Congo: a pawn in regional power plays


By Norm Dixon

The fate of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) president Laurent Kabila's government and the oppressed Banyarwanda and Banyamulenge people in eastern Congo now rests in the hands of the DRC's neighbours.

Contrary to the loud claims emanating from Harare, Luanda, Windhoek, Kigali and Kampala justifying intervention in the DRC civil war, each country's economic, political and security interests are at the root of the involvement. The best interests of the DRC and its people come a very distant second.

On August 2, a large part of the DRC army in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu mutinied in reaction to the Kabila regime's late-July purge of Banyarwanda and Banyamulenge (Congolese who speak the Rwandan language, the so-called "Tutsis") from the government and military, and the fanning of anti-Tutsi hatred in Kinshasa.

By mid-August, the insurgents — airlifted to the opposite side of the DRC — had linked up with disgruntled soldiers and were in control of much of the strategic south-west region, threatening the capital, Kinshasa.

The tide quickly turned in Kabila's favour, however, after the August 22 intervention by thousands of troops from Zimbabwe and Angola, and several hundred from Namibia. By August 28, the mutineers had been defeated in the west.

Anti-Kabila insurgents remain in control of the Kivus and have extended their control west as far as Kisangani, Congo's third largest city, and south to Kalemie, on the road to the mineral-rich southern province of Katanga.

On September 7, the mutineers were reported to be on the outskirts of Kindu, south of Kisangani. The seizure of Kindu, the site of a government airfield, would put most rebel-held territory out of reach of Angolan and Zimbabwean jet fighters.

Zimbabwean and Angolan troops have not challenged the rebels in their eastern stronghold. While Kalemie has been bombed, killing scores of civilians, this seems to be more a warning to the mutineers not to advance further into Katanga (an area Angola considers essential for its security) than an attempt to defeat the rebellion.

Despite Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia's claims to be selflessly turning back a Rwandan and Ugandan "invasion", their real goal is to advance each country's economic, political and security interests. Rwanda and Uganda's backing of the mutiny is motivated by genuine security concerns.

On August 18-19, Zimbabwe called a meeting of defence ministers of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) to discuss the Congo crisis. Afterwards, Zimbabwe's defence minister, Moven Mahachi, falsely claimed the meeting had "unanimously" agreed to send troops and arms to help Kabila.

It soon emerged that only nine SADC countries were represented and just four defence ministers — from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique — and the Angolan deputy defence minister were present.

South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Tanzania opposed the commitment of troops. South Africa disputed the right of Zimbabwe to call the meeting.

South Africa, currently SADC chair, said the military intervention could not be under the auspices of the SADC because such a decision required the agreement of all SADC heads of state. South African president Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe clashed heatedly several times over the decision to enter the civil war on Kabila's side.

Zimbabwe and South Africa

The split revealed tensions between South Africa and Zimbabwe. South Africa, Africa's only imperialist power, has an economy three times larger than the rest of the SADC. Since the end of apartheid freed it from international isolation, South African big business — awash with capital — has been expanding rapidly into southern Africa. This has caused resentment in neighbouring countries as local capitalists find themselves squeezed out of business.

South Africa, with large investments in mining in the DRC and close political and economic ties with Uganda and Rwanda, is looking to expand its economic interests in southern, central and east Africa. It is keen that the civil war not escalate into a regional war and split the sub-continent.

Mandela unsuccessfully proposed a cease-fire and negotiations leading to an interim government of national unity that would include the present government and the rebels.

The South African position was strongly backed by Washington, which has encouraged US capital and South African capital to jointly exploit Africa. The US has close political and military relations with Uganda and Rwanda, and has also shifted its support to Angola in its conflict with the UNITA contras. US oil companies have extensive oil interests in Angola.

Zimbabwe has developed strong political, economic and trade ties — said to be worth US$1 billion — with Kinshasa since Kabila came to power, and Mugabe does not want them jeopardised by a change of government.

Zimbabwe also saw the opportunity to use the war to cement a political and economic bloc with Kabila's DRC, Angola and Namibia as a counterweight to the power of South Africa.


Angola's intervention is closely linked with its internal struggle with right-wing UNITA contras. In recent months, UNITA and its megalomaniacal leader, Jonas Savimbi — backed by the apartheid regime and the CIA until the end of the Cold War and the demise of formal apartheid, to destabilise the radical Angolan government — has reneged on a 1994 peace agreement. Hundreds of civilians in northern Angola have been slaughtered by UNITA bandits.

UNITA has tens of thousands of armed fighters operating out of the DRC. Angola feared that the fall of Kabila would create instability which would benefit UNITA's military plans.

Reports that UNITA, and soldiers loyal to former Mobutu generals, had allied to the mutineers reluctantly forced Luanda to side with Kabila. The Angolan government was deeply unhappy at the Kabila government's inability to control UNITA contras operating from its territory.

According rebel commander Jean-Pierre Ondekane, Angola at first "assured us of their neutrality and authorised us to use their airspace for our planes ... During our first flights to Kitona [a DRC base in the south-west] we flew over Angola without any problems."

The Angolan military's invasion of the DRC's Atlantic corridor gives it a free hand to eliminate UNITA's DRC rear bases. It also allows Angola to defend its vital oil interests in Soyo, northern Angola, and the Cabinda enclave, which finance much of Angola's economy.

Rwanda and Uganda

Rwanda and Uganda's backing of the mutiny is motivated by its understandable desire to rid its western borders of terrorist bandit groups that operate from DRC territory.

Rwanda and Uganda had already been growing impatient at the Kabila regime's inability to put a halt to increasingly vicious cross-border attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians in both countries.

When Kabila turned on his Banyarwanda and Banyamulenge allies and suddenly ordered Kigali to take back 600 Rwandan military advisers seconded to the DRC army, Rwanda feared Kinshasa may again resume Mobutu's support for the genocidal Interahamwe to attack Rwanda. That fear intensified when it was reported that Kabila had housed as many as 10,000 former Interahamwe fighters in camps in Katanga.

There were also rumours that Kabila had made contact with the Sudanese government, which funds the anti-Uganda terrorists.

Rwanda, which denies that the rebels are under its control or that its troops are fighting alongside them, has warned that it will intervene directly if there is a danger to its security or if Rwandan-speaking Congolese are threatened.

Uganda also denies it is behind the mutiny and says it recognises the Kabila government. It does admit that Ugandan troops are in eastern and north-eastern Congo as part of an agreement it made with the Kabila government to fight Ugandan terrorists operating out of the DRC.

Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, having achieved their prime objective of denying the mutineers control of the south-west and saving the Kabila regime, now seem willing to go along with South Africa's proposal for a cease-fire and negotiated political settlement.

On September 7-8, leaders of the six countries involved in the war met. They reached an agreement for a cease-fire and an eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.

Zambian president Frederick Chiluba, who chaired the meeting, reported, "We had a very good meeting. All of us agreed what must happen in the Congo." Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos said, "This summit will bring a solution to the conflict". A smiling Mugabe left the meeting grasping Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni's hand.

The agreement — which has been endorsed by Washington, United Nations' secretary general Koffi Annan and the Organisation of National Unity — will be imposed on the mutineers, who were excluded from the meeting. It will also be imposed on the Kabila regime, which had insisted that it would not agree to a settlement until all "Rwandan and Ugandan" forces withdraw from the DRC.

The mutineers announced that they would not be bound by the cease-fire, however it is likely that they will choose to consolidate their hold on the DRC's east rather than try to topple Kabila.