The Second Congo War and Its Consequences
S HAS BEEN SHOWN, already during the spring of 1998 it became increasingly clear that the leaders who had been most responsible for putting Kabila into power were dissatisfied with his performance. In a sense, this was a failed condominium; Kabila acted too independently and is reported again and again to have ignored advice given him by his foreign sponsors. There are rumors which suggest that, as early as January 1998, the intelligence chiefs of Angola, Rwanda, and Uganda held discussions regarding the desirability of finding an alternative leader for the DRC. Perhaps this conflict between Kabila and his sponsors was inevitable, since any Congolese president would have sought to legitimize himself with the Congolese public and that would have necessitated distancing himself from foreign, especially militarily present, sponsors.
But it must also be said that Kabila provoked both internal and external opposition which was not inevitable: He could have strengthened his internal position both by applying a more pluralist policy and by acting to retain the support of ADFL founders and supporters. He could have taken care to treat the FAZ soldiers sent to re-education camps in a more humane and dignified fashion (some informants claimed that they were being starved). He could have avoided giving the impression that his intimates from Katanga were being favored over people from other regions. In his relations abroad, he could have avoided offending Uganda by establishing warm ties with Sudan. If it is true that before August 1998 he began to recruit Interahamwe and arm them (there is no doubt that that was done after that date) he could have refrained from provoking Rwanda to the point of an inevitable, total enmity. And there was surely nothing to be gained by antagonizing Western leaders, sometimes in a very personal manner. Yet, all this having been said, it should be remembered that Kabila had for decades been a marginalized guerrilla leader with virtually no experience as a statesman. The role which history handed him was full of opportunity, but it would have been difficult to fill it under any circumstances.
The Start of the Second Congo War
During June and July 1998 a number of events some verifiable, some only rumored indicated that relations between Kabila and the Rwandans had not only seriously deteriorated but had reached a boiling point. Some of Kabilas collaborators are reported to have concluded that a Rwandan officer was about to assassinate Kabila during the Independence Day festivities on June 30. James Kabarehe was personally suspected by Kabila, and his now Katangan guards forced the Chief of Staff to enter the Presidents office only after having been bodily searched and disarmed. A few days later, Kabarehe was replaced by Kabilas brother in law, Celestin Kifwa. In this atmosphere, Tutsi families in Kinshasa began to feel insecure and started to leave. Kabila did a lot of traveling during these crucial days. He visited Namibia and Cuba presumably seeking support given the momentous divorce which was taking place. On July 27, the Rwandan mission of cooperation was ended by the DRC and the Rwandan military was asked to leave immediately. On July 29, they flew back to Kigali. A little over a year earlier they had been received as liberators; now public opinion in Kinshasa vehemently approved of their de facto expulsion.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the next twenty days profoundly changed the history of Africa and launched the continent on what some have called the First African World War. There are at least some similarities with Europes eurocentrically named First World War. In both, a series of miscalculations by leaders resulted in untold pain for common people and an irrevocably changed future. The chronologically laid out events which follow briefly summarize these developments:
2 August. The Commander of the ANCs 10th Brigade one of the best and largest units in the new army stationed in Goma, declares the destitution of President Kabila. He is soon joined by the 12th Brigade in Bukavu. Rwandan army units are reported to be crossing the frontier in force. In Kinshasa, a fire fight begins between Congolese Tutsi soldiers who refuse to be disarmed and other FAC, largely Katangan, soldiers. The Tutsi are routed and most are killed although some manage to escape into the bush west of Kinshasa. A pogrom, encouraged by the Kabila regime, is carried out against all Tutsi in Kinshasa and other cities.
4 August. In a spectacular cross-continent airlift, a plane full of Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers (according to some accounts also Congolese) led by James Kabarehe lands at Kitona army base located in the Lower Congo near Cabinda. The base holds some 1015,000 former FAZ soldiers who are being re-educated. Kabarehe and his approximately 150 soldiers manage to mobilize these troops to join the uprising against Kabila. Later, more troops from the east join this enterprise. Within days, they capture a number of towns and most importantly the Inga hydroelectric dam where they are able to cut off electricity supplies to Kinshasa as well as Katanga. In an off and on manner, Kinshasa is without electricity and therefore without a flowing water supply. In effect, the capital is threatened both by starvation and militarily. Kabila calls on the citys population to arm itself and to defend the capital. There is a real response to this call to arms, but it involves many mob killings of suspected infiltrators, Tutsi, mutinous soldiers, and simply unfortunate individuals who find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.
20 August. A group of Congolese politicians for a wide variety of reasons, and coming from very different political backgrounds unite in Goma to form the political wing of the anti-Kabila movement, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD). The range of their political backgrounds is very wide, it stretches from former ADFL members to former Mobutists. Militarily, the Kabila regime seems doomed. Its best military units have joined the rebellion, two well prepared former allies have not only invaded from the east but captured the far west of the country. Kinshasa is in dire straights and threatened by advancing troops coming from the lower Congo.
23 August. Angola attacks the Rwanda-Uganda-RCD positions in the Lower Congo from its bases in Cabinda. The anti-Kabila forces are surrounded. Some of their troops reach the outskirts of Kinshasa where they are attacked by the population and massacred. The cross continent maneuver has failed, but in the east there are virtually no pro-Kabila forces and the rebellion achieves military control.
26 August. Zimbabwe sends a military expedition to Kinshasa to support the Kabila regime. Later, Namibia and Chad also send troops which take up positions supporting Kabila. Some reports also speak of Sudanese involvement on his side. In sum, a war on Congolese soil has begun which involves, directly or indirectly, a large number of African states, military establishments, militia, and economic interests.
What Did the Rebels Plan and Expect?
It is quite evident that the plan for the destitution of the Kabila regime largely emulated the successful destruction of the Mobutu regime. A military manoeuvre in the Kivus, in the name of a Congolese group intent on reforming an existing regime, would challenge an isolated and unpopular president. Indeed, those who started the Second Congo War must have felt that they were in a far better position than they had been in during the 1996-7 campaign. First, they now had a portion the best according to several observers of the DRCs army on their side. Second, the officers planning this mission had intimate knowledge of the disposition of the rest of the army, since only weeks earlier they held commanding positions in that army. Of course, there was the question of Angola, but it is hard to imagine that the Rwandan/Ugandan/RCD planners imagined that they would confront Angolan military power as an adversary. Again, they probably compared their position to 1996-7 when Angola, somewhat belatedly, joined them in attacking the then Kinshasa regime of President Mobutu. But whatever the exact plans were, what happened did not fit into them and instead of a collapsed Kinshasa regime which was supposed to fall even more rapidly than its predecessor did in 199697, a long and costly war resulted.
Comparing the Two Congo Wars
There are striking similarities between the wars:
- In both wars Rwanda and Uganda, seeing insurgency movements against their governments using the DRC as a base of operations, helped launch Congolese rebels with the intention of overthrowing the Kinshasa regime.
- In both cases, the Kinshasa authorities appealed to the international community, specifically to the Security Council of the UN and the OAU, to condemn this aggression but failed to obtain satisfaction.
- In both wars, most of the fighting was done by foreign forces.
- In both wars, massive violence was imported into a country which since the mid-1960s had generated relatively little violence.
The differences between the wars are, of course, more telling than the similarities:
- In the first war, the Kinshasa government was singularly unsuccessful in gaining foreign support, and since its army hardly fought at all, it was rapidly in eight months overwhelmed. In the second war, the Kinshasa government was very successful in obtaining foreign military and diplomatic support.
- In the first war the effective foreign armies which really fought were Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola. In the second war, these allies split, with Angola supporting Kabila while Uganda and Rwanda attempted to overthrow him. So, in addition to getting military support from Chad, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and probably Sudan, the forces which had been so successful in defeating Mobutu were now divided and a prolonged, unresolved war ensued.
- In the first war, the notion that the war was a revolution or a war of liberation, coupled with generalized antagonism toward Mobutu, resulted in a considerable amount of Congolese and foreign support for the rebel forces. In the second war, much of the Congolese population was convinced that they were being invaded by the much disliked Rwandans, Ugandans, and, in some eyes, simply the Tutsi. This resulted in very little popular support for the new rebels. There is a paradox here; there were more Congolese fighting on both sides in the second war than in the first! But the first was seen in much of Africa and in the Congo as a revolution while the second is generally viewed as an invasion. Perceptions count for more than subtle distinctions.
- In the first war, Mobutus call to arms produced little response and indeed had a hollow, impotent ring. Whatever popular support he still had was lost with the declining fortunes of his regime as his opponents advanced toward Kinshasa. In the second war, Kabilas call to arms produced a genuine response among the Congolese masses (especially in the cities) and his popularity soared. In this respect the results of public opinion polling in Kinshasa are quite telling. To the question, What is your opinion of President Kabila as Chief of State? the following progression is reported:
It should be noted that during the period of conflict with Rwanda and especially after the beginning of the war, Kabilas approval rating reached 88 percent at the very moment when his regime was most vulnerable. From having been viewed as something close to a foreign pawn in the spring of 1997 he had become at least in Kinshasa a nationalist hero who was defending the nations sovereignty. His subsequent decline in approval must be attributed to the sharp decline in the standard of living in Kinshasa during this period as well as his continuing despite his popularity refusal to share power with the forces which are still called the non-violent opposition.
But the cutting edge of the difference between the two wars was not Kabilas popularity and Mobutus lack of it. It was the decision of Angola to support Kabila. It is evident that had Angola repeated its actions during the first war, i.e. somewhat belatedly followed Rwanda and Ugandas lead, the fate of the Kabila regime would have been sealed even if Kabilas unambiguous ally, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, had opted to support him militarily. The reason for this is that Kinshasa would, in all likelihood, have fallen before such aid could reach the DRC.
Angolas decision to, as it were, switch sides has had a determining impact not only on the war, but on the entire political evolution of Central Africa. Thus, one must ask, why did Angola adopt the policy in question? A number of answers have been proposed by astute analysts of the situation. For instance, Colette Braeckman(3) suggests that Angola was motivated first by a rejection of the arrogance of Kigali and Kampala at daring to capture an area of the DRC which abuts Angola and Angolan interests. She also states that the Angolan reaction was a response to information they had been given that Rwanda and Uganda had been in contact with UNITA. Others have suggested that the Kitona landing was seen as breaching an Angolan sphere of influence and therefore had to be opposed. Yet another argument suggests that old Marxist and revolutionary ties linked Kabila to Dos Santos, Mugabe and Njoma. There is also the obviously correct point put forward by Gerald J. Bender,(4) that all Angolan actions in the DRC must be seen as linked to the war against UNITA.
What all of these no doubt pertinent arguments do not deal with is what Angolas position and role would have been had it joined the attack against the Kabila regime. To speculate about this one must recall that the Angolans were widely reported to have been very critical of Kabila during the period between the wars, that their request to place their soldiers on the DRC side of the border, in order to combat UNITA more effectively, had been rejected by Kabila. Finally, there are persistent rumors to the effect that at least some Angolan officials and officers were informed of the impending Kitona landing thus the great shock on the part of the Ugandans and Rwandans when they were suddenly faced by the Angolan army not as an ally but as an opponent. Accepting the argument that Angolan action in the DRC was dominated by its interest in effectively fighting UNITA, would that goal have been helped or hindered if they had joined the anti-Kabila forces? Subsequent events, at a minimum, suggest that supporting Kabila did not seriously help the fight against UNITA. With some Angolan troops diverted to protect Kabila-controlled areas in the DRC, the Luanda government launched a campaign against UNITA in the winter of 1998 which essentially failed and cost the Angolan army heavy losses. One can conclude that the events in the DRC, if they did have an impact on the balance of power in Angola, strengthened UNITA. Had the 1996-97 alliance been reestablished, the whole of DRC would have fallen under the alliances control and Angola might well have been in a better position both to attack UNITA bases in the Congo and to concentrate all its forces against UNITA in Angola.
Then why was the fateful decision to support the Kabila regime made in August 1998? Was it a miscalculation? Or, was there an overriding interest which necessitated the decision which was taken? Assuming the latter, the most plausible reason is the belief that an alliance had been struck between Rwanda and Uganda and UNITA and such a view was supported by both the reported presence of UNITA leaders in Kigali and Kampala and the recruitment of Mobutist generals long allies of UNITA and politicians into the anti-Kabila alliance. If that was seen to be true, indeed if it was true, then an alliance with the two former allies could easily be seen as a trap and very much against the Angolan governments self-interest.
Indeed, a similar assumption seems to have been at the base of Rwandas risky decision to intervene in August 1998. It was reported, and apparently believed, that Kabila had made an alliance with the ex-FAR/Interahamwe and was training them. In both cases, the ultimate provocation was cooperation with the insurgency movement trying to overthrow the government in question. In a world in which the notion the enemy of my enemy is my friend explains many events, nowhere is that rule more absolute than when it involves insurgency movements. As regards the Angolan government, it probably overcame its reservations about Kabila when it was convinced that its insurgency movement UNITA was in contact with Rwanda and Uganda. What those contacts amounted to at that time is an open question.
2 BERCI, Sondage d'avril 1999, p.47
3 Braeckman, Colette, L'Enjeu congolais, Fayard, Paris, 1999, p.395
4 Cited in Willame, Jean-Claude, L'Odyssée Kabila, Karthala, Paris, 1999,p.225.