eyebrows and said: 'Oui, c'est possible', and then he rolled up the car window and sped away." Not long after that encounter Close noticed a decrease in the steady stream of trauma cases.
A family affair
Some weeks later Mobutu summoned Close to tend to the medical needs of several family members.
He was asked to remove a fish bone that was stuck in the throat of one of the colonel's great aunts. He would also ask the American surgeon to circumcise a new born son, a procedure Close had not previously performed. Mobutu also asked him to go and sit with his extended family as one great aunt lay dying.
If Close's bold approach to Mobutu to reduce the violence in Leopoldville and his successful medical care with his relatives won him over, then Close was equally enamored with what he saw as Mobutu's courage and compassion. Once there was an attempted mutiny at the police barracks. Mobutu, Col. Sinclair and Close along with three paratroopers went to confront the mutineers. Mobutu told the others to stay back as he walked towards the armed and angry rebels.
"Mobutu halted in front of the police. Slowly and deliberately he scrutinized the men," remembers Close in Beyond the Storm. "Then, standing at attention with his shoulders back and fists clenched, he commanded: Deposez vos armes- drop your weapons' A low murmur came from the men. No one moved. Their weapons were leveled at the colonel. I held my breath. Two men in the front row dropped the butts of their rifles, released the barrels, and the guns clattered to the ground. In seconds, the crashing of weapons echoed in the camp. The handful of defiant men in the front row stepped forward and saluted. The mutiny was over."
Mobutu was a member of the Ngbandi ethnic community. He was born in Lisala, in Congo's northern Equateur province on October 14, 1930.
His family was dirt poor. Although he was christened Joseph-Desire in 1972, however, he acquired the name Sese Seko koko Ngbendu Wazabanga. Literally translated as "hot pepper", "green," and "it stings". Kuku ngbendu wazabanga is an Ngbandi proverb whose translation could mean: "Even if it is not ripe, hot pepper stings"
Mobutu's mother Marie-Madeleine Yemo was abandoned by her husband Alberic Gbemany. She joined the fraternity of femmes libres or 'free women', a lightly veiled euphemism for a prostitute. Such women were ordered by the colonial medical authorities to undergo a monthly medical check-up for STDs. Although she never married again Mobutu was the result of one of numerous liaisons she had. Mobutu (and his siblings) had no knowledge of the identity of his (their) biological father.
Mobutu was a bright but undisciplined student when he attended primary school in Lisala during the 1930s. When Marie-Madeleine moved back to Gbadolite, hunting and fishing with his maternal grandfather and a great uncle occupied most of his time. However, he returned to school. When the Catholic missionaries organized a football team, young Mobutu became the team's goalkeeper. But years later he was booted out of high school when the missionaries learned that he had spent his vacation in Leopoldville (a place forbidden for students) boozing and cavorting with girls.
Such individuals were immediately drafted into the Force Publique, the Congolese national army. Mobutu was all of nineteen years when he donned the uniform of the Force Publique.
Mobutu the journalist
Mobutu's command of the French language landed him the position of secretary-accountant to the commander of the special company. Less than a year later he was sent to the Ecole Centrale in Luluabourg in the south of the country. After successfully completing his studies Mobutu was sent to army headquarters in Leopoldville where he was assigned to the Provincial Secretary of G2, the unit dealing with intelligence, mobilization and operations. He was promoted to sergeant in April 1954. It was around this time that Mobutu married his fifteen year old fiancée, Marie-Antoinette.
It was around this time that Mobutu parted company with the military and became a freelance journalist and began writing articles for L'Avenir, the only newspaper at the time that accepted articles from the Congolese. He became responsible for the editorial pages of both L'Avenir and its successor Actualites Africaines. Patrice Lumumba, who was at the time imprisoned for alleged embezzlement, read and admired Mobutu's articles. When he was finally released from prison Lumumba appointed Mobutu his personal secretary, a position that was made official in July 1960 when Lumumba became prime minister. Not long after that Mobutu was appointed Army chief of staff with the rank of colonel.
During the chaotic "Congo Crisis" period following Lumumba's assassination and power struggle between Joseph Kasavubu, Moise Tshombe and Antoine Gizenga (now current Prime Minister of the D.R.Congo) Close continued his surgical work at the Hopital des Congolais despite the atmosphere of sectarian Congolese politics.
A cheating big man
In January 1962 Mobutu appointed Close chief doctor for the Armee Nationale Congolaise, shortly thereafter he became Mobutu's personal physician. His surgical work at the Hopital des Congolais came to an end in February that year.
In the years to come Close and Mobutu enjoyed a friendly doctor/patient relationship. Evenings at Mobutu's house in the paratrooper camp would be spent playing thirteen games of checkers with Close and drinking cognac.
Mobutu often cheated and Close often lost even if he did catch the general cheating. There were also boat excursions on the Congo River. Both Close and Mobutu would bring families on board during these occasions.
They also became intimate friends. When Close and his wife found it difficult to pay for a Greenwich, Connecticut wedding for their actress daughter Glenn, Mobutu stepped in and offered to pay the American surgeon a $20,000 annual retainer fee as well as an additional $40,000 for his decade of service to him and the people of Congo. This amount not only catered for their daughter's wedding but was also used as a down payment on a ranch in Wyoming where the couple still lives today.
Mobutu was also quite a serious bibliophile. He admired Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. This is hardly surprising since Machiavelli's tome describes the arts by which a prince can retain control of him realm and Mobutu was one of the undisputed grand masters of holding onto power in Africa.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Gen. Charles De Gaulle, two French-speaking Europeans, were his historical mentors. He was also a voracious reader of economics, geopolitics and history.
Following Mobutu's bloodless coup in 1965. Close's wife Bettine and three of her four children would come and live in Leopoldville.
But all was far from well in the first republic. Political intrigue was always part and parcel of the Congo's political landscape. In 1966 four cabinet members were arrested on charges of complicity in an attempted coup d'etat. One of the alleged coup plotters, a man by the name of Evariste Kimba, had been taken care of by Close when he was under house arrest with Moise Tshombe.
Reportedly, the plot had been brewing in Colonel Bangala's house in the paratrooper's Camp not far from the Close family home. As for Close he remains uncertain whether or not there was indeed a plot. The evening before the executions were to take place Mobutu told Close that Pope Paul VI had urged clemency for the accused coup plotters. Nevertheless, Mobutu remained steadfast and felt that they should be made an example of.
If there was a starting point where Close appears to be questioning his relationship with Mobutu then this might have been it. "I was uncomfortable and insecure after the horror of the hangings," he writes.
In 1968 Mobutu asked Close to take over the administration of Hopital des Congolais. The hospital had become a "death trap" since Close had worked there in 1960-61. With the aid of doctors recruited from the United States, Canada and Europe the hospital underwent renovation and was again fully staffed. In time it became a national referral center of over 2,000 beds. Hopital des Congolais was later renamed Mama Yemo Hospital, after the dictator's mother.
According to Close it later became one of the biggest centers in Africa for patients with AIDS. Sadly, in October 1991 the Congolese army mutinied once again and the AIDS research facilities were destroyed.
Close gives credit to the late Congolese leader for taking seriously the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the threat it posed to the Congolese people. In 1985 the Congolese Minister of Health, a man by the name of Mushobekwa and Dr. Malongo Miatudila, his technical adviser who is also co-author of Beyond the Storm, met with Mobutu and informed him of the seriousness of the pandemic.
Franco's Aids song
Not long after, says Close, Mobutu removed all constraints dealing with AIDS and "An aggressive multimedia campaign was launched against HIV." Francois Luambo Makiadi a.k.a "Franco", one of the Congo's most popular musicians at the time was drafted into the HIV/AIDS campaign. 'Franco', who ironically is suspected to have died of AIDS some years later, wrote a song called 'Attention Na SIDA' (Beware of AIDS) about how the disease is acquired and what can be done to prevent transmission.
"Franco's intervention, which was heard all over the city and most of the country, in all bars large and small, on radio and television, has an immediate effect of exposing the taboos", writes Close.
Close credits Mobutu's intervention with the Congo keeping its national HIV prevalence at an astonishing 5 percent despite the prolonged years of armed conflict throughout the county.
But the Congo as an emerging nation-state was in precarious health. The rot had already taken hold of Mobutu's government. The kleptocracy was firmly entrenched. At the time Close was unable to comprehend the corruption and patronage that Mobutu's family members and close allies would come to expect of one of their own. But he would understand it in retrospect. "Mobutu used money to buy loyalty," says Close, "but that's a very slippery path to be on because you end up needing more money."
The final break between the doctor and patient came about during Mobutu's vaction in Baden Baden, Germany. At the end of the Baden Baden trip in 1974, Close expressed disgust with all the people who were hanging around Mobutu. He became very really annoyed that his own doctor would criticise him to someone else. Mobutu told Close to go back to Kinshasa immediately. Close's contract was terminated. He hated being fired but says that on the train ride along the Rhine he was relieved of carrying that black bag all the time.
Mr Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on Africa issues. Africa Insight is an initiative of Nation Media Group's Africa Media Network Project.