American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

August 2000

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Chaos in the Congo
Contents of this article

Part I

 • Africa's First Continental War
 • The Lusaka Agreement

The War’s Origins
 • The Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and its Consequences
 • The Motivations of the Anti-Mobutu Alliance
 • The Early Kabila Regime—May 1997 to August 1998
 • The Kabila Regime and Foreign Affairs

The Second Congo War and Its Consequences
 • The Start of the Second Congo War
 • Comparing the Two Congo Wars
 • Evolution of the Second Congo War
 • Lusaka: The Internal Dialogue and the Role of the UN

Belgian Colonial Rule and the Independence Struggle: A Bit of History
 • The Katangans
 • The Congo Rebellions-Revolution

 • Peace
 • Status Quo
 • War
 • The Regional Elements
 • The Future


Congo Military Zones

Click to open map of Political-Military zones in separate screen.


Congo Military Zones

Click to open map of Political-Military zones in separate screen.


American Diplomacy takes pride in presenting a major study by the distinguished American political scientist Herbert Weiss on the complex and important issue of stability, or the lack thereof, in the Congo. Few, if any, scholars have a better grasp of the convoluted workings of African politics since the wave of independence movements reached a peak some forty years ago. We invite you to read and learn — and comment if you wish. While his study is the longest this journal has published to date (more than 17,000 words), it repays careful study by all who seek a better understanding of this important topic. ~ Ed.

Introduction  •  

HE TURMOIL INTO WHICH THE Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been thrown over the last three years involves a mixture of internal and external causes, some of recent vintage, some going back to the period of the independence struggle. Every corner of Africa is involved either militarily or diplomatically or both. These states include South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in the south; Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, and Sudan in the north; Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania in the east; and, Congo/ Brazzaville and Angola in the west. This war has involved numerous African states in inter-locking alliances which often appear to be motivated by only one principle: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The result has been an explosion of massive violence — wars, invasions, insurgencies, militias, massacres — on Congolese soil.

Until very recently, the DRC was an island of relative passivity. It was an “island” because for years, in some cases decades, it had been surrounded by states in the throes of civil wars. The oldest of these wars were in Sudan and Angola, but by the mid-1990s massive violence had occurred in Cabinda, Congo/Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The only neighboring states which were not engulfed in civil war were Tanzania and Zambia. Thus, at this crucial moment in the Congo’s history, it is a question whether not only the invading military forces but the invading, violent, political processes have become dominant. One can argue that the country is undergoing a tug of war between a political culture which avoided mass violence for more than thirty years and one, more akin to many of its neighbors, where conflicts have so often turned into war and its accompanying disasters.

To illustrate and explain the links with the past require one first to summarize recent events and then to revisit a dense and complex period in the Congo’s history which occurred nearly forty years ago. The reader should, therefore, be forewarned that while the goal of this article is to explain the present, much space will be devoted to a distant past. Perhaps this is suprising since the upheavals which started in 1996 initially revolved around getting rid of Mobutu. The Mobutu regime lasted from 1965 to 1997 and yet it is the period immediately before and immediately after this long dictatorship which is having the greatest impact on the DRC today.

Africa’s First Continental War

First, we will begin with a description of the major events of the last three years which have transformed the DRC into an arena of international and internal violence and conflict involving so many participants that cumulatively it can legitimately be described as the first African Continental War. But it is important to note that there are in fact two wars which have taken place in the DRC; the first started in September 1996 and ended in May 1997 with Mobutu’s exile and the establishment of the Kabila regime. The second started in August 1998 when Rwanda, Uganda, and a series of Congolese army units took control of large segments of Eastern DRC. The international community and African governments have made more than two dozen attempts to end this war over the last year. Finally, an agreement was signed by almost all parties to this dispute in Lusaka in July 1999.

The Lusaka Agreement

The Lusaka Agreement is a very complicated plan for peace resting on six essential elements:

First, that the sovereignty of the DRC in its present frontiers and that of its neighbors is agreed upon.

Second, that an all inclusive process will be undertaken by the Congolese in order to establish a new political order. This process is to have a neutral convener and is to include all parties to the internal dispute whether armed or not, and they are to meet as equals.

Third, the parties agreed to cooperate in addressing the security concerns of each state.

Fourth, the agreement specifically calls for the disarming of militia groups in the DRC.

Fifth, it calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the DRC.

Sixth, it calls for a Chapter VII UN peacekeeping force to ensure implementation of the Agreement. Whether peace has really begun remains to be seen.


The War’s Origins  •

HAT ARE THE MAIN INGREDIENTS of the Continental War which has so profoundly affected the DRC as well as the rest of the African continent? To answer, one must look at the following events:

    • The Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and its immediate consequences.
    • The motives and actions of internal and external anti-Mobutu forces which resulted in the end of that regime.
    • The main features of the Kabila regime, which came into power in May 1997.
    • Why the Second Congo War occurred and what its consequences are.

The Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda and its Consequences

The genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 which involved Hutu leaders mobilizing almost the entire Hutu population in mass murder is the first event in a series which has transformed a relatively peaceful society — the DRC — into an arena of conflict and war. This event was such a massive escalation of inter-communal conflict that it is unique in modern African history. Apart from the inherent catastrophe which this totalitarian killing of one people (and those Hutu who refused to go along) by another involved, it is also at the root of a new ideology — accepted by quite a few Africans — that the people of the continent are divided culturally and physically, i.e. biologically, between the “Bantu” and the “Hamites” (or “Nilotics”). The “Hamites” are accused of having designs on the land of the “Bantu” and wishing to oppress them. Rwandan Tutsi in particular, but also the Ugandans and Burundians are seen as expansionists wanting to create a so called “Hima” empire at the expense of the “Bantu” in the DRC. Of course, there have always been ethnic conflicts but if this ideology really takes hold it is likely to have massive, lethal consequences.

Eastern Congo Destabilized
The genocide in Rwanda has profoundly destabilized Eastern Congo with the result that this area has been plunged into endless cycles of violence. Inter-ethnic relations in the Kivus (both North and South) have, for many years, been more problematic than in most other parts of the DRC. This is probably due to three underlying factors: first, the coexistence of pastoralists and sedentary farmers; second, a higher than usual population density; and third, a cultural divide between the original sons of the land and Kinyarwanda speaking immigrants — both Hutu and Tutsi — migrating westward from Rwanda and Burundi. It should be noted some of these migrations occurred hundreds of years ago while others are of much more recent vintage.

The Tutsi genocide completely changed the balance of power in the Kivus. As has been recounted in numerous publications, when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Army — RPA — defeated the Hutu government of Rwanda (which had perpetrated the genocide), about a million Hutu — some with French army cover — moved into the Kivus. Close to the Rwanda border, UNHCR camps were established in which the political and military structures and personnel that were responsible for the genocide reestablished themselves. From these camps attacks were launched against the new government of Rwanda.

But more important, from the Congolese perspective, the ethnic balance in the Kivus was upset. The Hutu became a dominant force in some regions and proceeded to isolate and attack Congolese Tutsi and, because there had been an alliance between the Habyarimana (i.e. Rwandan Hutu) and the Mobutu regimes, these attacks found moral and eventually military support from the Congolese (then Zairian) army and some Kivu politicians. The presence of the camps also resulted in a serious ecological degradation and the channeling of foreign aid away from Congolese villagers in favor of the camp residents. This constellation of circumstances resulted in attacks on the Tutsi in the Masisi area of North Kivu. Those who managed to escape took refuge in Rwanda where they were, in the main, placed in camps. Then, in early and mid-1996, growing pressure developed against the Tutsi in South Kivu. These were the Banyamulenge, most of whom lived in homogeneous communities high on a plateau. They are probably the oldest of the Tutsi communities in the DRC.

The Banyamulenge’s Preemptive Strike
Faced with the danger of an ethnic cleansing campaign against them, the Banyamulenge undertook a preemptive strike against the National Zairian Army (ANZ) soldiers and the Hutu “refugee” camps in their neighborhood in September 1996. It is an, as yet, unanswered question at exactly what point the Banyamulenge attack was coordinated with Rwandan strategy, but as soon as the attacks against the camps began Rwandan forces entered the fray and the war against the Mobutu regime had begun. It will be recalled that the Rwandan Vice-President, General Paul Kagame, had pleaded with the international community to separate the Hutu military and militia (the Interahamwe) from civilian refugees and to make it impossible for the camps to be used to launch attacks against Rwanda. When nothing was done, he warned that in the end Rwanda would act on its own. His words were not taken seriously. The attempt to expel the Banyamulenge from their homes in the DRC was, therefore, a gift from the heavens since Rwanda was able to defend its cross-border advances as preventing another genocidal attack against a Tutsi community.

Rwanda and Uganda Invade the DRC (at the time, Zaire)
In rapid succession, the Rwandan army attacked the Hutu camps and the Zairian army with the result that the ex-FAR (i.e. the former Hutu army of Rwanda) and the Interahamwe tended to flee westward with many Hutu civilians while the vast majority had little choice but to walk back into Rwanda where they were channeled to their home communities. Parenthetically, it should be noted that no genocidal killings were perpetrated against them even though the Tutsi in Rwanda had the power to follow any policy they chose. The picture was somewhat different in the DRC where, in subsequent months, the retreating Hutu both fought for the Mobutu regime and were massacred — men, women, and children — by the advancing anti-Mobutu armies.

Looking for Congolese Allies
It is obvious that it was very much in the interest of Rwanda and Uganda (which almost immediately joined the Rwandan invasion of the DRC) to portray their actions as something other than an attack against a sovereign state, no matter how corrupt and unpopular its leadership had become. Finding Congolese allies against Mobutu was, therefore, a priority. But the problem with this scenario was that, although a broad and substantial Congolese/Zairian opposition to Mobutu did exist, it had firmly opted for a non-violent strategy.

The Non-Violent Opposition
The so called “non-violent” opposition to Mobutu was started by a small group of politicians who had, in fact, begun by cooperating with his regime. But by 1980 his excesses inspired them — they were members of the Mobutu Parliament — to demand reforms and two years later to form a political party, Union pour la democratie et le Progres Social, UDPS. This initiative was, of course, met with harassment and jailings as well as defections in response to Mobutu’s carrot and stick manipulations. This was the beginning of concerted, ongoing, internal pressure against the Mobutu regime. By 1990, the end of the Cold War resulted in his Western allies exerting growing pressure on Mobutu to reform and democratize. Ultimately, he was forced to make some concessions. They took the form of freedom to form political parties (over 200 were established, many by Mobutists), of promised elections (which never took place), of the installation of transitional governments (which were dismissed when they opposed the President’s interests), and a National Sovereign Conference (which did take place, but its decisions were never applied).

In a word, the “transition” to a democratic state dragged on for seven years and in the end was overtaken by the arrival of Kabila. One may ask why this process failed and what, if anything, it has left behind. First and foremost, the failure must be attributed to Mobutu’s unwillingness to give up power. But dictators rarely give up power out of the goodness of their hearts, so the question is, really, why this opposition was unable to dislodge him despite his many manipulations to remain the dominant actor.

There are many factors which led to this result:

First, the opposition which grew ever stronger through the 1990’s, was extremely legalistic in its approach to gaining power almost ignoring the fact that Mobutu still had complete control over the military and police forces.

Second, it did a relatively poor job of mobilizing and organizing popular support. This is somewhat surprising because some of its leaders had led the independence struggle and at that time excelled at mass mobilization.

Third, the opposition was very divided and its leaders competed with one another to such a degree that real unity in the face of the dictatorship eluded them.

Fourth, this was an opposition which not only rejected violence as a form of struggle but was also timid in its use of non-violent methods. For instance, when demonstrations were opposed with violent means by Mobutu’s Presidential Division and Civil Guard they almost came to an end. The most important demonstration, in February 1992, was not even organized by the opposition parties but by Catholic priests. Thirty people were killed. The event largely discouraged further mass demonstrations.

The National Sovereign Conference (CNS) did finally begin in August 1991. The great hope that it engendered was at least partly due to the apparent success of National Conferences which had been held in Benin and Congo/Brazzaville earlier. The difference between those experiences and what was taking place in the Congo (then still Zaire) was that the presidents in those countries accepted — at least at the time the conferences were being held — the decisions and the consequent transfers of power. Mobutu had other plans; he used every opportunity to manipulate the CNS in his own interest and used force when that was not enough.

Despite many obstacles, the CNS did accomplish a great deal. Perhaps the most important result has been the broad legitimacy which the Congolese people have given to its decisions. “Les acquis de la Conference Nationale” is a phrase which has been heard repeatedly long after the end of the Mobutu regime. If the internal dialogue, which the Lusaka Agreement calls for, actually takes place, it can be safely predicted that the decisions of the CNS will, for many delegates, become the basis upon which national reconciliation and a “new political dispensation” should be built. The CNS undertook a serious and thorough examination of the Congo’s past, i.e. how it was ruled by the Mobutu regime. This examination analyzed the economy, political structures, past assassinations, so called “ill gotten gains,” minority rights, etc. The CNS opted for a federal, parliamentary system of government. Finally, the CNS held an election for interim Prime Minister and the long-time opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, who headed an alliance of anti-Mobutu parties, won an overwhelming victory. But the underlying problem was that Mobutu’s opponents at the Conference acted as if they were legislating in a post-revolutionary situation when in fact no revolution had occurred, and when Mobutu’s manipulative skills failed, he employed his control over raw force.(1)

Congolese Revolutionaries
Since the non-violent opposition to Mobutu showed no inclination for joining the Ugandan/ Rwandan/Banyamulenge attacks on the government positions, other allies had to be found. These were the circumstances which produced the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo, (AFDL) which was made up of four Congolese revolutionary parties in exile, all of which had almost no following. One of the four initial leaders did, however, have a certain revolutionary legitimacy. He was Laurent Désiré Kabila, who had not only fought in the great revolutionary upheavals of the mid-1960’s but had for over 20 years been the leader of a small revolutionary redoubt in South Kivu. In addition, he gained some fame from the fact that Ché Guevara and several hundred Cuban volunteers had joined the fight in 1964 precisely in the zone he commanded. The AFDL, therefore, became the main Congolese partner of an invasion by Rwanda and Uganda which was soon joined by Angola and given support by other African states determined to rid the DRC of the Mobutu regime.

The Return of the Katanga Tigers
There was another Congolese force which joined this alliance. It was made up of the so called “Katanga Tigers” composed mainly of Katangese soldiers who, under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, had been part of an attempted secession in 1960 and who, after their defeat by UN forces in 1962, had fled to Angola. Their story needs to be looked at in some detail, but suffice it to say here that they had remained as a cohesive military force and, along with some Angolan army units, joined the attack on the Mobutu regime.

Mobutu’s Limited Support
The Mobutu regime desperately tried to convince the world that what was happening was simply an invasion, but to little avail. Neither the UN nor the OAU condemned the invaders and the notion that what was happening was largely a revolution against the Mobutu regime gained wide currency. More importantly, Mobutu failed to obtain any serious military support from abroad. His army retreated on all fronts and in so doing looted, raped, and killed Congolese civilians. This was one reason why the Congolese soon welcomed the AFDL and allowed young men and boys to be recruited into its ranks. The only forces which did any serious fighting for the Mobutu regime were the Hutu ex-FAR/Interahamwe, the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi, and some Serb mercenaries. Mobutu also received modest support from France. When Kinshasa fell, in May 1997, eight months after the war had started, a substantial number of the victorious forces were in fact Congolese; but, with the exception of the Katangans and a few ANZ units which had changes sides, they tended to be very young and untrained. In addition, Banyamulenge soldiers, some trained by Rwanda before the war broke out, some recently recruited, were among the victors; but, at that time, they tended to be viewed simply as Tutsi by the Congolese public.


1 For a complete and excellent description of the CNS, see Nzongola-Ntalaja, George, "The Current Political and Social Situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," paper prepared for the Nordic Africa Institute, January 1998.

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