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Kagame’s Hidden War in the Congo

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Government troops sheltering from the rain after a night of battles against rebel forces led by the warlord Laurent Nkunda, near Goma, eastern Congo, November 12, 2008; photograph by Marcus Bleasdale from The Rape of a Nation, a collection of his i

Although it has been strangely ignored in the Western press, one of the most destructive wars in modern history has been going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s third-largest country. During the past eleven years millions of people have died, while armies from as many as nine different African countries fought with Congolese government forces and various rebel groups for control of land and natural resources. Much of the fighting has taken place in regions of northeastern and eastern Congo that are rich in minerals such as gold, diamonds, tin, and coltan, which is used in manufacturing electronics.

Few realize that a main force driving this conflict has been the largely Tutsi army of neighboring Rwanda, along with several Congolese groups supported by Rwanda. The reason for this involvement, according to Rwandan president Paul Kagame, is the continued threat to Rwanda posed by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia that includes remnants of the army that carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Until now, the US and other Western powers have generally supported Kagame diplomatically. And in January, Congo president Joseph Kabila, whose weak government has long had limited influence in the eastern part of the country, entered a surprise agreement with Kagame to allow Rwandan forces back into eastern Congo to fight the FDLR. But the extent of the Hutu threat to Rwanda is much debated, and observers note that Rwandan-backed forces have themselves been responsible for much of the violence in eastern Congo over the years.

Rwanda’s intervention in Congo began in 1996. Two years earlier, Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, defeating the government in Kigali and ending the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. As Kagame installed a minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, some two million Hutu refugees fled to UN-run camps, mostly in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. These provinces, which occupy an area of about 48,000 square miles—slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania—are situated along Congo’s eastern border with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi and together have a population of more than five million people. In addition to containing rich deposits of minerals, North and South Kivu have, since the precolonial era, been subject to large waves of migration by people from Rwanda, including both Hutus and Tutsis. In recent decades these Rwandans have competed with more established residents for control of land.

Following Kagame’s consolidation of power in Rwanda, a large invasion force of Rwandan Tutsis arrived in North and South Kivu to pursue Hutu militants and to launch a war against the three-decade-long dictatorship of Congo (then known as Zaire) by Mobutu Sese Seko, whom they claimed was giving refuge to the leaders of the genocide. With Rwandan and Ugandan support, a new regime led by Laurent Kabila was installed in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. But after Kabila ordered the Rwandan troops to leave in 1998, Kagame responded with a new and even larger invasion of the country.

Kabila’s hold on power was saved at this point by Angola and Zimbabwe, which rushed troops into Congo to repel the Rwandan invaders. Angola was motivated by fears that Congolese territory would be used as a rear base by the longtime Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, following the renewed outbreak of that country’s civil war. Zimbabwe appears to have been drawn by promises of access to Congolese minerals. The protracted and inconclusive conflict that followed has become what Gérard Prunier, in the title of his sprawling book, calls “Africa’s World War,” a catastrophic decade of violence that has led to a staggering 5.4 million deaths, far more than any war anywhere since World War II.1 It also has resulted in one of the largest—and least followed—UN interventions in the world, involving nearly 20,000 UN soldiers from over forty countries.

Throughout this conflict, Rwanda—a small, densely populated country with few natural resources of its own—has pursued Congo’s enormous mineral wealth. Initially, the Rwandan Patriotic Front was directly operating mining businesses in Congo, according to UN investigators; more recently, Rwanda has attempted to maintain control of regions of eastern Congo through various proxy armies. Among these, none has been more lethal than the militia led by Laurent Nkunda, Congo’s most notorious warlord, whose record of violence in eastern Congo includes destroying entire villages, committing mass rapes, and causing hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes.

Nkunda is a Congolese Tutsi who is believed to have fought in both the Rwandan civil war and the subsequent war against Mobutu. In 2002, he was dispatched by the Rwandan government to Kisangani—an inland city in eastern Congo whose nearby gold mines have been fought over by Ugandan and Rwandan-backed forces. Nkunda committed numerous atrocities there, including the massacre of some 160 people, according to Human Rights Watch. In 2004, Nkunda declined a military appointment by Congo’s transitional government, choosing instead to back a Tutsi insurgency in North Kivu near the Rwandan border. He claimed that his actions were aimed at preventing an impending genocide of Tutsis in Congo. Most observers say that these claims were groundless.

Nkunda’s insurgency was put down, but clashes between his rebels, government forces, and other groups continued to foster ethnic tensions in eastern Congo, including widespread sexual violence against women; in 2005, the UN estimated that some 45,000 women were raped in South Kivu alone.2 And in the fall of 2008, Nkunda—apparently with Kagame’s encouragement—led a new offensive of Tutsi rebels in North Kivu that uprooted about 200,000 civilians and threatened to capture the city of Goma, near the Rwandan border.

In January 2009, however, the Rwandan government made a surprise decision to arrest Nkunda. Kagame’s willingness to move against Nkunda appears to stem, in part, from increasing international scrutiny of Rwanda’s meddling in eastern Congo. The arrest took place just after the release of a UN report documenting Rwanda’s close ties to the warlord, and concluding that he was being used to advance Rwanda’s economic interests in Congo’s eastern hinterlands. The report stated that Rwandan authorities had “been complicit in the recruitment of soldiers, including children, have facilitated the supply of military equipment, and have sent officers and units from the Rwandan Defense Forces,” while giving Nkunda access to Rwandan bank accounts and allowing him to launch attacks on the Congolese army from Rwandan soil.

Following Nkunda’s arrest, Congo president Joseph Kabila agreed to allow Rwandan forces to conduct a five-week joint military operation in eastern Congo against Hutu rebels.3 But attacks against civilians have increased precipitously since the joint operation, and with Hutu and Tutsi militias still active it remains unclear whether there will be a lasting peace between Rwanda and Congo.

Africa’s World War is the most ambitious of several remarkable new books that reexamine the extraordinary tragedy of Congo and Central Africa since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Along with René Lemarchand’s The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa and Thomas Turner’s The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality, Prunier’s Africa’s World War explores arguments that have circulated among scholars of sub-Saharan Africa for years. Prunier himself, who is an East Africa specialist at the University of Paris, has previously written a highly regarded account of the genocide. But these books will surprise many whose knowledge of the region is based on popular accounts of the genocide and its aftermath. In all three, the Kagame regime, and its allies in Central Africa, are portrayed not as heroes but rather as opportunists who use moral arguments to advance economic interests. And their supporters in the United States and Western Europe emerge as alternately complicit, gullible, or simply confused. For their part in bringing intractable conflict to a region that had known very little armed violence for nearly thirty years, all the parties—so these books argue—deserve blame, including the United States.

The concentrated evil of the methodical Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in 1994 is widely known. For many it has long been understood as a grim, if fairly simple, morality play: the Hutus were extremist killers, while the Tutsis of the RPF are portrayed as avenging angels, who swooped in from their bases in Uganda to stop the genocide. But Lemarchand and Prunier show that the story was far more complicated. They both depict the forces of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front as steely, power-driven killers themselves.

When the genocide did start, saving Tutsi civilians was not a priority,” Prunier writes. “Worse, one of the most questionable of the RPF ideologues coolly declared in September 1994 that the ‘interior’ Tutsi”—those who had remained in Rwanda and not gone into exile in Uganda years earlier—“deserved what happened to them ‘because they did not want to flee as they were getting rich doing business’” with the former Hutu regime. He also notes that the RPF “unambiguously opposed” all talk of a foreign intervention, however unlikely, to stop the genocide, apparently because such intervention could have prevented Kagame from taking full power.

Moreover, slaughter during the one hundred days of genocide was not the monopoly of the Hutus, as is widely believed. Both Lemarchand and Prunier recount the work of RPF teams that roamed the countryside methodically exterminating ordinary, unarmed Hutu villagers.4 This sort of killing, rarely mentioned in press accounts of the genocide, continued well after the war was over. For example, on April 22, 1995, units of the new national army surrounded the Kibeho refugee camp in south Rwanda, where about 150,000 Hutu refugees stood huddled shoulder to shoulder, and opened fire on the crowd with rifles and with 60mm mortars.5 According to Prunier, a thirty- two-member team of the Australian Medical Corps had counted 4,200 corpses at the camp before being stopped by the Rwandan army. Prunier calls the Kagame regime’s use of violence in that period “something that resembles neither the genocide nor uncontrolled revenge killings, but rather a policy of political control through terror.”

Some commentators in the United States have viewed Kagame as a sort of African Konrad Adenauer, crediting him with bringing stability and rapid economic growth to war-torn Rwanda, while running an administration considered to be one of the more efficient in Africa. In the nine years he has led the country (after serving as interim president, he won an election to a seven-year term in 2003), he has also gotten attention for the reconciliation process he has imposed on villages throughout Rwanda.

Firmly opposed to such views, the three authors reviewed here characterize Kagame’s regime as more closely resembling a minority ethnic autocracy. In a recent interview, Prunier dismissed the recently much-touted reconciliation efforts, calling post-genocide Rwanda “a very well-managed ethnic, social, and economic dictatorship.” True reconciliation, he said, “hinges on cash, social benefits, jobs, property rights, equality in front of the courts, and educational opportunities,” all of which are heavily stacked against the roughly 85 percent of the population that is Hutu, a problem that in Prunier’s view presages more conflict in the future. In his book, Lemarchand, an emeritus professor at the University of Florida who has done decades of fieldwork in the region, observes that Hutus have been largely excluded from important positions of power in Kagame’s Rwanda, and that the state’s military and security forces are pervasive. “The political decisions with the gravest consequences for the nation…are undertaken by the RPF’s Tutsi leadership, not by the political establishment,” he writes.

  1. 1

    According to the International Rescue Committee, whose epidemiological studies in Congo use methodology similar to that of studies it has carried out in Iraq and elsewhere.

  2. 2

    See Adam Hochschild’s account in these pages, “Rape of the Congo,” August 13, 2009.

  3. 3

    Nearly simultaneous permission was granted to Uganda and South Sudan to send their forces into Congolese territory to pursue factions of the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of Africa’s most vicious rebel groups.

  4. 4

    Reports of RPF killings first surfaced, briefly, in a 1994 report by a UN investigator, Robert Gersony, who concluded that RPF insurgents had murdered between 25,000 and 45,000 people. Under pressure from the United States, the Gersony report was never released.

  5. 5

    In his recent book, Journey into Darkness: Genocide in Rwanda, Thomas Odom, a former US military attaché to Kigali, writes that the Kibeho massacre did not undermine US support for the Rwandan government. “The bottom line was a difficult operation had gone bad, and people had died. I put the casualties at around two thousand,” he wrote. “Yet the United States did not suspend foreign assistance—just barely restarted—as did the Belgians, the Dutch, and the European Union. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vince Kern passed word to me that our report had saved the day.” See Journey into Darkness (Texas A&M University Press, 2005), pp. 229–230.

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