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Schola News: GlobalSecurity: Congo Civil War and First Congo War 1996-98

For nearly 2 decades, DRC has been divided by armed conflict as a result of the First and Second Congo Wars (1996–1997 and 1998–2003,) and the Kivu Conflicts in eastern DRC (2004–present). Ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees in 1994 from fighting in Rwanda and Burundi, led in May 1997 to the toppling of the Mobutu regime by a rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda and fronted by Laurent Kabila. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The demise of the Mobutu regime began after the 1994 Rwanda genocide when over one million Rwandan Hutu refugees, Hutu militiamen and soldiers from the defeated Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) fled into politically weak eastern Zaire. The ex-FAR used Zaire as a base for raids into Rwanda, which from 1994 was led by Vice President Paul Kagame and dominated by Tutsis from the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF).

At the end of the 1994 genocide and war in Rwanda, nearly one million refugees poured into the eastern DRC. Having been an ally of Rwandan President Habyarimana, Mobutu also gave safe haven to the Rwandan government officials, army, and militia groups who had carried out the genocide. Mixing with the refugees in camps just across the Rwanda border, these armed groups presented a perceived security threat for the new Rwandan regime set up by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel group that had driven the former regime from power and put an end to the genocide.

As the Hutu militias regrouped in the DRC, they also began to target Congolese Tutsi, creating a wave of refugees into Rwanda. The RPF along with their close ally Uganda organized a rebel group, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). Although they named a leader from the rebellions of the 1960s, Laurent Kabila, a Luba-Katanga as AFDL commander, the core of the troops was Congolese Tutsi, including Banyamulenge from South Kivu.

In response to the raids into Rwanda and to attacks on Tutsis living in Zaire, Rwanda in league with Congolese rebels it organized and supported in October 1996 struck to eliminate the Hutu refugee camps. Rwandan troops along with the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL), an armedcoalition led by Laurent-Desire Kabila. Their goal was to oust Zaire's long-time leader Mobutu Sese Seko with the support of Rwanda and Uganda.

Rwanada and Uganda were more than happy to give support to Kabila and plan for a future without Mobutu since Mobutu had long been tacitly allowing rebel camps to establish themselves in Zaire to harass neighboring countries. The Rwandans were especially interested in ousting Mobutu since Hutu refugees and militias in Zaire were now going after Zaire's Tutsi community. Thus an alliance with Kabila, a long time rebel against Mobutu, became a sort of marriage of convinience.

Their success in destroying the camps demonstrated the weakness of Zaire's military and the existence of a power vacuum. Rwanda joined by Uganda and Angola seized the opportunity to replace Mobutu and create a more friendly regime in Kinshasa. They continued to press the offensive, defeated Mobutu's forces, and installed Laurent Kabila, the rebel's nominal leader, in Kinshasa.

With support from Ugandan, Rwandan, and Burundian troops, the AFDL launched an invasion of the DRC in October 1996. The troops closed the Rwandan refugee camps, driving most Rwandan refugees home, but also hunting down thousands of others who fled into the Congolese interior.22 As the AFDL troops advanced across the DRC, they gained support from the population, including many members of the Zairian Armed Forces who deserted and switched sides, and ultimately Angola and other African states joined in the effort to oust Mobutu. In May 1997, the AFDL and its allies took control of Kinshasa, and Laurent Kabila became president and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After failed peace talks between Mobutu and Kabila and with opostion troops surrounding Kinshasain May 1997, Mobutu fled the country and Kabila's troops entered Kinshasa with little resistence and Kabila declared himself president, also renaming the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Kabila was received as a hero by many who hoped he would end the poverty and corruption that had defined Mobutu's regime. Mobutu, sick with cancer, died a few months later.

The end of Mobutu's rule did nothing to bring peace or unity to the newly re-named Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although led by an officer seconded from the Rwandan army, the Congolese army proved unable to curtail the Rwandan Hutu rebels use of Congo as a de-facto sanctuary as they stepped up insurgent actions within Rwanda. Kabila himself proved too erratic, incompetent and independent for his Ugandan and Rwandan patrons.

The last straw came in July 1998 when Kabila replaced his seconded Rwandan army commander and asked his Rwandan military advisors to leavethe country. Rwandan and Ugandan forces then attacked the DRC and almost deposed Kabila by launching a spectacular airlift operation to Congo's Atlantic Coast and moving on Kinshasa from the west. Days, or hours, before the attack would have toppled Kabila, Angola and Zimbabwe intervened to turn back the drive and save Kabila.

Although the Congolese population that had supported Kabila’s rise to power hoped that he would implement the democratic reforms that Mobutu had resisted, Kabila soon proved himself to be no more democratic than his predecessor. He refused to negotiate with Tshisekedi and other opposition leaders and instead named a government drawn mostly from the ranks of AFDL officers. His regime quickly drew criticisms for intolerance of dissent and a poor human rights record, including efforts to obstruct UN investigations into the massacre of Rwandan Hutu in several areas of the country.

Congolese Tutsis, as well as the Governments of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, all relied on the Rwandan military presence in DRC for protection against hostile armed groups operating from the eastern part of the country. These groups included:

The Interahamwe militia of ethnic Hutus, mostly from Rwanda, which fought the Tutsi-dominated Government of Rwanda;

Hutu members of the former Rwandan Armed Forces, believed to be responsible for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, which also fought the Government of Rwanda;

The Mai Mai, a loose association of traditional Congolese local defense forces, which fought the influx of Rwandan immigrants;

The Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), made of up Ugandan expatriates and supported by the Government of Sudan, which fought the Government of Uganda; and

Several groups of Hutus from Burundi fighting the Tutsi-dominated Government of Burundi.

The attempt in August 1998 by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi to repeat their previous successful intervention in an attempt to oust Kabila inspired a number of other African countries to intervene. Troops from Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe intervened to support Kabila's regime, leading to a protracted and messy armed conflict that devastated the country’s economy and infrastructure and left the Congo divided and unmanageable. Some 2.7 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the conflicts, mostly from malnutrition and lack of access to medical care, making this among the most deadly conflicts since the Second World War.

In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated and his son, Joseph Kabila, was named head of state. In October 2002, the new president was successful in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan forces occupying the eastern DRC; two months later, the Pretoria Accord was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity. A transitional government was set up in July 2003; it held a successful constitutional referendum in December 2005 and elections for the presidency, National Assembly, and provincial legislatures took place in 2006.


Autore: Vito Conteduca - 10/8/2010

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