Following up on last week’s post regarding the general dreadfulness of rulers who get their mugs put on coins, we had to add another rogue to the gallery: the late Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. One of his personalized coins can be glimpsed here, and some of his paper money above. Mobutu certainly proves our currency rule, as his kleptocratic ways are well-documented;the stat that always sticks in our mind is that, upon his death, Mobutu was one of the world’s ten wealthiest men, despite presiding over one of the world’s ten poorest countries.
But there is something else about Mobutu that strikes us as an early tip-off that he’d be a poor ruler: his decision to change his name upon assuming the mantle of power, and to select a moniker that gives an air of megalomania. The whole backstory can be found in Brandon Grove’s Behind Enemy Walls, a memoir of a diplomatic career that included a long Reagan Era stopover in Kinshasa:
Dick [Walters], ever the linguist, was one of few Americans I knew who could accurately recite Mobutu’s full name: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. Roughly translated from the Ngbandi language, it meant in the polite version, “All-conquering warrior who goes from conquest to conquest.” More pungently, what it said was: “The cock who jumps on any hen that moves.” Little moves in Zaire that was not pleasing or profitable to its president.
Grove’s account of the New York City shopping habits of Mobutu’s wife is also well-worth a read. Just search for the word “Mafia.”