DR Congo – Understanding Africa’s Largest War 2

This is the second post in a series of three. Read the first post here.

The Second Congo War

President Laurent Kabila would only preside over the Congo for fifteen months before war began again. The trigger this time was Kabila’s decision to turn on the Rwandans who had put him in power.

In early 1998, Kabila began to recruit Rwanda Hutu – many of whom had been responsible for the Rwandan genocide – into the Congolese army. He sacked the Rwandan officer who had been the commander of the Congolese military and asked all Rwandan troops to leave the country.    

Rwanda responded by launching a second invasion. Rwandan forces quickly retook control of eastern Congo and, by-passing the rest of the country, flew troops to the west to launch a direct attack on Kinshasa.

Just as it seemed that Kabila was on the verge of defeat, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos sent forces, including attack helicopters and MIG fighter bombers, to Kabila’s aid.

The coalition that Rwanda had assembled to oust Mobutu now split down the middle, with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi on one side, and Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad on the other. The stage was set for a protracted struggle that was to ultimately end in stalemate.

The Main Factions

The second Congo War involved a patchwork of militias, alongside the forces of the warring nations. Two of the most significant factions were the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC).

The Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) was a Rwandan-led rebel movement, nominally headed by leading Congolese figures to give it the appearance of a home-grown uprising. All military operations were led by Rwandan commanders. By 1990, the RCD had control over a quarter of the country, including the third largest city, Kisangani. However, the RCD was never able to convince the local population that it was anything other than a Rwandan proxy. It provoked the formation of an array of local Congolese militia in the areas it controlled, all intent on driving it from the country. The RCD responded to attacks by local militia with brutal reprisals on civilians, alienating the Congolese population even further.

The second major faction – the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) – was a more genuine Congolese organisation. It was led by millionaire Jean-Pierre Bemba who had been a close associate of former dictator Mobutu. The MLC received support from Rwanda’s supposed ally Uganda (partly as a result of Ugandan envy at Rwanda for having usurped the role of regional power in central Africa), but Bemba and the Congolese had full control of the MLC’s military operations. With its headquarters in Mobutu’s former home town of Gbadolite, the organisation took control of a vast swathe of northern Congo. Although it too was responsible for numerous atrocities, mainly outside the region it controlled, it was genuinely popular with many Congolese. When elections were eventually held in 2006, the population voted massively in favour of the MLC in the main province that it had been in charge of during the war.



A critical turning point in the second Congo war occurred when the alliance between the former allies Rwanda and Uganda fell apart. Open confrontation between the two broke out in May 1999 in the city of Kisangani. At this stage in the war, the looting of Congo’s substantial natural resources had assumed a major role in the conflict.

Kisangani lies at the centre of a diamond rich region, which both the Ugandans and the Rwandans were looting freely. As Jason Stearns documents, between 1997 and 1999 official Ugandan diamond exports grew tenfold to $1.8 million; Rwanda’s diamond exports experienced a similar meteoric increase. These booms in exports happened despite the fact that neither country has diamonds of its own [1].

The falling out between the former allies was significant in that it left Rwanda with little prospect of achieving victory over the forces now arrayed against it.

Then on January 16, 2001 President Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. He was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. On assuming power, Joseph Kabila immediately made it clear that he wanted to negotiate an end to the war. By this time, the MLC were pushing down from the north towards Kinshasa. And just a few months before, Congolese and Zimbabwean forces had suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Rwandan forces at Mtuto Moya. This defeat had prompted Robert Zimbabwe to threaten the withdrawal of Zimbabwean support for Kabila; Angola too had threatened to withdraw from the war.

Realising that the Congolese army could not achieve victory without the support of its allies, Joseph Kabila launched a peace process that resulted in the end of the second war and paved the way for elections.

On December 16, 2002, after five years of war and millions of deaths, the Congo was unified once again. When elections were held in 2006, Joseph Kabila was returned to power as President, a post he continues to hold to this day.

The Third Congo War

The peace agreement signed in 2002 brought major hostilities to an end, but it was an imperfect peace in many ways. Unlike the settlements in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where warlords were not allowed to stand for office, the peace agreement in Congo brought those responsible for ravaging the country into the heart of the new government. Because the perpetrators were still in power, there was no tribunal in Congo, such as those in Sierra Leone, East Timor, and the former Yugoslavia, to bring to justice those guilty of committing atrocities during the war. And in the eastern Congo, violence continued as the rivalries between Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo mixed with local ethnic grievances to fuel further bloodshed.

The elections held in 2006, the first multiparty elections in Congo for over 40 years, did little to provide the stability that Congo so desperately needed. In fact, as Severine Autesserre points out, in many ways, the 2006 elections made things worse. [2] The elections provided legitimacy for Joseph Kabila’s corrupt government; they exacerbated ethnic tensions in many provinces as candidates stoked up ethnic hatred to mobilise their vote; and they returned to the National Assembly many radicals intent on ethnically cleansing Congo of people of Rwandan descent.

The elections also created yet another rebel faction – the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The Rwandan-led RCD held almost a third of the Congo at the time of the election, but were seen by most Congolese as a foreign invader. It was no surprise then that the RCD lost heavily in the elections, and secured only a nominal representation in the new administration [3]. In anticipation of this defeat – and to secure Rwanda’s interests in eastern Congo – former RCD officers, with Rwandan backing, created the CNDP to continue fighting in the areas that the RCD controlled.

After three years of unsuccessful offensives against the rebels, the Congolese government struck a deal with Rwanda to integrate the CNDP into the Congolese army. In 2012 this deal collapsed when yet another Rwanda-backed faction, M23, splintered off from the CNDP and resumed fighting.

The scale of the conflict in eastern Congo on this occasion was of sufficient scale to mobilise both African countries and the United Nations. In 2013, eleven countries from the region signed the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework aimed at bringing hostilities to an end. Former Irish President Mary Robinson was appointed as UN Special Envoy and the UN peacekeeping force in eastern Congo was given an aggressive mandate to clamp down on M23 and other armed groups to enforce the peace.


[1] Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns, Public Affairs, 2012, p241

[2] The Trouble with Congo: How local disputes fuel regional conflict, Severine Autesserre, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008

[3] Helping Congo Help Itself: What it will take to end Africa’s worst war, Jason Stearns, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2013

1 thought on “DR Congo – Understanding Africa’s Largest War 2

  1. Thanks very much, Ian, for such a lucid treatment of a very complex situation. I can understand now we’re talking about mayhem rather than chaos. At least ‘mere’ mayhem offers some glimmer of hope for a mediated management of the situation, even as any resolution of the myriad problems and antagonisms looks a very long haul indeed.

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