(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Michela Wrong begins her story at the end, with a vivid account of the confusion in Kinshasa in May, 1997, when everyone in Zaire was waiting for the departure of the ailing president, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, and the accession of the rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville, named after the brutal colonial exploiter King Leopold II of Belgium, was in a crisis state, with foreign journalists waiting it out at their favorite watering hole, the Intercontinental Hotel. By the end of the month, the rebels had marched into the city, Kabila had established his headquarters in the Intercontinental, and Zaire had become the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a parting salute, Mobutu’s old clan had filled the hotel lavatories with T-shirts bearing the fallen leader’s image, leaving the triumphant leaders of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) to take care of their bodily functions in the open air, perhaps a fitting climax to a corrupt but in many ways comic regime.

Wrong’s chapter on the history of the Congo focuses on the efforts of the British-born American war correspondent Henry Morton Stanley, who had captured headlines in 1871 by tracking down the missionary David Livingstone, missing for five years in central Africa. Penetrating into regions where the only previous outsiders had been Muslim slave traders and ivory hunters from the Horn of Africa, Stanley was identified by King Leopold as just the man to help him found the colony he badly wanted.

Despite the philanthropic intentions he announced at the Berlin conference of 1884-1885 that parceled out Africa to its European predators, Leopold backed Stanley with military force to bring the Congo under complete control. Stanley’s brutality with laborers earned him the designation “Bula Matari” (“Breaker of Rocks”). Leopold’s Force Publique, fifteen thousand to nineteen thousand West African and Congolese mercenaries, maintained order so cruelly that under Belgian rule up to thirteen million people are estimated to have died or fled the country. Although he maintained the Congo as a private resource for four decades, Leopold succumbed to pressure and in 1908 turned the country over to the Belgian state. By the time the Congo was granted independence in 1960, Belgium had established an effective infrastructure but neglected any preparations for the country’s freedom. Wrong concludes her historical sketch with an account of the Congolese ghetto in Brussels called Matonge, where homesick Congolese gather to eat fish wrapped in palm leaves and hors d’oeuvres such as caterpillars, crocodile meat, and fermenting cassava paste known as chikwange.

Mobutu was born on October 14, 1930, in the Congo River town of Lisala, in central Africa. He belonged to the Ngbandi tribe, probably descended from animists who fled the Moslem slave traders in central Sudan. A story—presumably apocryphal—has the child Mobutu slaying a leopard with a spear. His resentment at belonging to a tribe judged sous-evolué, or underevolved, helped drive Mobutu to his worldly achievements. Two women influenced him as a child—his mother, Marie Madeleine Yemo, and the wife of the Belgian judge who hired Mobutu’s father as their cook. From the judge’s wife he learned to speak, read, and write fluent French. His youthful sexual adventures led to Mobutu’s expulsion from school and a seven-year military term that disciplined him under the man who became his surrogate father figure, Sergeant Joseph Bobozo.

Mobutu occupied every free moment with his self-education, reading European newspapers, the Bible, and whatever he could find. Wrong identifies his intellectual role models as Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Nicolò Machiavelli. He studied accounting, married a woman named Marie Antoinette, and wrote pseudonymous pieces for the Congolese magazine Actualités Africaines. When his military stint ended, Mobutu worked full-time as a journalist, and in 1958 he visited Brussels, where he met Patrice Lumumba and other young Congolese intellectuals planning a future free from Belgian rule. He soon became Lumumba’s personal aide, even though unsubstantiated rumors identified him as an agent of Belgian intelligence.

By the time Prime Minister Lumumba named him army chief of staff in July, 1960, Mobutu had earned a reputation for intelligence, flexibility, and extreme courage. For her story of the “Birth of the Leopard,” Wrong relies heavily on the recollections of Larry Devlin, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief in Zaire in the early 1960’s. Devlin had to cope with a...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)