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Inauthentic Authenticité: Mobutu between Belgians and Bantus

Out of the postcolonial world new nations rose, and upon their birth these new nations needed identities. While some referenced colonialism and vocally claimed to be the kinder successor to the colonizer, many others saw the colonial past through a lens of failure and looked back to the precolonial past, locating a point of historical unity before the coming of the colonizers around which to rally. In doing so, the postcolonial nations sought to locate a wholly African precolonial past as a starting point for nationalistic narratives. However, beneath the national narratives being created, tensions, simplifications, and outright lies lurked.

Exemplifying this search for traditional, customary, and local forces for new postcolonial states to emulate is Mobutu’s Congo and narrative of Authenticité. He spoke of the grand history of the Congolese, arguing for national unity as a regular facet of Congolese history and conceived the Congolese people as one unified body, akin to how nationalists in 19th century Europe imagined the national community. Just as European nationalists on the barricades of 1848 sought out historical national models to imitate, Mobutu did the same in the Congo.

Searching for precolonial unity, Mobutu found few precolonial sources of power to which to turn. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the time of Belgian colonization in the 1880s, never had a precolonial state which occupied the majority of the land. The Kingdom of Kongo, after which the state was named, only had a small presence on an extreme western side of the country and had roots in what became Angola.[1] Lacking options and unable to claim the Kongo, Mobutu turned to the last available option, a claim to Bantu-ness.

This was confusing for a number of reasons, even if one ignores the gross injustice done to history by adopting a tribalistic outlook on nationhood.[2] Firstly, Bantu refers to people who spoke (or presently speak) a Bantu language. However, not all Congolese natively spoke a Bantu language, even Mobutu himself did not. Twa-speakers, Ngbandi-speakers, Zande-speakers, and others all inhabited the Congo.[3] Secondly, Bantu-speakers exist far outside the Congo, from the South African Zulus to the Zanzibar Swahilis to the Cameroon Sawa, Bantu languages are prevalent throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Crafting a unifying Authenticité out of claim to Bantu-ness as national identity was difficult. The expansiveness of the claim to Bantu-ness coupled with the inherent hypocrisy of such a claim was a challenging starting point for a national identity. To compensate, Mobutu incorporated other, more sinister, historical legacies in which to root a national identity also.

When King Baudouin of Belgium was invited by Mobutu for the tenth anniversary of the Congo’s independence the contrast, or rather lack thereof, between Baudouin and Mobutu is telling. Mobutu’s wore a military suit identical to the King’s.[4] By adopting the fashion of the King as well as, despite the official emphasis on Authenticité, the continuation of the French language, Mobutu made liberal use of Belgian symbols. The dual emphasis on African-ness while maintaining the trappings of Belgian rule reveals the struggles in forging a postcolonial identity in the Congo.

Mobutu spoke of a Bantu identity while appropriating a Belgian identity. By adopting the trappings of Belgian rule he harkened back to the colonial Congolese state in another attempt to create unity. This attempt at unity was also one which would differentiate the Congo from its neighbors — unlike the Bantu claim. Ironically, Mobutu maintained the oppressive, extractive nature of colonial reign in his own kleptocracy. The artificiality of the state and Mobutu’s dictatorial disposition resulted in him appealing to African-ness while maintaining the trappings of power and unity which were recognized throughout the Congo: the trappings of the Belgians.

This utilization of the colonizer for internal politics was not limited to Mobutu. Idi Amin famously had the title CBE, but rather than Commander of the British Empire awarded by the Queen as it most commonly was, Idi Amin gave himself the title Conqueror of the British Empire, with the same post-nominal letters.[5] Even Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Mobutu’s predecessor, had his suit modeled off of the King Baudouin’s.[6]

Mobutu, either by both personal predilection or by the inherent lack of unity, utilized two strains of rhetoric in his attempt to create national cohesion. The first strain was his continual emphasis on the African-ness of the Congo. His emphasis on the inherent Bantu-ness of the Congolese and his push for Authenticité represent the first strain. The second strain is the continuation of Belgian symbolism.

The twin techniques attempted by Mobutu in the quest to forge a national postcolonial identity represent the difficulties postcolonial nations faced. The drive for Bantu authenticity resulted in a twisting of history, ignoring huge swaths of the non-Bantu-speaking population, and resorting to static tribalistic conceptions of African similarity, echoing the viewpoint of Hegel who argued, “the African … is still influenced by nature” and therefore does not have the agency necessary to make history.[7] By imagining the inhabitants of the Congo to be forever identical citizens of an undifferentiated tribe, without internal squabbles or struggles, Mobutu’s Bantu narrative came close to echoing this racist sentiment.

Yet while arguing this bizarre narrative of Bantu-ness, Mobutu also adopted the symbols of the brutal yet effective Belgians colonizers, and in doing so ironically linking his kleptocratic regime with his Belgian predecessor. Utilizing the invented paradise of the Bantus and the brutal reality of the Belgians, Mobutu — through his narrative of Authenticité — attempted to weave a national identity which was far from authentic.


[1] Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History, (London: Zed Books, 2002), 14.

[2] See Michael Neocosmos, “The Contradictory Position of 'Tradition' in African Nationalist Discourse: Some Analytical and Political Reflections,” Africa Development / Afrique et Développement 28, no. 1/2 (2003): 17-57 for a further discussion on the dangers of tribalistic thinking in African nationalism.

[3] Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila, 14.

[4] Mobutu, King of Zaire, directed by Thierry Michel, (Icarus Films, 1999).

[5] Lorna Lloyd, Diplomacy with a Difference : The Commonwealth Office of High Commissioner, 1880-2006, (Leiden: Nijhoff, 2007), 239.

[6] David Van Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People, trans. Sam Garrett. (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).

[7] Ronald Kuykendall, “Hegel and Africa: An Evaluation of the Treatment of Africa in The Philosophy of History,” Journal of Black Studies 23, No. 4 (June, 1993), 572.


File:Mobutu's many looks (1976-04-28)(Gerald Ford Library) (cropped).jpg, Photograph, April 28, 1976, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Image: A9602_NLGRF.jpg from White House Photographs, April 28, 1976 of the White House Photographic Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

President of Zaire General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Photograph, AFP via Getty Images,


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