While Pat Robertson lost millions in his diamondmining venture, Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko may have come out ahead as a result of their association.
For Robertson, building a relationship with Mobutu led to mining concessions and other business opportunities in Zaire. But the Virginia Beach-based televangelist has shut down his for-profit company amid a sea of red ink.
Mobutu, on the other hand, has sought to parlay his connection with Robertson into valuable political support as his embattled regime struggles to hold onto power.
That strategy was never more evident than in early 1992.
Mobutu, who had ruled Zaire with an iron fist since coming to power through civil war with the CIA’s help in 1965, was facing massive popular pressure for democratization.
He had thrown repeated obstacles in the way of a national conference called to move the country toward democracy in 1991.
On Feb. 16, 1992, a Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Christians poured into the streets of Kinshasa, the Zairian capital, for a peaceful pro-democracy rally after church services to demand resumption of the conference.
It was the biggest political demonstration in Zaire since independence from Belgium in 1960.
The gathering prompted a bloody response. Mobutu’s soldiers gunned down scores of the demonstrators, many still carrying hymnals and prayer books.
Amnesty International, the worldwide human rights organization, estimated the number of deaths at 42, but John Metzel believes the total might have been as high as 250.
Metzel, son of a retired Presbyterian missionary to Zaire, is manager of the Zaire Educational Council, a Washington-based lobby.
“We have eyewitnesses who saw truckloads of bodies being carried away on that day,” Metzel said.
“And what does Mobutu do? He calls in Pat Robertson. In less than three weeks, Mr. Robertson was on national television embracing Mobutu, calling him a fine Christian and a democrat.”
Criticism of Robertson’s involvement in Zaire generally centers on two themes: that he has sought to exploit a desperately poor country with for-profit ventures, and that his embrace of Mobutu has helped legitimize the dictator in the eyes of the world.
“Many Christians here were aware that this trip was planned and wrote to Pat Robertson, pleading with his staff, trying to get through to him and urge him not to go, not to allow Mobutu to use him in this way, and he would hear none of it,” Metzel said. “That more than anything was an example of his total disregard for the welfare of the people of Zaire in pursuit of his own selfish interests.”
It is welcome news that Robertson has ceased his business operations in Zaire, say his critics. But they want nothing less than for him to renounce his support of Mobutu.
“If he has pulled out, thanks be to God,” said Etiene Bote-Tshiek, a Zairian who now works for the Presbyterian Center of Eastern Virginia. “But has he ended his support for the man who is today destroying Zaire? There is a crisis in Zaire today. What kind of message is the reverend giving to Mobutu?”
That sentiment was echoed by Lamar Williamson, a retired professor of biblical studies in Montreat, N.C. Williamson and his wife did five tours of duty as Presbyterian missionaries in Zaire.
“We are convinced that there will be no real hope for improvement in Zaire until Mr. Mobutu is permanently out of the country or out of the picture,” Williamson said. “He has systematically, since 1990, thwarted every effort toward democratic change, and we believe that he will continue to do so as long as there’s a breath in his body - and that Pat Robertson’s failure to realize that is a major tragedy.”
Robertson declined through a spokeswoman to respond specifically to the criticism by Mobutu’s pro-democracy foes.
Robertson has played down his support for Mobutu since the spring of 1995, when he appeared alongside the dictator in Kinshasa and made a public plea that the United States lift the travel restrictions it had placed on him. Mobutu was barred from the United States because he was seen as impeding his country’s transition to democracy.
Despite the lobbying of Robertson and others, the travel ban still stands.