Congo: From state collapse to 'absolutism', to state failure

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The present-day Democratic Republic of Congo is regarded as a paradigmatic case of state failure. This was not always so. During the 1960s and 1970s arch-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was regarded as a fairly successful state builder. From the time that he seized power outright in 1965 he welded together a huge and diverse territory that had been Africa's first example of state collapse shortly after independence from Belgium in 1960. Academic literature in the 1970s commented on Mobutu's 'absolutist' strategies, which combined patronage politics with more formal state-building projects: these strategies were often examined through the lens of state-building efforts in 18th century France. While pre-revolutionary France was not regarded as an ideal state-building model, Mobutu was praised for adapting this model to Congo's difficult circumstances. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and Congo's geopolitical significance, Mobutu's 'absolutism' received significant external support, particularly from the USA. This support also reflected the acceptance of then-current models of state-led development. This article emphasises the extent to which this global context, which was very different from more recent pressures for economic and political liberalisation, allowed figures such as Mobutu to follow state-building strategies that more closely resembled early modern European efforts toward the same goal than most scholars would now admit. African patrimonialism seen in this light is less idiosyncratic than most contemporary analyses allow, and its failure has (in part) been hastened by recent changes in the global context that faces state-builders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-56
Number of pages14
JournalThird World Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Development


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