Breakfast at Mobutu’s

Jacques Bongoma was a young Congolese progressive who became a close advisor to Joseph Mobutu after the country’s 1965 coup.

A parade in Kinshasa, Congo, in which supporters of the Mobutu regime carry a banner showing Patrice Lumumba following his rehabilitation by Mobutu in 1966 (Source: National Archives in Kinshasa, via Pedro Monaville).

Patrice Lumumba’s Independence Day speech is one of the most powerful takedowns of colonial oppression ever written. In it, Lumumba turned a piercing gaze towards decades of suffering and humiliation under Belgian rule. But he also talked a lot about the future. He announced a new struggle; one that would not end before the abolition of all injustices. His powerful words turned the young Congolese leader into a global icon. They also made him strong enemies. The Belgian and US governments wanted him gone. They helped to orchestrate a coup that deposed Lumumba as prime minister, and were present at all the turns that led to his assassination on January 17, 1961.

Neocolonialism continued to destabilize the Congo in the aftermath of Lumumba’s assassination. Yet, many refused the foreclosure of Lumumba’s vision of radical emancipation. Students featured prominently among those who claimed the mantle of left nationalism. In Students of the World: Global 1968 and Decolonization in the Congo, I revisit their activism and their ideas about nation-building and world politics. Four short interludes introduce each of the book’s main parts. They center on figures whose trajectories offer insights into how students negotiated and later remembered the turbulent landscape of the 1960s.

One of these interludes (in edited form below) builds on conversations with the late Jacques Daniel Bongoma Koni Botoke, who became a close advisor to Mobutu, following the military coup that brought him to power in 1965. Bongoma is not necessarily representative of the students I otherwise focus on in the book, but his companionship with Mobutu reflects a broader pattern in students’ response to the regime. Some students immediately denounced Mobutu as a puppet of the imperialists. However, others applauded his coup, because it marginalized the despised politicians who had led the country so far. This alliance between Mobutu and a faction of the student movement was untenable and short-lived, however, it resulted in key measures that revived Lumumba’s vision and placed decolonization at the center of national politics.

The range of possibilities seemed particularly broad to Jacques Bongoma when Joseph Mobutu appointed him as one of his advisors in November 1965. The pair had met the previous year during Mobutu’s official visit to the United Kingdom as head of the Congolese army. Bongoma was then a student at the London School of Economics. One of his friends, Elizabeth Bagaya, was curious to see Mobutu, and Bongoma went with her to his press conference at the Savoy Hotel. After the conference, Bongoma talked for an hour with Mobutu and was wooed by his humor, brilliance, and generosity (the meeting ended with a cash gift). The admiration must have been mutual, as the general called him to his side on the morning that followed his coup. At the presidential palace, Bongoma was given Kasa-Vubu’s office. At only 27 years old, he was now sitting at the desk of a former president. Putting the Congo on the path of real independence was part of his job description. This was a daunting task, but Bongoma worked for a chief of state for whom military fiat was a natural form of public action, and he believed there was an historical opportunity to implement truly nationalist policies.

Bongoma and a young lawyer named Gérard Kamanda were the most influential of the dozen young university graduates who worked at Mobutu’s side. They were reportedly as thick as thieves, but their temperaments differed markedly. Kamanda had been a campus radical at Lovanium University. He did not fear direct action, and he served time in jail in 1965 for his intransigent opposition to then Prime Minister Moïse Tshombe. Bongoma, on the other hand, had learned to navigate between worlds and adapt to new circumstances from a young age. As a teenager, he had left the remote town of Bolobo so that he could continue his secondary education in Leopoldville. When being a Catholic was required to access a more prestigious school, he abandoned the Salvation Army Church of his parents. And in 1958, he was part of the first sizeable cohort of young Congolese allowed to relocate to Europe as university students.

Before moving to London, Bongoma first studied in Brussels. He was a personable, mild-mannered, handsome young man, who easily picked up new languages and enjoyed Baroque music. Politics entered his everyday life at this time. “With all the people I was around, I too had … naughty left ideas … as my English friends said,” he later recounted. His first summer in Europe, he attended both the Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome and the World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna. The same year, he also went on a road trip to Crimea and returned convinced that socialism held the key to Africa’s development. Back in Brussels, he took night classes with the Trotskyist economist Ernest Mandel, befriended activists in the youth branch of the Moscow-aligned Belgian Communist Party, and accepted a leadership position in the Belgian section of the newly created pro-Lumumba General Union of Congolese Students (UGEC).

All along, he remained as committed to urbanity as he was to the left. When he served as an advisor to Mobutu, Bongoma was well known for his sense of humor and his dashing sports car. He spoke English well and played tennis even better, and many foreign residents sought his company. His charm, however, operated on US diplomats only for so long. They initially welcomed the presence of young progressive intellectuals like him at the side of the president. Mid-sixties US government memorandums, for example, revealed that they felt that Mobutu struck the right balance by Africanizing city names, reducing the role of white mercenaries in the army, and “assum[ing] the leadership of the left without making demagogic appeals to the extreme left.”

But after Mobutu nationalized the copper industry, John W. Mowinckel, the public affairs officer at the US embassy thought that the American government should “insist as quid pro quo for our assistance that Kamanda and perhaps Bongoma be fired, since they [are the] persons responsible for the [Government of Congo]’s recent mistakes and are working against US interests.” Mobutu complied. At the end of 1967, he put a few thousand kilometers between himself and Kamanda, sending him to work at the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. A few months later, the president indicated that Bongoma was also no longer essential and he encouraged him to go on a month-long tour of the US. Bongoma had de facto lost his position in the innermost circle of power. In 1969, a cable from the British embassy was still classifying him as a “dangerous Marxist-trained extremist” to be watched. Mobutu’s foreign minister, Justin-Marie Bomboko, was one of his resolute opponents inside the government. As he told me during an interview in 2009, Bongoma and Kamanda absolutely had to be neutralized otherwise they may have turned Mobutu into a new Lumumba (which, in Bomboko’s view, would have been a terrible development).

A newspaper article from the Albuquerque Journal from the time Bongoma visited the US (Supplied by Pedro Monaville).

To mitigate his reputation as a radical, Bongoma wrote a book on African development, Indépendance économique et révolution (Economic Independence and Revolution), which emphasized pragmatism. The book abundantly quoted Frantz Fanon, but it drew its inspiration from the US economist Kenneth Galbraith. The preface was a game of mirrors. It was signed by Mobutu, but ghostwritten by Bongoma himself. One sentence that the former advisor put in the mouth of the president praised Bongoma for demonstrating that “one [could] be a revolutionary […] without necessarily lapsing into verbal excesses and violence.” This was to no avail. Bongoma’s star continued to decline. In 1971 a prosecutor built a case of treason against him. There was no trial, and Bongoma was let go after 36 days in jail, but his access to power was dramatically reduced. A job at the Association of African Universities in Accra and the pursuit of a doctoral degree at the National University of Australia offered him opportunities to rebound away from the homeland. He later returned to Kinshasa and launched his own newspaper. L’Analyste, which occasionally took strong positions against the regime. Yet, Bongoma differentiated between the man and the system, and remained loyal to Mobutu until the very end.

Bongoma’s proximity to power before his downfall was so intense that a persistent rumor had it that he was Mobutu’s lover. Bongoma dismissed the rumor as a simple expression of jealousy, but his retelling of this period in his life does go from infatuation to broken romance. This emotional story line paralleled the ups and downs in the relations between Mobutu and the student movement. During one of our conversations, Bongoma placed himself at the center of a crucial episode that initially greatly resonated with students: the decision to proclaim Lumumba a national hero in June 1966. At least two other advisors of Mobutu have claimed to have inspired this decision (and a third one has argued it was a suggestion made by US diplomats after a survey of political opinions across the country). Regardless of the fact that Lumumba’s rehabilitation may have resulted from a more complex set of circumstances than what transpires here, Bongoma’s version of the episode is worth quoting at length.

This is how it happened. One day in June 1966—it must have been the 12th, a Sunday—Mobutu arrived at my place: “Jacques, June 30 is coming soon and I want to make a great speech. Write a draft and we’ll discuss it.” After Mobutu left, I prayed a lot. The next morning, I told him: “I would like to take inspiration from [Lumumba’s Independence Day] speech. Do you have objections to that?” He replied: “Come over home next Sunday morning and I will tell you what I think of Lumumba.”

I knew he was an early riser and I arrived at seven thirty on the following Sunday. I waited in the living room with the minister of information Jean-Jacques Kande, a former UGEC member who had studied in Prague. At seven fifty, [Mobutu] invited us to have breakfast with him and his wife. Then, he took me by the hand—he often made affectionate gestures—and we walked down to the end of the garden. He first sat down on the lawn, and then I did as well, like in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s! And then he said: “I am going to tell you the truth about Lumumba: if I am president today, it is thanks to him. He had a lot of trust in the intellectual youth like I have trust in you. The first time I met Lumumba, it was love at first sight, a coup de foudre. When he asked me to work with him, I was like the Apostles with Jesus: I said yes immediately. And I gave up everything to become his private secretary.” Mobutu indeed read the Bible a lot and often made biblical references—he truly was a phenomenal man, Mobutu! He told me Lumumba knew he was going to die because of his extremist nationalist politics: “I warned Patrice”—he always said simply Patrice—“and Patrice answered, like in the Bible, like Jesus: ‘There is no greater love than giving one’s life for others’.” When Mobutu said that Lumumba accepted to die for the freedom of the Congo, I told him: “He was like a national hero who died for the fatherland.” So, Mobutu said: “Write that down in the speech. Here is what we are going to do: we are going to proclaim him a national hero.” […] He then put his hands in his boubou’s pocket and took out photographs to show to Jean-Jacques and me, telling us that they were pictures of the house where Lumumba was killed in Katanga: “We will turn this house into a memorial that people who come to the country, African nationalists and others, will be able to visit.”

Although visualizing Mobutu as a character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s may require a great effort of imagination, Bongoma’s recollection is precious for its multiple affective associations. In Bongoma’s memories, Lumumba and Mobutu overlapped as Christ-like figures, appearing both as subjects and objects of love. Indeed, when Mobutu proclaimed his former mentor a national hero, he was well aware of the capital this would generate for him. The speech that Bongoma wrote for Mobutu created a level of popular support for the president that he had never had before.

Ultimately, Mobutu’s proclaiming of Lumumba as a national hero, like other measures suggested by his progressive young advisors, gave him traction with the student left for only a short time. The general enjoyed parading in his Lumumbist attire, but he had no clothes. As the enthusiasm for Mobutu dramatically declined, a new cadre of student activists worked to initiate a confrontation with the regime. Yet, while the president had cajoled before, he would not hesitate to crack down. Like Bongoma, many students endured imprisonment. Some were exiled. Others suffered an even more tragic fate when a student protest in June 1969 turned into the first state massacre in postcolonial Kinshasa.

Further Reading

The politics of elegance

German historian Daniel Tödt wrote a history of the Congolese évolués. In this interview, he talks about the historiographical interventions of his book and the role of Patrice Lumumba in the history of évolués.

Bring Patrice Lumumba home

The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.