The Democratic Republic of the Congo Part Two: The Congo Wars


Generally this blog focuses on ongoing conflicts and the military history of a country or region prior to the conflict is addressed only in terms of its context in relation to current events. Here we will break with this focus and address the two wars that centred on the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and which took place between 1996-1997 and 1998-2003. The second is known as ‘Africa’s World War’, an apt description for a period of violence that drew in nations from across Africa, although the fighting took place almost entirely within the borders of the DRC. The majority of the casualties resulting from this were civilians with the number of excess deaths due to the conflict ranging from a lower estimate of one million to an upper estimate of over seven million. The commonly accepted death toll is 5.4 million people.

In 1996, the DRC was known as Zaire and was already in serious trouble. Its military ruler, President Mobuto Sese Seko, had held power for almost thirty years and was under pressure to democratise the country. There were severe ethnic tensions and in 1991 he had agreed to form a coalition government with opposition leaders, but this did not defuse the situation. In the volatile east of the country ethnic Tutsis, the Banyamulenge, were under threat from other ethnic groups and had aligned themselves with the Rwanda Patriotic Forces (RPF) and in the wake of the Rwandan Civil War and Genocide both Tutsis and Hutus fled to Zaire. These included the Hutu Interahamwe, whom had participated in the genocide, and they began attacking Tutsis and launched attacks into Rwanda. With Mobuto unable to maintain effective control in the east Rwanda launched a military incursion in support of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), a coalition of rebel groups in Zaire opposed to Mobuto and led by a non-Tutsi, Laurent-Desire Kabila. Regional rivalries and alliances meant that the ensuing civil war drew in Burundi and Angola alongside Rwanda and Uganda in support of the AFDL. Angola, for example, became involved due to Mobutu’s support for UNITA, an Angolan separatist group who joined the fray in support of Mobutu. Other countries also provided support for the combatants. The war ended after the AFDL crossed the country and took the capital, Kinshasa. Kabila took charge and renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

None of this resolved the tensions in the east, and Kabila’s attempts to centralise the DRC brought him into conflict with ethnic groups in the east. He also ordered the withdrawal of Rwandan and Ugandan forces despite having little control in the east, alarming the Banyamulenge, who then mutinied, and with Rwandan and Ugandan backing the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) emerged as a potent opposition force. By 1999 an RCD offensive had advanced towards Kinshasa and Kabila’s government survived only due to military intervention by Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya. Political support was also provided by South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania. From then on the fighting was predominantly undertaken by proxies and militias emerged defined by their support or opposition to the government, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Angola. In 1999 six of the warring nations agreed to a ceasefire and committed to disarming the myriad armed groups operating within the DRC (which they failed to do) and the UN deployed a peacekeeping mission (MONUC). In 2000, Kabila was assassinated and succeeded by his son, Joseph, who was sworn in as President. He began to stabilise the western part of the country, and with intra-RCD fighting and the support of Rwanda and Uganda for the rebels diminishing, peace talks in South Africa resulted in the Sun City Agreement. This committed Kabila to a framework for achieving multi-party elections. In 2002 both Rwanda and Uganda had signed peace agreements and in December 2002 the government, opposition parties, and major rebel groups, including the RCD factions, the Ugandan backed MLA and the Mai Mai, signed the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement. This came into effect in July 2003 and marked the end of the Second Congo War, but violence continued in the east, where the government had weak control.

The Congo Wars had their roots in the ethnic tensions in the east of the DRC and both Rwanda and Uganda provided support to the rebels. The overall political situation in the DRC had improved but violence persisted in regions such as North and South Kivu and a new conflict has emerged in the southern Kasai province. While the country has been in a state of comparative peace, central control remains weak and the DRC is reliant on the current UN mission. One aspect that has not been described above is systematic human rights violations by government forces, rebels, and the myriad militias that have sprung up as a consequence of the 1998-2003 war. Akin to other conflicts covered in this blog these include sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers and accusations of ethnic cleansing. While the two Congo wars drew in the national armed forces of neighbouring countries the majority of the fighting has been undertaken by the government, rebel groups such as the RCD, and smaller militias with little or no accountability.

Next week: The current phase of violence.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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