The Congo-Rwanda bilateral framework in the last 30 years

Part Two: Kigali’s menu of complaints against Zaire Rwanda, a country located on the fault lines of East and central Africa shares its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo her much larger neighbour.
Mobutu’s army at a past operation.
Mobutu’s army at a past operation.

Part Two: Kigali’s menu of complaints against Zaire

Rwanda, a country located on the fault lines of East and central Africa shares its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo her much larger neighbour.

The relationship between the two countries in the last 30 years is what one can say is hinged on cooperation or conflict based on the nature of the bilateral framework defining the relationship.

In this second  part report this writer closely looks at the background items which led to the conflict phase of this relationship which ran from 1994 to 2005.

This conflict phase followed closely  on the heels of  a long period of cooperation which dated back to the cold war era. The recent resumption of cooperation once again is a complete 360 degree reversal from the days of conflict.

The culmination of this reversal was the joint plan to flush out the so called negative forces in effect genocidal forces operating within the DRC in a concerted bid to bring about sustainable peace in the region.

The key background to this change of relations had something to do with the regime change in Rwanda and the accompanying genocide against the Tutsis. Sorting out the genocide saw  the Congo-Rwanda relations quickly turning sour.

The relationship thus changed from that hinged on Francophonie romanticism to that of complaints and tension which quickly degenerated into conflict harboured by an aggrieved Rwanda against her much larger neighbour.

Failure to heed calls to repatriate legitimate refugees
As the genocidaires regrouped after suffering a crashing defeat, at the Kivu refugee camps, the new authorities in Rwanda, its neighbouring governments and the OAU called for the urgent repatriation of all legitimate refugees and the immediate separation and disarmament of armed elements operating among the refugees.

The OAU put substantial effort into pressing for these aims, especially the urgent need to separate and disarm the killers. The African position, while clear and consistent, nevertheless depended for its implementation on resources from the UN and international community. But the position was largely ignored and no such resources were offered.

The UN had taken charge of the situation in the camps, but it rejected both repatriation and separation. Accordingly, the Security Council, with the concurrence of the Secretary-General, decided that the security problems of the camps should be the responsibility of the UNHCR.

On the issue of repatriation, UNHCR, while sympathetic to immediate return in principle, made the reasonable determination that such a move was simply unrealistic at this early post-war stage.It was the second issue that was far more controversial.

In effect, the Security Council was leaving the fate of the camps, not to say of the entire region, in the hands of the genocidaires, a decision one may find not easy to understand.

In the end, UNHCR signed an unusual agreement with the government of Zaire to provide ‘elite troops’ to ensure security in the camps. The men refused to disarm the genocidaires.

Disarmament was the main motive of UNHCR in employing them, and eventually, after great cost, their corruption and brutality was too blatant to be endured further.

In summary, then, as a result once again of a deliberate policy choice by the international community, the camps remained under the control of unrepentant armed killers, who used them as bases to launch raids across the nearby border into Rwanda, adding substantially to the impossible burdens the new RPF-led Rwandan Government was already shouldering.

The international community backed up the genocidaires
Rwanda even after the horrible events of the genocide which had  inexhaustible needs took a back seat to the more photogenic plight of the suffering multitudes in the Kivu camps.

What was even more unfortunate was that some 10 per cent of the Kivu campers were not refugees at all but war criminals whose only suffering was their unfulfilled need to slaughter more Tutsi.

During this time the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Rwanda considered this an area of special frustration for the new goverment. As far as the government was concerned, ‘the world was doing nothing’ while humanitarian aid was going to the genocidaires in the camps who were re-arming and committing acts of sabotage on an increasing scale inside Rwanda.

Significant questions were raised by the actions of the NGOs in eastern Zaire during this period. Why did so many of them choose to work there rather than in Rwanda itself?

Why did they continue doing work they knew was ethically dubious at best? Why were some NGO spokespeople seen on the media so frequently making statements about situations about which they clearly understood so little?

Using genuine refugees as pawns while scaling up rearmament. Within the Kivu camps, the genocidaire leaders opposed the return of the refugees, and they did not hesitate to murder or at least intimidate any of those who disagreed.

The refugees were a most convenient pawn for the genocidaires, which was among the reasons the new Kigali government demanded their return.

First, they were a source of funds for genocidaires in the form of humanitarian aid. Secondly, they were a great propaganda tool to demonstrate the callousness of the RPF-led Government back at home in Rwanda who were falsely blamed for not allowing them to return.

Thirdly, they were invaluable as buffers to prevent the arrest or disarming of the plotters themselves. Overall, then, the teeming camps constituted an ideal setting for the genocidaires to implement their long-term plan to reorganize themselves, rearm, woo external sympathizers, invade Rwanda, restore genocidal ideology  and finish off their ‘work’.

So the refugees remained, the armed killers remained, and the raids into Rwanda continued, with all the consequences foreseeable at the time. For it was no secret what was going on in the camps.

As reports continued of the intensification of military activities in the camps and increased infiltration and sabotage in Rwanda, the Security Council took decisive action.

It established an international commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of arms flows to the genocidal forces.

The commission, established in November 1995, almost a year and a half after the mass exodus to the Kivus, issued three reports before its work was suspended a year later. It was revived in 1998 for six months.

It made several recommendations for implementing an arms embargo and for curbing the military training in the camps. All of them were ignored.

The major finding was expected by anyone who had the slightest knowledge of the region and what was happening.

President Mobutu Sese seko of Zaire had steadfastly supported the criminal  enterprise that led Rwanda  into genocide, including the provision of military support. He continued to support that same government in exile.

Already there was a damning new report by the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, whose charges had been confirmed by Amnesty International and various BBC television programs based on their own investigations.

As one scholar summed it up simply, ‘Mobutu was clearly in complicity with the FAR and the various genocidal elements’.

In a March 1996 report, the UN commission confirmed these charges. There was intensive rearmament in the camps, Ex-FAR and genocidal interahamwe were training new recruits, and the Zairian army was implicated in both activities.

The Zairian government blithely told the commission it had investigated the allegations against itself and had found them all to be false.

Since the world refused to intervene against the menace to Rwanda in the camps, the intended victims decided – as they had warned often enough – that they had little choice but to do the job themselves. The Conflict stage of the relationship was now a step away.

100,000 strong genocidal army

In the immediate aftermath to the Rwandan genocide, it is paramount to emphasize here that the role of genocidaire  leaders in the Kivu refugee camps was not remotely clandestine. Their activities were public knowledge, because they spoke about their plans publicly.

‘Undaunted by fear of prosecution, they held audiences with journalists, United Nations agency staff and representatives of NGOs in the camps and towns of eastern Zaire, in the Zairian capital Kinshasa, and in Nairobi, to boldly justify their actions,’ an analyst observed.

The Ex-FAR received arms shipments in the camps, conducted military training exercises, recruited combatants, and in terms used in documents later found in one of the camps they  planned a ‘final victory’.

The genocidaires ‘openly declared their intent to return to Rwanda and kill all Tutsi who would prevent them from returning’ and, as Colonel Theoneste Bagasora, told  an interviewer in November 1994, to ‘wage a war that will be long and full of dead people until the minority Tutsi are finished and completely out of the country’.

The camps at this stage were the base of the genocidal forces. Estimated figures for all categories disagree wildly, even among well-known authorities, and one cannot claim to be able to reconcile them.

Conservative estimates were that there seem to have been between 50 and 230 political leaders of different cadres among the ranks of the genocidaires within the Kivu camps, and probably as many as 100,000 soldiers, remnants of the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and interahamwe militias. By any calculation, this was a formidable force which was ranged against Kigali.

A 100,000 strong force complete with the worst criminal enterprise on earth had its gun sights ranged against a new government a few miles away just across the border into Rwanda.

Nobody considered the seriousness of the threats the genocidal army posed to their country of origin. Rwanda was all alone. Just as it was left on its own during the genocide.

Such exceptional military and political circumstances emanating from the Kivu refugee camps where the genocidaires had resurrected brought forth exceptional responses from the new Rwandan government.

Conflict was on the horizon. Crack  units of Rwanda Patriotic Army started undertaking surgical pre-emptive military strikes against the genocidal army ranged against its country’s sovereignty .

The destruction of the camps by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) in October 1996 marked a watershed in the process of decomposition of the Mobutist state.

Besides triggering the virtual disintegration of the Zairian Armed Forces (FAZ), the search and destroy operations conducted by the RPA quickly snowballed into a popular crusade against Mobutu.

From Zaire to the DRC: The costs of self cannibalization

Intimations of the mortality of the Zairian state were felt long before its downfall.

Writing in 1982, Africanist and  author Jan Vansina came to a depressing, though entirely predictable conclusion: ‘Legitimacy is gone, citizens are alienated. Naked power and bribes erode the law. In turn the strongly centralized state had lost much of its effective grip, because its legal directives were ignored, except under duress or when they seem to be opportune’.

With the end of the cold war the Zairian state came to look more and more like a ‘shell state’, to borrow the words of The Economist.

For a quarter of a century Mobutu’s  state was able to compensate for its lack of internal legitimacy by drawing huge dividends from its international status as the staunchest ally of the USA in Africa.

Just as Mobutu owed his rise to power to the penetration of East-West rivalries in the continent, in the last analysis the collapse of the Zairian state must be seen as a casualty of the cold war’s end.

By any of the conventional yardsticks —Zaire in the early 1990s stood at the top of the list of Africa’s failed or failing states. By then three basic indicators of failure mapped out the road to collapse.

A sharp decline of institutional capabilities

Yielding to domestic and international pressures, in April 1990 Mobutu formally announced the advent of ‘political reform’ and the opening of multi-party competition.

A year later a Sovereign National Conference (CNS) met in Kinshasa to lay the constitutional groundwork for multiparty democracy.

Bringing together some 3,400 representatives of political parties and members of the civil society, the aim was to lay the groundwork for a reconfiguration of the state, but as one observer noted ‘it dramatically accelerated its disintegration’.

For one thing, it made clear Mobutu’s determination to use ‘divide and rule’ strategies to pull the rug from under feet of the main opposition forces.

As a result of the foregoing, competition between pro- and anti-Mobutu parties led to violent ethnic eruptions in Shaba and North Kivu.

In North and South Kivu the Banyamulenge were unable to gain representation in the CNS, causing serious tensions with the other ethnic groups.

In May 1993 North Kivu exploded, with ethnic violence sweeping across several rural localities. As in the Katanga, by willfully encouraging ethnic confrontations as a means of controlling the forces released by the CNS Mobutu created the very conditions that accelerated the march to collapse.

Not only did the apparatus of the state prove utterly incapable to mediate the competing claims of social actors; more important still, precisely when the need for a reliable, efficient constabulary force had never been more evident, the army virtually disintegrated.

Appalling performance of the Security forces

In the catalogue of afflictions suffered by the Mobutu’s  state none loomed larger than the appalling performance of the Zairian armed forces.

Its ‘rabble’ character had remained almost constant throughout the Mobutu years. What the history of Zaire demonstrates was the inability of the Mobutu kleptocrasy  to make an effective use of its security forces to deal with the threat of regional, externally supported insurrections.

Like the state itself the Zairian Armed Forces (FAZ) could best be seen as a political machine lubricated by strong doses of corruption, clientelism and ethnic favoritism.

Merit and competence were of secondary importance to personal devotion to Mobutu. In return for their political loyalty the army high command was given a free hand to engage in lucrative commercial activities.

While some were involved in smuggling operations, others sold military equipment, spare parts and military fuel on the black market.

The embezzlement of the salaries intended for the troops was a standard practice among officers, a fact which goes a long way towards explaining the exactions and indiscipline of the troops.

The danger posed by the absence of an even minimally disciplined army was dramatically revealed during the looting sprees that swept across the country from 1991 to 1993.

Presumably resentful of not being paid salaries comparable to the CNS delegates, and further angered by the refusal of local traders to accept Mobutu’s worthless banknotes, in September 1991 bands of soldiers went on rampage in Kinshasa, stealing and killing anyone who stood in their way.

The same scenario unfolded across the entire country up till August 1993.In each locality millions of dollars worth of property were destroyed by rampaging soldiers.

The extensive ‘pillages’ visited upon civilians brought into sharp relief the extreme fragility of a security apparatus very largely built on ethnic clientelism, and the degree to which the absorption of financial wealth by the Mobutu clique conspired to destroy its morale and heighten its indiscipline.

By 1993 the FAZ were spinning out of control. When the time came to take on RPA’s crack anti-genocidal units in the Kivus and their Congolese allies spread out in the eastern Zaire, in October 1996, all that Mobutu could summon was a band of armed thugs masquerading as an army.

Hosting a cocktail of rebel outfits  in Zairian soil

The fall of the Mobutu kleptocrasy  resulted from a combination of internal weaknesses and the exploitation of these weaknesses by neighbouring countries who were keen to get rid of a dictator that most Africans had come to despise.

Of the nine countries with which the Congo shares borders, Angola, Burundi and Rwanda had legitimate grievances with respect to the Mobutu regime’s sympathy, and in some instances active support, for their respective rebels.

Dissident groups from Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville could also take advantage of the collapse of state institu¬tions, including the security forces, to use Mobutu’s Zaire as a launching pad for raids against their own countries.

Thus within the emerging tensions between Rwanda and Zaire, the disintegration of the Mobutu regime provided Rwanda with an opportunity to make incursions into the Kivu provinces in order to destroy the bases of the ex-FAR and the Interahamwe, beginning in August 1996.

When it appeared that the Mobutu regime was militarily incapable of challenging these incursions these aggrieved states assembled a grand coalition whose core  objective was to get rid of Mobutu altogether.

And the war that led to his demise began on 6th  October 1996 with a lightning Rwanda Patriotic Army surgical strike against  the UNHCR refugee camps in Kivus.

The grand coalition found a retired Congolese revolutionary and put him in charge of the propaganda war as leader of the national struggle to liberate the Congo from Mobutu.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the revolutionary, had already left his mark in Congo’s guerrilla wars between 1960 and 1985.


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