ICG Crisis Brief front page...
  Newsletter of the International Crisis Group Issue 1, May 1997     

by Charles Radcliffe

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Bosnia: peace effort falters
A Statement by the International Crisis Group

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Saving Lives from disaster
an obituary of Nicholas Hinton
by William Shawcross

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Chaos in Central Africa
by David Shearer

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Liberia: railroading peace
by Victor Tanner

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Hope and fear in Sierra Leone
by Charles Radcliffe

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Charles Radcliffe

Production Assistant:
Simon Sheehan

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed in Crisisbrief are the personal opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the International Crisis Group.


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Chaos in Central Africa

By David Shearer in Kinshasa

The rapidly unfolding drama in Zaire has begun to send ripples of unrest throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In the past weeks the seemingly unstoppable advance of Laurent Kabila's ADFL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire) has been widely accepted in the West as a welcome development. Quiet support for Kabila's campaign has become de facto international policy, particularly in the United States. In the confusion that has typified Zairean politics in recent years, the war has been seized as a way out of a policy vacuum.

But the real test will come when the Mobutu regime falls, as it inevitably will. International resolve will be needed to address the long-standing and legitimate grievances of Zaire's population which has suffered for many years at the hands of a corrupt kleptocracy backed by Western governments. Simply hoping that the current rebellion will bring better things is a risky strategy and offers no guarantees of greater stability in the future.

Exactly what the future will be, though, remains uncertain. Kabila may be successful as long as he is moving forward but ruling a country as vast as Zaire with a new army is quite a different matter. Alliances with the largely discredited politicians in Kinshasa may be necessary. Yet the political scene is fractured, divided and treacherous. The most popular opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, treads a thin line between his Mobutu opponents and the need to engender support from Kabila's rebels.

Kabila's shaky coalition

One of the key issues yet to emerge fully is the power relationship between Kabila and his backers and the extent to which he will be able to operate independently in the future. Kabila receives logistical and military support from Rwanda, Uganda and through Burundi, possibly from Angola. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was involved in direct fighting in eastern Zaire late last year. Since then, RPF soldiers have routinely gone into Zaire as part of their operations. Eritrean advisers have also been seen. ADFL military tactics are very similar to those employed by the RPF in their defeat of the ex-FAR in 1994 and are further evidence of close links.

But while Kabila may originally have been something of a puppet for Rwanda and Uganda-he had the advantage of being non-Tutsi, which suited their purposes, and was also a long-standing opponent of Mobutu-it is clear that he now has his own political ambitions which could exceed those of his original backers. As he moves west, he is recruiting additional soldiers from newly-conquered territories. Their numbers will inevitably dilute the influence of the Rwandan-aligned troops and so further weaken Rwandan leverage.

The ready availability of arms throughout the region further strengthens Kabila's hand. Before the October ADFL offensive, arms were being sourced by Hutu refugees in Zaire and neighbouring countries. Since October, however, arms have generally been provided through legitimate governments in the region. Examples include the supply of mortar bombs, light machine guns (AK47s), RPG-7s and Sam7s through Uganda.

Rwandan refugee in Zaire
Tuyizere Matibire, a six-year-old Rwandan refugee in eastern Zaire

The Zairean army

In contrast, Zaire's army is in a state of collapse. With Mobutu's power on the wane and political opposition to the regime divided, the army is one of the few national institutions left. While it has proved to be little competition to the ADFL, it does represent the sole remaining symbol of authority in much of the west of the country. Poor discipline, low morale and the panic created by Kabila's advance, however, have put the army under enormous pressure. The prospect of the Zairean army running amok is a real possibility.

The prospect of a military coup, on the other hand, is remote. Only General Dona Mahele Bokungu, Chief of Staff, would have the popular support to succeed and he has refused to take part in past coups. Moreover, although in theory he controls the entire army, the elite Presidential Guard, which is the only real force left in the country, comes under the charge of General Nzimbi, Mobutu's nephew. A significant proportion of the Guard has been reportedly withdrawn to Equateur, Mobutu's home province.

Mobutu, possibly because he sees Mahele as a threat, has withdrawn the resources Mahele needs to do his job properly. The army, which numbers approximately 50,000 soldiers, is in a poor and deteriorating state, unpaid, corrupt, and badly-equipped and trained. Recent attempts to bolster the army's effectiveness by the addition of three Hind MI-24 gunships and European mercenaries have had little impact. The mercenaries have been small in number and the gunships of limited use in the densely forested areas.


The events of the last six months may have fulfilled Rwanda's objective of removing the destabilising influence of the refugee camps on its border. But whether they have improved Rwanda's overall security remains to be seen. There is a real risk that the sudden influx of Hutu refugees from the camps in Zaire may have imported an ethnically-propelled civil war into Rwanda. Rwanda's army of more than 40,000 is strong and, at this stage, remains disciplined. There are reports, however, of hard-line factions emerging within the army, something which, if true, could presage greater ill-discipline and instability.


For Uganda the events of the past few months have enabled it to secure its western border from the Sudanese-backed rebel forces that have used Zairean territory to destabilise western Uganda. There have been a number of reports, confirmed by French aerial reconnaissance, of Ugandan trucks passing through the border into Zaire moving towards Bunia, towards the ADFL front line. Such reports would tend to corroborate claims of Ugandan support for Kabila.


Eastern Zaire was used as a base for hard-line Hutu groups, in particular the CNDD and FDD, to attack Burundi. Burundi's Tutsi army consolidated its position last November, hitting extremist Hutu elements as it crossed northern Burundi en route to Tanzania. There is a sense in Bujumbura that the army has won the war and can now negotiate from a position of strength. Burundi has also orchestrated shipments of military equipment from Angola.


It is in the Angolan government's interest to support the ADFL advance. The government's opponents, UNITA, have long-relied on Zaire both as a site for its military bases and as a route for the shipment of diamonds (thought to be worth $500 million a year) which finance UNITA's war effort. UNITA troops have recently been lent to Mobutu to fight alongside the Zairian army. The movement of Angolan troops north towards the Zaire border suggests that the Angolan military may be seizing an opportunity to close off a valuable pipeline for UNITA and consolidate its own position in the north of the country.

International intervention

More than 150,000 refugees have been caught up in the crisis between Kabila and the Zairean army. It is a complex situation. In the midst of the refugees are around 10,000 armed members of the former Rwandan army and militias. Their presence complicates the balance of power in the area and has prolonged the refugee crisis by intimidating many refugees into continuing their exodus west.

The reaction from some quarters has been to call for an international military force to protect the refugees and end the fighting. The loudest advocate of this course of action has been France, which has been accused of wanting to intervene to bolster its influence that is collapsing along with the Mobutu regime. The advance of Ugandan- and Rwandan-backed forces, with the tacit approval of the Americans, is perceived by some parts of the French establishment as an advance of Anglophone interests into what has previously been a French zone of influence.

However, introducing a multinational force into a situation where there is no political settlement, agreement or ceasefire is fraught with problems both politically and militarily. A Chapter VII intervention under the UN Charter, (that is, intervention without the consent of the warring parties), is unlikely. The cases where Chapter VII operations have been used on humanitarian grounds-Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda-have not been success stories. The international community shows no stomach for another such messy and risk-fraught operation.

Yet there is no doubt that enormous pressure late last year by some humanitarian agencies, the international media and the French government, pushed a number of countries, including the United States, into fielding the first part of a multinational force under Canada's leadership. But the lack of real will, particularly from the United States and the United Kingdom, was tangible and led to the intervention being terminated almost the moment it began. The subsequent confusion over counting the number of refugees left in Zaire can only be seen for what it was: an excuse to justify cancelling an intervention that very likely would have been a disaster.

Ironically, it may be the lack of any intervention or imposed ceasefire accompanied by protracted negotiations that will permit the current situation to be brought to a close most quickly and at least cost. The Mobutu era will pass away unmourned. The real questions now are what will follow the current period of transition and what support will the West be willing to give to ensure that peace and stability take root.

During the second half of 1997, ICG will be launching a major new three-year project in central Africa. The project will provide policy-makers with an independent source of information, analysis and ideas concerning the continuing crisis. An ICG field team will be stationed in the region and will compile regular reports containing concrete proposals for short and longer-term action.

ex-President Mobuto
Zairean President Mobuto before he fled the country
Since this was written events have moved on, with Mobuto fleeing Zaire before Kabila's advancing troops entered Kinshasa. Kabila's interim government has proclaimed a new Democratic Republic of Congo and announced that elections will wait for up to two years.

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