8 January 2007

Congo-Kinshasa: Review of Mobutu's Totalitarian Political System - An Afrocentric Analysis

book review

Washington, DC — In this short book, Peta Ikambana attempts to offer an Afro-centric analysis of the Mobutu regime, which ruled over Zaire (today's DRC) from 1965 to 1997. The book's premise holds that an afro-centered approach to leadership is one that ultimately benefits the people of Africa. Ikambana concludes that, "Mobutu was an African political phenomenon whose regime contributed to the dehumanization of the Zairian people through state crime and the obstruction of democracy." (p.2)

Ikambana's credit is that he tries to offer a perspective that shifts focus from academic standards of evaluation that rely on a supposed universal moral code, to place the African people at the center of his analysis. But he doesn't go all the way, as we shall see below.

Another strong point of the book is that it rightfully highlights the National Sovereign Conference of 1991 as the defining moment of national politics in the Congo, when the nation came together and openly denounced Mobutu as a fraud, and his regime as a hybrid import foreign to their African heritage that ran contrary to established standards of political decency.

By the time an obscure rebel leader named Laurent-Désiré Kabila marched on Kinshasa, forcing Mobutu into exile, the strongman had already been stripped of his moral and political authority.

Here the author sets the record straight by rejecting the backdoor argument which holds that the people of Africa for the most part, and their cultural institutions, are not ready for democracy. Or, as Jacques Chirac of France once put it, "Democracy is a luxury for Africa."

In this respect, this work does not in itself bring in a new argument, or some fresh theory. The Mobutu years have been well documented, both from inside and outside the regime. Furthermore, George B.N. Ayittey's Africa Betrayed, Asante's Afrocentric Idea, and before them Cheikh Anta Diop's Civilization or Barbarism, have already offered insight into the democratic structure and functioning of traditional African polities.

The book is subject to two major objections--its weak theoretical base, and its failure to highlight Mobutu's philosophy of authenticity.

Although it purports to offer an afro-centric analysis, much of its theoretical framework is borrowed from Western political thinkers. Indeed despite references to Africanists such as Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Asante and Lumumba himself, the core of Ikambana's theoretical framework is borrowed from the West. Robert Dahl, O'Donnell, De Tocqueville, Saltori and others are the ones the author depends on for the definition of concepts such as democracy, authoritarianism, state crime, and the like. This oversight constitutes a major setback that ultimately defeats the purpose of the book.

Ikambana missed the opportunity to formulate an authentic, home-grown African political theory.

Finally, on Mobutu's philosophy of authenticity. One cannot pretend to study Mobutism, and yet fail to offer a serious analysis of Mobutu's philosophy of authenticity. In this book, the author devotes no more than five pages to the subject (and this is a generous estimate), which comes as a big surprise.

By the author's own admission, authenticity represented a key aspect of Mobutu's policy.

"Mobutu's policy of authenticity assumed that the Zairian people should rebuild their own culture and erase the scars left by decades of colonial rule. ... Authenticity was a cultural renaissance, a return to the wisdom of the African ancestors that would have allowed the Zairian people to rediscover themselves without foreign influence." (p. 24-25)

However, Ikambana quickly dismisses it as a ploy to seek political support and further consolidate Mobutu's grip on the country. Was Mobutu an ideological fraudster? Perhaps we'll never know for sure.

What we do know, however, is that the man went out of his way to make a simple point, for which ironically he never got credit: the Congo is an African nation, and as such it must derive its institutional set-up, organization, leadership and vision from genuine African customs.

Mobutu, if anything, was a true conservative African traditionalist. Much like Okonkwo, the lead character of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Mobutu failed to realize that he was lost in a day and age when change was inevitable. Coming from a "stateless" society, he viewed himself as the mokozi ya mboka, or head of the Congolese family, and as such could be neither wrong nor contradicted. He wanted to ride a hybrid horse by being a traditional African leader in a modern, Western-style state. He thought you could have a written Constitution and still override it unilaterally. And this is what ultimately led to his demise.

A genuine Afro-centric analysis would have revealed this; or at the very least, could have resulted in a conclusion which, unlike Peta Ikambana's, does not merely repeat Western views.

Mobutu's Totalitarian Political System - An Afrocentric Analysis

(Author: Peta Ikambana; Publisher: Routledge, 2007. 126 pages)

Francois Gouahinga is a staff writer at allAfrica.com. He hails from the central African nation of Gabon and has first hand expertise of the history and politics of the region.

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