As war began in eastern Zaire the country's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, recuperated 6,000 miles away in Switzerland. As a million refugees moved wretchedly along the borders of Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi, Mobutu was checking the investment portfolio of his £4 billion fortune.
Mobutu has made himself one of the most hated rulers in Africa. Put in power by the West, he followed an even crueller Belgian colonial regime. Zaire, formerly the Congo, has a history of inhuman government.
In 1876 King Leopold II of the Belgians founded the International African Association. Its aim was to `cut off a large and succulent slice of that magnificent African cake.'
The Berlin Conference of 1885, the `gentlemen's agreement' that sealed the carve up of Africa between 14 European nations and the United States, awarded the Congo to Leopold himself. It turned out to be one of the most profitable of all colonies.
Leopold's money was more than usually blood soaked. As one investigator reported, the king's colony was based on `legalised robbery enforced by violence'. British government official Roger Casement was sent to investigate allegations of `ill treatment of the natives'. He did not believe the reality could be as bad as the rumours. In fact it was worse.
The story the Africans told Casement is one of the most vivid pictures of colonial horror. One account from an African reads, `We are sent out to get rubber and when we come back with little rubber we are shot. When we did not bring enough rubber the white men would put some of us in lines, one behind the other, and would shoot through all our bodies.'
Some of the villagers in the rubber districts voluntarily offered themselves up as slaves in order to escape the harshness of the Belgian regime. This heritage reveals Mobutu's theft and cruelty as a continuation of a tradition he inherited from the colonialists, not some lurch away from good government.
The most potent symbol of colonialism's brutality was the `severed hands'. African soldiers in the pay of their Belgian masters were sent out to smash opposition. To demonstrate that they had not wasted their bullets they hacked the hands from their victims, alive or dead. The novelist Joseph Conrad wrote to Casement that it was extraordinary that a world which no longer tolerated the slave trade could blithely ignore the Congo. It was, he said, `as if the moral clock had been put back'.
In 1909 Leopold gave the colony to the Belgian government. But, as an anti-colonial activist wrote at the time, `There has been a change of name, but the old firm remains and is carrying on the old game of plunder and slavery.' Africans did not meekly accept colonialism. They rose in rebellion in 1908 and were defeated only by a desperate government pouring in large numbers of Belgian troops.
This brutal rule was finally shattered by rebellion in 1959. As other powers were forced to concede independence to their colonies, Congolese nationalists attempted to organise their own movements. When the government banned all public meetings riots broke out in the capital, Leopoldville. In the repression that followed 50 Africans were killed.
The resistance shook Belgium to the core. Large demonstrations demanded `Not one soldier for the Congo'. This revolt at home and the prospect of an unwinnable war stampeded the government towards reform. The Belgians wanted to encourage conservative black groups who would guarantee the assets of Belgian companies. But the MNC movement of Patrice Lumumba demanded immediate independence for the whole of the Congo.
To the horror of the Belgian authorities the MNC emerged as the biggest party after elections, despite blatant vote rigging. Immediate steps were taken to destabilise Lumumba.
The United States government became involved. CIA director Allen Dulles said Lumumba was `a person who was a Castro or worse.' Although the US wanted a unified Congo, it first supported the manoeuvres by other Western powers who were dismembering the country. With Belgian backing, the Katanga (now Shaba) province, which produced a large part of the country's wealth, declared independence.
Attacked on all sides, Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for help. Within days of Lumumba's plea for help 3,500 soldiers arrived. The force soon grew to 19,000, drawn from 26 countries. They replaced Belgian troops in five of the Congo's six provinces, but did nothing to demand that Katanga should once more come under the control of the democratically elected government.
Lumumba, incensed by this inaction, declared he would go to the USSR for military assistance. This was the trigger for the US to seek his death. The US ambassador in the Congo advised encouraging Lumumba's opponents to seize power. The CIA favoured assassinating him.
The UN and the US cast around for a suitable candidate to replace Lumumba and found Joseph Mobutu. Two months after the Congo became independent Mobutu took power in a Western backed coup. Lumumba was first imprisoned and then murdered with Western help.
Civil war raged for almost five years, but by 1965 Mobutu's rule was secure. He covered his role as protector of a tiny African elite and Western interests by launching a drive based on `Africa for the Africans' rhetoric. Declaring a programme he dubbed `African authenticity', Mobutu demanded a return to `African roots'. He obliged his people to abandon Western clothes and changed his own name and that of his country.
In a move which briefly disturbed the US and allowed him to be championed by some sections of the left, Mobutu `Zairised' (nationalised) some 1,500 foreign owned companies, including much of the copper industry.
Despite his occasional lurches against private capital, Mobutu remained a firm favourite of the West. He marketed himself as a bastion against the Soviet Union, and one who controlled some of the world's most important strategic minerals.
In addition Zaire was a valuable base for Western military initiatives. Mobutu sheltered and actively supported the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by CIA agent Holden Roberto (who happened to be Mobutu's brother-in-law) in its war against the leftist MPLA. Later Mobutu aided the right wing UNITA forces in Angola.
In return the West backed Mobutu with force when he was under pressure from pro-democracy revolts at home. In 1978 and 1979 the offensives of the Congolese National Liberation Front were checked only with the aid of French, Belgian, Moroccan and Egyptian troops, all supported by US hardware.
Meanwhile the people starved. One in ten Zairean children die before their first birthday. In 1992 1,000 children under the age of five died every day from malnourishment and associated diseases.
In the late 1970s, while setting up concentration camps for his opponents, Mobutu suddenly announced elections and an amnesty for exiles. But the elections were wholly fraudulent and 80 percent of those who took up the amnesty were butchered.
The West eventually became concerned that Mobutu was too obviously corrupt and that this would lead to instability. In 1981 the US, backed by France and Belgium, decided to seize direct control of mineral assets. French paratroops secured the mines while the International Monetary Fund took over the day to day running of Zaire's economy.
The bankers declared the move a success. But workers faced an IMF austerity programme which was pushing them still closer to starvation. Mainstream opposition figures called louder for Mobutu's demise.
Some in the Western governments flirted with the idea of replacing Mobutu with a `respectable alternative'. But Ronald Reagan dissented.. In an attempt to placate Western critics and upstage his rivals, Mobutu allowed rival parties and independent trade unions. The response was a strike wave including a big dispute at the Gecamina mine complex.
Mobutu was rocked, but not toppled. He clung on to power. The Rwandan crisis in 1994 once more gave him a role for the West. He backed the French government's military offensive to set up `safe areas' in Rwanda. He then accepted around a million Rwandan refugees on the understanding that vast amounts of aid money would be channelled to him and the West would shut up about democracy.
The Hutu refugees who came from Rwanda were mostly ordinary people desperate to escape fighting and scared for their lives. But they also included some of the leaders of the 1994 killing who then switched their loyalty to Mobutu. He thereby earned the gratitude of murderous allies.
However, his own people were not so accommodating. Demonstrations and strikes against Mobutu, although illegal, became more common throughout 1994 and 1995.
Mobutu turned to scapegoating. He zeroed in on people of the Tutsi group who live in eastern Zaire, stripped them of their citizenship and threatened their property. On one level his manoeuvre has been a complete failure. The Tutsis fought back and won support from the Rwandan and Burundian governments. The Tutsi rebels have shown themselves to be committed fighters who have frequently brushed aside the half hearted (or totally absent) resistance of the Zairean army.
But at the same time as some were celebrating Mobutu's humiliation, in Kinshasa Mobutu's henchmen were able to stir up marches against Tutsis and against army chiefs for failing to `protect the motherland and the name of our president'.
The French government also urged Mobutu to `retake control of domestic affairs'. In many Western capitals government officials speak of how Mobutu `at least meant stability' and express fear for what might happen after he has gone. This is why Western troops are being sent now.
Mobutu hung on for over three decades because he was not just a systematic robber but was also a very useful ally of the bigger powers. Even if he dies or is driven out now, the future is bleak unless the Zairean working class begins to play an independent role. Almost a third of Zaire's 38 million people live in cities over 4 million in Kinshasa. Zaire has over two million industrial workers and three million others in services and administration.
There will be no easy road for workers to unite and triumph over the colonial heritage and the depredations of Mobutu. Equally it is clear there will be no real progress until they do.