Africa’s Seven-Nation War
Africa Report N°4
21 May 1999
What seems to be turning into a continental war first broke out on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo on 2 August 1998. So far, it has involved a dozen African countries, either directly as combatants in the fighting, or indirectly as mediators in various peace initiatives. This is the second time in two years that Congo has been the theatre of an armed rebellion against the government in place that has degenerated into a regional conflict. In 1996-1997, a regional alliance composed of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea toppled Marshall Mobutu and replaced him with Laurent Désiré Kabila in May 1997.
With this second war, the hoped-for African renaissance that was born out of Mobutu’s removal has lost all substance. The alliances formed two years ago are breaking apart and reforming around the question of whether or not Kabila should remain in power. The rebel forces, comprising Congolese soldiers, Congolese Tutsi Banyamulenge, Rwandan, Ugandan and some Burundian government troops, all accuse Kabila of turning into a dictator and increasing regional instability by his support for the guerrilla groups opposed to the governments of his former allies, including the Rwandan ‘génocidaires’. For his part, Kabila is resisting the rebel movement with support from Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops acting in the name of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Kabila accuses Rwanda and Uganda of aggression and “foreign adventurism” in regard to Congolese territory and natural resources.
The various mediation attempts undertaken by the Organisation of African Unity, the SADC, the international Francophonie community and Libya, as well as a number of individual personalities, have all run into the same obstacles. The main ones are the cease-fire, agreement over which parties should be acknowledged as belligerents, the withdrawal of foreign troops, direct rebel involvement in negotiations and the choice of a mediator. Each side has stalled on these issues or else manipulated them in order to block negotiations and play for time. In the first place, they each believe in the possibility of a military victory, although all have officially pronounced themselves willing to take part in talks. In the second place, a war of this amplitude requires the support of the population, which neither side has yet achieved. The parties are also trying to rally diplomatic support at the international level, as well as new allies for their opposing causes. Finally, time is required to exploit the country’s resources in order to finance the war and allow individuals to accumulate personal wealth.
The greatest challenge in regard to the war and its resolution is that the internal conflict in Congo is inseparably interlinked with the internal problems facing the other countries involved. Indeed, it is questionable whether the war can provide solutions to the DRC’s real problems. It has certainly done nothing to resolve the leadership question. Not only is Kabila still in situ, but he has been accorded greater legitimacy since he gained the support of the SADC, and has also succeeded in creating a national movement revolving around his personality. The conflict has certainly not brought democracy any closer. On the contrary, if the war does produce a victor, the field will be free for the imposition of another dictatorship, and the culture of violence will become even more deeply ingrained in Congo. Neither can war resolve the problem in regard to the coexistence of different ethnic groups. The Banyamulenge, who sparked off the war with Rwanda and Uganda, are even less well accepted by other Congolese than they were before and tribal conflict is engulfing the region. Finally, war will not ultimately provide an answer to the question of who controls the territory of this vast country.
The war that began nine months ago is in reality made of up several other conflicts with the result that six separate disputes are being waged on Congolese territory. In addition to the Congolese rebels challenging Kabila’s leadership, there is the war between Rwanda and the ex-FAR and Interahamwe; between Uganda and its own rebels, as well as Sudan; between the Angolan government and UNITA; between the Burundian government and the FDD rebels; and between Congo-Brazzaville and militias backing Lissouba, the deposed former president. But here again, there is a risk that the fighting will serve to reinforce the various rebel groups rather than to defeat them. Kabila is supporting the guerrilla groups and using them as infantry in his coalition force to counteract the Congolese rebels. This gives him ample possibilities for forming future alliances and reinforces a state of instability for which no end is in sight.
The war has not yet produced any winners or losers. After the failed Rwandan attempt at a coup d’état against Kabila in Kinshasa, prevented only by the intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe, the rebel movement now covers almost half of the eastern part of Congo and the north of the country. The whole territory is now divided into a number of occupation zones and each of the occupiers has a different agenda. If this situation continues, there could well be a de facto division of the DRC that might permanently affect the unity of the state.
There are two outstanding factors that could cause the war to be prolonged. First, as long as the problem of the guerrilla groups remains unresolved and neighbouring countries have not been able to secure their border areas, there is little chance of troop withdrawals, even if a cease-fire is concluded. Second, the economic benefits to be reaped from the violence today far outweigh those that might be harvested from a peace. With two successive conflicts within two years, systematic recourse to armed force and a war financed out of the revenues earned by the different parties from Congo’s own natural resources, there is a strong possibility that the presently fragmented country may implode and slide into a state of generalised violence.
For all those involved, the stakes are very large. The leaders of the countries concerned risk losing credibility and international support, perhaps even their presidencies. The coexistence of different agendas means a variety of different solutions to the present problems. The rebels are today divided between those seeking to overthrow Kabila by exercising the military option, who are supported by the Rwandans, and those who would prefer a negotiated settlement and an end to hostilities. The latter group are willing to accept Kabila as president of a transitional government.
This is the solution promoted by Museveni and seems to be the most probable scenario. It would begin with the signature of a cease-fire agreement mediated by Khadafi, an old friend of Museveni, but would not include the withdrawal of foreign troops as long as the guerrilla problem on Congo’s borders had not been resolved. The different countries whose troops are presently occupying part of Congo would also hope for a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ on the harmonisation of their political and economic interests with the transition government, particularly Angola. Indeed, whoever heads that government would be expected to commit Congo to disengage from any existing arrangement with UNITA. Other provisions would be a good integration of foreign troops among the Congolese, the satisfactory administration of occupied territory by Congo’s allies, and the inclusion of Congolese in the various commercial networks that have been set up.