Congo At War: A Briefing of the Internal and External Players in the Central African Conflict
On 2 August 1998, barely 14 months after the end of the war initiated by the anti-Mobutu coalition, the emergence of a new armed movement announced the beginning of a further "war of liberation" in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this time against the regime of Laurent Désiré Kabila. The conflict arose out of differences between the founder members of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo - ADFL), the coalition that installed Laurent Kabila at the head of the Congo in May 1997. There was dissension within the ADFL from the start of the movement as evidenced by various armed confrontations between the Rwandan-Ugandan grouping and the opposing Congolese-Angolan party.
The ADFL’s 1997 victory only succeeded in quelling the movement's internal conflicts for a short time. In July 1998 the dismissal of the Rwandan contingent of the Forces Armées Congolaises (FAC – Congolese Armed Forces) served to accelerate an armed rebellion. Kabila's efforts since 1997 to free himself of his dependence on his former Ugandan and Rwandan sponsors threatened the security and economic interests of these two countries. In this context of reciprocal defiance, each camp sought to organise a new coalition by resorting to the formula that had already proved successful during the 1996-97 "war of liberation": calls for help from foreign troops.
The result was a series of heterogeneous alliances between different actors on the Congolese scene. Kabila's side intensified contacts that had already been initiated before the beginning of the rebellion with various armed groups in the east of Congo. This indicates that Kabila had early perceived the threat he might face and was seeking to adjust the military balance. Meetings were held mainly with the Mai-Mai, a cross-ethnic group that accordingly had formerly fought on Kabila's side against the refugees and the local population. However, Kabila probably also met with guerrillas from Rwanda (former FAR soldiers – Rwandan Armed Forces), Uganda (Allied Democratic Forces) and Burundi (FDD – Forces pour la Défense et de la Démocratie). In addition, he called for outside support, first of all from fellow-members of the SADC (South African Development Community). Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola responded to his appeal by sending troops. Other African countries later followed suit: Libya, Chad and Sudan either sent troops or made financial contributions to the war effort.
Laurent Kabila has the support of civilians as well as soldiers. His popularity has increased considerably among the civilian population, which played an important role during the fighting in Kinshasa. Kabila and his colleagues have tapped on sensitive ethnic reflexes to win them over, even calling for the lynching of the "Tutsi invaders".
The unarmed opposition to Kabila, mainly Etienne Tshisekedi's Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS – Union for Democracy and Social Progress) stands between the two camps and is offering to act as a mediator.
On the rebel side, contacts continue between Kabila's Congolese opponents, who include Arthur Zaidi Ngoma, the person first nominated to lead the rebellion and based in Goma. FAC officers, a faction of the Banyamulenge leaders, and former Mobutists who were not "redeemed" under Kabila have formed a new political-military movement with the stated objective of establishing a new government in Kinshasa.
The rebellion in Congo: another war of liberation underway or a country becoming locked in endemic violence?
This recurrent war, launched from Kivu as was the case in 1996, differs from the preceding war in three essential respects: there are a large number of groups involved within the various anti-Kabila forces and they have simultaneously competing agendas; both these forces and their external allies have limited logistical capacities; the many guerrilla groups in the east of Congo are being reinforced and form shifting alliances with one or other of the forces present. This combination of factors, added to the fact that the country is now experiencing a second successive war within two years and a systematic recourse to armed force, serves to increase the risk of Congo fragmenting and makes probable the scenario of a country locked into endemic violence.
The wars follow on the seven years of organised chaos instigated by Mobutu to avoid holding elections called for by internal public opinion and the international community. These years proved highly destructive and brought Congo - potentially an economic giant - to its knees. However, its potential for great wealth remains and its resources are coveted not only by Europe and America, but also by other African countries, whether or not they are immediate neighbours. Different countries use different methods to exert their influence and grab their share of the booty, methods that vary from force to normal trade relations, and also include corrupting the country's leaders and manipulating ethnic groups. Neighbouring countries that have taken advantage of the disorder in Congo in order to get at the country's resources, are now finding that the disorder threatens to spread across their own borders.
The rebels forecast of a blitzkrieg has already been dismissed. If observers now incline towards the increasing probability of an extended war, this will very certainly prove disastrous for Congo and for the stability of the region in general. In addition, alliances are constantly evolving. It is doubtful whether the Angolans, presently Kabila's allies, will remain so for very long, or whether Namibia, Zimbabwe and Uganda will be able to remain in Congo while their internal public opinion is hostile to that involvement. The United States' recent declaration of support for Kabila could also change the balance of force.
The war is becoming increasingly complicated. It already involves a large number of African countries, both at government level and in relation to the rebel groups, and is now in the process of developing into the first pan-african war.
The objective of this report is to look at the different players in this situation and try to understand why they became involved, whether or not they have the means to remain involved and what they hope to get out of their involvement.