J. M. Ledgard at The New York Times:
On June 5, 1978, the Congolese dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu stood on a hot grassy bluff in the south of his vast country — then named Zaire — and watched as the engines on a space rocket ignited. “Slowly, the rocket rose from the launching pad. A hundred kilometers into the atmosphere, that’s where it was headed, a new step forward in African space travel.” After a few moments, though, “the rocket listed, cut a neat arc to the left and landed a few hundred meters away, in the valley of the Luvua, where it exploded.” For David Van Reybrouck the rocket represents Mobutu’s regime: “A parabola of soot. . . . After the steep rise of the first years, his Zaire toppled inexorably and plunged straight into the abyss.”
Watching the failed rocket launch on YouTube is both Pythonesque and distressing. How did the West German space company Otrag get absolute control of an area of Congo the size of Iceland? Imagine if Mobutu’s state had been better run, not just that Congo had become a launchpad for interstellar travel, but that it had been able to project a stabilizing influence on neighboring Rwanda, heading off the 1994 genocide there.