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What the Villas of Despots Teach Us About Pride

Once upon a time, this was Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s favourite of the three pools in his $100 million, 15,000 square-metre palace, on top of a hill above the jungle near the little town of Gbadolite in the north of what was once Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

There was a complicated water slide and a golden jacuzzi. Servants would circulate with the dictator’s favourite oysters and Belgian mussels, while the local village lacked electricity. He had a ready smile when he was in a good mood and cages full of wild animals for when he was not. He had a 32,000 metre airstrip built in the vicinity and hired Air France’s Concorde to go to Paris on shopping trips with his wives (the first of whom was called Marie-Antoinette). He had twenty-one children and explained proudly that he had slept with a thousand Zairean virgins.

During his presidency he stole $15 billion from the central bank and – while things were good – found a lot of friends, among them Pope John Paul II, the Director of the CIA, Richard Nixon, George Bush and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. For his 55th birthday party, the renowned pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre flew in (on Concorde) from Paris with a large chocolate cake.

Then, naturally, things fell apart for Mobutu. There was unrest in the south, the TV station was seized and the population rose up. After a scramble to find a jet large enough for the luggage, there was exile and an ignominious end in a small apartment in Morocco. The villa was ransacked and the Italian marble stripped. The palace’s thousand staff were sacked; a few of the more enterprising ones now offer tours to curious visitors. The jungle will soon have finished reclaiming the staterooms.

It is those who strive hardest to defy oblivion who have a particular habit of ending up humiliated by its march. Mobutu was the Pharaoh Amenhotep III of his time. Amenhotep was an African dictator, who in the 14th century BCE had himself sculpted out of blocks of quartzite sandstone and positioned outside a monumental gateway of the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, where he remains, smashed and eroded by time, staring out solemnly into an eternity with other things on its mind.

It’s almost tempting to imagine a less ignominious fate for Mobutu, the man who called himself The All Powerful. Most of us somewhere, deep down, have our fantasies of luxurious palaces and world domination; every small child is a little emperor. It can be almost thrilling when the baddie gets away with it. This one just overplayed his cards: every road outside the capital was left unpaved, and the only surgeons in the country were his own. Once Concorde came in with just a crate of oysters for lunch. It was always going to end badly.

Knowing how the grandest projects conclude shouldn’t empty everything of meaning. But it should put us especially on guard against all that smacks of pride. (It’s the four stone lions from Italy in the villa’s entrance hall that now look most pitiful.) Modesty has the best chance against fate; time reserves its pitiless laughter for those who want things to last and stamp their feet so that everyone will take them seriously.

The jungle ruins have much to say even to those of us with ostensibly more modest ambitions; if the site were only more accessible it should be a favoured destination for all those who nurse – and are exhausted by – hopes of grand destinies. Let us live in such a way that time will not laugh too much at our plans.

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