The white elephants

Colin Delfosse

2014 - 2015

2015 will mark fifty years since Mobutu took control of Congo. What he left after 31 years of unshared reign is a bloodless and bankrupted country. How come the potentially richest country in Africa fell into such a financial dismay, with all the consequences leading to actual ongoing internecine wars? The project is to find the answers by questioning and documenting Mobutu’s prestige policy, echoing his unqualified desire to build a strong Congolese nation through pride. A desire still plaguing the Congolese national debt today.

In the early 1970s, President Mobutu starts shaping the identity of “his” Zaire. His vision involves mammoth constructions, gigantic and unrealistic energy projects and hollow industrial plans. These are called The White Elephants: utopian and overly costly projects with no tomorrow.

Energy programs, such as Inga’s hydropower plants, could have brought real sustained development in Congo. Financed by the resources honey pot and international monetary institutions, which have provided Mobutu with billions, Inga I and Inga II are launched at the beginning of the seventies. Panglossian perspectives leave the hydropower plants with many expectations, but no maintenance nor technical support. The dam supposed to tame Congo River is just decaying metal machinery bringing the Democratic Republic of Congo very little power and dismal debts.

The Maluku smelter follows a similar path. The smelter is build upstream of the Congo River and is part of Mobutu’s vision to develop a wide industrial area. All in all, the smelter operates five years at only 10 per cent of its capacities. 300 million USD was invested, for a result that never benefited the Congolese economy, on the contrary.

Beyond energetic and industrial projects, Mobutu works on more personal and megalomaniac’s intentions. He builds himself a small version of Versailles in his hometown of Gbadolite, way up north in the province of Equateur. This is probably the most striking embodiment of his vision of an “African village”. By mid-1980s, nothing is missing in the town: 24/7 electricity, running water, good roads and an international airport. But his “jungle Versailles” signs a decadent and wasted era.

If Mobutu’s quest to bring Zaire in the international spotlights while giving all his people a strong identity could be one approach of his legacy, one should not forget the costs of a wasteful and dangerous policy, led by a man blinded by his own vision.

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  • Town of Gbadolite. In his native village in the northern province of Equateur, Mobutu built a complete new town in the 70ties. The city had all the features of modernity: running water, electricity, paved roads; things no other city in Zaire possessed.

  • Administrative building for Kalemie’s train station (former Albertville).

  • Martyrs Stadium, Kinshasa. Built between 1988 and 1993 by the Chinese, the stadium is part of Mobutu’s strategy to put Zairian sport on the international limelight. He wanted to replace the old Tata Raphaël’s stadium, where the legendary fight between Mohamed Ali and George Foreman was held. Despite a 38 million dollars’ cost, the structure had to undergo several restorations in 2008 and 2014.

  • Inga dam, Bas Congo province. Workers showering under torn pipes. Designed by Belgian settlers, Mobutu was the developer of the enormous hydropower project on the Congo River, initially meant to bring electricity in every Zairian household. Inga I was finalised in 1972. Due to poor maintenance and mismanagement, the dam nowadays only works at 20 per cent of its capacity. DR Congo still is one of the least electrified country worldwide.

  • Obsessed with modernity, Mobutu equipped the country with a telecommunication network by satellites. Thirteen ground stations were built by a French company. Technology is then still young, and Kinshasa’s station is the only one fully efficient. Once more, maintenance costs and licence fees are too heavy on the Zairian state. However, this technology helped Zaire to become famous worldwide as it was able to live broadcast the fight of the century in 1974.

  • The smelter of Maluku, Kinshasa province. The energy perspectives from the Inga dams created industrial hubs all over the country. Maluku’s smelter was dedicated to treat iron ore exclusively. The smelter construction cost 9.3 billion Belgian francs (around 230 million euros) and worked only for five years at 10 per cent of its capacity.

  • Statue of the “Nelson Mandela” roundabout, city centre of Kinshasa. Built when the future South African president was released from prison.

  • Town of Gbadolite. In his native village in the northern province of Equateur, Mobutu built a complete new town in the 70ties. The city had all the features of modernity: running water, electricity, paved roads; things no other city in Zaire possessed.

  • Lobby of the National Congolese Radio and Television (RTNC). Built in 1976, the “city of Zaire’s Voice” was equipped with highly modern infrastructure and efficient and innovative technologies. One year later, Zaire’s Voice works only on one-fourth of its capacity, the building is half empty. Maintenance costs are too high: lifts, diesel generators and air-conditioning simply just break.

  • Fresco from the battle of Kamanyola’s monument. South Kivu.

  • Mobutu’s throne, museum of Mount Ngaliema, Kinshasa.

  • Monument of the Kamanyola battle, South Kivu. In 1963, Colonel Mobutu wins a crucial battle against the Simba rebels in the plains of Kamanyola. When turned president, he asked North Korea to design a monument commemorating his military exploits. A statue of him was erected at the centre of the monument. Mobutu’s statue was stolen by the AFDL rebels, Laurent Désiré Kabila’s group, while marching to conquer Kinshasa and more broadly, power.

  • Palace of Marie Antoinette. Mobutu’s first wife wanted a building dedicated to the first cardiology centre in Central Africa. The disproportionate project was abandoned upon her death. The colossal concrete structure is nowadays occupied by homeless families.

  • Kinshasa’s university.

  • Bambou palace. The construction of Mobutu’s first palace started in 1973. Built Gbadolite’s city centre, the building is enormous. Later called the « Versailles of the jungle », it spreads on 15 000 square meters, levelled on three floors. Mobutu himself considered it too big. He gave it to the state after having built his new residency.