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Congo for the Congolese

Kudra Maliro/AFP/Getty Images
A United Nations vehicle burned out in fighting near Beni, eastern Congo, on May 5, 2015

“Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.”

—President Trump addressing African leaders during the UN General Assembly, September 2017

Ahead of his first state visit to Africa in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should rethink Washington’s longstanding support for some of Africa’s more tyrannical regimes, particularly those of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, whose security forces continue to prey on their vast, mineral-rich neighbor Congo. 

Beneath Congo’s soil lies an estimated (at 2011 prices) $24 trillion in natural resources, including rich supplies of oil, gold, diamonds, the coltan used in computer chips, the cobalt and nickel used in jet engines and car batteries, the copper for bathroom pipes, the uranium for bombs and power plants, the iron for nearly everything. This wealth is the source of untold suffering. Today, more Congolese are displaced from their homes than Iraqis, Yemenis, or Rohingyas. Yet their miseries are all but invisible, in part because the identities and aims of Congo’s myriad combatants are mystified by layers of rumor and misinformation, which serve the interests of those profiting from the mayhem.

Some of Congo’s worst violence has occurred in Beni, an oil- and gold-rich territory in eastern Congo that has long served as a smuggling hub for natural resources into Uganda and Rwanda, and from there, to world markets. Since 2014, nearly a thousand civilians have been murdered in Beni, and hundreds of thousands have fled their farms and villages. Neither the UN’s 20,000-person peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, nor the Congolese army have been able to stem this violence or even adequately explain it.

Like most of eastern Congo, Beni is largely a no-man’s land, ruled by a shifting collection of armed groups, some of which may receive support from the government in Kinshasa, while others enjoy clandestine assistance from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and other sources. Some groups try to defend the local population against attacks by other groups and some harbor larger political goals. Many combatants survive amid the lawlessness by extortion and plunder, and some migrate from one group to another for purposes of espionage, switching loyalties, or for mercenary reasons. This chaotic picture makes it unlikely that anyone, including most of the participants themselves, entirely understands the conflict. 

But pieces of the puzzle sometimes emerge. In circumstances like these, informal sources such as bloggers and independent journalists sometimes provide more plausible insights than official ones, thanks to their ties to local populations, security forces, churches, and political movements in war-torn areas. One such source is Les massacres de Beni (The Massacres of Beni), a self-published monograph by independent Congolese researcher Boniface Musavuli, now living in exile in France.

As Musavuli emphasizes, Congo’s chronic instability has always been rooted in external interference. Created in the ninteenth century by Belgian imperialists, the country was ruled during the cold war by the flamboyant, leopardskin-draped dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who, in exchange for billions of dollars in CIA cash, kept the nation’s riches under Western control. After the Berlin Wall fell, the US, alarmed by Mobutu’s warming relations with Sudan’s Islamist leadership, backed an invasion by the armies of Uganda and Rwanda that toppled Mobutu and occupied over 1,000 square miles of eastern Congo, which they proceeded to plunder for its natural resources. Most of the dirty work was done by Congolese proxy forces armed, trained, and supported by Uganda and Rwanda.

The Ugandan and Rwandan armies officially pulled out of Congo in 2003, and their proxy forces were nominally integrated into Congo’s national army. However, some of these ex-rebels continued to torment local Congolese, especially around the smuggling routes bordering Uganda and Rwanda. In 2012, a damning UN report exposed Rwanda’s and Uganda’s links to a particularly brutal rebel group known as the M23, and Western donor nations briefly imposed sanctions on Rwanda (though not on Uganda, for reasons unknown).

Musavuli maintains that since the sanctions, Rwanda-loyalists inside the Congolese army, still intent on controlling Beni, now disguise their brutal activities by recruiting members of other ragtag armed groups under false pretenses. His book opens with the following scene (my translation):

“We are here to protect you from the rebels,” said the soldiers as they took up positions in the Mbelu and Rwangoma neighborhoods on the outskirts of Beni town. It was Saturday, August 13, 2016, the feast of Saint-Hippolyte, a special day for Christians. The deployment was reassuring at first. A mysterious armed group had been committing brutal attacks around Beni and neighboring Lubero for nearly two years, but the army and UN peacekeepers, despite massive deployment in the area, seldom arrived in time to stop them. Finally, the authorities seemed to be acting in advance. 

But something in the soldiers’ manner raised suspicions. These men were unusually friendly, even drinking traditional beer with the chief, not like the gruff Congolese soldiers they knew. Emissaries were discreetly sent to request the authorities in town to send a patrol, just to make sure the soldiers were who they said they were. Rwangoma is only two kilometres from downtown Beni, but no patrol was sent.

As families headed home from the fields to prepare the evening meal, soldiers positioned all along the paths directed them to places they said were safe. Everyone followed the instructions.

And then the trap closed down on them. Their last images of life on earth would be a horror show of the most brutal cruelty. Crying, begging, howling, bodies hacked with machetes and axes writhing in pools of blood. The killers, who seemed remarkably prepared, began by spraying the young men in the face with a mysterious incapacitating substance. They collapsed stiff, eyes haggard, and were then butchered while the other captives—women, children and the elderly, watched them convulse in the dirt and bleed to death like animals. When the authorities finally arrived the next morning, dozens of bodies were scattered in the streets and around the houses.

Both the MONUSCO peacekeepers and the Congo government initially blamed the Beni massacres, including the one Musavali describes at Rwangoma, on an obscure Ugandan dissident group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). However, as Musavuli points out, the ADF has been encamped around Beni for more than twenty years, and never committed such brutal and gratuitous attrocities before. The ADF also comprises devout Muslims, who don’t drink beer, as the Rwangoma killers did; nor would they be likely to wear Congolese army uniforms.

A team of UN researchers, officially known as the Experts, along with New York University’s respected Congo Research Group (CRG), is also skeptical of official accounts. They say that while ADF fighters may have participated in some of the massacres, there’s no evidence that the ADF organized them. Like Musavuli, they’ve documented the involvement of several Congolese army officers in the violence. The Congolese army’s former commander of local operations, General Muhindo Akili Mundos, is named by both research groups as having organized at least some of the massacres by arming members of the ADF and other local groups. He is alleged to have told the recruits they’d be assisting an insurrection aimed at deposing Congo’s deeply unpopular president, Joseph Kabila, who is widely seen by Congolese citizens as a puppet controlled by Uganda and Rwanda. Musavuli says that General Mundos misled the fighters into participating in attacks that were designed not to fight Kabila, but to terrorize local people, particularly members of the Nande ethnic group that makes up much of Beni’s elite class of traders, professionals, and prosperous farmers. The aim, according to Musavuli, himself a Nande, is to clear the area for more compliant ethnic groups, including settlers from Rwanda.

James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images
The aftermath of a mass killing in Mapiki village, near Beni, on December 2, 2014

The Experts and the Congo Research Group note that numerous militants whose native language is Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda, participated in some of the massacres. In 2015, UN peacekeepers, alerted that a massacre was imminent in a town in Beni named Mavivi, staged an ambush and killed about twenty attackers. According to reports, two Kinyarwanda-speaking army officers were among the dead: Richard Mungura was a former member of the RCD-Goma, a rebel group backed by Rwanda, while Innocent Binombe had once been an officer in Rwanda’s army. In Musavuli’s words, the Rwanda-loyalists in the Congolese army infiltrated the ADF and other groups the way a parasite “penetrates the body of an animal, devours it from the inside, and transforms it into a zombie so as to control its behavior… effecting a metamorphosis into something it never was before.” 

On December 7, a group of heavily-armed militants attacked a UN encampment in Beni, killing at least fourteen peacekeepers and wounding more than fifty others. It was the most deadly attack on UN forces in nearly twenty-five years. As usual, the UN and the Congolese government at first pointed to the ADF, but the Congo Research Group and others note that the ADF, which comprises, at most, a few hundred ragtag fighters, probably could not have executed the well-planned attack without help.

Kabila’s government has silenced all discussion of the massacres that deviates from its ADF narrative. Several radio stations were shut down when local personalities began speculating on air that the ADF might not have been the main perpetrator; Father Vincent Machozi, a prominent Beni priest, a chief, and other local dignitaries were killed after speaking out about the possible involvement of Congolese army officers loyal to Rwanda. Two senior Congolese army commanders, Major General Jean-Lucien Bahuma and Colonel Mamadou Ndala, also died under suspicious or disputed circumstances. Both had distinguished themselves in battles against the Rwanda-backed rebels, and were beloved by local Congolese.

Just before Christmas, Uganda sent bomber aircraft over the Congo border into the Beni region, supposedly to hunt down the ADF in retaliation for the attack on the UN peacekeepers and for a spate of mysterious killings inside Uganda that, despite a lack of evidence, have also been attributed to the ADF. But the real motive for Uganda’s show of force can more likely be traced to rising tensions with its erstwhile ally Rwanda. Scores of alleged Rwandan spies have been arrested in Uganda, and some claim to have been tortured. Meanwhile, Rwanda has accused Uganda of supporting Rwandan dissidents bent on toppling President Kagame. 

Uganda’s leader Museveni is known to have designs on the vast oil deposits beneath Beni—the very territory that, according to Musavuli, Kagame’s forces have been attempting to control for years. Museveni is desperate to begin pumping the estimated 6.5 billion barrels of crude oil on Uganda’s side of the Congo border, in order to free himself from reliance on Western donors. But Uganda’s oil is thick and waxy: getting it to the Indian Ocean for onward shipment to world markets will require running it through the world’s longest heated pipeline, which quadruples the cost of transport relative to that for ordinary crude oil. The French petroleum giant Total has agreed to build the pipeline, but experts say the scheme won’t be cost-effective unless the oil on the Congo side, which happens to be underneath Beni, flows through it, too. 

Accessing Beni’s oil won’t be easy, because Uganda and Rwanda have spent the last twenty-two years rendering the region ungovernable. Most of eastern Congo’s roughly seventy armed groups are hostile either to Kabila, Museveni, Kagame, or some combination thereof. The UN post in Beni that was attacked in December stood guard over an important trade-and-smuggling route into Uganda; which group was really behind the attack, and who their backers might be, are as yet undetermined, but the strategic importance of their target is obvious.

Congo Research Group, Center on International Cooperation/Mapgrafix

The Congo Research Group has produced a useful map of all the attacks that occurred in Beni between 2013 and 2016; Human Right Watch’s Kivu Security Tracker has more up-to-date information. Most of the killings have taken place within an area of Beni where Total has been conducting seismic testing in preparation for oil drilling. Not far away, the French army has been training Uganda’s army in mountainous terrain along the Uganda-Congo border.

The only way out of this mess is to deliver Congo back to the Congolese. A century and a half of malign interference—first imperialist plunder, then CIA puppet dictatorship, and now Western-backed regional power-play—is enough. Contrary to common assumptions, democracy actually works in Africa. While not without problems, those countries that have undergone relatively free and fair elections—Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, for example—have good trading relations with the West and have avoided the horrific bloodshed that has beset African dictatorships like those of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

Today, young people across Congo, as well as clergy and civil society leaders, are united in their desire for President Kabila, who has postponed scheduled elections twice, to step down. The psyops-inspired mayhem of Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed proxy forces has clouded the conflict in eastern Congo, making it easy for casual observers to throw up their hands and blame the Congolese for their own misfortunes. The greatest danger now is that Kabila will be replaced by yet another Western prop in the interests of “stability.” Let’s hope that is not part of Secretary Tillerson’s agenda.