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Leo Zeilig © 2004


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Part I

On Christmas day in 1999 the bishop of Bukavu, Emmanuel Kataliko, summarised the recent history of the Congo:

Foreign powers, with the collaboration of some of our Congolese brothers, organise wars with the resources of our country. These resources, which should be used for our development, for the education of our children, to cure our illnesses, in short so that we can have a more decent human life, serve only to kill us. What is more, our country and our people have become the object of exploitation. All that has value is pillaged and taken to foreign countries or simply destroyed. Our taxes, which should be invested into the community, are embezzled... All this money, that comes from our labour and saved in the bank, is directly taken by a small elite that come from we don’t know where...This exploitation is supported by a regime of terror which maintains insecurity ... [and] means that some of our compatriots don’t hesitate to sell their brothers for a dollar or ten or twenty.[1]
Several days later Kataliko was deported to Butembo in the north of Kivu by the rebel authority controlling the region. Days after fleeing to Rome he died from a heart attack. His description of the Congo was courageous and honest. The war that unfolded after 1998 testifies also to his prescience.

The recent war in the Congo has been ignored by the west. Western media still regard the war as incomprehensible and shrouded in darkness, the logical consequence of a primitive and post-colonial Africa, the vindication of the Economist’s miserable question at the start of the millennium, “Does Africa have some inherent character flaw that keeps it backward and incapable of development?”.[2] Even the liberal left despair at Africa’s predicament, and see hope only in the capacity of the west to liberate the continent.[3] The war in the Congo was seen as testimony to the African recidivism. It is against these absurd (and frequently racist) arguments that this article will argue, for there are no mysteries to the war. It is a human catastrophe linked to ‘globalisation’, profit and western manipulation and complicity.

The war has is origins in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The flow of refugees and killers from the genocide into Zaire created a crisis that eventually led to the fall of the western sponsored Mobutu regime. Rebels led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila - a nationalist leader who had fought with Che Guevara in the 1960s - were supported by Rwandan troops and local Banyamulenge fighters in an assault on the regime in the capital Kinshasa. In May 1997 Kabila’s force – the Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), a coalition of international business interests, foreign states and nationalists – triumphantly took Kinshasa, in what is still characterised by many commentators today as a ‘revolution’. The ‘revolution’ was meant to liberate the Congolese from thirty-five years of western supported dictatorship.

Many of the people ‘liberated’, however, didn’t consider the Alliance as freedom fighters, and saw the continued presence of ‘foreign powers’ in the newly named Democratic Republic of Congo as a force of occupation. The democratic opposition was sidelined and cruelly silenced as corruption and clientelism came to dominate the new regime. Within fourteen months, the ‘revolution’ was a bitter joke for many. The tensions within the AFDL tore it apart.  On the 27 July 1998 Kabila made the decision to expel what he termed ‘foreigners’ - these included his closest allies, the Rwandan army.  The decision led to a second war.

Members of Kabila’s previous Alliance; Rwanda, Uganda and the Congolese Banyamulenge launched the new invasion. But it was not simply an African affair; behind the countries and the rebel groups that fought the war were western interests. The war so often characterised as primitive and tribal was inherently global. Before long, the war was internationalised. It pulled in six African states – some supporting the regime in Kinshasa, others attempting to unseat it – and numerous rebel groups in shifting alliances with the government and the neighbouring states. More than two hundred thousand soldiers fought on several fronts, in forest, jungle and on remote plains, in what was termed Africa’s First World War.

After a year of fighting, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sponsored the Lusaka Cease-fire Agreement signed in July and August 1999 by most states involved in the war, and by the principal rebel groups. The Agreement did not hold and the war resumed. Displaying a familiar impotence, the UN stood by as the war progressed. The Security Council continued to procrastinate until 2001, when after more than twenty months of war they agreed to the deployment of a small intervention force that was powerless to carry out the stated aim to “track down all armed groups in the DRC.”[4]

The number of those who have died in the war is staggering, perhaps only matched in Africa by the slaughter in the Sudanese civil war since 1955. The International Rescue Committee estimated in 2003 that the war caused approximately 4.7 million deaths in the eastern provinces alone in the first eighteen months. This figure is almost certainly an underestimate. In global terms the DRC has been host to a tragedy greater than any since the Vietnam War.[5]

The argument in this article is that the war brought together a shifting constellation of forces; African nations, western powers and a complicated array of multinational companies, artisanal commerce and ‘criminal networks.’ This ‘constellation’ is not to exonerate the west but on the contrary to show how they are intimately implicated in the war. The Congo lives not in an obscure and primitive place but an inherently modern and globalised one. Commentators frequently languish in the ‘complexity’ of the war however beyond the constantly shifting alliances and rebel groups there was one overriding and predictable motivation: the control of the country’s vast mineral riches. The conflict cannot be understood simply as the machinations of ‘great powers’; to do so is to ignore the central role of African nations who often intervened for their own reasons. It therefore requires a reversal of many claims made by panafricanists who see the war as simply a repeat of the Congo's past, the manipulated by western powers.


War and minerals

Before we can understand Kataliko’s Congo we have to consider the wider economic and political forces – his ‘foreign powers’ – that have transformed it. For almost twenty-five years during the cold war Belgium, France and the United States supported the country. This tumultuous period was marked by considerable state intervention in the economy. The end of the cold war signified the transformation of the Congo’s relationship with the west, a transformation that had its antecedents in the restructuring of global capitalism from the mid-1970s.

The gradual collapse of the Congolese state from the 1970s triggered a huge growth in the hand-dug extraction of industrial diamonds and coltan. Coltan by the late 1990s was being celebrated as a wonder metal. The involvement of American multinational mining companies were linked to the most advanced technology. Coltan was at the centre of these plans. The special alloys needed for the construction of the International Space Station require massive quantities of cobalt and coltan. The rebels made deals tied to the privatisation of state mining companies in 1997, before Mobutu had even fallen. Diamonds played the same role in the war.  By 1999 the DRC was the fourth largest producer of diamonds in the world, most used in industrial processes. There is precedent for this; in 1960 the US depended on the Congo for more than 80% of their industrial diamonds and, by 1970, the Congo produced a third of the world’s total. Through a unique combination of mineral wealth, the DCR came to be regarded as Africa’s economic powerhouse.[6]

The boom years of the late 1960s did not last. The collapse of mineral prices together with the rising cost of oil after 1974 shattered the confidence of the Zairian economy. To these changes Mobutu had added his own. The policy of Zairisation saw the transfer of foreign-owed mining businesses to the president’s chosen coterie of friends and supporters. The ensuing economic crisis led to the informalisation of the economy. As production and income declined, eventually the state too developed a more arbitrary system of rule around an elite tied to Mobutu.[7]

Under pressure from international donors Mobutu liberalised the diamond sector in the 1980s. Before long, diamonds provided the country with its principle source of foreign exchange.

At a time when other sectors of mineral extraction were gripped by corruption, plunder and the lack of investment in infrastructure and technology, diamond production became an important exception. By 1997 the jewel was the country’s main source of foreign currency and provided 70% of the world supply, largely due to the legalisation of artisanal production in 1981. Still the country was affected by the decline in global prices for industrial diamonds throughout the 1980s and early 1990s - deepening the country's already terrible economic crisis. By 1994 the process of liberalisation was almost complete. The World Bank insisted on the privatisation of the mining sector, leaving the door open for transnational private capital to buy up Congolese concessions. It also contributed to the bloodiest chapter in the country’s recent history.[8]

Coltan and diamonds dug out and traded by hand were the perfect minerals of war. They played a pivotal role in the war and characterised the nature of the conflict that was about to rock the Congo. By 1999, for example, diamonds were flowing out of neighbouring countries involved in the war at an astonishing rate. The first few months of that year, artisanal diamonds gave the state in Kinshasa 18.7 million dollars, compared to 328.7 million the previous year. Between 1999-2000 the re-export of Congolese coltan through Rwanda covered all the costs of their intervention in the war.[9] In 2001 UN investigators established that the Rwandan army had exported about 100 tonnes of coltan each month the previous year, through two companies linked to the army Rwanda Metals and Eagle Wings Resources. In January 2000 the price of the ‘grey dust’ fluctuated between $60 and $80 per kilo by December the price had rocketed to $380 per kilo. The prices that coltan reached on the ‘open market’ contrasted massively to the amount that the diggers received, most were paid between $10 and $20  per kilo. The high prices did not last and the bubble burst on the 5 December 2000. As Colette Braeckman writes “when American corporations had established sufficient supplies … the United States suddenly decided to put their strategic stocks on the market.”[10] The price of coltan tumbled to 3 dollars per kilo. The Congo remains hopelessly buffeted by the violent oscillation in prices of raw materials on the absurdly named ‘free-market’. The process of deregulation and global adjustment from the 1970s and the continued fluctuation of prices on the ‘open market’ prepared the terrain for the war, and the minerals that would be at the heart of it.


Rwanda and the fall of Mobutu

The crisis that affected the Great Lakes played out in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The destructive spiral of events in Rwanda was triggered by the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, instigated by Washington acting in the interests of US coffee importers. As a consequence, the economy plunged into economic crisis. In the midst of this crisis, the regime - adept at using ethnic divide and rule - mobilised ethnic militias. Between 1990-94 the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana used funds that had been made available to him through structural adjustment loans to purchase $83 million worth of arms. The international community - that was fully aware of the plans that were being hatched to eliminate Tutsi  - made funds available to the regime, and the 'Washington consensus' ensured that a fall in coffee prices would detonate the killing.[11]

In 1994 the killing subsided in Rwanda with the victory of the RPF – a rebel army supported by Uganda. As the RPF spread across the country, another catastrophe began to unfold. Millions of refugees fled across borders to neighbouring states. Many of those fleeing - perfectly innocent of the crimes perpetrated by others - were often led to believe by Hutu leaders that they would be massacred if they stayed. As the RPF swept across the country millions were instantly turned into refugees. In the camps that spread across Zaire Hutu extremists and the interahamwe – the organisers of the genocide  -regrouped their dispersed forces in the hope of a renewed attack on Rwanda. These are not empty words. Camps sprang up in Goma and Mulunga in the north, Bukavu in the centre and Urira in the south of Kivu province; in them there were an estimated 30,000 fighters from Habyarimana’s vanquished army.[12]

The combination of more than one million refugees and ex-soldiers and militiamen from Rwanda created impossible tensions. The region had long been dominated by anti-Mobutu forces, run as a fiefdom by those who were grouped around the old Lumumbist Laurent Désiré Kabila. The local population mirrored in many ways Rwanda dominated by Hutu and Tutsi. In the Mulenge mountains in the south the Tutsi are known as the Banyamulenge, living on the margins of modern Congo, where they were repeatedly denied the rights of citizenship. As the attention of the world shifted from the genocide in Rwanda to the squalid camps in Zaire, the remnants of the scattered army began to regroup.  Using north Kivu as their power-base they took control of both the camps in the region and the surrounding areas. Gangs of militiamen viciously treated the local Banyamulenge. Zairian troops were key to this process, arming and supporting the Hutu army. The new Rwandan government before long started to supply arms to the groups of Banyamulenge fighters; soon these arms were supplemented by troops. After the coup in Burundi in 1996 Major Pierre Buyoya became embroiled in the conflict, adding troops to the region. By September that year the Banyamulenge offensive had reached such a level that the deputy governor of South Kivu ordered the immediate expulsion of all Banyamulenge, or they would “be hunted down as rebels”.[13]

These ‘rebels' had, however, already metamorphosed into a formidable army, partly manned and funded by Rwanda. The threat was taken seriously and the offensive widened their targets to take on the interahamwe and the Zairian army. The situation demonstrated another factor: how ethnic identification was manipulated by the war, reformulating the nature of Banyamulenge identity.[14]  Before the war the word was fairly meaningless, a reference more to pastorialists in south Kivu than to a political identity. Some argue that the ethnicity was strict fiction, unknown before the 1990s. Yet during the Rwandan intervention, the term imagined its own community, and became a politicised ethnic category defining all Tutsis in eastern Congo. One of the leading spokesmen for the Banyamulenge admitted that although they had not lived in the Congo previously, there had been a historic ‘Banyamulenge’ migration from Rwanda to the Congo centuries earlier, they had been forced out and now they were returning again. The Rwandans were deft manipulators of ethnicity. The Rwandan forces - soon to be termed the hated 'predators' and occupiers - gave impetus to the anti-Mobutu forces in the region. There were no shortage of Zairians who were motivated by a desire to rid the country of Mobutu’s elite of looters and oppressors.[15] Mobutu could not rely on France or Belgium to intervene. There were two principle factors that had contributed to Zaire’s isolation. First, the Mobutu regime had been supported loyally since his accession to power by western powers, but now they indicated that they were not going to save him. The French were more equivocal, and rumours continued to circulate in 1997 that they would intervene to stop the march on Kinshasa. The second factor is neglected in the history of the war. The wave of political and democratic struggles that had gripped Africa since the late 1980s had not left Zaire untouched. On the contrary, the country had been rocked by demonstrations and revolts that forced the regime to convene a sovereign national assembly. Although the extent of this transition has been questioned, the effect on the regime was profound.[16]

How did the international situation affect the Congo? America quickly and fundamentally changed tack. Their strategy towards the Rwandan intervention shaped the processes that were to unfold in the Congo for years. Rwanda was not peripheral to their plans but central to the new networks, alliance and spheres of influence that they sought to carve out in the region. The plan expressed clearly by the White House at the time was to use the Rwandan army as an instrument of American interests. One US analyst explained how Rwanda could be as important to the US in Africa as Israel has been in the Middle East. By September 1996 the United Nations arms embargo on Rwanda was lifted as a result of American pressure.

Even before the invasion in 1996 a large number of US intelligence operatives converged on Zaire. The investigative journalist Wayne Madsen reports that US embassy staff from Rwanda travelled from Kigali to the eastern Zaire to initiate intelligence work with members of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL-CZ). Madsen explains that American policy in the region rested on two connected policies: military aid and trade. US Special Operations Command and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) carried out these programmes. As the rebels advanced on Kinshasa in 1996 a US embassy official with the rebels in Goma expressed American thinking at the time, “What I am here to do is to acknowledge them as a very significant military and political power on the scene, and, of course, to represent American interests”.[17]

In the period that followed US troops and intelligence agents poured into Rwanda. At the end of 1996 the deputy assistant secretary of defence for African Affairs Vincent Kern justified American military assistance on the grounds that the RPF were being trained under a programme called Enhanced International Military Education and Training (E-IMET). Frequently America used private military training firms and logistics that had the advantage of being immune from the Freedom of Information Act. The increasing use of Private Military Contractors - a contemporary euphemism for mercenaries - was a prominent feature of American involvement. By late 1996 Le Monde cited French intelligence sources that argued that as many as 60 American mercenary advisors participated in the RPF massacre of thousands of Hutus around Goma. [18]

In a testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights Committee on International Relations (May 2001) Madsen went further. He argued that the AFDL-CZ advanced effortlessly on Kinshasa because of American military assistance. The technical assistance provided by America was accompanied by US Special Forces who followed the ADFL advance. Again the French press confirms these arguments. Valeurs Actuelles reported that a French DC- 8 Sarigue electronic intelligence aircraft flew over eastern Zaire shortly after the notorious Oso River massacres. The aircraft reported US military involvement in region.[19]

The new strategy extended beyond Rwanda. Within a few months of the arms embargo being lifted in 1996 it was announced that a new group including Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda  were going to receive millions in military equipment from the US. This alliance displayed an American nervousness about Sudan and the anxiety not to make the mistake of a direct intervention that had led the catastrophe in Somalia in 1993. One American commentator observed that it is much easier for Clinton to use “Rwandan forces to sort out Zaire than it is to risk US causalities”.[20]

Click here for Part II

[1] Cited in C. Braeckman Les Nouveaux Prédateurs (Fayard, 2003).

[2] The Economist 13 May 2000.

[3] See The Observer 1 January 2000

[4] Cited in Scherrer Genocide and Crisis in Central Africa (Praeger, 2002) p.253.

[5] Les Roberts et al ‘Mortality in eastern DRC. Results from Eleven Mortality Surveys.’ International Rescue Committee Final Draft. May 8 2001 and 2003.

[6] I. Samset ‘Conflict of Interests or Interests in Conflict? Diamonds and War in the DRC’ in Review of African Political Economy Vol. 29 No. 93/93 September/December 2002 pp.463-480

[7] Out of these convulsions came a series of secessionist revolts in Katanga, popular protest and a period of ‘democratic transition’ between 1989-1996. With the growth in opposition to the regime often spurred by student groups. In 1989 52 demonstrators were killed in Lubumashi, in May the following year Mobutu’s soldiers killed more than 50 students. The wave of revolts that shook Zaire led to several important concessions, including the legalisation of opposition parties with the objective of multiparty elections.

[8] I. Samset ‘Conflict of Interests or Interests in Conflict? Diamonds and War in the DRC’ pp. 463-470

[9] United Nations (2001) Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo (New York: United Nations Security Council, 12 April) pp. 6-19

[10] C. Braeckman Les Nouveaux Prédateurs p.199

[11] See L. Melvern A People Betrayed. The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (Zed Books, 2000); see also for a description of the events in the genocide G. Prunier The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (London, 1995); African Rights Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance (London, 1995)

[12] C. Kimber ‘Coming to Terms with Genocide in Rwanda and Burundi’ in International Socialism 2: 73 1996.

[13] Cited in Kimber, ‘Genocide in Rwanda’ unpublished

[14] See Kimber for excellent discussion of these processes, ‘Coming to Terms with Genocide in Rwanda and Burundi’

[15] K. Vlassenroot ‘Citizenship, Identity Formation and Conflict in South Kivu: the case of the Banyamulenge’ in Review of African Political Economy Vol. 29 No. 93/93 September/December 2002 pp.499-515; See also D. L. Schoenbrun, A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Genderand Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the Fifteenth Century (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998), p. 260.

[16] See L. Zeilig ed Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa (New Clarion Press, 2002) and Braeckman Le Dinosaure: le Zaire de Mobutu (Fayard, 1992).

[17] Cited by Madsen in his testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on International Operations 17 May 2001. Reprinted in full in New African September 2001.

[18] See W. Madsen Genocide and Covert Operations in Africa 1993-1999 (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999).

[19] H. Condurier ‘Ce que les services secrets francais savaient’ in Valeurs Actuelles 30 August 1997, 26 27.

[20] Cited in Kimber, ‘Genocide in Rwanda’.




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