TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Mobutu: When a Dictator Dies



LONDON-- Most of the world will cheer when the grand dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, dies. "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones," said Mark Anthony as he buried Caesar. We too will doubtless happily forget that it was strongman Mobutu that bound the factionist, disintegrating, post- colonial Congo back together, changed its name and made its destiny so important to Cold War-ridden Africa that the Soviet Union, France and the U.S. competed for his favors. Instead we will remember that it was Mobutu who robbed his country blind, who pilfered and wasted away the enormous potential wealth of this country, a country that if it had been properly managed would be as prosperous as perhaps Malaysia or Thailand or, at least, the Philippines today.

For every dictator in the world who did his country economic good, Pinochet in Chile, Park in South Korea, there are a dozen who did it harm, living out their fantasies, indulging their own greed and brooking no dissent. Thus the memories of evil doth live on and so they should.

About ten years ago Samuel Huntington, now famous for his controversial new work "The Clash of Civilizations," wrote an interesting article in Harvard University's "International Security." He analyzed the impact of the deaths of 22 dictators who had died a natural death, not as a result of revolution or coup d'etat. Out of the corner of my eye I have been watching this scene ever since and not much, i think, has changed.

Within four years of the leader's death there were coups or attempted coups in 10 cases: Bhutan, Haiti, Kenya, Panama, China, Egypt (after Gamal Nasser), the Dominican Republic, Guinea, South Korea and Portugal. There was severe turbulence in nine countries: Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Egypt (after Anwar Sadat), Yugoslavia, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Portugal and Spain. There was guerrilla terrorism in eight cases: Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Panama, China, Egypt, Yugoslavia, the Dominican Republic and Spain. And there was revolution in Portugal.

What then, if any, are the determining influences on the degree of upheaval? The following stand out:

* If there was major instability after a leader died there had usually been serious unrest before. Conversely, a quiet pre-death situation usually meant a quiet transition after.

* The longer a leader had been in power the more post-death instability there was--as in Portugal, Spain and the Dominican Republic.

* Political turbulence was more likely after a dictator's death if social organizations had been allowed some autonomy. In South Korea, Spain, Portugal, Egypt and the Dominican Republic, labour unions, political parties, churches, cooperatives and universities were given some freedom.

On this score certainly Zaire has all of the ingredients of upheaval. So do Indonesia, Burma, Morocco and Syria.

But, despite the obvious good sense of much of Huntington's analysis, extrapolating from present to future is never foolproof. When he wrote this he predicted upheaval in Tunisia after the death of the then enfeebled 82-year-old President Habib Bourguiba, who when once asked by a reporter about the nature of the Tunisian political system replied "What system? I am the system." Huntington, observing that Tunisia was the Arab country with the most moderate stance toward Israel, feared that a new revolutionary government would work with neighbouring radical Libya to undermine Western interests by provoking Egypt and other nearby pro-western states. But what happened? In his dotage Bourguiba was gently elbowed aside and there was barely a murmur. Tunisia remains totalitarian and, in its alignments, pretty much as it was.

Nevertheless, despite the element of unpredictability in any forecasting exercise, it is fair to conclude that the longer dictators stay in power (and hence more "stable" their regimes appear to be) the more likely it is that a country will become unstable if the leader dies in office. The evidence also suggests that the longer they stay in power the more likelihood there is of outbreaks of instability during their tenure. Often this can so shake the regime that the leader is driven from office, as happened with Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia or the Shah of Iran.

From this analysis Huntington drew four conclusions: U.S. interests are more likely to be hurt if pro-American leaders are overthrown. They are less likely to be hurt if they die naturally in office. They are at least likely to be hurt if they die before decades of endurance by their subjects wears out their welcome. American interests will therefore be best served if long-time dictators die a natural death, soon.

As much as one can judge it from this distance this seems to be exactly how Washington--and Paris--are viewing Mobutu's illness. They don't want to see the successful rebellion in the eastern provinces spread its victories all the way to the capital, Kinshasa, in the west. They don't want persons unknown to stage a coup in the capital. They just want Mobutu to hurry up and die in his hospital bed or his villa in the south of France and for someone known, safe and predictable to put the country back together and unlock its fabulous potential.


March 19, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

Note: I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172
and e-mail:












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the Webmaster at:
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF