The Congo Conflict


Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. The Congo From Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History. Zed Books, London, 2002. Nzongola-Ntalaja was interviewed in preparation for the review on Jan 29, 2004.

John F. Clark. The African Stakes of the Congo War. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002.


Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. The Congo From Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History. Zed Books, London, 2002. Nzongola-Ntalaja was interviewed in preparation for the review on Jan 29, 2004.

John F. Clark. The African Stakes of the Congo War. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002.

The genocidal war in Congo, beginning in 1998 and currently paused by a shaky peace process, killed perhaps 3 million people. It is the major mass slaughter of the 1990s. Its development was influenced by the other major mass slaughter of the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The Rwandan genocide is frequently held up by commentators in the West as a ‘failure to intervene’. There certainly was a ‘failure’ by the international community, and particularly the United States, at the time . The United States refused to airlift African troops who were willing to deploy to try to prevent the genocide. It also refused to countenance the use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe what was happening in Rwanda. France, too, acted with criminal irresponsibility, intervening only after the genocide had occurred to help the genocidaires evacuate to the Congo.

The irony is that the ‘international community’, apparently so upset over its ‘failure to intervene’ that it allowed the Rwandan case to be used as a reason why Yugoslavia had to be bombed, Afghanistan bombed and invaded, and Iraq bombed and occupied, promptly demonstrated that its concern for Africans suffering terror and genocide was purely rhetorical. When Rwanda and Uganda invaded the Congo in 1998, their international aggression was not viewed with scrutiny. Instead these regimes, whose armies — with their officers trained in the military colleges of the United States and other Western countries – had enjoyed success on the battlefield, enjoyed a degree of impunity. They were ‘counterweights’ in the United States’s geopolitical scheme to isolate the Sudanese regime. Uganda was a model for neoliberal structural adjustment, following the IMF’s prescriptions closely. Indeed, the Rwandan genocide itself was used to give the Rwandan regime carte blanche to occupy the Congo: having failed to intervene to stop the genocide of 1994, what right did the ‘international community’ have to censure the Rwandan army from doing what it had to do to defend itself? Even if, as is so often the case with ‘self-defense’, Rwanda’s ‘self-defense’ involved slaughtering innocents, occupying countries, and ultimately endangering the security of its own people?

So when millions died, mostly in the areas under Ugandan and Rwandan occupation and as a direct result of that occupation, there was little interest outside of Africa itself. Few people, even those concerned with Africa’s travails, had an acquaintance with even the basic facts of the war. Two books published in 2002 can help people begin to understand the Congo’s tragedy. The Congo: A People’s History is written by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a scholar who has lectured in Africa and in the United States and currently works for the United Nations Development Program. The African Stakes of the Congo War is edited by John F. Clark, an Africa scholar, and is a collection of essays by scholars on different aspects of the war.

In his book, Nzongola-Ntalaja tells the history of the war from a popular, nationalist perspective. His honesty, his sympathy for the people and his anger at the pillage and plunder of the Congo at the hands of old and new colonialists combine with his knowledge and connection to the country to make the book, which spans much more than just the recent war, required reading. Complementing Nzongola-Ntalaja’s history of the Congo, John F. Clark’s volume focuses on the international aspects of the conflict, with chapters on the various intervening neighbours, the Kabila regime, the rebels, and key issues of arms, refugees, and the economics of war.

Determinants: The Congo’s weakness and the Rwandan genocide

Nzongola-Ntalaja asks: how was it possible that states that the Congo dwarfed in size, population, and resources – Rwanda and Uganda – could invade and occupy their much larger neighbor? “Such a situation would have been unthinkable if the Congolese state institutions were functioning in a normal way as agencies of governance and national security, rather than as Mafia-type organizations serving the selfish interests of Mobutu and his entourage.” (pg. 214). If the Congo was under a capable and responsible government, he adds, it could have stopped the Rwandan genocide in 1994, or, at the very least, prevented the use of Congolese bases for the genocidaires to launch raids into Rwanda after the genocide had ended.

Instead, the genocide did happen . After killing some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, the genocidaires (militias called the interhamwe as well as soldiers from the Rwandan Armed Forces [FAR]) fled, with French help, along with hundreds of thousands of Hutus, to refugee camps in the Congo. An army mostly made up of Tutsis, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), took over Rwanda as the military arm of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with support from the Ugandan regime. The interhamwe quickly reorganized and began to launch raids from the camps (in the Congo) into Rwandan territory. In 1996, the RPF attacked and destroyed the camps in the Congo, in turn killing tens of thousands, with estimates as high as 200,000, Hutu civilians. During the 10-month war that followed, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and other countries contributed to the fall of Mobutu’s dictatorship in the Congo and helped bring Laurent Kabila to power.

Laurent Kabila’s regime

Kabila, having been installed by a coalition of neighboring states, lacked a strong domestic constituency and was dependent on his foreign backers – especially Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola. All three countries had helped install Kabila in order to try to stop raids on their countries from Congolese soil: Rwanda from the interhamwe, Uganda from an insurgent group called the Allied Defence Forces (ADF), and Angola from UNITA . Combined with the absence of moves towards democratization, Kabila’s reliance on external backers in military and security matters failed to win him a domestic constituency in his early months in power. The presence of Rwandans and Ugandans in key positions of power was an additional cause of resentment. When Rwanda was accused of crimes against humanity for its role in the 1996-7 war, Kabila refused to allow a UN investigation . This cost Kabila international as well as domestic support.

According to Kevin C. Dunn, Kabila attempted to distance himself from his former backers in 1998 when he replaced key Tutsi ministers with candidates from Katanga, but “Rwanda and Uganda soon proved that they were not going to sit idly by while the man they helped elevate to power slowly shut them out.”

To Nzongola-Ntalaja, however, the Rwandans and Ugandans did not invade in response to Kabila’s moves to marginalize them. Instead, they were taking advantage of Kabila’s failure to win a domestic constituency, his incompetence at managing the problems of the country, and his inability to hold together a governing coalition. Kabila was trying to consolidate his hold on power by eliminating his rivals, and in doing so he was contributing to the disintegration of the Congolese state.

The War Begins

Both Dunn and Nzongola-Ntalaja agree that the war was an invasion rather than a civil war. Rwanda and Uganda had some early successes, seizing key cities in the east and also struck deeper, capturing the Inga Dam hydroelectric complex supplying Kinshasa and Kinshasa’s airport. But whatever Kabila’s abuses in power, the external invasion was seen as such and caused many to rally to the regime. The rebel groups assembled and supported by Uganda and Rwanda (including the Raccemblement congolais pour la democratie or RCD, which later split, and the Movement de Liberation du Congo) were seen as fronts for invading and occupying powers. They were also internally divided: clients of Rwanda, Congolese Tutsis, clients of Uganda, former Mobutuists, left-wing intellectuals, and opportunists, all contributed to a mix unlikely to be sympathetic to the Congolese people, according to Nzongola-Ntalaja.

Kabila responded by organizing ‘people’s self-defence groups’ who attacked the invaders, as well as Congolese Tutsi. Observers heard echoes of the Rwandan genocide in Kabila’s anti-Tutsi rhetoric, but, as authors in Clark’s book note, the invaders committed terrible atrocities themselves, not least of which was cutting off water and electricity to Kinshasa. More popular militias arose to fight the invaders as well, notably the Mai-Mai, founded in 1993 and destined to become a major political force by the time of the second war.

In the end, Kabila’s regime was saved neither by popular revulsion at the invasion nor by the self-defence groups. Instead, it was the intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe on Kabila’s behalf that stopped the Ugandan and Rwandan invasion from succeeding. Angola’s troops took control of the Inga dam site from the invaders. Commandos from Zimbabwe retook the Kinshasa airport. Once Angola and Zimbabwe had intervened, the military situation became a stalemate. Unable to win decisively on the battlefield, the parties began a peace process when they signed the Lusaka Accords in 1999.

Partition and Plunder

Nzongola-Ntalaja argues that the Lusaka accords were flawed from the beginning. First, because the accords did not acknowledge that the war was an external aggression, it treated all parties equally – Rwanda and Uganda , international aggressors who began the war, and Zimbabwe and Angola who intervened afterwards at the request of the regime and within an international legal framework. Second, until late 2003, the United Nations mission in the Congo did not have Chapter VII powers of peace enforcement and lacked the authority to disarm combatants.

The Lusaka accords marked a turning point in that the major fighting between combatants ended. But that did not mean the suffering of the Congolese was over. Instead, apart from fighting between Hema and Lendu ethnic groups in Ituri (which persists to this day), the war simply became a war against civilians. The country was under a de facto partition, with Zimbabwe and Angola controlling key regions in the west and Uganda and Rwanda controlling the east. What followed was a regime of pillage and plunder as these different occupiers joined Congolese warlords and transnational corporations and networks in looting the country while repressing the population. The largest share of the deaths occurred in the east, in areas controlled by Rwanda and Uganda.

Rwanda benefited from the looting in various ways, as Nzongola-Ntalaja reports: “The Rwandans are said to have awarded mining concessions for rare metals such as nobium and tantalum in the occupied territory to foreign firms… Rwanda is also the main benficiary of …exploitation of columbium-tantalite (or coltan), for which the city of Bukavu serves as the major trading centre.” (pg. 237). Uganda, too, has looted, as John F. Clark reports in his book: “In 1997, for instance, gold and gold compounds were Uganda’s second largest source of export earnings, after coffee, amounting to some US $81 million, or 12 percent of all export revenues. This is remarkable since Uganda produces extremely little gold domestically… Ugandan trucks loaded with such products as soap, metal roof sheeting, plastic goods, and canned foods now ply the roads to Congo bearing the fruits of Ugandan light industry to be traded for local goods.”

But it was not only Rwanda and Uganda who looted, although their looting was on a much larger and more destructive scale than Angola and Zimbabwe, who intervened to stop them. Dunn reports that Angola’s occupation of the Inga Dam and surrounding regions “has helped the country’s crippled economy and given them de facto control over the Congo river basin.” In another chapter, Koyame and Clark discuss the economic impacts of the war on its various participants. Citing a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report, they describe the formation of a joint Angolan-Congolese oil company. Zimbabwe’s intervention has seen its “army and some government officials… involved… in a number of illicit contracts and joint ventures (that) serve primarily to enrich high army officers and members of Mugabe’s government.” They describe specific cases: “Gecamines, the Congolese mining giant, gave ‘bonuses’ directly to individual Zimbabwean soldiers… But a far more notorious story is that of COSLEG, a joint company formed by a Congolese state import-export firm (COMIEX) and OSLEG, a Zimbabwean company owned by several businessmen, a former defense minister official, and a Zimbabwean Defence Forces (ZDF) lieutenant general… Another deal, in which the Zimbabwean mining company KMC Group was to be given a cobalt and copper concession, was awaiting the signature of President Laurent Kabila at the time of his assassination in January 2001.”

Meanwhile, the public health system, the economy, and the food system were collapsing. It is this collapse, rather than direct violence, that killed most of the some 3 million who died in the war. There was also massive displacement. The humanitarian situation is still severe.

For all their looting, the countries that occupied the Congo discovered that the economic and political costs of war and occupation were high. Angola, having successfully dealt with its insurgency, sought to withdraw. Zimbabwe “entered the worst crisis of its independent history in 1999… GDP… flat in 1999, shrank by 6.0 percent in 2000… The government budget deficit escalated dramatically… to -22.7% (of GDP) in 2000… the Zimbabwe dollar plummeted from a value of US$1 = Z$12.11 in 1997 to a rate of US$1 = Z$55 in June 2001… The government’s internal debt also escalated nearly out of control beginning in 2000.” Rwanda’s RPF, whose initial claim to intervention in 1996/7 was to protect Congolese Tutsi as well as prevent interhamwe raids into Rwanda, found that the invasion in 1998 had generated so much ill-will towards both the RPF and the Congolese Tutsi that they were endangered anew . Uganda’s regime faced questions about why it was intervening abroad when it was unable to deal with its own domestic insurgency . All countries saw not only spiraling military costs — from which only arms merchants profited – but also the corruption of their military structures and the erosion of their military resources, to say nothing of their international standing. These factors led to a renewed seriousness in peace talks and desires to withdraw by the occupying countries. Indeed, Laurent Kabila’s insistence on a military solution, which his Angolan backers in particular did not want, may have led them to acquiesce in his assassination and replacement by his son Joseph Kabila in 2001 .

The reign of Joseph Kabila and the current peace process

Nzongola-Ntalaja said Joseph Kabila’s presidency is, for the most part, “difficult to assess, because he hasn’t been governing. The country was split between warlords. He rules in Kinshasa.” The thing to watch, for him, is the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and the current government of National Union. If that government can create a national army that can establish control of the territory and hold genuine elections, the Congolese nightmare could come to a close. The timeline is short. The unity government was established in June 2003 and it has 2 years to pass these tests. The success of the South-Africa brokered peace process has been surprising to Nzongola-Ntalaja: “No one expected them to get this far, but the international community has made it clear that they want the Congolese to stick to the schedule. Some of these people have committed heinous crimes, but I hope they succeed,” he said, referring to the parties to the peace agreement that has ended the worst part of the war. The peace agreement is a power-sharing formula, in which Joseph Kabila retains the presidency while four vice-presidents, three of whom belong to different warring factions with the fourth from the unarmed opposition, work under him. A provisional parliament of national unity has 500 members and 120 senators, with seats allocated in the same way as the vice-presidencies.

The presence in the provisional government of the very forces responsible for the looting and genocidal violence in the Congo raises questions about the possibilities of going forward. Nzongola-Ntalaja agrees: “This is a situation that is not unique to the Congo. It is similar in other conflicts, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia. Do you bring these criminals into power, or do you go after them? If you want to go after them, do you have the means?”

“In Sierra Leone, the British sent 1000 crack troops to stop the RUF. But in Liberia, the problem is still there. The Congo is too big. No one has the means or the will to disarm these militias, arrest all the criminals and bring them to justice. So we are stuck working with them. Amnesty is not the best solution, but sometimes it is inescapable.”

In the peace as well as the war, the double standards of the ‘international community’ are on flagrant display. Atrocious as they were, neither Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq nor the Afghanistan’s Taliban amassed death counts as high as those who are part of the Congo’s provisional government today. Amnesty for Saddam or the Taliban is unthinkable for the very US elites and opinion-makers who would shrug their shoulders at the power-sharing arrangement in the Congo as the best thing possible under the circumstances. And yet it will not be surprising if some day the slaughter in the Congo is used as a rhetorical device to prove the necessity of bombing some other beleaguered people, as the slaughter in Rwanda was so used at the very same moment that the people of the Congo were being killed while also being ignored, neglected, and stolen from. The situation is unlikely to change until people – people outside looting corporations, opportunistic state functionaries and complicit media — come to know and care about Africa. Nzongola-Ntalaja’s book, and Clark’s, can help in this capacity.

Justin Podur maintains ZNet’s Africa Watch

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.