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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz

Michela Wrong

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To purchase In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz

Title: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz
Author: Michela Wrong
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 327 pages
Availability: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - US
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - UK
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - Canada
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - India
Auf den Spuren von Mr. Kurtz - Deutschland
  • Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a good read about outrageous events and people -- though not as rigorous as one might wish

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 15/7/2000 .
Evening Standard A 9/7/2001 David Sexton
Foreign Affairs A- 9-10/2001 Thomas M. Callaghy
The Guardian A 19/8/2000 Robin Denselow
New Statesman A 18/6/2001 Anthony Sampson
The NY Times Book Rev. A 10/6/2001 Ian Fisher
The Spectator A+ 7/10/2000 Anthony Sampson
The Sunday Times A 13/8/2000 Jon Swain
Sydney Morning Herald . 27/10/2001 Tony Kleu
Tikkun . 1-2/2001 Mark Jacobson
The Times . 16/8/2000 Thomas Pakenham
TLS . 28/7/2000 Adam Hochschild
The Washington Post . 20/5/2001 Jonathan Yardley
Die Welt . 22/2/2003 Michael Miersch

  Review Consensus:

  Very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Mobutu story is told with wry wit and a delicious sense of irony, and more than a little respect for the man himself. (...) Though Ms Wrong glories in the grotesque world that Mobutu created, she also makes a serious attempt to find out how and why this great theft of an entire state was allowed to happen." - The Economist

  • "(S)he tells the history of his regime with great immediacy, full of good humour as well as moral outrage. If her affection for the people of the Congo is real, she does not shirk judgment." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "(A) gripping, gracefully penned, conscience-wrenching account of Mobutu's tyranny in the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Much of the story has already been told, but rarely with such a combination of powerful anecdote, fine research, mesmerizing reportage, and subtle understanding. Composed primarily of a series of often chilling vignettes, the book allows readers to feel for themselves the experiences of this haunted country." - Thomas M. Callaghy, Foreign Affairs

  • "Michela Wrong's colourful, vivid study of the rise and fall of Mobutu mixes the horror stories and well-researched history with a sympathetic study of the daily lives of those who somehow survived in a country plunged into economic free-fall. (...) (I)t's the detail and personal stories that stand out." - Robin Denselow, The Guardian

  • "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz is a wonderfully readable book, written with a novelist's eye (.....) Rare for a book about Africa, it is without moral superiority or preachiness, and often turns the tables on the west by showing how it built up Mobutu as an anti-communist hero of the cold war." - Anthony Sampson, New Statesman

  • "Wrong's book (...) presents Mobutu's tale as simply that -- a good tale. Her version is, in fact, a bit of a romp. (...) Wrong's narrative is only barely strung with the spine of an overarching idea, but this is no great weakness when well-reported anecdotes can do the work." - Ian Fisher, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz is an eloquent, brilliantly researched account, and a remarkably sympathetic study of a tragic land." - Jon Swain, The Sunday Times

  • "(A) wonderfully readable and vivid account with a novelist's eye which makes Mobutu and his colleagues seem thoroughly comprehensible as they extend their web of extortion and military rule: it even manages to make Mobutu after his deposition seem quite moving. Rare for a book about Africa, it is without moral superiority or lecturing (.....) This is the most gripping and illuminating book about Africa I have read for years" - Anthony Sampson, The Spectator

  • "It would have been so easy for Wrong to offer a gloating account of the Kurtz-like fall from grace, but she is a sympathetic observer who seeks context and reason." - Tony Kleu, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "However, reading through Ms. Wrong's work reminds one of the downside of this kind of journalistic snapshot, essentially describing a single freeze-frame of a vast and ever-changing story. Perhaps this is more a shortcoming of the form rather than an indictment of Wrong's particular effort. But these limitations are seen in greater relief since this book is ostensibly about the continuum of the Kurtzian pathway." - Mark Jacobson, Tikkun

  • "She has written a cool, glittering, kaleidoscopic book. Her account of the fall of Kinshasa and Mobutu's flight have something of the flavour of Evelyn Waugh's African travel books." - Thomas Pakenham, The Times

  • "Wrong's is a modest book that does not pretend to offer any theory of why the country has gone so badly awry. But it does give a vivid portrait of Mobutu's Congo, especially of his final years and overthrow, which Wrong saw first-hand" - Adam Hochschild, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) chillingly amusing cautionary tale." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "(E)in Lehrstück über das afrikanische Verhängnis der nachkolonialen Ära, wie es sich in ähnlich krasser Form bis heute in vielen Ländern abspielt." - Michael Miersch, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz focusses mainly on Mobutu Sese Seko's decades-long (mis)rule of Zaire (now again the Congo), especially the last years of his reign. Michela Wrong was a journalist reporting from Zaire during those years, witnessing the slow, final collapse of this most feeble and outrageous of regimes. This final collapse is the meat of her book, but she also tells the whole sad history of the Congo and covers the pitiful Mobutu's entire career.
       To begin with Wrong recapitulates the main points from Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (see our review), describing how Belgium's King Leopold II created the abomination that was (and, in many respects, remains) the Congo. She believes King Leopold's outrages (the horrific and brutal suppression and exploitation of the native population for pure personal gain) set the conditions for what became the modern Congo/Zaire. Certainly, this colonial history -- as well as the succeeding Belgian rule -- has not been overcome, either in the Congo or in Belgium. The path taken after 1960 was indeed influenced by the conditions created by Leopold and his successors, but other elements also helped shape it -- specifically the stunningly inept Mobutu, foreign interests (mainly American, Belgian, and French), and the natural wealth of the nation.
       Independence was a messy, hurried business, with the Belgians leaving much more quickly than anyone had anticipated. There were secessionist issues, UN action, political infighting -- and efforts by international powers to gain influence in the region. The US and the Soviets both tried their best to win over the country to their sphere of influence, with the US coming out ahead.
       Wrong describes some of the ugly events of 1960, including Mobutu's rise to power and the elimination of Patrice Lumumba. Her descriptions on occasion verge on the perfunctory, as she writes, for example: "On 14 September 1960, Mobutu neutralised both Kasavubu and Lumumba in what he described as a 'peaceful revolution'". Unfortunately, she doesn't bother to explain what exactly this "neutralisation" involved. Lumumba's execution is covered in a bit more detail, but more about the transitional period -- from the Belgians to Mobutu by way of Kasavubu and Lumumba -- would have been welcome.
       One of the people Wrong relies on, and quotes fairly extensively, is notorious CIA-man (and self-styled Africa-expert) Larry Devlin. He was on site and involved in much of what happened -- and was even instructed to arrange Lumumba's assassination, though he apparently never got around to it. Nevertheless, his interference, and that of the American government generally, certainly helped put Mobutu in power -- and then keep him there.
       Curiously, Devlin still defends Mobutu, presumably not wanting to admit he was hoodwinked by such a pathetic buffoon (and trying to rationalize his support of the insupportable). Devlin tells Wrong:

You saw the pitiful end. But he was so different at the start. I can remember him as a dynamic, idealistic young man who was determined to have an independent state in the Congo and really seemed to believe in all the things Africa's leaders then stood for.
       Trying to justify America's (and his) inexcusable interference in the Congo, the Cold War operative tells Wrong:
You're too young to remember much about the Cold War. But it was a real war and Mobutu played a rather key role in blocking Khrushchev. He was right for Congo at that time.
       Even with the benefit of hindsight -- and even Devlin is not blind to the fact that Mobutu went disastrously bad -- he still believes: "He was right for the Congo at that time." It is, of course, impossible to guess what others might have done (including Lumumba, a figure who barely held power and has become so romanticized that it is almost impossible to separate man from myth), but surely hindsight allows us to say with almost utter certainty that it is inconceivable that any figure could have ruined the Congo as thoroughly, comprehensively, and lastingly as Mobutu did. Like his predecessor Leopold II, one can imagine no person more wrong for the Congo at that (or any) time. As the rest of Ms. Wrong's book clearly demonstrates.
       Mobutu was apparently a charismatic figure, appealing to the masses. He made good (though apparently empty) speeches and knew how to work a crowd. On a personal level he seems to have been a friendly, likable man. Wrong lets friends and family gush over what a great guy he was. Maybe he was. Unfortunately he was also the ruler of a nation, and an astonishingly bad one at that.
       Money was the root of Mobutu's power. The Congo/Zaire was a wealthy nation by African standards, and blessed with valuable resources. Rather than build on this, Mobutu managed only to plunder and destroy, setting an example for the nation.
       Wrong follows the ruin of the Congo's major industries under Mobutu, and of much of the once (relatively) solid foundations of its economy. The most drastic turn for the worse came with the policy of "authenticity", when in 1973 Mobutu began his campaign of "Zaireanisation", taking the foreign-owned property, farms, and enterprises and re-distributing them to "sons of the country". The wealth was, of course, distributed in the most politically expedient way, creating a class of so-called "Grosses Legumes (Big Vegetables)" while in no way benefitting the population as a whole. Many of the businesses were simply looted and allowed to collapse. And, more than a quarter of a century later, the economy still hasn't recovered.
       Wrong also comes to the conclusion that:
For his population, Zaireanisation's impact was to extend far beyond the immediate commercial crisis. The belief that something could be had for nothing, the looter's smash-and-grab mentality, had been endorsed at the very highest level of society.
       And so it went for the more than two decades that Mobutu still clung to power. As Wrong also nicely shows, Mobutu had little sense of money (and apparently none of economics, on micro, macro, or any level). He handed out money left and right, overpaid for practically everything, and was ripped off by everyone, including close family members. He wasted enormous sums, including building his own "Versailles in the Jungle", Gbadolite -- "the ultimate in African presidential follies."
       Unfortunately, the money he was spending was not his, and could have been put to considerably better use. Indeed, almost any use would have been better. Amazingly, Mobutu was allowed to get away with his ridiculous excesses even as the IMF and World Bank were doling out money to Zaire. Indeed, Western powers -- foremost among them the US, Belgium, and France -- continued to support Mobutu, even as he continued to wreck his country. Well into the 1990s, even. As Wrong notes, after George Bush succeeded Reagan as American president: "The Zairean leader was, amazingly, the first African head of state invited to stroll the lawns with Bush."
       Not only was Mobutu a terrible leader, focussed only on money, but he managed to infect what seems like the whole nation with his disease. Wrong cites one corrupt politician and Big Vegetable after another: no one, it seems, escaped the easy temptation of a bit (or rather: a lot) of personal gain at the mere cost of any last bit of integrity. She makes a reasonable case for the notion (strongly supported by Mobutu's family) that all those who followed Mobutu's example are as much to blame as he is for the dire straits the Congo now is in. Certainly, no one cared much for the country -- or the plight of the common man. But none of this absolves Mobutu, who is, unquestionably, ultimately the man to blame for what has become of the Congo today.
       Wrong's descriptions of some of these greedy politicians and Big Vegetables, and the endemic corruption in the country, is quite shocking. Her portrait of the country finally collapsing is also a fairly good one. Of particular interest is the description of Mobutu's undoing -- his retreat from Kinshasa, the consequences of the horrific events of 1994 in Rwanda and the very unusual resultant refugee crisis, the reluctance of the West to rid themselves of this finally even literally rotting, cancerous buffoon.
       Wrong also does a reasonable job of considering what happened to all the money that was misappropriated by Mobutu. Her conclusion -- that Mobutu actually spent practically all of it, rather than hoarding it in Swiss bank accounts and the like -- is fairly convincing. Believable (and sad) too is her account of the efforts of Mobutu's successors to hunt down the money taken by Mobutu and his family and the many Big Vegetables .....
       Wrong's account of Mobutu's final, precipitous decline, his body wracked by cancer, control over the country slipping away from him, is perhaps too maudlin. Mobutu is no tragic figure. He himself was a cancer, and the damage he wrought to this enormous nation may take decades to undo. Even when he had grown indifferent to ruling he made no arrangements to pass on power to responsible (or even irresponsible) successors: to the last he didn't give a damn about the country he ruled. Among the most contemptible leaders of this or any time, he deserves no sympathy whatsoever.
       Mobutu died in exile, and was buried in Morocco. Wrong suggests that eventually the body will be returned:
Maybe only a state funeral for the man they called 'Papa', a ceremonial day of reckoning, could put an end to the condition of arrested development in which an orphaned Congo seems stuck.
       But at every turn her account shows that Mobutu was no more father of this nation than Leopold II, that while nominally holding it together he was, in fact, at every possible point undermining it. The country he left was in almost every respect poorer than the country he took over -- a remarkable and almost unequaled achievement (only North Korea's Kim Il Sung has a record of similar staggering failure). Mobutu's only success was in fomenting a notion of "nation" where there perhaps was none before -- an extremely dubious achievement at best. Perhaps if they build a hall of shame then Mobutu could find a place of honour there; otherwise he is best remembered only as an example of all the worst things a leader can be, the antithesis of everything that any nation needs in a head of state.
       Africa has had leaders that were crueller, stupider, greedier than Mobutu, but few have had such a devastating and lasting impact on their country. The despicable Idi Amin -- in Saudi Arabian exile until his death in 2003 ! -- was certainly in every respect a worse leader, but he only governed for a relatively short time. Uganda was not completely ruined by Idi Amin, but Mobutu, over the course of his more than three decades of running the Congo/Zaire into the ground, seems to have destroyed every foundation -- especially the economic and moral foundations -- of this potentially great and wealthy country. It is a remarkable achievement, and Wrong's book is a useful reminder of this too-often ignored bit of contemporary history.
       (Western complicity in propping up Mobutu should also never be forgotten. The shameful behaviour of the United States, Belgium, and France, supporting (and financing and protecting) the insupportable for so long is a very sad chapter in their histories.)

       Wrong takes the reader to a number of places in the Congo. The focus is on capital Leopoldville/Kinshasa, the seat of power, but Wrong also visits the source of much of Zaire's wealth, the mines run by the nationalised Gécamines, as well as Gbadolite, and the eastern regions of the country. The plight of the common man is addressed to some extent, as Wrong tries to give examples of entrepreneurial spirit, the life of soldiers (in what was -- thank god -- perhaps the most pathetic army ever assembled), and examples of life around Mobutu's court. Much is missing -- but it is a huge country, and Wrong at least covers these major sites (as well as some bizarre minor ones, like the nuclear reactor -- yes, nuclear reactor -- in Kinshasa).
       There is a good deal of action, too, from tense scenes in the Hotel Intercontinental as the rebels approach Kinshasa, to each expedition to anywhere in the Congo -- always an adventure.

       Wrong writes quite engagingly -- In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is a good read -- but stylistically she does get carried away at times. The story of "Lumumba and Mobutu" (a story she doesn't go into in much detail) is, according to her, the story of "the loving brothers, the best friends who end up trying to destroy each other (.....) It is the story of Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Macbeth and Banquo."
       Elsewhere she describes how: "Returning Zaireans would whip off their ties in the plane for fear of having them snipped in two at customs." Whip off ? A bit too dramatic, no ? What kind of speeding planes are these that passengers have to whip off their ties in order to get them off in time ? (And, on a truly pedantic note: ties which are snipped are, in fact, likely to be snipped into three, not two. Think about it.)
       There is also some hokum pop psychology which she has no business spouting:
Perhaps the austerity of those days, when he depended on a relative for food and clothing, explains his love of excess, the unrestrained appetites he showed in later life.
       Or perhaps it is because he's a Libra ? It should suffice to mention that Mobutu suffered privation; readers can draw their own conclusions.

       Michela Wrong's book offers a great many facts but also precious little documentation. There are a fair number of quotes, as well as a few pages devoted to Erwin Blumethal's damaging and revealing report on Zaire's finances, but especially the figures and statistics throughout the book are provided without much attribution. The book remains a distinctly journalistic effort, her approach passable for the dailies, but already a bit more questionable in bound form (where it really shouldn't be asking that much to provide some foot- or end-notes documenting the sources for the various claims and numbers thrown about).
       Given that so many of the facts and numbers are in doubt (as Wrong readily acknowledges) it seems essential that their sources be closely considered. Wrong seems to do a reasonable job of this in, for example, following the confusing money-trails -- but really, the reader is completely at her mercy, having to take her word for almost all the claims she makes. And since she also writes things such as: "In June 1989, US voters elected George Bush, a former CIA chief and long-standing Mobutu supporter, as their new president" one has to wonder about how thorough she is in fact-checking. (US voters elect their presidents in November. Amazingly, this slip is still present in the US edition, published more than half a year after the British edition. Not one American editor or reader at HarperCollins apparently noticed it. Who are these people and what are they being paid for ?)

       In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is, in the best sense, an infuriating book. Michela Wrong offers a useful introduction to one of the most outrageous figures of modern history, a man whose sad legacy will probably last for generations. It is a life that should be remembered -- and Ms. Wrong's account makes it fairly memorable.

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In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Reviews: The Congo:
  • Useful overview of current situation in Congo and what led up to it, with useful links
Other books by Michela Wrong under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michela Wrong was born in 1961. She is a journalist.

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© 2001-2011 the complete review

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