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The men of Zaire's corrupt past and uncertain future // MOBUTU

Mobutu Sese Seko amassed an estimated $5-billion fortune during his 32-year dictatorship, crushing any rivals he couldn't seduce with limousines or luxury villas and entwine in his net of corruption.

His lengthy rule, during which diamond-rich Zaire languished in poverty, was a testament to his political skills, his patronage and the soft spot he once occupied in the hearts of Western governments during the Cold War.

In recent years, he spent more time at his palatial homes in Switzerland and the French Riviera than in Zaire's capital. Yet until Tuesday, Mobutu (moh-BOO-too SAY-say SAY-koh) had clung to power, even as rebel forces closed in on Kinshasa and his once-loyal army proved adept at little else but looting and shaking down refugees.

The former Joseph-Desire Mobutu seized power in a military coup on Nov. 24, 1965, five years after the vast, mineral-blessed country formerly known as Congo gained independence from Belgium.

He was already a known quantity in Washington. As an army officer in 1961, he had helped remove Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, whose leftist views had aroused U.S. fears of expanding Soviet influence in Africa.

Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961 with the help of the CIA, which later backed Mobutu when he took power. Mobutu's close alliance with Washington continued into the 1980s, when he provided a base for CIA-backed rebels fighting the Soviet-backed government of Angola.

At home, he won initial support for attempts to shake off remnants of colonial rule.

He instituted a policy of "Zairianization," including nationalization of mining and other major industries and outlawing Christian names.

Mobutu changed his name to Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga, which loosely means: "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake."

Mobutu took advantage of Zairians weary of bickering over how to allot power in an ethnically diverse nation by banning all political parties except his own in 1980.

Mobutu's glory days waned with the end of the Cold War. He refused to submit his rule to a popular referendum, and his was the only name on the ballot in the last presidential elections, in 1984. A pledge in 1990 to hold multiparty elections was not fulfilled.