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American Diplomacy
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August 2000

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The Agony of the Congo, by Herman J. Cohen

EVENTS IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC of the Congo since early June have added to the general despair for Africa’s future. Uganda and Rwanda, two governments closely allied with the United States, have gone to war against each other in the middle of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kisangani, the Congo’s second largest city, has been essentially destroyed by this “fraternal” warfare, with thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded. As of June 19, both armies have withdrawn from Kisangani under heavy pressure from the United Nations Security Council, leaving behind a population devastated by artillery fire, hunger, and disease. In a continent that is lagging further and further behind the rest of the world in economic development, this latest tragedy makes one wonder how and when Africa will finally hit bottom and start moving upward again.

Mobutu Sese SekoDoes anybody remember a guy named Mobutu Sese Seko? He was the kleptocratic dictator of the Congo from 1965 to 1997. He called the country Zaire while he was in charge. Although Mobutu stole everything he could get his hands on, and drove the Congolese economy into the ground, at least the country enjoyed a modicum of stability during his 32 years in power. But the Congo’s fragile peace came crashing down in late 1996 when it was invaded by armies from Rwanda and Uganda that were pursuing guerrillas seeking to overthrow those two governments. Rwanda in particular had the sympathy of the international community because it was tracking down the killers who had committed genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi ethnic group in 1994.

The main result of the cross border military activity in 1996 was the total collapse of Mobutu’s unpaid and untrained army. The pursuit of guerrilla fighters opened the door to a total change of regime. Rwanda and Uganda quickly recruited, trained, and armed Congolese fighters who formed an army of liberation. They also selected a leader of this army and government-in-waiting named Laurent Kabila, one of the few aging anti-Mobutu fighters still working to overthrow the dictator. Most of his former colleagues were either deceased or coopted into Mobutu’s establishment. By May 1998, Kabila was sitting in Kinshasa as President, with Rwandan and Ugandan troops making sure that his power was not threatened.

Pres. Laurant KabilaFor a while, Kabila was the darling of the international community. He was the man who had evicted Mobutu and gave the country its real name back — the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also promised to restore democracy and economic viability. American government luminaries embraced Kabila with enthusiasm. He was an unknown, but at least he was not Mobutu. The honeymoon did not last long, however. Kabila was suspicious of the Americans because they had supported Mobutu throughout the Cold War. In addition, his Rwandan allies, who controlled much of his contacts with the outside world, did not want him to have a privileged relationship with the west. On the contrary, the Rwandans wanted to be the main channel of influence and information about central Africa for both the Americans and the Europeans. They did not trust Kabila.

As Kabila’s relationships with the industrialized democracies deteriorated from 1997 to 1998, he began to realize that the overbearing presence of Rwandan and Ugandan military and civilian advisors were making him look like a puppet to his own people. After one year in power, in July 1998, Kabila formally requested the Rwandans and Ugandans to take their troops and advisors out. They pulled out, as asked, but quickly came back in again as invaders. On August 2, 1998, Rwandan and Ugandan troops invaded the Congo on several fronts and accomplished a spectacular one thousand mile airborne operation to capture the Kitona military base west of Kinshasa. They marched on Kinshasa but met with serious opposition from armed civilians. At the same time, Kabila appealed for help from fellow member countries of the Southern African Development Community. He claimed that the Congo was the victim of foreign aggression. Zimbabwe and Namibia responded by sending troops to secure Kinshasa airport. The Angolans, who have the strongest and most experienced army in central Africa, sent armored and airborne forces that routed the Rwandans and Ugandans near Kinshasa and stopped their invaders in the east. The Angolans, who are waging their own civil war against the UNITA rebels, were persuaded that the Rwandans were developing an alliance with Mobutu’s former army, which they considered a threat to their own security.

By early 1999, the war in the Congo had reached stalemate, with Rwanda and Ugandan forces, assisted by armed Congolese rebels, in control of over one-third of the territory. President Kabila was able to stave off military defeat only with the help of military forces from Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola. By that time, it had also become quite clear that the populations in the eastern part of the Congo did not treat the Rwandan and Ugandan armies as liberators. On the contrary, they bitterly opposed what they called an illegal occupation of their land. Although many were not supporters of President Kabila, they unanimously rallied around Kabila in an effort to end the occupation of their territory. In addition, Congolese youth living in the occupied territories took up arms against the Rwandan and Ugandan presence. These guerrilla fighters called themselves “Mai Mai” and began to be effective in harassing Rwandan forces. In addition, the Congolese “rebels” who were sponsored by Rwanda and Uganda were unable to find any support within the Congolese population. They were considered puppets of the hated invaders/occupiers.

Cease-fire agreement and a falling-out among rebels

The Congo war saw two important developments during 1999.

First, a marathon negotiation chaired by Zambian President Chiluba resulted in an agreement in mid-1999 among most of the belligerents. This “Lusaka Agreement” called for an immediate cease-fire, a disengagement of forces, the disarming of “non-state” actors, the establishment of a joint political-military commission to supervise the implementation of the agreement, the presence of United Nations peace monitors, and an “Intercongolese Dialogue.” The latter was supposed to be a free-ranging discussion of the Congolese political system among the government, the armed rebels, and the non-armed opposition. The result of the dialogue was supposed to be a “new political dispensation.” The definition of “new political dispensation” was not clear. The “non-state actors” referred mainly to the former Rwandan military and armed militia who had been responsible for the 1994 genocide. Some of these fighters joined Kabila’s forces after his country was invaded by Rwanda and Uganda. One of the glaring omissions was the fact that the Congolese patriotic guerrillas known as the “Mai Mai” were not invited to sign the agreement. Thus, they had no reason to stop what they were doing, which was to harass the invaders.

Second, the Congolese rebels who were sponsored by Rwanda and Uganda started to fall out among themselves. Some of the original leaders quit the movement to return to exile in Europe. Others split off to start rival movements. The reason for the turbulence among the rebels was the fact that the populations of the eastern Congo totally rejected the rebels as they did their foreign sponsors. Toward the end of 1999, the rivalries and disagreements among the rebels started to impact on Rwanda and Uganda. These two governments discovered that they had completely different objectives in the Congo:

  • The Ugandans wanted to sponsor rebels with a legitimate political base who could form a new government that would be compatible with the neighbors and maintain stability in the Congo.

  • The Rwandans, on the other hand, wanted to sponsor a rebel movement that would essentially be part of their political orbit and would allow Rwanda free rein in the eastern Congo.

Both governments were competing for Congolese resources in the form of diamonds, gold, and timber. By late 1999, these differences began to manifest themselves in actions on the ground. Uganda and Rwanda started to support rival movements and by early 2000 were maneuvering their troops on the ground in order to buttress their respective rebel friends. The inevitable result was direct clashes between Rwandan and Ugandan military forces. The first such clash took place in the city of Kisangani in August 1999, with the Rwandan military coming out on top. The second clash was a rematch in Kisangani in June 2000 with the Rwandans winning again.

The terrible destruction of infrastructure and the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians in Kisangani shocked the international community. That shock was deepened by a “mortality report” issued by the International Rescue Committee. The report said that the number of excessive deaths in eastern Congo during the two-years of foreign occupation was an astonishing 1.7 million people. The report said that these deaths were caused by combat, malnutrition, disease, and oppression, none of which would have happened if there had been no war. Consequently, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on June 16, 2000, condemning the fighting, demanding that Rwanda and Uganda pull out their troops from Kisangani and then withdraw completely from the Congo, to be followed quickly thereafter by the other foreign armies in the country. In effect, the UN Security Council was demanding an end to foreign involvement in the Congo and expressed the view that the Congolese people should be allowed to determine their own political and governmental future without interference. The Council was also critical of the Congolese Government of President Laurent Kabila for not permitting the “Intercongolese Dialogue” called for by the Lusaka agreement to go forward. They accused Kabila of doing everything possible to hinder the work of the official dialogue facilitator appointed by the Organization of African Unity, former President Ketumile Masire of Botswana.

Is the Congolese people’s long struggle for democracy and honest government likely to be fulfilled after the foreign forces leave under UN auspices? This is difficult to say. During his first year as President (1997-1998), Laurent Kabila demonstrated a willingness to utilize governmental power and resources for the good of the people. Some of the state’s revenue was used for maintenance and new construction, something that had not been seen in the Congo for over two decades. In addition, the currency was stabilized and inflation was curbed. For the first time, ordinary citizens began to see some predictability in their lives. After the invasion by Uganda and Rwanda, all governmental power was diverted to defense of the country. There was no revenue left to help the Congolese people improve their health care or agricultural productivity. Despair returned. If foreign armies withdraw from the Congo as the United Nations Security Council has demanded, President Kabila will be under strong pressure to begin a credible democratic transition based on open political activity, a free press, an independent and well-paid judiciary, and free and fair elections. While the country is under foreign occupation, however, there will be no possibility that any new political dispensation can take hold.

Other surrogate wars plague African nations

The Congo’s experience is not the only example of surrogate war in Africa. Indeed, surrogate war is probably Africa’s most important obstacle to development at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 1990, Liberia was invaded by guerrillas sponsored by Côte d’Ivoire’s then-President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. The guerrilla leader, Charles Taylor, waged war for seven years against peacekeepers coming from other neighboring West African countries. Throughout this period, he received arms and other support from other African countries. He was elected President of Liberia in 1997 by an electorate that was terrified that the war would break out again if he were defeated. Liberia was set back 100 years in its infrastructure and economic development by this devastating war sponsored from the outside.

Since Charles Taylor has been in power, he has in turn sponsored a surrogate war in Sierra Leone, where his rebels have gained control of the country’s diamond producing areas. Taylor is the main beneficiary of the illicit diamond trade and continues to support and arm rebels against efforts by the international community to support the democratically elected government of Sierra Leone.

In the southern Senegalese province of Casamance, a rebel secessionist movement is supported by neighboring Guinea Bissau and the Gambia. The motive here is the desire to unite the Djola ethnic group that straddles three countries into one political entity. Like all the other surrogate wars in Africa, the one in southern Senegal is devastating the area in which it is being fought, with innocent civilians suffering the most.

Certainly democracy, good governance, and the equitable distribution of resources are the key elements of stability in emerging African nations. But surrogate wars are proliferating in Africa as certain leaders feel they can wreak death and destruction in the name of ethnic unity or the fight against “tyranny,” or just to collect some loot. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the official American policy toward the surrogate war being waged by Uganda and Rwanda is that the United States “never condoned their invasion.” This is a disguised way of stating that the United States sympathized with Rwanda and Uganda in their efforts to change the regime in Kinshasa that turned out to be a disappointment to Washington. That was the weakest possible reaction to a very destructive act that resulted in 1.7 million unnecessary deaths in occupied eastern Congo over a two-year period. In its tepid reaction to the Ugandan and Rwandan invasions of the Congo, the United States sent a signal to other like-minded African leaders that said, “you can get away with it.” In Sierra Leone and Southern Senegal, the surrogate warriors are doing just that.

By voting for the UN Security Council resolution of June 16, 2000 demanding the withdrawal of Ugandan and Rwandan troops from the Congo, the United States has finally decided that “enough is enough” and that its Ugandan and Rwandan friends have become the main problem in the Congo. When they invaded the Congo in August, 1998, Rwanda and Uganda were expected to provide the long awaited solution to the Congo’s instability and bad government over forty years of independence. In the end, all they could accomplish was to demonstrate that surrogate wars have become Africa’s curse.  

*Herman J. Cohen retired from the American Foreign Service in 1994 after a 38-year career specializing in African affairs. His last assignment before retirement was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the George Bush Administration. From 1994 to 1998, he was Senior Advisor to the Global Coalition for Africa, an intergovernmental organization promoting economic policy reform. He is now President of the consulting firm Cohen and Woods International. One of his clients is President Laurent Kabila of the Congo.
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