The Nth Congo War – and Preventing N+1
November 5, 2007
The decade-long struggle for control of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) appears to be reaching a climax. The military forces of the central government (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC) have largely surrounded the area controlled by rebel General Laurent Nkunda in North Kivu province. Nkunda and his CNDP army (Conseil National pour la Défense du Peuple) are outnumbered, but whether the ill-disciplined, largely unpaid Congolese army is really capable of defeating Nkunda remains to be seen. One hopes that a test of strength will not be necessary, since the one sure loser in that confrontation would be the civilian population, which already has suffered greatly.
The wars in eastern Congo have often been characterized as “little known,” but in fact the wars themselves and the dangers they pose are well-known to policy makers. Indeed, on October 26, 2007, President Bush met with DRC President Laurent Kabila to discuss security concerns and prospects for reconstruction in the region. Bush endorsed Kabila’s efforts to bring all of Congo’s national territory under Kinshasa’s control.
Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the conflicts in the eastern Congo are poorly understood by the media and many of their readers – and understandably so. At least six armed groups have been involved just in the recent fighting in Rutshuru and Masisi territories of North Kivu, and the twists and turns of the conflict in eastern Congo over more than a dozen years are extremely difficult to follow. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to identify the key actors in the conflict and provide some essential historical background to the current situation, before mentioning some steps U.S. policy makers might take to help the long-suffering civilian population in the east.
MONUC, the UN mission in DRC, has several thousand men in the area. It has focused on assisting the Congolese government forces, and on receiving men and boys leaving one or another of the armed groups for demobilization or “brassage” into FARDC. On occasion, MONUC becomes more active. When Nkunda’s men appeared to be moving on Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province in November 2006, MONUC pushed them back.
Nkunda has assembled a substantial armed force, numbering, according to some estimates, as many as 4,000. It is led by Tutsi who, like him, are veterans of the Rwandan army and/or the army of the Rwanda-backed Congolese Democratic Rally (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, RCD). To this nucleus, he has added demobilized troops recruited in Rwanda and even some Congolese schoolboys pressed into service in recent months. Given the heterogeneity of Nkunda’s force, one need not take too seriously his offer to send a few hundred of his men for brassage. It is unlikely these men would include any of his best troops. While the FARDC confront Nkunda on several sides, he has not been sealed off from the Rwanda and Uganda borders, across which people, goods, and arms appear to flow.
Also active in the area are the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), latest incarnation of what once were known as the ex-FAR and Interahamwe, that is the forces that carried out the genocide in Rwanda. (FAR, or Forces Armées Rwandaises, was the army of the Hutu government in Rwanda. The Interahamwe were the most important of several poorly trained Hutu militias.) In 1999, an earlier incarnation of the FDLR, the ALiR (Armée de Libération du Rwanda), murdered a group of tourists, including two Americans, in nearby Uganda. In response, the U.S. Government labeled the group terrorist. The FDLR says it is ready to return peaceably to Rwanda if its conditions are met. It hardly even tries to attack Rwanda; instead, its men carry out violence in Congo, against civilians as well as against Nkunda’s forces. The FDLR claims not to be fighting in the current war, but its wounded soldiers are showing up in the hospitals of North Kivu.
Finally, there are two separate bands of Mai Mai, local defense militias of one or another ethnic group. One has been allied with the Kinshasa government while the other is fiercely independent. The name Mai Mai comes from the cry, “Mai Mai” (Water-Water), alluding to their use of magical substances they believe turn enemy bullets to water. In the early 1990s, the last years of the rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko, North Kivu was the locus of political struggle and warfare among ethnically defined militias. During and after the invasions of 1996 and 1998, Mai Mai resisted the Rwandan-backed AFDL and RCD administrations. They continue to oppose the Tutsi in the area. In the elections of 2006, many Mai Mai supported Joseph Kabila on the grounds that he embodied resistance to Rwandan aggression. (Kasereka, leader of the pro-Kinshasa Mai Mai, surrendered to MONUC on October 27, along with 29 men and a child.)
In light of Laurent Nkunda’s claim to be defending his Tutsi ethnic group, it in instructive to look back on the conflicts in North and South Kivu on the eve of the first invasion of Congo by Rwanda in 1996, an invasion justified in terms of defending the Congolese Tutsi. In South Kivu, the main Rwandophone (Kinyarwanda-speaking) group was the Banyamulenge, Tutsi pastoralists living in the mountains west of Uvira. They were engaged in a bitter struggle with their neighbors for land and power. In North Kivu, Hutu and Tutsi were separate groups, competing with Nande, Hunde and other ethnic groups of the region, for control of political power and economic resources, including land and minerals. Many of the Hutu supported MAGRIVI (Mutuelle des Agriculteurs du Virunga, Farmers Mutual Society of Virunga). In Congolese political language, “agriculteurs” or “cultivateurs” farm the land, as opposed to “pasteurs” who raise cattle. MAGRIVI apparently was influenced by the rise of “Hutu Power” movements in neighboring Rwanda.
Some Tutsi of North and South Kivu apparently saw the war of the Uganda-based Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) against Juvénal Habyarimana’s Hutu government in Rwanda, which began in 1990, as an extension of their own struggles with their Congolese neighbors. Among the young Tutsi to join the RPF during the civil war that led up to the genocide in Rwanda and the RPF seizure of power, was a young man named Laurent Nkunda. The flood of Hutu refugees into eastern Congo in 1994, after the RPF took power in Rwanda and ended the anti-Tutsi genocide there, only intensified the concerns of the Tutsi in Congo.
Rwanda invaded Congo in 1996 and again 1998, on the pretext of fighting Hutu forces responsible for the 1994 genocide. After 1998, Rwanda ruled the southern portion of North Kivu province through its proxy, the Congolese Democratic Rally (RCD-Goma) while Uganda did the same in the “Grand Nord” through the RCD-ML of Mbusa Nyamwisi. Rwanda and the RCD-Goma were able to impose a Rwanda-style government in southern North Kivu. As in Rwanda itself, the Tutsi and Hutu identities were subsumed under the label “Rwandophone” (i.e., speakers of Kinyarwanda). Former MAGRIVI activist Eugène Serufuli was chosen as governor, a choice apparently guided by Rwanda to give an appearance of broad indigenous support for the regime. A new organization, “Local Defence” (the English label signals an importation from Uganda via Rwanda), reported to the governor. It was a militia of several thousand young men, mostly Hutu, operating outside the framework of the RCD-Goma army.
Nkunda apparently returned to Congo as part of the invading force in 1996. In 1998, he joined the FAC (Forces Armées Congolaises), the army of Rwanda’s ally or dependent, the RCD. As a FAC officer at Kisangani in 2002, he was responsible for a massacre of Congolese civilians in the aftermath of a mutiny of Congolese soldiers and policemen against so-called Rwandans in the FAC. (Gabriel Amisi, an officer originally from Maniema province, shared in responsibility for the massacre. Unlike Nkunda, Amisi has rejoined the national army where he has risen to chief of staff of land forces.)
Under the 2002 peace agreement among the internal and external belligerents ending the second war, the rebel armies of the MLC and rebellions were to be merged into the FARDC. No one “composant” or element of the transitional government was to control both the military and the civilian administration in the same province. In 2004, the transitional government in Kinshasa attempted to take control of Congolese armed forces in Bukavu, capital of South Kivu, in conformity with this agreement. General Prosper Nabyolwa, new commander of the Tenth Military Region, tried to seize arms caches in the residences of various civilian and military authorities including the governor. In response, his second in command, the Tutsi Colonel Jules Mutebutsi ordered an attack on Nabyolwa’s house, in which two guards were killed. The general was unhurt but was forced to return to Kinshasa. Brigadier General Félix Mbuza Mabe replaced him. Mutebutsi was suspended but continued to circulate freely in the city, surrounded by armed guards.
From May 26 to June 9, 2004, there was sustained fighting for the control of Bukavu. Congolese troops at the border prevented Mutebutsi from crossing from Bukavu to Cyangugu (Rwanda) accompanied by armed men. At least one soldier loyal to Mbuza Mabe and Kinshasa was killed. Loyalist troops responded by killing several Tutsi civilians. As violence threatened to spiral out of control, MONUC persuaded Mutebutsi to confine his men to quarters.
In the meantime, General Nkunda advanced on Bukavu from the north, with several thousand men. The media in neighboring Rwanda fanned the flames, referring to genocide against Congolese Tutsis. MONUC attempted to persuade Nkunda not to attack Bukavu, but he ignored their appeals and seized the city. While Mutebutsi and Nkunda claimed that they had acted to stop the killing of Tutsi civilians, their own forces killed civilians and carried out widespread sexual violence and looting. The loyalist troops also committed murders and other war crimes.
The United Nations eventually persuaded Nkunda and Mutebutsi to evacuate the city. Nkunda returned to the north. Mutebutsi withdrew to the south, where the UN attacked his column, causing him and his men to flee across the border to Rwanda. Mbuza Mabe’s men took control of Bukavu, in the name of the Kinshasa government. The weak response of MONUC to Nkunda’s attack drew the ire of the Congolese public. The battle for Bukavu was seen as the beginning of the third Congo war; it hardened anti-RCD, anti-Tutsi sentiment on the part of the majority of the Kivu population. In contrast, Tutsi tend to believe the claim of genocide prior to the Bukavu invasion, despite a UN refutation, and stress the ethnic massacre of Congolese Tutsi refugees across the border in Burundi, two months after Bukavu.
Violence and intimidation against the RCD and its (perceived) supporters, Tutsi and others, were commonplace during the election campaign of 2006. The RCD office near Bukavu town center was sacked and participants in an RCD march were beaten. The majority of the population approved of this violence against those seen as accomplices of Rwanda during the two wars and Nkunda’s recent occupation of Bukavu. (Elsewhere in Congo, locally dominant parties likewise used intimidation and violence against their opponents; the MLC of Jean-Pierre Bemba did so in Equateur, while in Kwilu the PALU of Antoine Gizenga did the same.)
In North Kivu, the Nande-dominated Grand Nord (Lubero and Beni territories) voted for Kabila’s party, the PPRD, thanks in part to its alliance with the former RCD-ML of Mbusa Nyamwisi. In the “Petit Nord” where Rwandophones or Kinyarwanda-speakers are numerous, the Kabila forces drove a wedge between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. As a result, Kabila won a sweeping victory in North Kivu. The Nande Julien Paluku was chosen governor of the province. Deprived of provincial-level support that he had enjoyed under Governor Serufuli, Nkunda nevertheless was able to carve out what his aides call “our little state,” where the writ of the national and provincial authorities does not apply.
The role of the Rwandan government in all this is ambiguous. In 2004, when Nkunda invaded Bukavu, he and his men had new uniforms and equipment. Some speculated that Rwanda had re-equipped his force. Others thought that Serufuli might have sent some members of his Local Defence to accompany Nkunda.
Nkunda apparently continues to receive aid from Rwanda. What is unclear is the extent to which he receives aid from the Rwanda government as opposed to the Congolese Tutsi community in Rwanda. Congolese Tutsi constitute one of the three factions running Rwanda. As their nickname “Dubai” suggests, they are very active in commerce. They are also prominent in higher education. In politics, they are less influential than the leading faction, the English-speaking Tutsi from Uganda, or the French-speakers who returned from Burundi. However, they seem to be a constituency that Rwanda President Paul Kagame must listen to.
The “Dubai” of Rwanda follow the adventures of their brother Nkunda by public media and also by cell-phone. Some visit his mini-state in North Kivu. They provide financial support to him, on the model of the support they and others provided to the RPF from its earliest days.
The government in Kigali claims not to be involved in the current conflict. One should remember similar denials in 1996 and 1998, when Rwanda instigated two invasions of DRC. At any rate, Nkunda could not carry out recruitment in Rwanda without the approval of the authorities there. Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman suggests that the American government has applied strong pressure on its “ally Rwanda” to ensure that it does not intervene in DRC, but one suspects that this pressure has not entirely achieved its objective.
Early in 2007, after unsuccessful efforts to defeat Nkunda, the DRC government agreed to negotiations under Rwandan auspices. Nkunda and the DRC agreed that instead of integrating Nkunda’s troops into the FARDC, they would enter “mixed” units in a process called “mixage,” some to be commanded by an officer from Nkunda’s CNDP army with a deputy from FARDC, while others had a FARDC head and a CNDP deputy. These mixed units, however, began attacking the Hutu FDLR and civilians suspected of collaborating with it (allegedly in fulfillment of DRC’s pledge to disarm the FDLR), causing many Hutu of North Kivu to flee. General Amisi announced suspension of the campaign against the FDLR in August. Soon afterward, the FARDC and Nkunda’s CNDP were at war again.
Both sides espouse lofty principles. But their talk of restoring central government control over the national territory on the one hand, and of protecting the Tutsi minority on the other, should not be allowed to obscure the economic motivations of Kabila, Nkunda and other actors. The second war that began in 1998 was a war of “partition and pillage,” in the words of Professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. Rwanda and Uganda staked out big chunks of Congolese territory, which they proceeded to loot, stealing vehicles, industrial machinery, and stocks of coffee and other crops. Coltan (columbite-tantalite), diamonds, gold, and cassiterite (tin ore) were extracted from the eastern war zone and sent into the world economy, generally through Kigali (Rwanda) and Entebbe (Uganda). Nkunda’s mini-state exports minerals and agricultural produce to the world economy. (On the political economy of Masisi, see especially the work of Koen Vlassenroot of Ghent University.)
The human rights situation in DRC in general and in the Kivu war zone in particular remains catastrophic. An estimated 350,000 people have been displaced. All sides are guilty of abuses, but (as Amnesty International reports) the central government army and police are the worst offenders. Therein lies the dilemma for those who want to see an end or more realistically a diminution of the abuses. The reinforcement of the authority of the central government, at the expense of autonomous pockets such as Nkunda’s mini-state, must go hand in hand with the reform of the central government’s security forces. President Bush and the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, recognize as much; but they will have to do more arm-twisting. Rwanda must be persuaded to cooperate in the exiling of Nkunda in exchange for UN occupation of his mini-state, so that Mai Mai and the FDLR do not massacre Tutsi civilians. The CNDP, Mai Mai, and FDLR all must be disarmed, and MONUC must be given both the authority and the means to undertake this essential action. __________________________________________________________________
Thomas Turner is Country Specialist on the Democratic Republic of Congo for Amnesty International US, and adjunct professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. His most recent book, The Congo Wars, was published in 2007 by Zed Books, London.
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