The Congo wars might well have been avoided…


Even Better Than The Real Thing, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011. Photograph by Richard Mosse

From The New York Review of Books:

All over east-central Africa, for several centuries, there has been tension between two ways of life that have also been two human silhouettes: the tall, graceful cattle-people and the shorter, sturdier agriculturalists. They have different names in different places, but in Rwanda and Burundi they are the Tutsi and the Hutu. There was almost always bad feeling between them. The Tutsi pastoralists were mobile, and often drove their herds into lands used by others for farming. But the tension seems to have become lethal only when Belgian colonial administrators selected the Tutsi as their “collaborating class.” Murderous intercommunal violence broke out as soon as the Congo lurched into independence in 1960, and the 1994 genocide came at the end of a thirty-year crescendo of pogroms.

The flight of the Hutus (les génocidaires) into eastern Congo created a new situation. Back in Rwanda, the insurgent Tutsi army (RPA) had captured the battered capital, Kigali, and was precariously in control of the country. But how could the new Rwanda regime tolerate the existence of this hostile Hutu mass encamped in Kivu just across the border, with heavily armed former soldiers and militia members, unpunished and committed to reconquest? In addition, the Hutu refugees were being supported by the president of Congo/Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu had been a close friend of the previous Rwandan president, the Hutu leader Juvénal Habyarimana. When his plane was shot down in April 1994, Mobutu gave asylum not only to his widow but to his corpse, which he kept in cold storage for years.

The Rwandans, under their new Tutsi leader Paul Kagame, hatched an outrageously ambitious plot. The only way they could destroy the Hutu camps and their armed forces was to destroy the vast Congo itself, or at least to overthrow the Mobutu regime. The fact that their target was ninety times as large as Rwanda, and that its capital Kinshasa was nearly a thousand miles from the Kivu refugee camps, did not deter them. But they needed a Congolese ally who could rally the country’s opposition to Mobutu and be rewarded with the presidential throne in Kinshasa.

A bust of Laurent Kabila being installed in the town of Bukavu, 2011.

This turned out to be the elderly firebrand Laurent Kabila. Then living in obscurity in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Kabila belonged to the generation of visionary Marxist revolutionaries who had led armed struggles for African liberation in the 1960s. Back then, Che Guevara thought Kabila had “genuine qualities of a mass leader,” but lacked “revolutionary seriousness.”

Kabila was certainly a legend. But one of the senior Rwandans who now sought him out told Jason Stearns that the “old man seemed like a relic of the past.” The point was that “we just needed someone to make the whole operation look Congolese.” The Rwandans flew him to Kigali, still in his grubby safari suit and sandals, and constructed around him a “front” organization known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

To be fair, the Rwandans did not always see invasion as the only option. At first, they had demanded that the civilian refugees should be physically separated from their FAR soldiers and militias, who should be deported to new camps safely distant from the Rwandan frontier.

On paper, this made sense. Had it been done, the Congo wars might have been avoided. But the price proved too high for the Security Council. The separation could only be done by force, and it was reckoned that the cost of mustering 8,000 UN soldiers to shift 30,000 FAR members and their families across Congo/Zaire would be over $100 million. (French attitudes did not help. France, whose small force had lamentably failed to protect the Tutsi against genocide in 1994, now chose to regard the whole crisis as a linguistic power game: Mobutu and the Hutu were “francophone” clients of Paris, whereas Kagame and the Tutsi RPF were English-speaking tools of a new Anglo-Saxon imperialism led by Madeleine Albright.)