The Revolution of 17th May 1997: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is reborn

May 18, 2015 OPINION/NEWS




Sylvain Muyali

The 17th of May 1997 is a special date for Congolese citizens as it was on this day that Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko to become President and reclaim the name of their nation from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We first travel back further however to 24th April 1990 when then President Mobutu delivered a speech announcing widespread democratic reforms. History has now shown that this proved to be the beginning of the end for an entire regime as it was on this day that the soldiers of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) entered the city of Kinshasa.

Mobutu and his family left Kinshasa the previous day to travel to to Togo, via Gbadolite (his stronghold), relatively unopposed. Several officials of the deposed regime crossed the river to find themselves in Congo-Brazzaville waiting to take refuge in other countries.

It was the end of the regime since the coup of November 24, 1965, and the beginning of a new regime, embodied by Laurent Kabila in his capacity as President of the AFDL. A new page in the history of Congo had been written.


Two events gave further signs of the Mobutu regime’s demise. On Friday, May 16, 1997, Minister of Communication and Spokesman of the Government, then headed by Prime Minister Likulia, Professor Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba, reported in his review the failure of the Outenika (named after a warship of South Africa which housed the discussions) negotiations between Mobutu and Kabila to end the war.

It was the former South African president Nelson Mandela, who ensured the mediation meeting took place. To believe in the communications minister, after the failure of negotiations, Mobutu had returned to the city of Gbadolite, but from Gbadolite, Mobutu and his family went into exile in Togo.


The second event was the death of General Mahele at Camp Tshatshi. The one who was in place to protect the city of Kinshasa had been shot by the soldiers of Mobutu, the infamous Special Presidential Division (DSP).

All hopes, in anticipation of the AFDL military and therefore a possible war in the capital, based on the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Defense, lined with the Chief of General Staff Zairian Armed Forces (FAZ), General Mahele. AFDL troops marched into Kinshasa the morning following his death, the opinion being that anything could happen after the DSP executed Mahele.

The AFDL were of the opinion that they should not wait. It was then that on the morning of Saturday 17th May 1997, cries of joy were heard from the people that they had arrived. This had pushed the DSP to enter into disarray because they too were targeted by the AFDL.

This is what drives observers to say that Mahele’s death had saved the inhabitants of the Congolese capital, the General having given his life to protect the city of Kinshasa.


How had the AFDL reached the city of Kinshasa so fast though? It appears from several pieces of information pieced together over the years that the AFDL were already present around the N’Djili International Airport when Mobutu left Kinshasa to travel to Gbadolite. They however had instructions not to prevent him from fleeing into exile. Had this not been the case they would have been able to shoot his plane down. It is therefore understandable why General Mahele informed Mobutu that he could not ensure his safety. Mobutu had understood that he and his family could no longer stay in Kinshasa.

This is why Mobutu left Kinshasa to recover some of his belongings in Gbadolite, where his plane had been shot at, eventually taking the road to the city of Lome, Togo’s capital. This effectively explains how the assassination of General Mahele accelerated matters as he had to act quickly.


Under the cover of anonymity, a former member of the Civil Guard, one of Mobutu’s security forces, delivered his testimony. He said that the AFDL troops had entered Kinshasa a few days before the departure of Mobutu. With his colleagues, they took care of information when, on Thursday, May 15, 1997, they saw a strange movement, people onboard a vehicle that had killed soldiers on the road to Maluku. Their commander ordered them to make their reports to the headquarters of the Civil Guard. The General listened before providing their wise counsel.

What he did in fact was to ask them to go home to take care of their families. They were of the opinion that instructions would be given for the prosecution of those suspected. It transpired that the AFDL troops’ entrance on the aforementioned morning had ultimately allowed them to understand the situation; Kinshasa had been sufficiently infiltrated by the enemy.

On that morning word had broken through of General Mahele’s assassination. Officials then learnt that not only had Mobutu already taken refuge in Togo but also, and more significantly, that the AFDL troops had made their entrance into Kinshasa.

One minister, disoriented by the news, indicated that he would not flee and would wait to be killed in his home. His relatives implored him not to diminish the situation and cross the river while there was still time, eventually deciding to follow many of his colleagues who had already left.


Kabila himself, when he had quarreled with his allies of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo had found words to describe them. According to him the AFDL was “a conglomerate of opportunists and adventurers.” The word was quickly dropped.

In fact, the AFDL proved to be popular and so progressive to be classed as liberals, gaining support from the Congolese and Rwandans. Ultimately, interest within the Congo divided so much that Kabila finally decided to get rid of the ‘foreigners’ who had accompanied the Liberation of Congo.


It was at this stage that things started to go wrong to the point that former Chief of General Staff to the Congolese army, today in Kigali with Paul Kagame, James Kabarebe, helped hijack a plane to get to the town of Moanda. His aim was to alert soldiers at the base of Kitona to his cause, an action against the regime of Laurent Kabila.

The AFDL was shattered after finally managing to chase Mobutu from power. With the support of the Congolese population, the popular Credentials Committee (MPC), the political structure set up by Kabila to replace the AFDL, marched at full speed.

Unfortunately, death was already waiting at the door of the ‘soldier of the people’ as, on 17th January 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in an apparent arranged coup. He also took with him the revolution of 17th May 1997.

Kabila, in the eyes of many observers, ideologically succeeded Patrice Emery Lumumba, who was also sacrificed in the interests of the DRC. If he had managed to escape death, there is no doubt that ‘M’zee’ Kabila could have kept the flame of the May 17 1997 revolution burning, but through death, Kabila remains in the spirit of the Congolese.


What remains of the revolution though? At the same time, both everything and nothing. Everything because the Congo is still there and Zaire has completely disappeared, carried away by Mobutu in his flight. Nothing however as international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, both opposed by the revolution of 1997, signed their comeback to the DRC.

In addition to this, ‘Mobutism‘ the AFDL ideology is again at he forefront. If alive today, Laurent Kabila would no longer recognise the AFDL in the current scheme of things. Just seeing how Westerners are pressuring his Son and reigning DRC president Joseph Kabila in preparation for 2016, ‘M’zee’ would have great difficulty accepting the situation.





sylvain muyali

Sylvain Muyali

Sylvain Muyali is a Journalist, Photographer and Filmmaker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has reported previously for the Associated Press and his words and images can also be found at ‘Vivons Positivement


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