Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

Sep 30, 2020 2 comments

Deep in the rainforest, more than 1,000 km from Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo, lies the decaying city of Gbadolite, home to nearly two hundred thousand people. Fifty years ago, Gbadolite was a just small village of 1,500 with mud brick houses. It wasn’t even marked on maps, until Mobutu Sese Seko became the president. Within a decade, Gbadolite was transformed into a sprawling city with an airport, five-star hotels, supermarkets, hospitals with high tech facilities, and palatial homes for Mobutu. All of these are in ruins today swallowed by the jungle.

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

A dysfunctional fountain at Mobutu’s former residence in Gbadolite. Photo: Sean Smith

DROC’s (then called Zaire) despotic ruler Mobutu Sese Seko sieged power in 1965 in a bloodless military coup, and established himself as the country's military dictator. During his totalitarian regime that lasted three decades, Mobutu amassed vast personal wealth through exploitation and corruption, and solidified his grip on the country with a system of economic and political patronage that made him a darling with the United States. Capitalizing on the tensions of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, he gained significant support from the West and its international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, which was more than willing to bankroll him despite the widespread human rights violations and uncontrolled inflation the country was spiraling into.

President Mobutu Sese Seko

President Mobutu Sese Seko with his signature leopard-skin cap.

The level of corruption was mind-blowing. According to the most conservative estimates, he stole $5 billion from his country’s coffers, but some sources put the figure as high as $15 billion. He owned luxurious mansions around the world, enjoyed traveling on extended vacations and lavish shopping trips to destinations like Disneyworld or Paris with large numbers of relatives and courtiers in specially chartered Boeing 747 and Concorde jets. Among his possessions included a 16th-century castle in Spain, a 32-room palace in Switzerland, and residences in Paris and on the French Riviera and in Belgium, Italy, the Ivory Coast and Portugal. However, the prime example of his excesses was closer to home, in Gbadolite.

This remote village on the border with the Central African Republic was turned into a luxurious town, often nicknamed “Versailles of the Jungle”. Here, Mobutu built three large marble-clad palaces, a 100-room motel run by the Mobutu family, an airport with an extensive runway long enough to accommodate a Concorde, as well as a nuclear bunker that could house more than 500 people. A satellite-dish communication station provided color television and telephone service. Health care was provided by a German-run hospital and there was even a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

Photo: Sean Smith

Writing for The Guardian, David Smith describes one of Mobutu’s opulent residences:

His private palace, seven miles outside town in Kawele, brimmed with paintings, sculptures, stained glass, ersatz Louis XIV furniture, marble from Carrara in Italy and two swimming pools surrounded by loudspeakers playing his beloved Gregorian chants or classical music. It hosted countless gaudy nights with Taittinger champagne, salmon and other food served on moving conveyer belts by Congolese and European chefs.

Mobutu hosted many international dignitaries in his private residence, including Pope John Paul II, the king of Belgium, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali, self-declared emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, American televangelist Pat Robertson, oil baron David Rockefeller, businessman Maurice Tempelsman, and director of the CIA, William Casey.

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

The disused swimming pool at Mobutu’s palace. Photo: Sean Smith

Throughout the Cold War period, Mobutu helped keep the Soviet Union away from the fabulous natural riches of Africa. But after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved, the US and the Western Powers were no longer willing to finance Mobutu. Instead, they began to pressurize Mobutu to democratize the regime. The Bush administration even denied him visa when he sought to visit Washington D.C.

Mobutu reportedly lamented: “I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the US. The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing.”

In 1996, suffering from cancer, Mobutu went to Switzerland for treatment. Back home, rebels took up arms and with the help of neighboring government forces overthrew Mobutu. His army offered almost no resistance. Mobutu fled his country to Togo, and then to Morocco, where he died, aged 66.

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

The entrance gate and road to the main palace complex. Photo: Sean Smith

Mobutu’s palaces in Gbadolite were stripped bare by the rebels. They smashed furniture, tore down silk curtains and stole everything that was of value. Many of the structures don’t even have a roof now. The Coca-Cola bottling plant that once provided employment to 7,000 shut down and was turned into a UN logistics base. The Water Ministry building that was never finished became an improvised school.

Gbadolite is now a shadow of its former self. “The jungle has seized back the land. Roman style columns now protrude through trees, enormous vases lining an ornamental lake have been wrapped in vines and the multi-tiered swimming pools are filled with green larvae,” observed documentary-maker Robin Barnwell.

The five-star Motel Nzekele is now derelict and shabby but still open for business. The empty cinema has ripped seats and holes where the projector used to be. The airport is essentially defunct, with only two or three tiny aircraft coming a week from the UN.

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

The airport terminal in Gbadolite. Photo: Sean Smith

Mobutu has still got supporters. A handful of loyalists take care of his ruined house, who would eagerly give visitors a tour for money.

“I take care of this place because it’s from one of our own. Although Mobutu died, he left it for us,” said one of the self-appointed caretakers.

Francois Kosia Ngama, whose grandmother taught Mobutu’s mother, recalls the glory days of Gbadolite’s past, when the palace employed 700 to 800 chauffeurs, chefs, servants and other staff, plus more than 300 soldiers. “When I used to come here, I would feel I was in paradise. It was wonderful. Everyone would eat according to his wish,” he told The Guardian.

“People were poor but at the time we couldn’t see it,” Ngama continued. “We thought everyone was OK. The army was organised and well paid. There were clothes from the Netherlands and women had money to buy them. In education, teachers were on good salaries and couldn’t complain too much. Some needed big bags to carry all the money each time they were paid. Most teachers had their own means of transport but now it is not the case.”

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

The theater hall of Motel Nzekele. Photo: Sean Smith

Elias Mulungula, former minister and devoted to Mobutu, said: “President Mobutu was a positive dictator, not a negative one. He knew what methods to use to preserve unity, security and peace for his people. You could feel at home anywhere in the Congo under Mobutu’s regime. There is no freedom without security. He understood what the people needed at the time.”

Even Mobutu’s foes agrees that Mobutu was more useful than some of his successors. “With Mobutu we had a state, but he was a dictator. Today we don’t have a state – it’s a jungle,” said Joseph Olenghankoy, who was arrested 45 times by Mobutu’s regime.

There are also many who laments the wanton destruction of Gbadolite. Olenghankoy, president of the opposition Forces for Union and Solidarity party, expressed sorrow at the decline of Gbadolite:

“Mobutu is a man, he is gone, but all these things should remain state property. The mistake of this country is they have destroyed and looted everything. They were doing that to rub out Mobutu’s memory, but the history should be preserved. The history might be positive or negative but it remains our history and we should pass it from one generation to another.”

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

A mural of former President Mobutu outside the mayor’s office in Gbadolite. Photo: Sean Smith

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

Inside the abandoned airport control tower. Photo: Sean Smith

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

Inside the main airport terminal. Photo: Sean Smith

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

The Water Ministry building. It’s a school now. Photo: Sean Smith

Gbadolite: The Versailles of The Jungle

Motel Nzekele is still operating. Once a 5-star hotel, now rooms come at $50 per night. Photo: Sean Smith

# Howard W. French, Mobutu Sese Seko, Zairian Ruler, Is Dead in Exile in Morocco at 66, NY Times
# Robin Barnwell, Dan Snow's History of Congo, BBC
# David Smith, Where Concorde once flew: the story of President Mobutu's 'African Versailles', The Guardian
# James Brooke, Mobutu's Village Basks in His Glory, NY Times


  1. "The mistake of this country is they have destroyed and looted everything. They were doing that to rub out Mobutu’s memory, but the history should be preserved. The history might be positive or negative but it remains our history and we should pass it from one generation to another.”

    Amazing how someone who lived in a dictatorship has more sense than Americans who tear down statues of people they never knew and complain about oppression while living in a free country.

  2. You should say "more sense than the leftist woke fanatics" as most Americans deplore the trashing of our history!


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