The Congo-Rwanda bilateral framework in the last 30 years

Part Three: The Rwanda-Congo component of the larger Congolese wars Within the Congolese –Rwandan bilateral relationship the complaints Kigali haboured against the Mobutu kleptocrasy led directly to the conflict phase of the relationship from 1996 to 2005.
Laurent Kabila inspecting his troops in 1997.
Laurent Kabila inspecting his troops in 1997.

Part Three: The Rwanda-Congo component of the larger Congolese wars

Within the Congolese –Rwandan bilateral relationship the complaints Kigali haboured against the Mobutu kleptocrasy led directly to the conflict phase of the relationship from 1996 to 2005.

At this time it so happened that Zaire was also engulfed in a complex web of armed conflicts. How was it possible that Rwanda a country dwarfed in size, population and resources by Zaire -could invade its much larger neighbor?

From the perspective of the Congo-Rwanda relationship, the DRC conflict had its key value trigger being a major mass slaughter of the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi of 1994.

In this third part of this series the writer traces the history of how Rwanda had to sort out one of the most tragic events in the history of mankind through a military route after all avenues had proved futile.

Rwanda joins a broad-based anti-Mobutu alliance

The Rwanda-DRC conflict phase started in 1996 when Rwanda joined a broad-based anti-Mobutu coalition which had complaints against the long serving Zairian tyrant.

Rwanda started a lightning military campaign against the Mobutu kleptocrasy in October 1996.

The Rwandan forces  hurriedly emptied the Kivu refugee camps , pursued the genocidaires who did not return to Rwanda, and through developing a broad coalition,it helped in defeating Mobutu who had offered patronage to a host of anti Rwandan, anti Burundian, anti Ugandan and anti Angolan rebel forces.

In order to accomplish this feat the anti-Mobutu forces, supplemented their effort with the creation of a Congolese special purpose revolutionary vehicle- the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL).

The man who led this alliance, Laurent Kabila, became in May 1997 the self-proclaimed President of Zaire. He and his regime were given wide recognition as virtually the whole world expressed relief at the end of the Mobutu regime and the closing of the dreaded Kivu refugee camps.

The Rwanda-Congo conflict had very clear early warning signs. Part of these early warning signs was the export of the genocidal enterprise from Rwanda into Zaire in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

The export haboured as many as 100,000 genocidal forces which had now turned into a rebel force threatening Rwanda.

The export by the genocidaires of their venomous ideology into Zaire which was already engulfed in a politically charged contest during Mobutu’s last years accelerated the collapse of the Zairian Nation-State.

A terrible chapter

Sweeping Mobutu from power was a terrible chapter in the history of the region. But it had to be done. For Rwanda that harboured a host of complaints against Zaire, the end of the genocide was not the end of a terrible chapter in its history.

On the contrary, it was the opening of an entirely new chapter, almost as appalling as the first, but sucking in her neighbour Zaire and enveloping the entire great lakes region in brutal conflict collectively known as the Congo wars.

Conflict was all but inevitable once much of the genocidaires escaped armed to the teeth and unrepentant into Zaire and the UN then failed to disarm or isolate them. The inevitable was then accelerated by the re-emergence of Mobutu as a central actor in the tragedy.

Given both Mobutu’s singular record and his fatal illness, many were bewildered when France, insisted that the refugees, including those who had planned and directed the genocide, be put under the authority of Mobutu.

He was, insisted French President Jacques Chirac, ‘the best man placed to represent Zaire and find a solution to this (refugee) problem’.

A special purpose revolutionary vehicle

For Rwanda, having a genocidal rebel army, right across its border, meant that such a threat needed an urgent military response after other avenues had proved futile.

At the political level Rwanda knew that Mobutu was in no mood to change his views about the unfolding events or even how he related to the new government in Kigali.

In response Rwanda started searching within the framework of a broader regional coalition of coming up with a viable Congolese rebel movement that would act as a special purpose vehicle capable of carrying out a regime change in Zaire.

Rwanda was profoundly aware that quite a number of aggrieved parties would join such a movement.
After Patrice Lumumba had been overthrown in 1960, several ‘Lumumbist’ rebellions began in Congo.

A young supporter of Lumumba’s politics, Laurent Kabila, led one such revolt with the help of communist icon Che Guevara in the mid-60s but soon failed and retreated to the jungles of eastern Congo and western Tanzania, where he remained largely out of view, with minor exceptions.

The ancient logic decreeing that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ proved irresistible, and as it so often does, this led to some remarkable associations whose outcome was the AFDL.

By 1996, four civil wars were being fought in part or entirely on Zairian soil. These included the government of Rwanda against the genocidal rebels; the government of Burundi against its radical adversaries; the Ugandan government against two distinct rebel groups; and a number of rebel organizations against Mobutu.

Towards the end of 1996, these four crises finally converged in a large-scale regional conflict even while each of the individual civil wars continued to rage.

Angola, which only entered the fray in its late stages, had been undermined for decades by Mobutu’s support for Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA rebels. Here, the Angolan government hoped, was the opportunity to knock off both Mobutu and Savimbi at the same time.

In the attack that followed in October 1996, Rwandan rebels were defeated in the major settlements. But another significant number, anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, depending on which source one accepts, and including many genocidaires and their families fled deeper into the Zairian rain forest, pursued both by humanitarian agencies who wanted to assist them and Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) crack troops.

The pursuit of the refugees into the interior of Zaire and the steady advance of the combined anti-Mobutu forces opened yet another appalling chapter in the litany of atrocities emanating from the genocide.

As special RPA squads hunted down the genocidaire strongholds, Kabila’s guerilla army marched methodically on westwards. By May 1997 Kinshasa fell to the new alliance.

The First Congolese War

Mobutu’s position in the Rwandan tragedy was that he had sided with the genocidaires. As patron of Juvenal Habyarimana and his clique, Mobutu in 1995   defended them diplomatically.

Mobutu’s network, as the UN Commission of Inquiry reported that it regularly funneled arms to the war criminals who had fled to the camps in eastern Zaire.

Kigali’s stance on this issue was transparent: the new government would not long tolerate this rebel group running loose directly across the border, perfectly positioned for raids back into Rwanda.

Had there ever been a way to de-escalate the conflict after the genocidaires escaped into Zaire, the resurrection of Mobutu buried it. The move guaranteed disaster, sooner rather than later.

At the same time, the genocidaires based in the Kivus were modifying their strategy in a way that accelerated regional tensions even more.

They embarked on a campaign of undertaking the total ethnic cleansing of Zairian Tutsi, some of whom had lived in the region for generations.

Tutsi from the Rwandan and Burundian regions are believed to have immigrated to the South Kivu area beginning in the eighteenth century, identifying themselves as the Banyamulenge, as they lived predominantly on the Mulenge hills.

Beginning in 1995, the genocidal forces began a war against the Banyamulenge.

The situation in South Kivu was deteriorating quickly.Kigali appealed to President Mobutu to stop the militias but the Congolese military-then known as the Forces Armées Zairoises (FAZ) joined the fight against the Banyamulenge instead.

In September and October 1996, the UN reported that dozens of Banyamulenge were killed by the FAZ and local ethnic militias and that over a thousand fled to Rwanda.

The development that would have dramatic consequences for the Zaire-Rwanda  relationship , however, came on October 7th 1996, when Lwasi Ngabo Lwabanji the deputy governor of South Kivu – adding to the momentum of the increasingly violent conflict – announced that all 300,000 Banyamulenge in the province had to leave within seven days ‘or be treated as rebels and face all-out war.’ Given this rapidly degenerating situation in the Kivus, Rwanda decided that it had to intervene.

Kigali formed an alliance with Banyamulenge fighters and jointly attacked the Ex-Far/Interahamwe forces, as well as the FAZ on Congolese soil.

The attacking Rwandan forces, however, quickly found that there was little resistance to their advance from the Congolese military.

Indeed, these were the last days of the Mobutu regime, which was crumbling under the force of its own corrupt and inept governance.

The underpaid and unmotivated Congolese soldiers led to the view within the broad anti-Mobutu coalition that an opportunity had emerged for the installation of a new regime in Kinshasa. But the coalition also realized that it was walking on thin ice.

The Second Congolese War

The Kabila victory was virtually universally welcomed. As the late Julius Nyerere ex-president of Tanzania later remarked that , ‘We had all felt that Mobutu should go, and when he went we thought peace would prevail. That cherished hope soon faded’.

Early 1998, the relationship between Kabila and his allies Rwandan and Ugandan counterparts  had already started to turn sour.

In July 1998, he announced that the military co-operation agreement between Congo and Rwanda had served its purposes and would end.

Rwandan troops who had served the Congo government were now to return to their own side of the border as swiftly as possible.

They did so, only to re-emerge almost immediately, this time as an enemy army. Within days, the Second Congo War had begun.

The Second Congo War began in 1998 and officially ended in 2003 when a transitional government took power. The widest interstate war in modern African history, it directly involved Rwanda plus other nine African nations, as well as about twenty armed groups.

Kabila in power by default

While Kabila’s ascension to power was accompanied by public expectations that he would bring the country to order, the corruption and mismanagement pervasive in the previous regime continued on.

Instead of focusing on building democracy and tending to the devastated economy, Kabila sought primarily to secure his own position by banning all opposing political parties. Within the framework of the Congo-Rwanda relationship , this did not bother the AFDL’s allies  Rwanda and to some extend Uganda were likely to support any ‘friendly’ government in Congo.

After Kabila came to power, most Congolese tended to support the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) led by Étienne Tshisekedi.

In a poll conducted in 1997, moreover, Congolese overwhelmingly stated that they wanted Kabila to engage in dialogue with the UDSP and forge a new democratic path for the country.

The response from the Kabila regime was to denounce Tshisekedi as an ‘enemy of the people.’

In the east, meanwhile, Rwanda continued to experience attacks from its insurgents along its Congolese border, something that Kabila appeared to have been unable or unwilling to stop.

As tensions with his former allies mounted, Kabila also began to suspect that a regime-change policy had in fact been adopted in Kigali and Kampala.

He reacted by attempting to garner backing for his regime from foreign governments and local armed groups and then proceeded to disentangle his government from his former allies grasp.

Kabila thus traveled to several African countries and, perhaps seeking to reconnect old ties, even visited Fidel Castro in Cuba, to gauge international support.

He then shifted his attention to quickly building a local power base by actively supporting the ex-FAR, Interahamwe, and Mai Mai militias in the Kivu region, counting on them to act as an effective first barrier of defense against any likely invasion from the east.

Having secured alternate support for his regime, then, Kabila was ready to rid his government of his erstwhile allies.

Kabila’s incorporation of genocidal forces into his new found coalition precipitated drastic action by Rwanda within a few days. Whatever other interests it might have had in this conflict, the Rwandan government remained determined to crush the genocidal forces throughout Central Africa.

Whether as Vice-President or President, Paul Kagame was not being reticent about broadcasting his government’s position: If Rwanda’s enemies were not disarmed, he had repeatedly insisted, the Rwandan army would have no choice but to remain in the DRC until they were neutralized.

The Rwandan component of the second Congo war

On August 2nd 1998, the 10th brigade of the Congolese National Army (FAC), based in eastern Congo and heavily represented by Banyamulenge soldiers, broke away and joined the 12th brigade in an uprising against the Kabila regime in several major cities in the region, including Goma.

During the  Banyamulenge mutiny in the town of Goma, a well-armed rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) had emerged. This group quickly came to dominate the  eastern provinces and based its operations in the city of Goma.

The RCD quickly took control of the towns of Bukavu and Uvira in the Kivus. The Rwandan government allied with Uganda, and Burundi also retaliated, occupying a portion of northeastern Congo.

President Kabila enlisted the aid of the Rwandan rebels in eastern Congo and began to agitate public opinion against the Tutsis.

On 12th  August 1998  a loyalist army major broadcast a message urging resistance from a radio station in Bunia in eastern Congo: ‘People must bring a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, and the like, in order, dear listeners, to kill the Rwandan Tutsis.’

More towns in the east and around Kitona fell in rapid succession as the combined RCD, Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers overwhelmed the government forces amid a flurry of ineffectual diplomatic efforts by various African nations.

By 13th  August, less than two weeks after the revolt began, the rebels held the Inga hydroelectric station that provided power to Kinshasa as well as the port of Matadi through which most of the Kinshasa’s food passed.

The diamond center of Kisangani fell into rebel hands on 23rd  August and forces advancing from the east had begun to threaten Kinshasa by late August.

Despite the movement of the front lines, fighting continued throughout the country. Even as rebel forces advanced on Kinshasa, government forces continued to battle for control of towns in the east of the country.

The Rwandan rebels with which Kabila was cooperating were also a significant force in the east. Nevertheless, the fall of the capital and Kabila, who had spent the previous weeks desperately seeking support from various African nations and Cuba, seemed increasingly certain.

By this time, the Ugandan-Rwandan attack on Kinshasa was threatening the capital, but Kabila was ready. Having succeeded in forging international alliances in the preceding months, Kabila received military support from Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad.

A multi-sided war

The war was said to be  a Congolese civil war between DRC President Laurent-Desiré Kabila and a rabble of different rebel movements.

In fact, it was also a chaotic mix of other peoples’ wars. At one level it was a conflict between two regional alliances – a ‘Great Lakes’ alliance of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, versus one of Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.

On another level, it was a violent mixture of other wars, including those of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola, all of which were partly fought on Congolese soil.

Finally, in the midst of this chaos, the DRC’s own stew of local ethnic feuds had sparked an explosion of bloodshed in the eastern part of the country.

All of these conflicts fed and reinforced one another, and together it transformed the Congo into a patchwork of warlord’s fiefdoms.

Kabila until his death was supporting the guerrilla groups and using them as infantry in his coalition force to counteract the Congolese rebels.

This gave him ample possibilities for forming future alliances and reinforced a state of instability for which no end was in sight.

After the failed Rwandan attempt to take Kinshasa, prevented only by the intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe, the rebel movement covered almost half of the eastern part of Congo and the north of the country.

The whole territory was now divided into a number of occupation zones and each of the occupiers had a different agenda.

In July and August 1999, six Heads of State and over fifty rebels leaders signed a ceasefire in Lusaka, Zambia, to end the fighting in the DRC.

Tragically, the fighting never stopped. By the close of 2001 the war had not yet produced any winners or losers. For all those involved, the stakes were very high. The coexistence of different agendas meant a variety of different solutions to the myriad problems.

Just before the era of DRC transition the rebels were divided between those seeking to overthrow Kabila by exercising the military option and those who would prefer a negotiated settlement and an end to hostilities.


Subscribe to The New Times E-Paper

For news tips and story ideas please WhatsApp +250 788 310 999    


Follow The New Times on Google News