He never changed his spots

Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa. By Paul Kenyon. Head of Zeus; 480 pages; £25. To be published in America in autumn 2018.

IF THERE is one thing Westerners remember about the Zaire of Mobutu Sese Seko, its longtime former dictator, it is the “Rumble in the Jungle”, a heavyweight boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali which took place in Kinshasa in 1974. This pugilistic encounter feels not just as if it happened in a very different country from the one subsequently renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but almost in a different age.

The Zaire of the 1970s had already started a long, steady descent under Mobutu’s misrule that led to its economic collapse and civil war two decades later. But viewed from the dictator’s “Versailles of the jungle”, an ornate palace he built in his ancestral village, nothing seemed impossible. Propped up by aid from America, which saw him as a useful ally in the cold war, Mobutu (pictured) ruled the country like a monarch, using the central bank’s cash as if it were his own and indulging his every whim. When he wanted to fly to his remote mansion in a supersonic Concorde jet, he just ordered a runway long enough to accommodate one. When he decided to host an international boxing fight, he simply stumped up $10m in prize money to attract one. When opponents became troublesome, he killed them.

The detail of Mobutu’s depravity has been amply documented in a string of excellent books, so it might be thought that there could be little to add to them. But Paul Kenyon, an accomplished broadcast journalist at the BBC, has managed to bring his misrule vividly to life in “Dictatorland”, a book about some of Africa’s more notorious rulers, by letting the reader glimpse them through the eyes of people who saw them at first hand. John Matadi, a taxi driver in Kinshasa, recalls how impishly he needled Ali outside his hotel, pretending he supported Mr Foreman, which prompted the boxer to spar playfully with him in front of a crowd gathered on the pavement. Further on, the reader comes across Mr Matadi again, this time talking about events a decade earlier when Mobutu was consolidating his grip on power. Mr Matadi, incongruously wearing slippers and worrying that they were the wrong footwear, gets caught up in a crowd gathering before a stage surrounded by soldiers. Looking to the side he sees an army truck arriving. Évariste Kimba, a former prime minister, is inside. Mr Matadi then watches as Kimba, wrists bound, is forced up a short ladder to the hastily erected gallows and hanged.

It is these minute observations that make Mr Kenyon’s book so hard to put down. Yet, at the same time, they are not sufficient to overcome some of the major failings of “Dictatorland”. Its origin, Mr Kenyon says, was a call from his agent when he was under siege in Crimea reporting on the conflict there, suggesting that he should write a book “about Africa and the men who had stolen its resources”. But Mr Kenyon does his readers no service in reducing Africa’s post-colonial history to its most burlesque brutes. His choice of villains is also odd. Mobutu fits in rather well, as does Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime president. But Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of Ivory Coast, is a strange inclusion when far more brutal dictators, such as Uganda’s Idi Amin or Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, are left out. Most unsatisfying, perhaps, is that Mr Kenyon offers little to explain why Africa produced the thugs it did—a criticism one would not level, for example, at Martin Meredith’s still extraordinary history, “The State of Africa”.