North Kivu: Into the Quagmire? An Overview of the Current Crisis in North Kivu
On 2 August 1998, barely 14 months after the fall of the late Zairian President Mobutu, a new armed movement in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo announced the beginning of another “war of liberation”, this time against the regime of Laurent Désiré Kabila. The past few weeks have seen the situation slide quickly into violence. Today, liberation looks increasingly unlikely and fears are growing that the crisis will pull the rest of the country and indeed the region into a complex and long-term conflagration at enormous cost in terms of both human lives and long-term social and economic development.
Launched from the eastern province of Kivu, this war differs from the preceding one in three essential respects. First, the various forces that make up the anti-Kinshasa camp share no common agenda, indeed their objectives are often competing. Secondly, the logistical capacities of these forces and their external allies are more limited than was the case in 1996 when Kabila made his push for power. Thirdly, the many guerrilla groups in the east of Congo have been considerably strengthened since 1996 and there is a high level of uncertainty as to whether or not they will support the rebellion or fight to resist it.
Pushed into the forefront, the Banyamulenge, (Congolese Tutsi), are more an instrument of this revolt than initiators. Their participation in the ADFL war has not significantly improved their standing within Congo for several reasons. Their disputed nationality and strained relations with other ethnic groups has contributed to a deep feeling of insecurity. The political ambitions of their leaders remain far from satisfied, while relations with their former Rwandan allies have deteriorated significantly.
Faced with a sense of disappointment and isolation, the Banyamulenge have tried to form contacts with neighbouring ethnic communities. Distrust and mutual fear led to a rapprochement with the government of Burundi and the creation of a Banyamulenge political movement – the Federalist Republican Forces – directed against Kabila. For the Burundians the new relationship with the Banyamulenge has a double advantage: it strengthens the security of the main route, which passes through South Kivu, for circumventing the embargo on Burundi, and helps to contain what they see as the ambitions of Rwanda and Uganda to dominate the region.
Kabila’s decision last week that Rwandan soldiers serving with the Congolese army should return home has effectively accelerated the activation of the armed movement. Since the end of 1997, Kabila’s desire to shrug off his former Ugandan and Rwandan sponsors has been received in Kigali and Kampala as a threat to the security and economic interests of those two countries. In this context of reciprocal distrust, each camp has sought to organise a new coalition for itself. These attempts have led to an assortment of alliances between various actors on the Congolese political scene.
On Kabila’s side, the intensification of contacts between Kabila’s forces and different armed groups in the east of the DRC is intended to help reset the military balance in Kinshasa’s favour. These contacts have been mainly with the Mai-Mai, formerly supporters of the AFDL, but also with guerrillas from Rwanda (former Rwandan Armed Forces usually referred to as “ex-FAR”), Uganda (Allied Democratic Forces) and Burundi (Forces for the Defence of Democracy). In an effort to gain popular for the government, Kabila has sought to stimulate resentment against the Tutsi.
On the Rwandan-Ugandan side, contacts have been pursued with the Congolese opponents of Kabila, including officers of the Congolese Armed Forces and former Mobutu supporters, with a view to forming a new politico-military movement whose announced objective is to establish a new government in Kinshasa. The hostility of various Congolese players towards Kabila has now been incorporated into the agendas of Kampala and Kigali. For these two governments the destruction of the rear bases of the rebel movement in North Kivu is of prior military and political importance. The multiplication of ADF operations in the south west of Uganda, penetrating as far as the stronghold of President Yoweri Museveni, raises the political stakes for Museveni’s government. Likewise, the deteriorating security situation in Rwanda emphasises the need to cut off a particularly bloody guerrilla movement responsible for the 1994 genocide from its support base in North Kivu. In contrast, in South Kivu the weakened ex-FAR guerrilla movement, dispersed and pushed far back from Rwanda’s borders, does not present a fundamental security risk for the region.
In addition, control over the exploitation of Kivu’s considerable economic potential constitutes a recurrent objective for both Uganda and Rwanda. Since the AFDL war, Kigali and Kampala have seen such control as a means of becoming less dependent on international donors. The mineral resources, mainly gold in North Kivu, could very quickly generate income. And the commercial and cross-border ethnic connections between North Kivu and the west of Uganda give Kampala a natural advantage. However, the deep-rooted decay of Kivu’s economy and infrastructure make realising the province’s potential far more difficult.
Apart from the lack of economic and transport infrastructures, the lack of local political leaders favouring the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and the anti-Tutsi feelings among a large section of the population are also important brakes on the ambitions of Kigali and Kampala. Indeed, increased hostility towards the two governments could favour the development of precisely the sort of armed groups that Kabila has been looking to for support for several months. Rwandan and Ugandan economic influence in Kivu and a durable improvement in the security of both states depends on a solution to these problems.
The increasing number of players and the uneasy co-existence of their competing agendas are the two underlying characteristics that mark the current breakdown. As events unfold, concern grows that two wars in succession within two years and a systematic recourse to armed force could result in the DRC imploding, producing a large-scale human disaster and a zone of major instability in the heart of Africa.