Mobutu Sese Seko was by the time I arrived in Africa as a college student in 1985 renowned as one of the globe’s most corrupt leaders. Zaire, as the Congo was then called, had withered under his rule. The story was that you could have driven a Cadillac from the Rift Valley in the east all the way to the Atlantic without hitting a single pothole when he assumed power in 1965. Twenty years later, only traces of the road remained, most of it sucked up into the jungle.
Traveling around Africa as a young man, I was struck, as many were, at what was perceived as the continent’s preference for strongman, authoritarian dictators. Uganda’s Idi Amin, deposed in 1979, was reviled as brutal. Even in Kenya, which was thought to be a model for African democracy, elected officials were amassing wealth improperly, restricting students’ right to protest, and fomenting clashes among ethnic groups.
Why the masses put up with it in so many countries seemed a mystery. This week, after the Electoral College voted to formalize Donald Trump’s victory, the preference for an autocratic government is much less foreign.
It was in Zaire, toward the end of my stay in Africa, that I really began to sense the dangerous undercurrents. Arriving at the border from Burundi, I was swept up by armed men, who took me in the back of an open Toyota pickup truck to some office or other before letting me go on my way. I never figured out if they were police or something else, and I never lost the sense that I was being watched or that every man between 20 and 50 seemed a little like he was with the secret police.
Whether from love or fear, many of the people I saw on the streets of Zaire wore small pins showing Mobutu Sese Seko sporting his signature heavy-rimmed glasses and leopard-hide cap. I had to have one and eventually found my way to a neighborhood political party office, where for a couple of Zaires, as the currency, which also bore the presi12dent’s likeness, was called, I obtained several. But the transaction was not without an air of menace.
Leaving the country a few weeks later, the customs agents at the grass-strip airport refused to let me leave with the pins. “These are for the Zairouis. They are not for the outside world,” one said.
I was still in a fit of pique about that when we landed in Tanzania a couple of hours later, and I stuffed most of my shopping bag full of nearly worthless Zaires down a latrine by way of protest.
It is only today, following the election of Mr. Trump, that I think I finally, so many years later, have a degree of understanding about how countries could go so wrong, how voters could welcome with broad grins a thug-like, divisive leader. I did not get it then, but I do now.