During the chaotic “Congo crisis” following Lumumba’s assassination and the power struggle between Joseph Kasavubu, Moise Tshombe and Antoine Gizenga (who became prime minister of Congo), Bill Close remained faithful to the Hippocratic oath and continued his surgical work at the Hôpital des Congolais despite the atmosphere of sectarian Congolese politics.
“My reaction to the whole bloody mess was to work all out and hope that some semblance of order would be returned to the streets and the slums”, Close wrote in Beyond the Storm. “I spent no time trying to figure out where the patient on the table was from, what he did, what side he was on, or whether he was a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’. ”
In January 1962, Mobutu appointed Bill Close chief doctor for the Armée Nationale Congolaise. Shortly thereafter, he became Mobutu’s personal physician.
“Mobutu was never sick,” Close revealed in our 2007 interview, “until he had a minor stroke […] when his blood pressure went up. Then I had to be with him all the time.”
Bill Close’s surgical work at the Hôpital des Congolais came to an end in February that year when, through a combination of the Congo Minister for Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO), a young Belgian surgeon replaced him.
In the years to come, Close and Mobutu enjoyed a friendly doctor/patient relationship. Evenings at Mobutu’s house in the paratrooper camp would be spent with him playing 13 games of checkers with Close and drinking cognac.
There were also boat excursions on the Congo River. Both Close and Mobutu would bring their families on board during these occasions. It was not unusual for Mobutu’s boat to dock at a remote village en route and welcome some of the villagers to come aboard and greet Mobutu. Often locals needed medical attention. Bill Close was frequently asked to treat patients for elephantiasis or examine the heartbeats of newborn babies.
“Mobutu had a way of putting everyone at ease, whether a stuffy diplomat or an ancient, arthritic mama from an obscure village on the river’s edge,” remembered Bill Close. “His charm could disarm an angry man, who might even forget the cause of his anger and come out from the interview with a smile on his face.”
Napoleon Bonaparte and General Charles de Gaulle, two French-speaking Europeans, were Mobuto’s historical mentors. He was also a voracious reader of economics, geopolitics, and history.
Five years after Bill Close arrived in Congo, Mobutu asked the American surgeon to become the administrator for Hôpital des Congolais. Close accepted and with the assistance of doctors recruited from the US, Canada, and Western Europe, the hospital underwent a major renovation with substantial staff hired.
Ultimately it became a national referral centre of over 2,000 beds. Hôpital des Congolais was later renamed Mama Yemo Hospital, after Mobutu’s mother, Marie Madeleine Yemo. According to Close, the hospital also became one of the biggest centres in Africa for patients with Aids. Sadly, in October 1991, the Congolese army mutinied once again and the Aids research facilities at the hospital were destroyed.
But the rot had already taken hold of Mobutu’s government. At the time, Dr Close was unable to comprehend the corruption and patronage that Mobutu’s family members and close allies would come to expect of Mobutu.
“Mobutu used money to buy loyalty,” Close said, “but that’s a very slippery path to be on because what happens is that you end up needing more and more money, and if the source of your cash, such as minerals and a few agricultural products, start losing their value on the world market, then you are in trouble.”
In the end, as Dr Peter Piot reveals in his book, Dr Bill Close “left Zaire, disillusioned by the Mobutu regime”.