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The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality

The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality

by Thomas Turner

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This book, by a lifelong authority on the Congo, makes sense of the world's least reported and least understood major war. Since 1996 successive waves of armed conflict in the Congo have left behind at least 3 million casualties, overwhelmingly civilian. Turner throws new light on partisan and economically self-interested military interventions by Uganda, Angola,


This book, by a lifelong authority on the Congo, makes sense of the world's least reported and least understood major war. Since 1996 successive waves of armed conflict in the Congo have left behind at least 3 million casualties, overwhelmingly civilian. Turner throws new light on partisan and economically self-interested military interventions by Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia. And he cuts through the highly tendentious historical myths that have been used to make sense of the unfolding catastrophe both in the region and beyond. The book also indicates the changes required of the international community, neighboring African states and Congolese political leaders if this hugely resource-rich region of Central Africa is to build peace and economic security for its people.

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The Congo Wars

Conflict, Myth and Reality

By Thomas Turner

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Thomas Turner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-124-8


Half a holocaust

§ The bloodiest war since the Second World War unfolded in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the former Zaire – in the mid-1990s. In 1996, Rwanda launched an invasion of DRC. This invasion was provided with double cover; that is, it was presented as the work of the Banyamulenge, a small community of Kinyarwanda-speaking Tutsi herders, living in Congo's South Kivu province, and of a coalition of anti-Mobutu elements, including the Banyamulenge. After seven months of warfare, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had been driven out of Congo. The leader of the coalition, or front-man for the Rwandans, Laurent-Desire Kabila, had taken Mobutu's place.

In 1998, Rwanda launched a second war, to overthrow the leader they had just installed. Again, a coalition of opponents of the Congo leader was presented as the driving force. This time, however, a stalemate ensued, and the war dragged on for four years. Millions of Congolese died. Even after a ceasefire had been signed in 2002, low-scale warfare continued in various parts of eastern Congo. Some of this warfare clearly was home-grown, but there was evidence of foreign (especially Rwandan) involvement.

From the beginning, there was disagreement as to what was going on. Some interpreted each war as international, i.e. an invasion of Congo by some of its neighbours. The war to overthrow Mobutu, in 1996–97, was hailed by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, spokesman for African liberation, as the work of Africans and not outsiders. For him, the implicit model was Tanzania's overthrow of the Idi Amin regime in Uganda, as contrasted to proxy wars of the Cold War era. The second war, 1998–2002, was widely characterized as 'Africa's First World War'. In other words, this was the work of Africans, too. In each instance, however, there were charges of extra-continental involvement, charges that we shall have to examine.

Both in 1996 and again in 1998, some people accepted the definition of the war as a civil war against dictatorship, rather than an international war. Many Congolese supported the first war as a fight against the long-standing Mobutu dictatorship. When the second war began, a number of scholar-activists in the West took seriously the claim of Congolese colleagues that the war was a struggle against the new dictatorship of Laurent Kabila. International organizations have split over this question: the World Bank continues to regard the Congo conflict as a civil war, while the United Nations has come to adopt the contrary view that emphasizes foreign involvement.

The question of the type of war is linked directly to another major question, that of the responsibility for the extremely high number of deaths, especially among non-combatants, and of cases of sexual abuse. The war of 1996–97 involved few pitched battles. The number of military casualties was correspondingly small. However, many civilians were massacred, in particular Rwandan Hutu refugees. The numbers are unknown, since the United Nations was prevented from completing its investigations.

During the second war and its sequels, Congo suffered millions of casualties. The International Rescue Committee estimated the total at 3.8 million deaths for the period 1998 to 2004. In contrast, the Sudan civil war produced 2 million deaths in twenty-two years. The Rwandan genocide and massacres of 1994 may have involved 1 million deaths. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed around 300,000 people, and the terrorist attacks of '9/11' around 3,000.

Clearly, the Congolese catastrophe has not received the attention it deserves, when compared to these other horrible events. However, the message has been there, for those who want to hear it. In 2002, Refugees International had warned of a 'slow-motion holocaust' unfolding in eastern Congo. By 2003, the International Rescue Committee asserted that more people had been killed in Congo than in any war since the Second World War, and Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times wrote of 'half a holocaust'. At the beginning of 2005 (at a time when the total number of dead from the tsunami was not yet known), the Belgian paper Le Soir referred to 'two tsunamis' in Congo every year.

The wars on the ground have been accompanied by wars of words, fought to define what is or is not happening. In this chapter, I shall discuss the labelling of these wars – world war, civil war, holocaust and so on – and the realities reflected or concealed by the various labels.

The first section deals with the death toll. In subsequent sections, I will present brief outlines of the Congo wars, introducing themes to be developed in later chapters, such as pillage, disputed nationality and so on. A series of controversies regarding the nature of the Congo wars, the causes and the stakes, will be summarized. Finally, I will present the approach I shall be taking in this book.

The Congo death toll

Whether or not one accepts the terms 'holocaust' or 'tsunami' – the former term implies intentionality, the second a natural phenomenon – it must be stressed that the casualty figures in Congo are derived from serious study. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has conducted a series of epidemiological studies. The first of its reports was published in 2000. IRC concluded that 1.7 million people had died during the previous two years as a result of war in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. About 200,000 of those deaths were the direct result of violence. The vast majority of deaths were caused by the destruction of the country's health infrastructure and food supplies.

Two years later, the IRC estimated that at least 3.3 million Congolese died between August 1998, when the war began, and November 2002. Again, most deaths were attributable to easily treatable diseases and malnutrition, and were often linked to displacement and the collapse of the country's health services and economy. A third study, in 2004, raised the likely death total to 3.8 million. More than 31,000 civilians continued to die every month as a result of the conflict.

Some may ask, how is it possible to go into the heart of a war zone and tally up the casualties? The IRC hired American Les Roberts, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University, to map out an area of eastern Congo, go door-to-door, and ask families who among their relatives had died during the war and why. Roberts and his team of Congolese researchers interviewed members of 1,011 households. They primarily interviewed mothers on the assumption that mothers would have the most detailed knowledge of the health histories of their children.

Reference to a relatively small number of people killed by violence – 'only' 200,000 as of 2001 – as compared to millions dying as a result of the war, should not mislead the reader into thinking that soldiers die in fighting while civilians die in 'collateral damage'. The war has been a 'war against women', as Colette Braeckman argues. The UN has charged that various rebel groups have used rape, cannibalism and other atrocities as 'arms of war'.

The first Congo war

The genocide of Rwandan Tutsi in 1994 and the seizure of power in Rwanda by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front led to the exodus of 2 million Rwandan Hutu to North and South Kivu provinces of the Congo. Most of them were regrouped in camps near the towns of Goma (North Kivu) and Bukavu and Uvira (South Kivu), controlled by the authorities of the overthrown Hutu regime and its armed forces including the Interahamwe militia. From these camps, attacks were launched against Rwanda proper and against Tutsi in Congo.

In October 1996, it was reported that 'Banyamulenge' had attacked the town of Uvira. On 24 October, Uvira fell to the invaders. This could be seen as a local event. The Banyamulenge ('people of Mulenge', a small community of Tutsi pastoralists, speaking Kinyarwanda) had been in conflict with their neighbours in Uvira territory. On 7 October 1996, the governor of South Kivu had announced that all Banyamulenge would have to leave the province within a week. (For the war in South Kivu and its antecedents, see Chapter 4.) It soon became apparent, however, that this was not a local conflict. The so-called Banyamulenge quickly moved north. On the 30th, they took the provincial capital, Bukavu. On 1 November, Goma (capital of North Kivu province) fell. In each case, the refugee camps were attacked and their inhabitants dispersed.

After the offensive had begun, it was announced that it was being conducted by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (Alliance des Forces démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo, AFDL). The AFDL supposedly united four opposition groups to the Mobutu regime: these were the People's Revolutionary Party (Parti de la Révolution populaire, PRP), headed by Laurent Kabila; the National Resistance Council for Democracy (Conseil national de résistance pour la démocratie, CNRD), a small Lumumbist guerrilla group headed by André Kisase Ngandu; the Democratic Alliance of Peoples (Alliance démocratique des peuples, ADP), a group of Congolese Tutsi led by Déogratias Bugera; and the Revolutionary Movement for Liberation of Zaire (Mouvement révolutionnaire pour la libération du Zaire, MRLZ), a group of Shi and others from South Kivu, led by Anselme Masasu Nindaga. Of the four, the ADP and (perhaps) the MRLZ included Banyamulenge.

At its unveiling, the AFDL had two ostensible leaders: Kabila was the spokesman while Kisase Ngandu was military commander. Kisase died 'in mysterious circumstances' in January 1997, according to Georges Nzongola Ntalaja. Masasu was arrested and gaoled for 'indiscipline' in November 1997, and killed by the Kabila regime in November 2000. Bugera served as secretary general of the AFDL, then (after apparently plotting against Kabila) was sidelined to a meaningless post of minister of state at the presidency. The only survivor of the original group, since the assassination of Laurent Kabila in 2001, Bugera has allegedly been living in Kigali, attempting to persuade Rwanda to back him in another rebellion once the current transition failed.

By April 1997, Kabila and his backers had taken the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and the two Kasais. Angolans poured across the border to reinforce the anti-Mobutu forces and, on 17 May, Kinshasa fell. The ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko was forced to flee.

Kabila proclaimed himself President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Zaire now was to be known. He formed a regime in which Rwandans and Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese held a number of key posts. James Kabarebe, a Rwandan army officer, was chief of staff of the Congolese armed forces (Forces armées congolaises, FAC).

In July 1997, President Kagame of Rwanda admitted (Dunn and Nzongola use the term 'boasted') that Rwanda had planned and directed the so-called rebellion. In particular, Rwanda had sought out the PRP and other groups to provide a Zairian face for what was in fact an invasion.

In the meantime, reports of massacres in eastern Congo began to reach the outside world. The United Nations attempted to carry out an inquiry into the alleged massacres, despite stonewalling by Kabila and his government. On 24 August 1997, a UN team began to investigate the fate of those Hutu refugees who had fled westwards when the camps were emptied, rather than returning to Rwanda. A preliminary report identified forty massacre sites. The following April, the investigators withdrew, unable to finish their work.

Despite Kabila's steadfastness in resisting the UN inquiry, relations between the Congolese president and his Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi backers soon deteriorated. In May 1998, Bugera was removed from the AFDL job. In July, Kabarebe was removed as army commander and named adviser to the president. On 28 July Kabila announced that he was sending Kabarebe and the other foreign officers home. This probably was done in order to pre-empt a coup d'état against Kabila. At any rate, its immediate consequences were a military 'rebellion' in Goma and an attempt to seize Kinshasa.

Africa's world war

In August 1998, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia foiled an attempt to overthrow Laurent Kabila. This was the opening round of the second war, which lasted until 2002, and even beyond. It began on 2 August, with a mutiny at Goma and an invasion of Rwandan troops. Ten days later, 'Congolese patriots and democrats' announced formation of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, RCD), which supposedly had happened on 1 August, also in Goma. The RCD listed a series of grievances against Kabila, including corruption and tribalism. However, as Nzongola argues, the war was 'above all a manifestation of the desire of his former allies to substitute for Kabila a new leadership team, much more competent and better able to do the dirty work of the Rwandan and Ugandan authorities vis-à-vis the armed groups fighting them from Congolese territory'.

Rather than move from east to west as in 1996, the Rwandans adopted a daring strategy designed to decapitate the Kabila regime. Rwandan troops and Congolese rebels were flown to Kitona military base in Bas Congo province, west of Kinshasa. They freed and recruited a number of former troops of Mobutu being 're-educated' there. Others seized the nearby hydroelectric complex at Inga and the country's major port at Matadi.

By 26 August, 'rebels' and Rwandans were hiding in houses surrounding Kinshasa's Ndjili airport. Across the river at Brazzaville, 7,000 former members of Mobutu's Special Presidential Division awaited their hour of revenge. That hour did not arrive, however. Instead, Zimbabwean troops disembarked at the airport, took up position around the periphery, and began bombarding the rebel positions. Angola had already entered Congo three days earlier. Its troops moved from Angola's Cabinda enclave into Congo's coastal towns of Banana, Moanda and Boma. This was in response to occupation of Matadi and Inga by Rwandan troops.

The intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe (and a small force from Namibia) deprived Rwanda of the quick victory it had been expecting. Rwanda and Uganda jointly intervened in Congo in 1998, and jointly sponsored the RCD. However, the two allies soon fell out, and Uganda went on to sponsor its own Congolese rebel movement, the Congo Liberation Movement (Mouvement de Libération du Congo, MLC) as well as breakaway factions of the RCD.

What Nzongola calls the war of 'partition and pillage' saw Congo divided into three main sections. Kabila, from his base in Kinshasa, controlled a southern tier of territory running from the Atlantic through the southern portions of West and East Kasai, to the southern portion of his home province of Katanga. With oil from the coast, diamonds from the Kasais, and cobalt and other minerals from Katanga, this provided an adequate resource base for running his portion of the state and paying off his African partners.

A swathe of the north, including much of Mobutu's home province of Equateur, was controlled and exploited by the MLC under Jean-Pierre Bemba. As for the RCD and the Rwandans, they held a huge zone, centred on the former Kivu (the present North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema) but including parts of Katanga, the two Kasais and Orientale.

The division was not stable. In mid-1999 the Kabila regime appeared to be on the ropes. In June, Rwandan army forces crossed the Sankuru river and seized the town of Lusambo, in Kasai Oriental province. Congolese forces fled, leaving behind their Zimbabwean and Namibian allies. By early July the Rwandans held Pania Mutombo and Dimbelenge and were only 75km from Mbuji Mayi, capital of the diamond industry. A second Rwandan force, advancing from North Katanga, had reached Kabinda, about 120km east of Mbuji Mayi. It looked as though Kabila's zone was about to be cut in half. James Kabarebe, former chief of staff of the Congo army and now deputy chief of staff of the Rwandan army, was quoted as saying: 'If Kananga, Mbuji Mayi and Kabinda are taken, then Kinshasa will fall.'

Intense pressure on all the parties persuaded them to sign the Lusaka ceasefire agreement (July–August 1999), which promptly was broken by all concerned. In Equateur province, Bemba's MLC moved westwards with Ugandan support, and threatened to take the provincial capital of Mbandaka. In the east, Kabila's forces and the Zimbabweans failed to break through to Lake Tanganyika and South Kivu, while the Rwandans took the strategic border town of Pweto. From Pweto, they threatened the Katanga capital of Lubumbashi. Again, it is hard to see how Kabila could have held out without his home base of Katanga.

At the beginning of 2001, Congolese president Laurent Kabila was assassinated, apparently by one of his bodyguards. In a scenario reminiscent of the JFK assassination four decades earlier, the bodyguard was killed in turn.


Excerpted from The Congo Wars by Thomas Turner. Copyright © 2007 Thomas Turner. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Turner is Professor of Political Science at the National University of Rwanda

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