Congo - Torn apart by armed groups and imperialist rivalries

Nov/Dec 1998

Seventeen months after Kabila's accession to power, his newly- founded Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) is already plunged into a horrific war. Since the end of July, the rebellion of the Banyamulenge, an ethnic group of Tutsi origin who live in the Congo, has spread from the Kivu region in the East to the entire country. This rebellion has been joined by some of the opponents of the new regime and by a section of the government army. However, although the rebellion, which has been actively supported by neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, seemed at one stage capable of overthrowing Kabila, the power balance was quickly altered by the military intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe.

For the time being at least, Kabila has saved his regime. But the country is split between armed groups whose allegiances fluctuate from one day to the next. At the same time, with over half-a- dozen African states so far drawn into this conflict, it is threatening the fragile stability of the entire region.

In fact, what is happening in Zaire is only the latest episode in a longstanding underlying crisis, which periodically shakes the Great Lakes region of Africa - as in 1994, with the tragic events in Rwanda, and, more recently, with the overthrow of the Mobutu regime in 1997.

The heavy legacy of the colonial past

To understand what lies behind this crisis, it is necessary to take into account the context of Central Africa. Very early on, the vast natural resources of this region became the object of colonial conquest. At the end of the nineteenth century, the region was the focus of the rival ambitions of France, Britain, Portugal and Germany. But, as none of these powers was prepared to make any concessions to the others, in view of the considerable stakes involved, tiny Belgium, or rather its king, Leopold II, was able to take advantage of the situation. The immense Congo became the private property of Leopold II, before subsequently becoming the jewel in the crown of Belgian imperialism's colonial empire. Following World War I and the defeat of Germany, the former German colony of Rwanda-Urundi also fell under Belgian control - that is, it was seized by Belgian companies and financial groups such as the Union Minière and the Société Générale.

The borders which were drawn between these countries and their British, French or Portuguese-dominated neighbours only reflected the power struggles and wheeler-dealings between these rival imperialist powers. From this colonial past of pillage and oppression, the region inherited both under-development and borders which cut through the middle of ethnic groups, resulting in displacement of populations on a vast scale. In addition, the colonisers took advantage of tribal or ethnic divisions to strengthen their domination, by reinforcing or exacerbating these divisions. This was the case in the Congo between the Kasai and the Katangese and between the Mai-Mai and the Banyamulenge, and in Rwanda and Burundi between the Tutsis and the Hutus. The result was a powder keg, primed to explode at the moment of independence.

In the Congo, territorial unification was artificially created by the Belgian colonisers and maintained by force. It is not, therefore, a new issue. Neither the past, nor economic development have created bonds between the different regions of the Congo, which are, in addition, separated both geographically and by a lack of means of communication. The economic integration of the country into the world capitalist system took place without the development of a unified national economy. The poorest areas were left to lapse into autarky, as potential reserves of virtual slave labour, whereas the production of the mining areas was organised to meet the needs of the ruling imperialist power.

The decolonisation process in the Congo took a more ugly course than in most other former African colonies. This was due to the fact that Belgian imperialism, unlike its French and British rivals, did not bother to prepare the ground for it. Long before the time for decolonisation came, London and Paris had selected local political and military leaders - like Ghana's Nkrumah and Senegal's Senghor, for example - who could be counted on to maintain the continuity of state power and ensure that the new independent states would carry on serving the interests of their imperialist masters. Behind these more or less appointed heirs of the colonial power, there was a layer of cadres, usually trained in the colonial administrative and military machineries, who could make up the backbone of the new states. None of this existed in the Congo. Or rather, it was in the midst of the gunfire and political explosions which accompanied the Congo's accession to independence on 30 June 1960, that these cadres of the new independent state were selected and trained.

Patrice Lumumba, the first head of government in the independent Congo, attempted to preserve the unity of the country and to create a kind of national consciousness which would override ethnic and regional rivalries. However, he clashed with the manoeuvres of Belgian and French companies, especially with the most powerful among them, the Belgian Union Minière, which funded and supported the secession of Katanga, the region richest in minerals. This secession served as a model encouraging other regions to follow suit.

It is true that American imperialism opposed these secession attempts, not because it cared about the unity of the Congo, but because it was not in the interests of its own multinationals to allow the richest regions to be grabbed by their French or Belgian rivals, while leaving the poorer regions open to endemic civil war which might favour Soviet initiatives in the area. However neither the USA nor the other powers wanted the emergence of a strong regime based on Lumumba's nationalist and third-worldist ideas which enjoyed a certain amount of popular support. Lumumba's fate was quickly sealed and he was murdered in cold blood. But even before this happened, a number of local political leaders embarked on a race for power. The rival ambitions of these leaders, the enormous size of the country, the many different ethnic groups which constituted it (over 250) and the bitter power struggle between foreign companies fighting for the control of its fabulous mineral resources - all contributed to create deep fractures in the country.

The rivalry between Moise Tshombe from Katanga and Albert Kalonji Ditunga from Eastern Kasai, who both dreamt of carving out a stronghold for themselves on an ethnic basis, was exacerbated by the scheming of the great powers. Each of these powers had its eye on Kivu's gold, Katanga's cobalt, zinc and uranium and Kasai's diamonds, and each one was trying to manufacture a Congolese leader who would be most likely to serve the interests of its own multinationals. And these powers did not just fight through Congolese proxies. They helped to form new armed forces, including by bringing in specially-recruited mercenaries to serve as officers in the new armies - the best- known among them were the infamous but aptly-named "Affreux" (the "Ugly") sent by the French government.

The Congolese people paid dearly for this policy. Eventually, after five years of war and devastation, the United States decided that in the context of de-colonisation and tensions arising from the Cold War, it could no longer tolerate this source of instability in Central Africa. They undertook to restore imperialist order. Under cover of the United Nations, the USA proceeded to build a strong army around Mobutu - himself a former sergeant in the Belgian army - who was promoted to colonel and chief of staff. In November 1965, Mobutu seized total power with the joint blessing of France and the United States.

The regime which Mobutu instituted and which was to last over thirty years was no different from the regimes established in other African countries which had become independent. It had no social base and could not be anything other than a military dictatorship. In exchange for its complicity in helping the imperialist powers to loot the country's resources, the regime could count on subsidies and armaments from its imperialist masters.

In the same way as it had already done in a third of the African continent, French imperialism took advantage of the tolerance of the United States and of the weakness of Belgian imperialism to establish itself as a protective power in the former Belgian colonies of Rwanda and especially Zaire. French capitalist groups such as Matra, Thomson and a few others used this situation to their advantage in order to secure a privileged outlet for their goods and capital. In return, the French state, regardless of the party in government, was unsparing in its deployment of military aid. French troops intervened directly several times to save the dictatorships of both Mobutu in the Congo and Habyarimana in Rwanda.

Sharpening imperialist rivalries

At the beginning of the 'eighties, however, the collapse of the USSR resulted in a more open expression of inte-imperialist rivalries, which had remained more or less concealed during the Cold War. All the more so as the worldwide economic stagnation was sharpening the rivalry between multinationals. Africa was not exempt from this new state of affairs. France, a second rate imperialist power, was anxious to hold onto what it regarded as its African backyard. But while US imperialism had up until then allowed the French state to act as the region's policeman, they were now beginning to challenge this role.

While Franco-American rivalry became increasingly obvious as Mobutu's regime was wearing out, it was bound to come to the fore with the power struggle for the ageing dictator's succession.

However, it was in Rwanda that the crisis surfaced in 1994. While France protected Habyarimana and those responsible for the massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus to the hilt, the Anglo- American bloc chose to support the rebellion of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. With the military support of Uganda, the RPF finally won the day, at the same time wiping out French influence.

Beyond their local causes, the dramatic events in Rwanda were, therefore, an integral part in the rival games played out by French and American imperialism. With Mobutu's succession, the stakes were a great deal higher and both camps tried to settle the question in is own way. Once again, France stood behind the regime of the dictator in power, while the Anglo-American bloc opted for a change of regime. The opportunity presented itself in 1996 with the first uprising of the Banyamulenge people in the east of the Congo.

Kabila, an opportunist who had been in opposition for a long time, had no more social base than did the Mobutu regime. Up until then he had taken the opportunity of the weakness of the Congo's central power to carve a stronghold for himself in Kivu, from where he controlled various lucrative businesses involving gold, ivory and precious stones. However, by placing himself at the head of the rebellion in the name of the "Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo", he was able to build up the military apparatus which he had previously lacked, and which he needed to realise his ambitions - all the more so as, at the same time, the rebels benefited from the USA's support via Uganda and Rwanda. Seven months later Kabila, who was still very careful not to counterpose, as he did later on, the "Congolese patriots" to the "Rwandan invaders" and the "Tutsi vermin", swept away the last vestiges of the Mobutu regime and entered the capital Kinshasa in May 1997.

The mining groups working in the Congo did not wait for the fall of Mobutu before making their move. As Kabila's armies advanced, companies such as Anglo-American, American Mineral Fields and the De Beers group (which controls more than 80% of the world's diamond production), supported Kabila's war effort by signing contracts with the country's new rulers - ensuring the best possible conditions for their shareholders, of course.

A reversal of allegiances

Who first lit the fuse fifteen months after Kabila's arrival in power, will probably remain an unanswered question. Did Kabila wish to get rid of his Rwandan sponsors once they had became a burden? Did he get wind of a plot to remove him? The fact is that Kabila set the ball rolling last July when he decided to dismiss some military commanders such as James Kabarehe (a Rwandan officer who was then chief of staff of the Congolese army) and to send home thousands of Rwandan soldiers who were still present in the Congo. On the second of August a second rebellion broke out in Kivu, in the east of the country bordering Rwanda. But the Kabila's Congolese armed forces were now deprived of their seasoned Rwandan officers. Moreover they were more used to looting and carrying out repression than to real military operations. In any case, they put up a poor fight. Within a few days, Kabila's government was threatened not only in the east, but also in the west, where the rebels had launched a second front.

Kabila was forced to beg for outside help. After much hesitation, Angola agreed to make a decisive intervention. But at the same time, the conflict began to take on new dimensions. Soon the war consisted of the rebellion supported by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi on one side, and the Congolese government forces reinforced by Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Sudan on the other side. As such, it was beginning to threaten the stability of the entire region.

It is worth asking what motivated these African states to intervene directly in this conflict.

It is clear that each of the protagonists was pursuing its own agenda, apparently without having indicated any wish to call into question the borders inherited from the colonial past. In Rwanda and Burundi the dominant Tutsi regimes were regularly threatened in the past by incursions supported by France and Mobutu, and carried out by the former armed forces of Habyarimana and by Hutu militia which had withdrawn into Kivu since 1994. They could therefore legitimately use the security of their borders as a reason for their involvement, as well as the protection of the Congolese Tutsi minority persecuted by the Congo and its allies both under Mobutu's and Kabila's rule. However it is also quite possible that, by militarily occupying the region, Kigali's aim is to gain control of the mining resources of Kivu.

Uganda found itself in the same situation as its Rwandan ally. For a long time, the regime of Yoweri Museveni had been confronted with the rebellion of the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), which had been operating out of Kivu. In addition, Uganda had never concealed the fact that, for a long time, it had kept a military presence in this eastern region of the Congo, with or without the agreement of Kinshasa.

As for Angola, since its independence in 1975, it had had to deal with the UNITA rebellion in the north of the country and in the area bordering Congo-Kinshasa. By intervening militarily in the west of Zaire, the Angolan regime no doubt had two aims - to cut off supplies to the UNITA guerrillas, and at the same time to protect its oil enclave in Cabinda, where the activities of the Cabinda Liberation Front and a section of Mobutu's former army represented a source of instability.

Beyond issues of border security, however, it is likely that all these African nations share the same desire - to prevent a rival nation from taking centre stage, in order to promote its own interests as the future guardian of Western interests in Central Africa.

Angola has a head start in this area, having adopted this role in the past. In 1997, Angolan troops intervened to accelerate the downfall of Mobutu. Then, five months later, they stepped in to back up the march to power of Sassou Nguesso, the protégé of the French oil multinational Elf.

The Kigali regime, on the other hand, can build on the support it has received from the United States since 1994, which has since been bolstered by the presence of dozens of US military advisers in Rwanda and Clinton's own visit last March.

As for Zimbabwe, it is no doubt mostly seeking to distance itself from Mandela's South Africa, which is its main political and business rival on the African continent.

As in the case of Kabila and his Ugandan and Rwandan neighbours, alliances between African states may come and go. But although the interplay of the imperialist powers may often appear to be discreet, both the rivalries and the common interests which exist between these powers remain major factors in the region's political developments.

Quite separate from the dealings of the imperialist powers, the large oil, diamond and copper multinationals are themselves old hands in the art of manipulating minor rulers, clan chiefs and local armed gangs. They are used to buying off some, getting rid of others and scheming with all sides in order to secure the most profitable contracts and the most attractive loot.

The war in the Congo may stop momentarily following the present confrontation. It but may equally become entrenched and lead to a protracted conflict. If the imperialist powers continue to stand back and watch, it is because they can very easily put up with this conflict, as long as their exploitation of the gold, copper and diamond mines is not affected. Various multinationals, including those which are not in the arms business, can do well out of the war. Imperialism therefore tolerates the situation as long as it can "ride" the waves of the confrontations and riots, and provided business continues as usual during the massacres.

In the meantime, populations pay a high price for these conflicts of interest and clashes between rival armed groups.

The tragedy is that the real damage is not even that being caused directly by the armed groups themselves. The leaders of these armed groups - whether official, so-called national armies, or otherwise - have no social base. Whenever they try to drum up support from the population, it is almost always on an ethnic basis. They often achieve this not even by promoting their own ethnic group, but rather by arousing hostility against one opposing ethnic group amongst all the others. The lynching in Kabila's Kinshasa of Tutsi civilians, including women and children, brought back sharp memories of Rwanda. These ethnic wars, which are a particularly loathsome and sterile form of civil war, prolong and magnify the damage caused by the armed groups. As in many African countries, the war in the Congo is becoming a permanent situation - a situation which, at the last resort, is caused by poverty and under-development, but which feeds them as well.

The Congo of Kabila, like the Zaire of Mobutu, encapsulates what imperialist domination means for Africa, and indeed for the unde-developed major part of the world.

A brief chronology

1884-1885: The Berlin Conference presides over the sharing out of the African territory between the great powers. The "Independent State of Congo" is officially recognised and King Leopold II is appointed as its ruler. The region of Rwanda is allocated to the German colonial zone.

1908: King Leopold II hands the Congo over to the Belgian state.

1925: Belgium, having gained control of the former German colony of Rwanda-Urundi, amalgamates it with the Congo.

4th January 1959: Popular uprisings in Leopoldville calling for independence.

30th June 1960: The Belgian Congo becomes independent with Kasavubu as leader of the new state and Lumumba as prime minister.

11th July 1960: The province of Katanga declares its independence.

15th September 1960: Mobutu declares a state of emergency and imprisons Lumumba.

17th January 1961: Tshombe, with the complicity of Mobutu, has Lumbumba assassinated.

1962: Rwanda and Burundi both declare their independence.

24th November 1965: Mobutu seizes full power. The former Belgian Congo becomes Zaire.

1973: Military coup by Colonel Habyarimana in Rwanda. Beginnings of a closer relationship with France.

1977-1978: Interventions by the French army in the Shaba province of Congo, formerly known as Katanga (Kolwezi).

1986: Military coup in Uganda by Museveni, supported by the United States and Britain.

October 1990: Intervention by French and Zairean troops in Rwanda to repel the offensive by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (mainly of Tutsi origin).

6th April 1994: Habyarimana is assassinated. Start of the massacres of Tutsis and Hutu opponents in Rwanda. New offensive by the FPR.

July-August 1994: Victory and entry into Kigali by the FPR. The French army mounts "Operation Turquoise", covering the flight of the Rwandan army and the regime's officials into Zaïre.

September 1996: An uprising by the Banyamulenge in southern Kivu gains momentum.

May 1997: Mobutu is overthrown. Kabila assumes power.

August 1998: Second Banyamulenge rebellion in Kivu.

7 November 1998