Congo after Kabila: who holds the power?

IssueMarch - May 2001
Comment by Jan Van Criekinge

Since October 1996, the war, in what was then still called Zaire under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, was not just a regional conflict, neither an ethnic struggle. From the beginning of the uprising of the loose AFDL coalition, led by the unknown Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a veteran rebel fighter and gold smuggler from the days of the struggle after independence from Belgium in the early sixties, the real power behind it came from Rwanda and Uganda.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the political power balance in the Great Lakes Region changed dramatically. General Paul Kagame, the strongman of the new Patriotic Front regime in Rwanda after the genocide, and his supporter from the very beginning, the ambitious Ugandese president Yoweri Museveni, wanted to get rid off the weakened regime of Mobutu in Zaire. At that time Kagame depended upon credibility and financial aid from the Western powers who felt guilty for failing to prevent the killing of nearly 700,000 people in Rwanda.

A new military campaign

Millions of Rwandan refugees found a place to hide in the refugee camps near the Rwandan and Ugandan border in the Kivu provinces. Among these refugees were also armed people belonging to the so-called Interhamwe militias, who were responsible for committing the 1994 genocide. The Mobutu regime was unable, or did not want to, disarm these militias who remain a threat for the population in the border region. For Kagame this security problem was the ideal motive to start a new military campaign into his large, but completely weakened, neighbouring country.

Kabila was the perfect man to do this dirty job. Finally, after his long march through the tropical rainforests, in which he made massive use of child soldiers (so called kadogos) and accessed Angolese military logistics, Kabila was able to take power in Kinshasa on 17 May 1997 without much resistance from the collapsing Zairean armed forces once Mobutu fled to Morocco. The removal of the Mobutu government brought heightened expectations of a change in the politics of the whole region of Central and Southern Africa. But very soon it became clear that one dictatorship had been replaced by another, though the rhetoric was now much more revolutionary.

A sinister security policy

Kabila could only stay in power with the military support of his Rwandan and Ugandan masters who had used him as an instrument in their sinister security policy. Relations soon deteriorated with the very active Congolese civil society, who always had struggled against dictatorship in a nonviolent way. Kabila would only accept military-based autocratic structures for his new republic, now called Democratic Republic of Congo. Any hope for democratisation was completely absent, as even political parties were outlawed, a military justice system introduced, and freedom of speech limited.

The outbreak of the new war in the Eastern Congolese provinces in August 1998 was the result Kabila was able to show his masters in Kigali and Kampala. The friction between Kagame and Kabila were played out in open war. As the Rwandese elite troops were in the capital Kinshasa the Kabila regime was only saved from disappearing thanks to the involvement of other African states. First of all the Angolan president José Eduardo Dos Santos sent his elite troops into Congo to fight on the side of Kabila, followed by a similar solidarity action by Namibias Sam Nujoma. Also the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, facing a growing crisis in his own country, was supporting Kabila with more than 12,000 soldiers and Russian MIG planes. Many foreign soldiers were killed in action in the Congolese bush fighting against different armed rebel groups who were supported by Uganda and Rwanda. The legacy of militarism engulfed the whole region. Consequently, there is now a cruel war in Central Africa involving more than seven African governments and affecting more than 60 million people.

The Lusaka Protocol

International press reports referred to this warfare as Africa's First World War. The impact of the war included greater instability, millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the plunder of minerals and other raw materials. The day-to- day opposition to warfare and demands from the ordinary people for peace lead to the signing of the Lusaka Protocol in the Zambian capital, by all parties involved, in July 1999. This should have laid the framework for a cease-fire between the armies of Congo, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe on the one hand, and on the other the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and the three main liberation movements, the RCD-Goma, the RCD-ML and the MLC. Following this elaborate protocol, a Security Council Resolution decreed that the United Nations would deploy a peacekeeping force in DR Congo to ensure the implementation of the Lusaka agreement and to track down all the armed groups. Not one party ever took the first step in implementing the Lusaka agreement. Perhaps because so many could profit from the ongoing war and the plunder of Congo's wealth.

Once the agreement was signed, the armed parties involved, as well as the unarmed opposition, were supposed to enter into an open dialogue about the future of the Central African nation. But it was Kabila's firm resistance to dialogue that made him and his small circle of loyal Katangese friends an obstacle in the way to peace. Even his good Angolan friend Dos Santos was secretly seeking contact with the rebels and with Uganda. Internationally the Kabila regime was completely isolated. Only relations with Cuba, Libya, China and North Korea remained good.

When will peace come?

Was it the powerful king maker of Central Africa, the Angolan president, who was behind the assassination of Mzee (the Old One) Kabila? Or some of Mzee's enemies from the East? And what roles were played behind the scenes in Washington, Paris and Brussels, the old colonial and neo-colonial masters? Many questions remain, but it is very remarkable that LD Kabila's son, Joseph Kabila (29), had only been in power as the new Congolese president a few days before he travelled to Washington, Paris and Brussels. For the great majority of the Congolese people the only important thing is: when will we be at peace again?