Congo's Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle Since the Great African War

Congo's Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle Since the Great African War

by Kris Berwouts


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Despite a massive investment of international diplomacy and money in recent years, the Democratic Republic of Congo remains a conflict-ridden and volatile country, marked by a series of rebellions, failed international interventions, and unworkable peace agreements.
 In Congo's Violent Peace, leading Congo expert Kris Berwouts provides the most comprehensive and in-depth account to date of developments since the so-called Congo Wars. Berwouts analyzes such topics as Rwanda’s destructive impact on security in Eastern Congo, the controversial elections of 2006 and 2011, the M23 uprising, as well as Joseph Kabila’s increasingly desperate attempts to cling to power. This will be an essential resource for anyone interested in this troubled, but important, country.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783603695
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 07/15/2017
Series: African Arguments Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Kris Berwouts is an independent analyst and acknowledged expert on the DRC. He is the former director of EurAc, the European NGO network for advocacy on Central Africa.

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Mobutu's legacy

It is impossible to understand how overwhelming the weakness of the Congolese state has been in recent times without having a closer look at its degeneration over the last fifty or so years. Congo experienced its first implosion less than two weeks after independence, on 30 June 1960. The process of decolonization had been poorly prepared and precipitously implemented. The Belgian colonial model was particularly infantalizing: many Congolese only had access to primary school education and a small group were trained to roughly the level of lower civil servants. The country became independent with no more than a handful of university graduates and absolutely no political tradition apart from the attempt to involve the Congolese population in politics at the local level through communal elections in December 1957. Throughout the entire colonial period, the Congolese had been kept out of the more profitable economic sectors and had no access to credit. Thus, there was no managerial capacity whatsoever to take control over the economy.

The power and the state had been handed over to an emerging political landscape crystallizing around a basic cleavage. On the left, there was a group of radicalized nationalists, influenced by the movement of non-aligned countries which started to take shape after the Bandung Conference in 1955 inspired by Kwame Nkrumah's Pan-African ideology. They considered independence as a first step to a totally new social order, offering better chances to the masses. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba spearheaded this group. In 1958 he had founded his Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which became the only truly national party able to mobilize people beyond ethnic and regional borders. On the right were leaders considered by the Belgians as much more moderate, less critical about the existing order and interested first and foremost in replacing the top echelons of the colonial pyramid as Congolese évolués. Their organizations, often based on region or ethnicity, transformed themselves in the late 1950s into political parties, of which Joseph Kasa-Vubu's Abako (Association des BaKongo) was the best organized and the most powerful. For this group, Congo's future should be federal, with strong provinces. The financial and economic lobbies in Europe and in North America obviously were in favour of Kasa-Vubu's vision, and the Eisenhower administration in Washington was afraid that Lumumba could become an African counterpart of Fidel Castro, who had recently come to power in Cuba.

A mutiny broke out on 4 July when the Belgian commander-in-chief of the new Congolese army wrote on a blackboard 'Before independence = after independence' and on 11 July the governor of Katanga, Moïse Tshombe, declared the prosperous mining province independent. The Belgian government immediately sent advisors and 8,000 paratroopers to protect the rebellious province against the Congolese national army. The United Nations adopted a resolution to support Lumumba's government in restoring order and national integrity. The first blue helmets arrived on 18 July. Congo's first war had started in the very first month of independence. A few weeks later, the diamond-mining province of South Kasai quit Congo as well.

The national chaos inevitably plunged the government into a deep crisis. President Kasa-Vubu dismissed Prime Minister Lumumba on 5 September, and one week later he dissolved the Parliament. On 14 September the young army chief of staff, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, neutralized the government, left Kasa-Vubu in office but put Lumumba under house arrest. In January 1961 Mobutu delivered Lumumba to his arch-enemies, the secessionist regime of Katanga. He was killed on the 17th.

What followed was a period of nearly five years of successive unstable governments which never succeeded in getting the entire country under control. The secessionist wars came to an end but in early 1964 a new uprising started, led by Lumumba's former minister of education, Pierre Mulele, who managed to gain control of more than half of the country in a few months. On 24 November 1965 Mobutu neutralized the government for the second time. This time he had come to stay: he took full control over the state apparatus. He deposed Kasa-Vubu and became president himself.

Congo went through thirty-two years of neo-colonial dictatorship under Mobutu, supported by Europe and the United States to safeguard Western economic interests in the mining sector and as a bastion against communism in Africa on the geo-strategic chessboard of the Cold War. Mobutu took and consolidated power in a period when a number of African heads of state declared themselves adepts of African or Arab socialism. Between 1965 and 1969, leaders such as Kwameh Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Milton Obote (Uganda), Muammar el-Ghaddafi (Libya) and Gaafar Nimeiry (Sudan) wanted to transform society based on authentic African values such as solidarity and communal life, which they considered as having common roots with socialism. Mobutu received Western support because he was perceived as being able to block the rise of the socialist regimes on the continent.

The early years of Mobutu's presidency brought optimism after years of chaos. His rule enjoyed broad support, the country stabilized and a relatively effective administration was installed. Mobutu 'pacified' Congo (at least he killed Mulele and defeated his insurrection) in 1968 and started to demilitarize his regime. He began to wear civilian clothes for public appearances and introduced the accessories of traditional chiefdom like the leopard-skin hat and the carved ebony walking stick. The main instrument to exercise his rule became the political party he had founded in 1967, the MPR (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution), which soon became the only party allowed in Congo. Mobutu did not invent the single-party state but he refined the concept of a ruling party by proclaiming that every citizen was a party member by birth. 'Olinga olinga te, ozali na kati ya MPR', the people sighed. 'Whether you want it or not, you are in the MPR.'

The MPR became the engine of the patrimonial system Mobutu set up to manage the extensive patronage networks which covered all areas of public life, and corruption was the fuel to keep it running. But in the mid-1970s the machinery started to sputter because copper prices collapsed and oil prices were skyrocketing. Meanwhile, the burden of indebtedness rose dramatically because of the white elephant prestige projects built by foreign companies and equipped with the most sophisticated materials and technology. They were conceived as beacons for Zaire's triumphant entry into modernity but in practice turned out to be total disasters because the economic output never came close to expectations. The Inga–Shaba power line, the Makulu steel mill and the Tenge-Fugurume copper mines are iconic examples of colossal investments without return.

Mobutu ruled over Congo in full respect of King Leopold's tradition, exploiting the country as if it were his personal property. In 1971, he tried to give his regime its own ideological content through zaïrisation, an authenticity campaign which was meant to be a kind of cultural upgrading of African pre-colonial identity as an attractive alternative to African socialism. The country, many cities and even the citizens were given new names, supposedly rooted in local history. But its main – very negative – impact was economic: the expropriation of European-owned industries and other enterprises in the medium term was economic suicide for Mobutism, because the means of production were divided among the elite of the regime, often people without the vision, competence or will to manage in a responsible or sustainable way what had been entrusted to them. By 1974, greed and incompetence had destroyed most of Zaire's economy.

When Mobutu's state ceased to have the cash to service the clientelistic networks it had created, it lost its remaining legitimacy. Jan Vansina concluded in 1982:

Legitimacy is gone, citizens are alienated. Naked power and bribes erode the law. In turn the strongly centralized state has lost much of its effective grip, because its legal directives are ignored, except under duress or when they seem to be opportune.

This lack of legitimacy could only be compensated by the dividends drawn from his status as the most reliable ally of the West on the continent. All sectors of the state machinery crumbled. The process was fastest and most visible in the army:

Soldiers took military vehicles away from the base and used them to run their own taxi services. Radios and record players disappeared from the mess halls, bulldozers and trucks from the garages. Officers even took their subordinates home with them and used them as servants.

Very soon mismanagement had assumed such endemic proportions that Congo-watchers started to define the process as self-cannibalization of the Congolese state. The second half of Mobutu's reign has been presented by scholars as a classic example of state failure, with its often deadly cocktail of violence, dictatorship and corruption resulting in the complete failure of the economy and the total destruction of the state.

Mobutu was very much a product of the Cold War and his days were numbered when it finally came to an end. As with many of his fellow presidents in Africa, he had felt for decades that he had carte blanche from the West regarding the internal politics of his country. Now, though, all of a sudden democracy and human rights mattered in Africa too.

A wave of optimism was palpable in international politics. At last the arms race would end and enormous amounts of money which had previously been used for building up military power could now be invested in sustainable development and the struggle against poverty. Intellectuals predicted the end of ideology and history, and very soon even the end of nation states. But that did not happen. The initial euphoria was rapidly halted by the emergence of violent nationalism in Yugoslavia, the rise of ultra-orthodox Islam in the Muslim world and of extreme-right parties in Europe. It was in Africa that the proclaimed new world order made way for a new chaos. Civil wars resulted in the implosion of states in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and those of Central Africa. The accelerated democratization processes, imposed due to the end of the Cold War, created conflicts which were different from those that had existed earlier, with widespread outbursts of extreme violence characterized by shocking numbers of civilians among the victims as well as among the perpetrators of violence. It caused not only massive waves of displaced people and refugees, but also the complete destruction of the state and its instruments, leaving the population in total disarray due to the disintegration of social and institutional networks. The living conditions of a huge part of the population dropped to a previously unseen level. The international community lacked both operational power and political will to stop massive crimes against humanity, humanitarian disasters and genocides.

The 'Great African War'

In the early morning of 7 April 1994 all hell broke loose in Rwanda. A few hours earlier, President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane had been shot down and crashed in the garden of his own palace. He was returning from Tanzania, where he had been attending a regional summit about the implementation of the peace agreement between the regime, based on the Hutu majority, and the Tutsi rebels of the RPF, who had grown up in Rwandan refugee camps in Uganda and had started an armed struggle in October 1990. Habyarimana's death triggered an unprecedented massacre of between 700,000 and a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, the genocide only ending with the military victory of the RPF in July 1994, as a result of which two million Hutus fled to Congo. Rwanda stabilized but violence continued in Congo and eventually led to what was later called the Great African War, fought on Congolese soil by soldiers from the regular armies of nine other African countries and numerous foreign and local armed groups.

As the RPF was about to win the war against the remnants of the late Habyarimana's government and thus put an end to the genocide, there was a massive exodus of Hutu refugees to Rwanda's neighbours. The vast majority of them, about two million, ended up in huge refugee camps in the Zairian provinces of North and South Kivu. Almost immediately, the regular army and the militias involved in the genocide reorganized life along the old lines, forcing the people to live under their authority and continuing the war by other means. The disintegration of the Zairian state and the illness of its dictator Mobutu gave what was left of the fleeing Rwandan army greater scope to operate without disturbance.

Very soon the camps became an excellent base for hit-and-run actions intent on destabilizing the new leaders in Kigali. In order to put an end to these infiltrations, Rwanda invaded its giant neighbour twice with the support of Uganda. The first time (1996–1997) led to a change of regime in Kinshasa. The war started in October 1996, when the Rwandan and Ugandan armies used the deterioration of the relationship between Zairian Kinyarwanda-speaking communities (in the first place the Banyamulenge – Tutsi from South Kivu) and the other communities as a pretext to invade Zaire and attack the refugee camps. Uvira fell on 28 October, followed by Bukavu two days later. The aim was to dismantle the camps and neutralize the armed forces of Habyarimana's regime in order to stop their military actions against the new leaders. Gérard Prunier estimated in 2009 that the death toll among the refugees was around 300,000.

In 2010, the United Nations published the Democratic Republic of the Congo 1993–2003 UN Mapping Report. In response to the discovery of three mass graves in eastern Congo in late 2005, the UN mandated an Expert Panel to conduct a mapping exercise of the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003. The 550-page report contains descriptions of 617 alleged violent incidents, backed up by at least two independent sources. The report covers in detail how the Hutu refugee camps were dismantled in October 1996, how hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees fled deeper into Congo's vast hinterland, and how they were pursued and massacred by the Rwandan and Ugandan armies and their Congolese ally, Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (AFDL). The mapping report team noted that 'The question of whether the numerous serious acts of violence committed against the Hutus (refugees and others) constitute crimes of genocide has attracted a significant degree of comment and to date remains unresolved'. The report repeatedly stresses that this question can 'only be decided by a court decision on the basis of evidence beyond all reasonable doubt'. However, 'the apparent systematic and widespread attacks described in this report reveal a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterized as crimes of genocide'.

To give their campaign a local façade, the Rwandans and Ugandans had handpicked a Zairean rebel, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, as one of the leaders of a new coalition against Mobutu, the AFDL. At independence, Kabila, born in 1939, was a young politician from northern Katanga's Luba-speaking community (the Balubakat) who had supported Lumumba's regime. He made a tour through Eastern Europe after Lumumba's death, joined the radical insurrection of Pierre Mulele and became his minister of foreign affairs. When Che Guevara visited Kivu in 1965, he saw in Kabila one of the few leaders with the revolutionary potential of a mass leader, even if he was afraid that Kabila's lack of revolutionary seriousness and his penchant for booze and women would probably stand between Kabila and his victory. In 1967, Kabila and the remnants of his supporters moved to the south of South Kivu and founded the People's Revolutionary Party (PRP). Kabila was the only rebel leader of his generation who was never defeated or bought off by Mobutu, and he was able to maintain the mountainous area around Fizi and Baraka as a mini-enclave. From the late 1970s, his interests seemed to shift away from his struggle and he acquired considerable wealth through gold and timber trade on Lake Tanganyika and real estate in Tanzania. Kabila and his PRP soon overshadowed the other three parties and leaders within the new rebellion.


Excerpted from "Congo's Violent Peace"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Kris Berwouts.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xiii

Acronyms xv

Maps xviii

Introduction 1

1 The Resemblance of a State in a State of Ruin 9

2 In Search of Root Causes 33

3 The Elections of 2006 47

4 Umoja Wetu and Kagame's Brave New World 73

5 The 2011 Election 89

6 The M23 Misadventure 107

7 Towards New Elections or New Violence? 141

Conclusion 159

Notes 169

References 179

Index 183

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