Why Did the US Support Joseph Mobutu?

Mobutu at the Pentagon, 1983.

US support for Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Soko) during his 32 year tenure as President of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo raises serious questions regarding the nature and purpose of US foreign policy in Africa. If we are to understand why US policy took the shape it did, then the primacy of the Cold War in Washington cannot be overestimated. Through the examination of the period from 1960, when Congo became independent, to 1965, when Mobutu seized power, the origins and reasoning for US support for the dictator becomes evident. 


The emergence of Joseph Mobutu as a political force within Congo was evident only months after the state reached its independence on 30 June 1960.[1] Five years later, Mobutu took complete control of Congo after a second and permanent military coup, carried out with the support of the United States. For the U.S., involvement in the Congo, and the consequent covert, as well as overt, support of Joseph Mobutu for a period of around thirty years demonstrated its importance within the dynamics of the Cold War. It is no coincidence that U.S. support for the government of Mobutu tailed off following the end of the power struggle with the Soviet Union. The focus of this work is upon the period from 1960 to 1965, in which three consecutive administrations viewed the Soviets, and, more remotely, the Chinese, ‘as having the desire and potential to exert massive influence over the Congo and its neighbours’.[2] Congo’s strategic location at the heart of Africa made it a crucial piece of the Third World jigsaw puzzle, which, if taken by the Soviet bloc, would resemble a dangerous base for the subversion of Central Africa.[3]

The Eisenhower Administration and the Death of Patrice Lumumba

Congo became an independent state on the 30th June 1960, after a rapid decolonisation process initiated by the Belgians in order to stave off the radicalisation of the Congolese masses, whilst also hoping that political control behind the scenes ‘once political power was in the hands of the inexperienced Congolese politicians’ would remain dominated by Belgian officials and interests.[4] Yet, the problems Congo faced within weeks of independence propelled it into the American policy arena, as in the days following, troops mutinied in response to the failure of Africanisation within the armed forces that remained under the control of the right-wing Belgian, General Jansens.[5] It triggered the reoccupation of territory by the Belgians, with the richest province, Katanga, seceding with Belgian support. The failure of the United Nations to facilitate Belgian withdrawal pushed Prime-Minister Lumumba into conflict with the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, ultimately leading to his acceptance of Soviet transport planes to fly troops to Katanga to combat the secessionist movement of Moise Tshombe.[6] As far as Washington was concerned, Lumumba was not just another ‘African revolutionary who mixed nationalism and socialism’, but a leader who ‘symbolised the aggressive influence and willingness of the Soviet Union to exploit African inexperience.’[7] The administration of Eisenhower could not afford to continue with a policy that had left previous colonial masters in control of preventing Soviet intrusion into newly independent African states.

The removal of Patrice Lumumba from office was an integral part of American foreign policy in Congo and marked a shift towards more active involvement in Africa under Eisenhower to achieve Cold War aims. The first move came with Mobutu’s neutralising of the deadlock between President Kasavubu and Lumumba on 14 September 1960. Mobutu acted unilaterally to take power, giving the practical tasks of government to a College of Commissioners, dominated by pro-Western figures such as Justin Bomboko and Albert Ndele. The coup came as no shock for Lawrence Devlin, the CIA Chief of Station in Congo. Devlin, according to Weissman, had told the Church Committee in 1975 that once Kasavubu had proved ineffective, the CIA had “arranged and supported and indeed, managed” Mobutu’s coup.[8] Yet, evidence shows that Mobutu had emphasised the Soviet threat within Congo to Devlin in order to gain the support of the US. Mobutu had a much larger degree of agency than previous accounts have argued. According to the memoirs of Devlin, Mobutu told him that the Soviets were to interfere with the Congolese army, and that his intentions were to overthrow Lumumba, “but only on the condition that the United States recognises the government that would replace Lumumba’s.” The regime would be in place on a temporary measure only so long as necessary to expel the Soviet influence.[9] Mobutu knew that Devlin would have been concerned by the potential communist penetration of the armed forces, which were the key for controlling the wider dynamics in Congo. The agency of Mobutu in proposing his coup within a framework that played upon the fears of Washington meant support from the CIA would inevitably be forthcoming. For Washington, although controversial, Mobutu represented U.S. interests, and would help facilitate the permanent removal of Lumumba. Around the same time, Devlin received a cable from Washington that initiated CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba, known as PROP. Thus, support for Mobutu’s actions in the coup of September 1960 and the CIA’s plans for his assassination were both part of a larger, Cold War strategy within Congo, centred upon the prevention of Soviet bloc intrusion through the removal of Patrice Lumumba by any means necessary. Mobutu’s manipulation of U.S. Cold War aims to gain support for his own actions in September 1960 were a sign of things to come.

Lumumba’s capture by the forces of Mobutu in December 1960, following his escape from Leopoldville, saw him being sent to a prison in Thysville. However, due to a mutiny in January, it was agreed that Mobutu would officially bring Lumumba to the airport to transfer him to Elisabethville.[10] This was with the knowledge of Devlin, who no doubt knew that Lumumba would face his death in Katanga, yet failed to report this information to his superiors until three days later.[11] The CIA was an accomplice to the Belgian and Katangese operation to assassinate Lumumba once he arrived in Elisabethville, by knowingly failing to prevent Lumumba’s murder. It had been the intention of the CIA to disable Lumumba since September 1960, and support for Joseph Mobutu was critical in achieving this goal. Mobutu had not only removed Lumumba from power, but used his troops to firstly place Lumumba under house arrest in Leopoldville and later heavily involved with his transfer to Elisabethville. It is unclear the extent to which Mobutu was acting of his own according throughout this period, but it is evident that Mobutu’s own ambitions clearly aligned with the interests of, American foreign policy which he used to his own advantage. Yet, whether Mobutu would have acted without the clear support of Devlin and the CIA is also improbable, as Washington’s support for his power grab in September 1960 was crucial.

The Johnson Administration and Mobutu’s Rise to Power

The second, permanent coup of Joseph Mobutu in November 1965 was to the backdrop of the Simba rebellion in the previous year and the on going political battle between President Kasavubu and the Prime-Minister Moise Tshombe. Kasavubu moved to depose Tshombe in Septemeber 1965, a policy that Washington feared due to Tshombe’s strong links with the mercenary forces that were vital in maintaining the pro-Western government in Leopoldville.[12]

Whilst President Kasavubu had been loyal to American interests, by 1965 it is apparent that officials were tired of the seemingly never-ending crises that he had overseen. Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup on 25 November 1965, later meeting Lawrence Devlin to guarantee U.S. support. As Devlin recounts in his memoirs, Mobutu was anxious to gain U.S. recognition, something that Devlin could not guarantee, but he did his upmost to assist in forming a new government.

As Mobutu named the new members of his government, Devlin recommended changing two of the men involved. Mobutu happily obliged.[13] Whilst Washington did not necessarily want a military coup to take place, there was little it could do to prevent it, with the Cold War playing into the hands of Mobutu. A leader who was popular with the CIA, controlled the Congolese armed forces, and decisively pro-Western was evidently an attractive option by 1965. In addition, the United States could not afford to withdraw its support at a time when the perceived Communist rebels in the east of the country had the potential to destabilise Congo oncemore. In Cold War terms, as stated simplistically by Devlin, “the new government would be on our side and unfriendly to the Soviet Union.”[14] Mobutu declared himself President for five years under a “regime of exception”, pledging action on corruption and encouraging the population to work together for the ‘good of the nation’.[15]

Mobutu and Nixon, Washington, 1973.


[1] In 1972, Joseph Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa ZaBanga, Mobutu Sese Soko for short, as part of his authenticité campaign of pro-African awareness. This work, for the purposes on consistency, will refer to Mobutu as Joseph Mobutu throughout.

[2] S.R. Weissman, American Foreign Policy in the Congo, 1960-1964, (New York, 1974), p. 247.

[3] Weissman, American Foreign Policy in the Congo, p.53.

[4] L. de Witte, The Assasination of Lumumba, (London, 2001), p. 2

[5] C. Young, Politics in the Congo: Decolonisation and Independence, (Princeton, 1965), p. 309.

[6] S.R. Weissman, ‘An Extraordinary Rendition’, Intelligence and National Security, 25 (2010), p. 200.

[7] L.A. Namikas, Battleground Africa, (Washington D.C., 2013) p. 78.

[8] Weissman, ‘An Extraordinary Rendition’, pp. 203-209.

[9] L. Devlin, Chief of Station, Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone, (New York, 2007) p. 78.

[10] Namikas, Battleground Africa, p. 125.

[11] Weissman, ‘An Extraordinary Rendition’, p.200.

[12] Namikas, Battleground Africa, p. 220.

[13] Devlin, Chief of Station, pp. 232-235.

[14] Ibid, p. 235.

[15] Namikas, Battleground Africa, p. 220.

Why Did the US Support Joseph Mobutu?