A few years ago Desmond Tutu described Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe as embodying all that was bad about African leaders. He may have had a point. But when it comes to theft and corruption in Africa there was, and will only ever be, one master...Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko.
The book was penned during the military advance of recently departed Laurent Kabila, the man that would eventually put an end to the 30 odd year rule of Mobuto, and in its pages Reuters and Financial Times correspondent Michela Wrong explores the history of the country's transformation into a textbook kleptocracy - a rule by thieves - while Zaire collapses around her. The reader can only feel utter revulsion at the tales of outright larceny carried out by those in power while the rest of the population were left to scrape whatever living they could. Littered throughout the book are anecdotes of breathtaking chutzpah from the Mouvanciers, or fat cats, of the Mobuto regime. From newly appointed government ministers arriving at their offices to find the place stripped bare and the two official cars mysteriously vanished, to the diamond mine manager allotting himself $30,000 a month travel allowance, to Mobuto's own son claiming he had been robbed of the $600,000 given to him to close a deal and then being wired replacement funds immediately.
Of course at the top of the pile is Mobuto himself. Wrong describes the President as a man with untold riches put in front of him who cannot steal fast enough. In one telling moment, towards the end of his rule, Mobuto is negotiating his monthly stipend. When offered $2 million a month Mobuto responds incredulously, "You're pulling my leg. It's out of the question. I need $10 million." He eventually settled for $3 million.
Despite the pain Wrong uncovers she clearly loves the country, be it the crumbling anachronism that is the Hotel Intercontinental, the handicappé merchants who ply their trade on both banks of the River Zaire or the fashion victim sapeurs who strut the capital's dancefloors peacock-like, outfitted in the latest haute couture. She is both distressed at the rule meted out to the citizens of the Congo - first by the harsh Belgian colonizers and then by Mobuto - and at the same time elated that they have managed to find ways around the hardships, to survive and in many cases thrive.
Her last thoughts in the tome are that the Congolese must now learn to look after themselves. Now that the Belgians are out of the picture, and the Americans are done with Cold War meddling and now that Mobuto has taken his millstone from their necks. Though in a country where the Mouvanciers still refuse any mea culpa, and in many cases have been pardoned by the Kabila regime this, she acknowledges, seems a long way off.