By Caroline Six and Gwenn Dubourthoumieu                          

Every Sunday, Mobutu used to pray at the Saint-Marie-de-Miséricorde church where his first wife and three of his children were buried. Following the service, he would invite churchgoers to a meal at the palace. After the meal, he would take out boxes of crisp new bills for everyone to share. I had never seen a man giving away as much money as Mobutu! He was a great leader". Seated at the table of the Nzekele motel in Gbadolite, in the northwestern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zoro Kenga, a former butler at the Kawele palace, nostalgically remembers his years serving the former dictator of Zaire.

With his close friends and family, the foreign leaders that supported him, and the residents of his home village, the billionaire president knew how to appear generous. The current mayor of the city, Achille Kwangbo says, "Gbadolite is the most beautiful city in Equateur province. Mobutu equiped it with all the infrastructure."

Even today, "of course the city of Mobutu is 'mobutist'", he concludes, confirming that here the dictator remains, Maréchal Mobutu Sesse Seko, the 'everlasting'.

In 1967, two years after his coup d’état, the Congolese army chief transformed the small villages where he was raised into a city with great infrastructure. A dam, a hydroelectric factory, an airport with the longest runway in Central Africa and three opulent palaces  all rose from the African bush.

Fourteen years after the President’s departure, nothing remains of these developments. Destroyed by weather, overwhelmed by vegetation and devastated by robberies, the palaces of the supreme leader are little more than mere skeletons of their former selves, wholly devoid of their former splendour for the eyes of visitors.

A local with a somewhat evocative nickname, Mister Mobutu, is nevertheless responsible for the 'tourist attraction'. He carefully displays a creased document, jealously preserved in a plastic folder, and points towards a price list, "it is 20 dollars for  foreigners".

After a brief negotiation, we go up the only road still partially tarred in the region, at the edge of which lie numerous shacks.

About fifteen kilometers from the city center, the main residence of the 'Leopard King ', a vast villa with walls covered in marble from Carrare, towers over the hills of Kawele.

Three lions made of white marble, one lying at the bottom of a fountain, guard the entrance, itself framed by immense columns of pink marble. The palace is strewn with pieces  of plaster and shards of broken glass.

In 1997, the rebellion of the former lubumbiste Laurent Désiré Kabila, after fruitless negotiations under the aegis of Nelson Mandela, takes over power. The people, starved by thirty two years of autocratic reign and predatory rule, cry vengeance, burn effigies of the general and chant "Mobutu is a thief! Down with the looter!" in the streets of Kinshasa.

As with every time his authority waivers in the capital, Mobutu takes refuge in Gbadolite. He tries to find some comfort from the villagers, those who had benefitted from his rewards for their loyalty.

The 'Leopard King', sick, paces up and down the rooms of his den in Gbadolite, saying "leave the people to themselves". This is in any case what he asserts in front of Thierry Michel's camera, in the documentary 'Mobutu, King of Zaïre'. He eventually fled the country while some of his Ministers were being lynched.

The same day, the plunder of the palaces began, both in Kinshasa, the capital, and in Gbadolite.

Nothing of what can be taken withstood the looter's visits. Precious wood furniture, tapestries and paintings were transported by the AFDL soldiers (Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo) of Kabila and the Ugandan and Rwandan armies which supported him. Tiled floors and electric installations were torn away by the people to be resold.

The Italian spiral staircase, which leads to the general's office, survived.

In the bedroom, which opens onto a vast terrace and a swimming pool with multiple ponds, you can still make out the site of the royal couch: a cross-shaped hole dug in the marble ground contained a remote-controlled bed which could be elevated to enjoy the panorama…

The Chinese palace stands on a nearby hill, without doubt the most unusual of all the palaces to be found in the middle of the African bush: a set of Chinese pagodas, with beams decorated with paintings of gardens of water lilies and fountains.

Mobutu, something of an aesthete and art lover, unmistakably marked by his visits to China, asked Chinese artisans to built this house and an almost identical one at the presidential site at Nsele near Kinshasa.

But the most extravagant building remains the official palace of the general president. In the middle of 700 hectares of luxuriant plantations, the Bambu palace has earnt Gbadolite its nickname 'the Versailles of the jungle'. Several buildings have impressively high ceilings, from which monumental chandeliers still hang.

Zoro Kenga explains:

"General Mobutu never ate alone: he was always accompanied with at least 100 persons, sometimes up to 1000! We prepared hundreds bottles of champagne, up to fifty bottles of whiskey, some wine and some beer: many bottles! The General liked the champagne Laurent-Perrier. When we were short of champagne, we mixed Primus (a local beer) with Sprite: it tastes like champagne… In the estate management, nobody checked up on us, we were simply taking the goods out of here."

Today, soldiers and their families have installed makalas (charcoal stoves) and camps amidst the former ballrooms.

A military leader of Gbadolite, who prefers to keep his name secret, confides that the salary given by the state to his men is not enough:

"They get a wage of 35,000 francs a month (less than 40 dollars). Here, where life is very expensive because everything is imported from the Central African Republic, this is hardly enough to buy a bag of flour".

Near the former palaces taken over by soldiers' families, the women grow yuca and corn.

In the village, everything seems to have stopped in 1997. The unfinished buildings kept their scaffolding and cranes, and they are now used as improvised classrooms.

The premises of the Coca-Cola factory and the building of the central Bank of Zaïre, both abandoned, are other vestiges of the period when the Center of Agricultural and Industrial Development (CDAI), the president's company, employed 6000 people. The mayor of the city,

"I am in touch with the Economic Council of Belgium and the Export and Investment Walloon Agency abroad to revive the economic infrastructures of Gbadolite; a sawmill, a palm grove, a palm oil factory, a soda factory, coffee, rubber and cocoa plantations, and several big cattle farms. We have many assets to attract foreign investors, in particular very fertile lands, and a source of stable electricity thanks to the dam of Mobayi Mbongo built by Mobutu."

In the meantime, the population of Gbadolite, 150,000 inhabitants, has returned to subsistence farming, and United Nations planes have replaced the Concorde which the General used to charter for his trips between Gbadolite and Paris.