Central Africa - Behind the refugee crisis, multinationals and imperialist rivalries

Jan/Feb 1997

Despite the continuing crisis in the province of Kivu in east Zaire and the near civil war which has now spread across Burundi, Uganda and even Tanzania, this conflict and indeed the plight of Rwandan refugees, has totally disappeared from the headlines of the British press.

Yet this fighting, has scattered hundreds of thousands of refugees in every direction across this whole region of Central Africa. It could cause an even graver crisis than that which hit the headlines in north Kivu province last November.

A huge number of refugees have disappeared into the wilderness of Zaire - either as hostages of the exiled Hutu militias or fleeing from them and the various fighting bands of disaffected Zaïrian troops and rebels, not to mention the regular Rwandan army.

Of the 300,000 Rwandan refugees in Tanzania, many have apparently managed to avoid the forced return ordered by the Tanzanian government in early December and have fled to the interior of the country. There is alarming news too, of the treatment of refugees who went back to Rwanda, prevented from returning to their homes and being placed in bantustan-like encampments, allegedly for their protection but also under the pretext of rooting out the "criminals" among them.

However since the American leaders decided to oppose the "humanitarian" intervention planned by the UN in east Zaire in November, the media has lost interest. Using the evidence of the return to Rwanda of some refugees from camps in the border area of Kivu, the US government made out that the "humanitarian crisis" as they called it, had been "resolved" without their help. Of course this was an excuse. The intervention, demanded by the French government, had never really been intended to bring relief to the refugees. And the US government knew that. French imperialism was becoming anxious about the growing crisis in east Zaire. They wanted an officially sanctioned UN intervention to cover the presence of French troops and restore order before the unrest could provoke the total collapse of the Zairian regime. Their only aim was to protect the status quo in this part of their sphere of influence in Africa. But in this they were out-manoeuvred by the US, who used the first pretext to block the UN intervention, no doubt because US imperialism welcomed a measure of destabilisation in France's African fiefdom. This however left the refugees left high and dry, beset once more by starvation and cholera, threatened by various armed gangs and with nowhere safe to go.

Although the whole question of humanitarian relief has fallen off the agenda, including even the suggestion of minimal air drops of food and medicine, the western powers remain entangled in the situation. They are frantically busy, for the time being mainly on the diplomatic front, trying to defend their rival interests in the region.

Imperialist rivalries, the root of the problem

Imperialist rivalries have always been the main factor on Africa's political scene, both before and after decolonisation. The Great Lakes region was first shaped by Belgium's colonial occupation. Burundi and Rwanda emerged as artificial creations, to facilitate its colonial grip. The two main ethnic groups, the Tutsis and Hutus, were played off against each other for the same reason. Meanwhile in Zaire, then called the Belgian Congo, everything was subordinated to the plunder of the mineral-rich Katanga region in the south, by the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, a conglomerate which, for a long time, was the private property of the Belgian royal family.

When decolonisation came, in the '60s, the old Belgian colonial power was no longer strong enough to retain much influence in the region. France took over, integrating Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire into its own sphere of influence. In Zaire, the transition was explosive. Considering that it was under threat, the Union Minière engineered the secession of Katanga, setting up an independent statelet run by an army of mercenaries paid by mining interests. Meanwhile US imperialism backed an intervention in the rest of Zaire, under the cover of the UN, which finally brought the Mobutu dictatorship to power in 1965.

In Rwanda and Burundi, the old colonial set-up had remained for a while, with the Tutsi elite ruling both countries, where Hutus were a large majority. In Burundi, the Tutsi elite managed to hold onto power through brutal military rule. In Rwanda this status quo was broken in 1959 by a Hutu peasant uprising. Tutsis sought refuge in neighbouring countries, particularly Burundi, but the new regime turned out to be as dictatorial as the previous one. Both in Rwanda, under Hutu-led rule, and Burundi, under Tutsi-led rule, ethnic tensions were used to maintain power whenever it was threatened. And all along, French imperialism was there, behind the scenes, backing the strong men of the day with weapons and subsidies.

However, from 1973, after a rival Hutu-led coup under Colonel Hayarimana took power in Rwanda, ties with France, and Mobutu's regime in Zaire, were consolidated much more openly. Across the border, in Uganda however, the Ugandan regime's policy of expelling Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, some of whom had been there in exile since 1959, posed new problems to Habyarimana who was determined not to allow them back into the country. Many of these exiled Tutsis ended up joining the Ugandan rebel movement of Yoweri Museveni - also of Tutsi origin - whose army finally took power in Uganda in a coup in 1986, with US and British support. Museveni granted the Rwandan Tutsis citizenship rights in Uganda. He also oversaw the building of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated guerilla army led by Captain Paul Kagame, a US-trained officer who had been head of intelligence in Museveni's army.

At first, Habyarimana's regime was able to resist the RPF's attacks thanks to French military support. But by 1994, it was facing a serious crisis, both domestically from Tutsi oppositionists, but also from Hutus, mainly in the south, and from the on-going guerilla war being conducted by the RPF, from their bases in Uganda.

The Habyarimana regime responded with a crude anti-Tutsi propaganda campaign, and set up death squads in an attempt to root out all opposition within Rwanda. It got all the help it wanted and more, from the French military. However after Habyarimana was killed in April 1994, the anti-Tutsi campaign escalated. Using lists drawn up in advance, the Hutu militias, backed up by the army and Presidential guard, launched a full scale manhunt directed not only against Tutsis, but against all opponents of the regime, including the most moderate. Ordinary Hutus were forced into the ranks of local militias to conduct pogroms all over the country against their own Tutsi neighbours. The countryside was soon covered in piles of mutilated corpses. It is estimated that up to 800,000 people were killed.

The RPF seized the opportunity to go back onto the offensive and a fullscale war between the Rwandan army and the RPF ensued. Despite their 40,000 strong, French-equipped and trained army and the use of the civilian Hutu population, the RPF swept quickly through the killing fields, into the capital, Kigali, to seize power, in July 1994.

Over one million Hutus poured over the borders, mainly into Zaire and Tanzania, in fear of retribution from the victorious RPF.

The stoking of a new powderkeg

French imperialism had in the meantime found itself in an awkward position. A few days before the start of the massacres they had sent more troops to Rwanda. As news of the slaughter began to emerge, the French prime minister denied that these troops were fighting alongside the perpetrators, claiming that they were there to evacuate foreign nationals. When the RPF reached Kigali, the French troops were suddenly designated as a "humanitarian force". And yet more of them were sent to help. This force now acted as a cover for the retreat of the Hutu government and army over the border to Zaire, where they could count on the sympathy of the French-backed dictator and erstwhile friend of the late Habyarimana, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Thus "Operation Turquoise" under "humanitarian" guise, and hastily approved by the UN, was organised from Zaire. Mobutu was able to appear on the international political scene as a responsible politician, who, alongside the French, was creating a "safe zone" in east Zaire for Hutu refugees. He sent 2,500 Zaïrian troops to assist. But the real purpose of "Operation Turquoise", was to help set up a new stronghold from which the army officers and dignitaries of the defeated former regime could prepare a return to power in Rwanda.

What was at stake now was not just who would be in power in the Rwandan capital, but what the new boundaries of the imperialist spheres of influence would be. With the RPF in power in Kigali, US and British imperialism were now in a position to force a change in these boundaries. All the more so as the RPF was likely to pull behind them Burundi and its Tutsi-dominated dictatorship. French imperialism was therefore preparing the ground to block US and British ambitions.

Around Goma, and Mulunga in the north, Bukavu in the centre and Uvira in the south of Zaire's Kivu province, the influx of nearly 30,000 Hutu soldiers, thousands more militiamen and nearly one million refugees was bound to create new problems. This province, with not even a road connecting it to the west where the capital Kinshasa is located, over 900 miles away, had been dominated by anti-Mobutu separatist forces for some time. The existing Zaïrian population included people of Hutu and Tutsi origin. On the northern shores of Lake Kivu, and around Masisi, there were the Banyarwanda, who had been there for nearly a century, but had always been deprived of Zaïrian citizenship. In the south of Kivu, in the Mulenge mountains, Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge, had been settled for two centuries and had similarly been denied any citizenship rights. In among them were other Zaïrian ethnic groups.

The exiled Hutu army with the support of the Zaïrian troops, began to build its own fiefdom in north Kivu. Having taken control of the refugee camps, they spread their control further, over the local territory around the camps as well, terrorising the local population, especially the Banyarwanda, while the regular Zaïrian troops looked on or even encouraged these attacks. They also began to launch attacks across the Rwandan border.

In the mountains in the south of Kivu, the Banyamulenge were not as vulnerable to the Hutu militias as their counterparts in the north. Besides, some of them had fought in the ranks of the RPF before 1994 and were trained soldiers or officers. The RPF regime in Rwanda jumped on the opportunity to supply them with arms and later troops to encourage their fight against both the Hutu army in Uvira and the Zaïrian troops. Closer by, the Burundian regime did the same, after the coup in July by Major Pierre Buyoya, a member of the Tutsi elite. The Banyamulenge offensive began to gain impetus in September 1996, to the point when, in October, the deputy governor of south Kivu announced that all Banyamulenge were to leave Zaire, "or else be hunted down as rebels". He may have been sacked since then, but the Banyamulenge guerillas, with strong military support from Rwanda and Burundi, have continued their fight and have been able to push back the Hutu militias as well as the Zaïrian army.

It was these successes which precipitated the "new" refugee crisis in November. The Zaïrian Tutsi rebel forces cut off Uvira and Bukavu refugee camps and began scattering the refugees in all directions, as well as striking a severe blow against the Hutu militias, moving northwards. Many of the refugees fled northwards too, to the safer area around Goma. They finally joined the hundreds of thousands already in the Mugunga camp near Goma. It was from here that the refugees were eventually faced with little choice but to return to Rwanda. Having just about survived the fighting in their camps, in a state of exhaustion and starvation and without any "humanitarian" intervention from the UN, many of them - probably at least half of their number - did not take the road across the border. An unknown number fled westward into the interior of Zaire.

The territory in the east seems now to be more or less under the control of the Tutsi militias while the regular Zaïrian troops have given way, reluctant to fight. This is hardly surprising since they have all along rarely been in the receipt of any wages, have no organised food supplies and so either live off looting the locals or starve. Some of these Zaïrian troops have taken refuge in Uganda, while it is said that some have even joined the anti-Mobutu rebels. One soldier was quoted by the US press as saying: "We do not have any reason to fight. We do not have a central command and we have not heard from our bosses in three years."

Multinationals waiting to pick up the spoils

What are the stakes behind this conflict? Rwanda and Burundi may hold strategic positions in Central Africa, but the real object of the current inter-imperialist rivalries are elsewhere - in Zaire itself. Zaire has remained one of the least-tapped African countries in terms of its resources. It is extremely rich with its extensive mineral deposits of copper, uranium, cobalt, zinc, gold, diamonds, tin and also oil and gas. Waiting in the wings, anxious for the dust to settle, are international conglomerates and multinationals who want to get on with their plans to exploit Zaire's wealth and to benefit from the recently launched privatisation of state companies.

President Mobutu Sese Seko, who has probably spent more time in his villas on Lake Geneva and on the French Riviera in the last few years than in Zaire itself, is meant to oversee a presidential election in May 1997. Mobutu is certainly discredited. It is well known that he has just about the equivalent of Zaire's foreign debt stashed away in personal foreign bank accounts - said to be over $10bn. His despotic rule and flamboyant lifestyle are not popular, despite the appearance of "jubilant" crowds on his arrival back in Kinshasa on the 17th December.

Imperialist business interests had been banking on internal political disputes allowing Mobutu an easy electoral victory. But now due to the de facto collapse of any real authority in the provinces (like Shaba province - previously Katanga - and Kasai, which are near-autonomous anyway), the war in Kivu and Mobutu's cancer, it looks as if Zaire could break into pieces.

This is probably not what the imperialist powers would choose. They would rather hang on to Mobutu, whose loyalty to their interests is well-tested. But they may not have any choice. And any solution providing some guarantee of political stability would do, as far as they are concerned, provided that it does not stand in the way of the exploitation of the country's resources by imperialist multinationals.

And western companies are indeed queuing up for the spoils. Anglo-American, via an intermediary, already tried last year to get its hands on the state copper mining giant, Gecamines and the diamond mining corporation MIBA. However the World bank objected to the privatisation of main state companies by a non-elected government which they considered lacked "political legitimacy" - another way of saying that it might not last long enough for the investment to be secure... Then there is Cluff Mining, a British company which has already obtained a majority stake in gold concessions. Anglo American, with American Mining Fields, announced plans last May to invest $70m in reopening the Kipushi Zinc Mine. In fact in London in late October this year a huge banquet was held by Anglo American, for the visiting Prime Minister Kengo - at the time their favourite to take over from Mobutu if necessary.

So far there has been only one privatisation of a state company. The southern and eastern rail network - now called SIZARAIL, has been acquired jointly by a Belgo-Zaïrian and South African company. As long as the stability of the regime is not restored, there will be no more privatisations. Yet the war in Kivu is burdening an already bankrupt state. The funds committed to the election and the monthly repayments to the IMF are also likely to be swallowed up by this war. The likelihood of the elections taking place at all now seems in doubt. These were, however, meant to be a precondition for the resumption of foreign aid and loans. For the Zairian population, this vicious circle means a further slide into poverty and possibly, as a result, deeper civil war.

The diplomats manoeuvre behind the scenes

So far the offensive of the Kivu rebels, supported by Kigali, is being opposed by all the main political opposition forces within Zaire, including the Katangese autonomists, who, despite their hostility to Mobutu himself, are siding with the Zaïrian army against the "invasion". But how long this resistance lasts, depends on Mobutu's own ability to keep the country together and resume some control on the regions which have by now virtually seceded.

As for the rival imperialists, the shrinking of the sphere in which French capital had free reign is not something that they would oppose, provided that a stable alternative can be found to allow them to cash in their dividends.

This is the reason for all the background diplomatic activity. Each power would like to get itself into a position where it can be the arbitor of the settlement, however unlikely it is that the present mess can be settled behind closed doors by a bunch of diplomats, at this point. Already two conferences under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity, which has strong links with US imperialism, have been held in Kenya to discuss the question of restoring stability to the region. But both were boycotted by Zaire, while a third, held in the Congo, under the auspices of France, was boycotted by Rwanda and Uganda. Now South Africa's President Mandela has been brought in on the Anglo-US side, to give more legitimacy to their arbitration. The situation is in fact more or less suspended for the time being, hanging on Mobutu's ability to remain in power.

The decisive factor is however much more likely to be the balance of forces on the ground. Behind the diplomatic front, scores of western "advisors", trouble shooters (including from western military intelligence) and arms dealers are busy reinforcing their chosen side, while looking for other potential forces to whip up ethnic solidarity against their rival's allies.

The crisis in Central Africa is set to carry on. Starting as it did from Rwanda and Burundi, it now directly involves three other African countries and dozens of armed factions. It is a near civil war which has already forced hundreds of thousands to live the precarious lives of runaway refugees throughout the region and could engulf millions more of those who inhabit the area. Having poured oil on the flames of ethnic rivalries and desperation generated by poverty, the western powers who played the humanitarian card yesterday, today play the diplomatic card. But all the while they are fighting against each other by proxy, through the bloodshed of the Great Lake populations.

If this crisis results in yet another open civil war tomorrow, the western powers will no doubt blame it on "ethnic" causes. But the responsibility for such a catastrophe will be entirely theirs. As long as multinational companies, hiding behind their respective imperialist states, and their allies among the local bourgeoisies, carry on plundering the continent, there will be no end to the plague of civil war in Africa.