How Kabila Lost His Way: The Performance of Laurent Désiré Kabila's Government
A continental war has begun in Africa. It reaches almost without interruption from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Whereas some of the conflicts along this path started decades ago, a new phase involving more than a dozen states has now begun. The central arena of this conflict is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a combination of international intervention and civil war threatens whatever stability the African continent still possesses. This is an entirely African conflict, not linked to the policies of Western colonial powers or the Cold War.
As with all wars, it is easier to pinpoint when and where military confrontations occurred than it is to explain the original reasons for the conflict. Was it the decision in 1990 of Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to permit Rwandan Tutsi refugees to start a military campaign against the then-Hutu dominated Government of Rwanda? Was it the decision of that government to exterminate as many Tutsi as it could which led to the greatest genocide in African history? Was it the defeat of that government and the exodus to Congo (then Zaire) of about one million Hutu along with their leaders and intact units of its army? Was it the fact that these ‘refugees’ were regrouped in UNHCR camps not far from the Rwandan border from which they launched guerrilla attacks against the new Tutsi dominated Rwandan regime? Was it the fact that despite repeated warnings from Rwanda, the United Nations - or rather, the Western powers, which dominated its decisions in this matter - did nothing to disarm the Hutu or to stop attacks against Rwanda? Was it the fact that the Government of Congo (then Zaire), burdened by years of corrupt dictatorship under the dying President Mobutu Sese Seko, was allied to the Hutu but also near collapse?
These interlocking events certainly contributed to the current crisis in Central Africa. More fundamentally, one of the most important underlying problems is that many groups - often defined ethnically, sometimes constituting majorities, sometimes minorities - feel alienated from governments which rule the states in which they live. If such states are ruled in a non-pluralistic fashion or are perceived to be doing so, the alienated groups often take up arms. These conflicts become more complicated, and more deadly, when such groups find support from other states or international forces. In the past, such support was usually linked to the Cold War; today the syndrome still exists but it has become africanised.
The current phase of conflict in Congo started in 1996 when Congolese Tutsi, Rwandan and Ugandan military forces (later joined by Angola) started a lightning campaign against the Mobutu regime: they emptied the Hutu camps, pursued the Hutu who did not return to Rwanda, and defeated Mobutu. In order to accomplish this, they supplemented their effort with the creation of a Congolese alliance - the Alliances of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)-, which gave the entire campaign a revolutionary or civil war character. The man who led this alliance, Laurent Kabila, became the self-proclaimed President of the re-named Democratic Republic of the Congo. 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 Hutu camps.
Two years later, a new war has broken out. Kabila stands accused by many Congolese of having become a dictator who, in the eyes of some, is worse than Mobutu. For their part, the Rwandans and the Ugandans perceive their goals - secure borders with the DRC - to be unfulfilled and even betrayed.
Internally, the forces, which have taken up arms against Kabila, are disaffected soldiers, politicians with a variety of different backgrounds, and the Congolese Tutsi. Externally, the threat to the regime is from the armed forces of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
To counter this challenge, Kabila has mustered three circles of international support. The first circle is comprised of Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe, all of which have military forces fighting in the DRC. The second circle is made up of the Francophone states of Central Africa, whose support is mainly diplomatic rather than military. The third circle includes what might be called ‘radical’ states: Sudan, Libya and possibly Cuba. The motivations of these states are varied but one rule seems to apply: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Internally, Kabila has played on anti-Tutsi sentiment, which is strong in the DRC. At present, he can also count on the Katanga Gendarmes elements in the new Congo Army (Forces Armées Congolaises); some former FAZ (Forces Armées Zairoises) the former Mobutu forces; the Hutu ex-FAR/Interahamwe (Forces Armées Rwandaises), who have apparently been recruited not only in the DRC but also from Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic; and finally, the young recruits, who have joined the army in the last year. While none of these forces are considered to be neither militarily well trained nor well organised, they are numerically significant and strongly motivated by an anti-foreign, nationalist fervour.
In a word, Africa is faced with an international conflict of major proportions and a civil war in the DRC, which has already caused endless misery and death and has shattered the hopes of its 45 million citizens.
This crisis is even more dangerous because an increasing number of Africans see it in racial terms, with the ‘Bantus’ pitted against the ‘Nilotics’ or ‘Hamites’. In the Great Lakes region, this is represented by the Hutu (i.e. Bantu) versus Tutsi (ie. Nilotic or Hamitic) conflict. These perceived identities can be called racial (rather than ethnic) because the distinctions made are biological; for example, the Tutsi are identified as tall, narrow-nosed, etc. Even people with the same physical characteristics who are not Tutsi are easily targeted.
In rapid succession, a number of attempts have been made to end this conflict by mediation. These include those undertaken or proposed by the Organisation of African Unity, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, President Muammar Khaddafi of Libya, President Jacques Chirac of France, former UN head Boutros Boutros Ghali as head of the Francophonie, and President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. Up to now, these initiatives have all failed for one main reason: until recently, both sides of the conflict appear to have felt that they can win militarily. Over the last few months, a de facto military stalemate may alter the situation. But, until the very recent past, Kabila’s partisans have insisted that the conflict is nothing other than an invasion and that, therefore, a withdrawal of the foreign forces opposed to his government should take place prior to negotiations.
The forces opposed to Kabila, notably the Goma-based Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RDC), define the conflict in different terms. For them, it is essentially an internal uprising inspired by Kabila’s betrayal of the goals of the movement, which overthrew Mobutu in 1997 and because he has since become a dictator. They also claim to recognise the right of Uganda and Rwanda to take necessary steps to attain secure borders. This is linked to the view that Kabila has made an alliance with the ex-FAR and Interahamwe. However from the start the DRC has called for all-party negotiations, including not only Kabila and his supporting forces but also those Congolese political groups which have been institutionally excluded by Kabila, such as the UDPS (Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social) and civil society organisations.