DR Congo – Understanding Africa’s Largest War 1

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast country with a population of sixty million people. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world. The wars that have ravaged the country since 1996 have so far cost the lives of over five million people. Almost three million of the victims have been children. This and subsequent posts aim to explain the tragedy of Africa’s largest war.   

The Congo Wars

In his book ‘Dancing in the Glory of Monsters’, Jason Stearns argues that there has not been a single war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but rather three different conflicts.

The first war involved a coalition of African nations, led by Rwanda, and was aimed at ousting the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power. This first war was triggered largely by the genocide in neighbouring Rwandan, and Mobutu’s tacit support for the genocidaires who fled Rwanda and sought shelter in eastern Congo. The first war was short lived. It began in October 1996 with the Rwandan-led invasion of eastern Congo under the guise of a Congolese rebel uprising headed by Laurent Kabila, and ended with the fall of Mobutu in May 1997.

The second war was triggered by new Congolese President Laurent Kabila’s decision to turn on his Rwandan Tutsi backers and begin the recruitment of Rwandan Hutu forces into the Congolese army. Rwanda’s heavy handed response was to invade once more. This time however the coalition of nations that had ousted Mobutu splintered, leading to a prolonged conflict that pitted Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi against Congo, Zimbabwe and Angola. This war lasted five years, beginning in August 1998 and ending with a peace deal between the warring factions in June 2003.

The third Congo war continues to this day as militias in eastern Congo continue to fight and terrorise the local population. Over a thousand civilians die in Congo every day, mostly due to malnutrition and disease . While another peace agreement was reached in 2013, the underlying causes of the Congo wars remain largely un-addressed.

photo credit: United Nations Photo via photopin cc

photo credit: United Nations Photo via photopin cc

The Rwandan-led Invasion of Congo

In the space of 100 days, between April and July 1994, Rwandan Hutu massacred up to 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Rwandan Genocide ended with the victory of the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and the exodus of the defeated Rwandan Hutu forces, accompanied by over a million Hutu civilians, into eastern Congo.
The Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), as the genocidaires were known, regrouped within eastern Congo and began to launch attacks back into Rwanda. The Congo’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had been a close friend of the assassinated Rwandan Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose regime had planned and carried out the genocide. Mobutu even arranged for the body of the dead dictator to be refrigerated in one of his palaces, awaiting burial in a re-conquered Rwanda.

Mobutu did not take any action to disarm or disband the genocidaires. Despite repeated warnings from the RPF leader Paul Kagame that the RPF would take action if the Hutu armed forces within the refugee camps in eastern Congo were not dealt with, the Hutu militia were allowed to rearm and reorganise.

In October 1996, just over two years after the genocide ended, Rwandan-led forces invaded, under the guise of a home grown Congolese rebellion. The figure-head for the invading forces was the Congo born rebel Laurent Kabila. Rwandan forces were augmented by forces from Uganda, Angola, and Eritrea; Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisors; Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and finance. The fact that Mobutu hosted over ten different foreign rebel groups on his territory, each of which threatened one or more of his neighbours, was one of the reasons that so many African nations united to remove Mobutu from power.

Why Mobutu’s Congo Collapsed So Quickly

Mobutu never seriously believed that Rwanda posed a serious threat to his regime. In terms of size, for tiny Rwanda to try to overcome mighty Congo was like Switzerland trying to conquer all of Western Europe. The fact that the Rwandan-led forces encountered little serious resistance reflected the fact that the Congo was in an advanced state of decay at the time of the invasion.

Mobutu received hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance from western countries, who considered him a bulwark against socialist neighbours such as Angola and Tanzania. Despite western military aid, however, Mobutu’s army was a chaotic sham. Mobutu had put his cronies in charge of his armed forces and allowed them to do what they liked. And what they liked to do was smuggling, selling Congolese military equipment on the international arms market, and hiring out their army units as private security.
The country’s seventy thousand soldiers meanwhile rarely received salaries. Mobutu admonished his soldiers for complaining, saying ‘You have guns; you don’t need a salary.’ This encouragement to prey on Congo’s civilian population was taken up with enthusiasm by the rank and file.

High ranking officers went further. In June 1994, two Generals sold the air forces last remaining fighter jets to arms dealers, while another sold the country’s last transport aircraft. All pocketed the proceeds of the sales. Senior Congolese military commanders in eastern Congo were also for sale, and provided vital military intelligence to the invading Rwandan army in advance of the invasion in return for monetary reward.

When the invasion was under-way, it too was seized upon as a business opportunity by the Congolese army’s leading officers. The arsenals of weapons confiscated from Hutu refugees in the east were sold for profit – incredibly – to the invading Rwandan Tutsi forces.

Even as the capital Kinshasa was threatened, rival Congolese commanders engaged in a gunfight over an arms shipment from North Korea. One commander wanted to use the weapons to defend the capital, the other wanted to sell them.[1]

With unpaid ill-equipped and ill-disciplined soldiers, led by unscrupulous mercenary generals, the Congolese army was able to muster little resistance to the invading Rwandan army. The eastern city of Goma fell immediately, thanks largely to the information that Mobutu’s officers had given the RPF in the months prior to the invasion. The invading RPF quickly broke up the refugee camps in eastern Congo, and forced around half a million refugees back into Rwanda. .Another half a million refugees fled further into Congo, pursued by the invading forces.

The central city of Kisangani fell in March 1997, followed weeks later by the diamond capital of Mbuji-Mayi and the copper capital Lubumbashi . The capital Kinshasa, and Mobutu’s regime, were on the verge of collapse.

Rwandan Tutsi Atrocities in the Congo

The Rwandan-led invasion sent an exodus of over half a million Hutu refugees fleeing through the forests of eastern Congo. The exodus was comprised of Hutu civilians alongside the Hutu army and militia that had carried out the genocide. In the massacres that followed, the Rwandan-led forces made little distinction between the two.

Many of the fleeing refugees died from diarrhoea, malaria and typhoid, before their way west was blocked by the Congolese army, afraid that the refugees were harbouring Rwandan Tutsi forces among them. Thousands more died of disease and starvation in new makeshift refugee camps within Congo.

When the Rwandan invaders reached the camps, atrocities were widespread. A United Nations investigation carried out a decade later concluded that the invading forces killed tens of thousands of people, mostly in cold blood. The UN investigators found that ‘The majority of the victims were children, women and elderly people and the sick, who posed no threat to the attacking forces.’ [2] The UN report also concluded that the killings were carried out in the presence of, and under the orders of, high-ranking Rwandan officers.
One RPF soldier described the nature of the killings of those too old or sick to flee. ‘We lied to them. We said we would send them home; we even cooked food for them. But then we took them into the forest. We had a small hatchet we carried on our backs… We killed with that.’ [3]

The number of Rwandan Hutu killed is estimated to be at least 60,000.

The invading forces soon reached Kinshasa. Following a number of unproductive meetings between Mobutu and Kabila, mediated by Nelson Mandela, Mobutu was finally forced to flee the country.

On May 29 1997 Laurent Kabila was sworn in as President. His inauguration ceremony was attended by some of those who made his ascent to power possible – including the Presidents of Rwanda, Uganda and Angola. Soon, however, these former allies were at war again – this time with one another.

This is the first of a series of three posts on the Congo Wars. Read the second post here.

[1] Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns, Public Affairs, 2012, p155

[2] Quoted in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns, Public Affairs, 2012, p137

[3] Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns, Public Affairs, 2012, p139


1 thought on “DR Congo – Understanding Africa’s Largest War 1

  1. Pingback: Understanding Democracy – The Importance of Human Rights | disorderedworld

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