23 June 2017

As with most autocrats, Mobutu's personal charisma went hand-in-hand with an instinctive feel for the masses.  It was an understanding he carefully nurtured in the first fifteen years of his rule, travelling the country constantly in his determination to fuse the fractious provinces into one nation.  "His party piece was to call some regional governor and announce he would be flying into his district at noon.  It was his way of keeping them on their toes," recalled former US ambassador Daniel Simpson, who did a total of three tours of the country...
Then would follow a speech in Lingala, the language which, unlike the French mastered by only an educated elite, was accessible to the common man.  It would be full of puns, wordplay and wisecracks.  Mobutu would get the crowd giggling, cheering and laughing.  As often as not, there would be a public putdown for an unpopular aide or minister, sometimes a sacking.  It was Mobutu's way of assessing the national mood and lancing the boil of public discontent before it turned septic.  "He was a speaker of genius," said a Congolese journalist who was a student at the time.  "I would go unwillingly, because I didn't really approve of Mobutu.  But as soon as he began speaking, we would be swept away.  We'd stand in the sun for hours, but the time would slip by without you noticing.  If you study those speeches now, in the cold light of day, you can see there was almost nothing in them, they were full of inconsistencies, gossip and tittle-tattle.  But he knew just how to speak to the people.  He would tell us nonsense and we would believe him."

--Michela Wrong, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz:  Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo, Chapter 4, "Dizzy Worms"

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