Western Intervention in the Great Lakes (Part 2)

by Carol Jean Gallo

An earlier article provided an overview of the shifting constellations of domestic and international forces that have shaped the history of Africa's Great Lakes region—in particular, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo—since the 1960s. It traced the story up to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)'s taking power in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994, and the subsequent flight of some two million Hutu refugees— including tens of thousands of Interahamwe, the militia which orchestrated the genocide—to eastern Congo.

The presence of ex-Rwandan Army (FAR) and Interahamwe exacerbated local conflicts over land and citizenship in the eastern DRC. This article—the second of a three-part series—provides an overview of these dynamics and Western involvement in them.

* * *

The First Congo War and Western Humanitarian Aid

When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in Rwanda following the genocide in 1994, some two million mostly Hutu refugees fled to eastern Congo—tens of thousands of ex-Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and Interahamwe along with them. By this point, Cold War-inspired support for Congo's President Mobutu was on the wane. With the foreign currency tap turned off, Mobutu struggled to sustain his patronage network.[1] The end of the Cold War also meant the end of Western military intervention to protect Mobutu, leaving him vulnerable to attack.[2]

Mobutu had been a supporter of the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda. When France and Belgium sent military support to help the Rwandan government repel the RPF invasion in 1990, Zaire sent help as well.[3] When the ex-FAR and Interahamwe fled to eastern Congo in 1994, Mobutu allowed them to set up their own administration in North Kivu. 

            

The ex-FAR established their headquarters ten miles from Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. Weapons confiscated from the ex-FAR by the French and handed over to the Zairian Army were sold back to the ex-FAR by Zairian officers. Further weakening Mobutu was his cancer diagnosis in 1996 and his growing disinterest in politics—he increasingly preferred to spend his time on his farms. 

International humanitarian aid agencies, for their part, needed the support of Mobutu in order to access the refugees in the east. But the ex-FAR and Interahamwe were allied with Mobutu, heavily armed, and controlled the refugee camps. They retained their command structures, replicating the préfecture-commune social organisation of Rwanda and intimidating the refugees with propaganda that they would be killed by Tutsis if they returned home to Rwanda. Some refugees were in fact killed, by Hutu extremists, when they expressed a desire to return home. 

Because Rwandan armed elements controlled the camps, they constituted a de facto authority that aid agencies felt compelled to accept. Refugee numbers were inflated to give the génocidaires’ forces access to humanitarian relief. Groups of Hutu Power sympathisers disguised themselves as community organisations and received foreign assistance. The situation was so dire that in November 1994, Médecins Sans Frontières withdrew from the Congo on the grounds that it was ‘ethically impossible for MSF to continue aiding and abetting the perpetrators of genocide’.[4]

The enormous international response to the refugee crisis in the mid-1990s, which delivered humanitarian assistance even when this entailed supporting violent political groups, contrasted sharply with the international response to the Rwandan genocide. 

In 1996, a coalition led by Laurent Kabila—the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL)—rebelled against Mobutu. Although Kabila wasn’t Tutsi, his rebellion was supported by Rwanda and Uganda and was largely Tutsi-led. Its initial objectives were not just to oppose Mobutu but to protect Tutsis on both sides of the Congo-Rwanda border. Many of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe in eastern Congo fought for Mobutu’s army

Faced with attacks from Hutu Power forces based in eastern Congo, the newly constituted Rwandan military (the RPA) felt entitled to support the anti-Mobutu AFDL coalition and, when Kabila failed to remain a loyal ally after the AFDL took Kinshasa, to invade Congo and go after the ex-FAR and Interahamwe. It invaded in 1998 after having received military support and training from the United States, a relationship that began even before the RPF took Kigali in 1994. 

Kabila’s Rwanda-backed rebels attacked the Hutu Power-controlled refugee camps, causing refugees and Hutu Power elements to flee. Most refugees fled east toward Rwanda, but the Hutu fighters, their families, and a number of civilians fled west. Many Hutu refugees were massacred by Kabila’s forces and the RPA as they chased the ex-FAR deeper into Congo. This provided fodder for Hutu Power groups, which stoked anti-Tutsi sentiment and violence. 

Historical and Ethnopolitical Dynamics

In addition to this regional Hutu-Tutsi dynamic, the instability caused by the activities of Hutu Power groups and by the subsequent Rwanda- and Uganda-backed AFDL rebellion in Congo exacerbated older, more localised divisions, as well as conflicts that pitted autochtone’ or ‘indigenous’ Congolese against the ‘foreign’ Banyarwanda

Citizenship and ethnopolitical identity have intricate histories in the Great Lakes region, particularly in Rwanda and the eastern DRC, and the way those histories are told have enormous and often problematic contemporary political implications.[5] I will undoubtedly reproduce some problematic simplifications here, but I hope to keep them to a minimum. This background is important because of the ways in which identity issues inform contemporary regional politics, and because it demonstrates how even well-intentioned Western intervention can backfire when the context is not fully understood. 

Rwanda comprises four main ethnic communities: Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, and Bazungu.[6] The Tutsi kingdom was the foundation of the state of Rwanda, established in the fifteenth century. As the state expanded ‘Hutu’ came to refer to all those who came under its jurisdiction.[7] The Twa, who make up a very small percentage of the Rwandan population, live in the forest and are sometimes referred to as ‘Pygmies’. The Bazungu came from Europe in the nineteenth century and, although they never made up more than one percent of the population of Rwanda, came to control the vast majority of the country’s wealth. They ruled politically through the Tutsi aristocracy. Despite the fact that Hutu held important positions in the Tutsi-led state, the Bazungu regarded the Tutsi as superior to the Hutu and Twa and natural rulers over them.[8] They took Hutu out of positions of power, ruled that only Tutsis could be government officials, and forbade Hutu from higher education.[9]

In the pre-colonial period 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' were probably, above all, socioeconomic categories.[10] One could rise to social level of a Tutsi or drop to Hutu status.[11] In nineteenth century Rwanda the Bazungu began the process of racializing this relatively fluid social distinction.[12] In 1933 Belgium held a census in Rwanda in which these socioeconomic divisions were legally codified into distinct ethnic strata.[13] It was through, first, the systematic subjugation of the Hutu peasant class by both Bazungu colonists and the Tutsi monarchy, and second, the racialization of these categories,[14] that Hutu became in effect an ethnopolitical community.[15]

The Tutsi monarchy ruled Rwanda until a 1959 Hutu “social” revolution[16] prompted many Tutsi to flee Rwanda for refuge in Uganda. Some of them made a number of attempts between 1959 and 1967 to retake Kigali.[17] Complicating matters was Belgium’s abandonment of the Tutsi elite in the late 1950s in favour of the Hutu majority, under pressure from other international powers at the UN advocating decolonization and Western-style democracy. For Belgium, democracy was tantamount to Hutu majority rule.[18] For Rwanda's Tutsi elite, which for decades had been taught by colonial and missionary schools and superstructures the myth of Tutsi supremacy, the Bazungu’s swapping of allegiances with independence on the horizon was alarming.[19]

Shortly after Rwandan independence in 1962 another Hutu rebellion against Tutsi rule provoked the flight of 130,000 Tutsi to Burundi, Uganda, Congo, and Tanzania. In 1963 a Tutsi insurrection from across the Burundi border was crushed by Rwanda's Hutu president. Following the insurrection Tutsi politicians in Rwanda were executed and Hutu vigilantes massacred over 5,000 men, women and children.[20]

The term 'Banyarwanda' refers to Kinyarwanda-speakers from Rwanda, and includes Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Congo is home to many Banyarwanda (as well as its own Congolese Hutu and Tutsi communities, depending on the way you look at it: many of those born in Congo, including those who are multiple generations in-Congo, are still viewed by many as ‘foreign’ Banyarwanda). Most scholars agree that by the end of the nineteenth century Tutsi immigrants from Rwanda had arrived and settled in South Kivu, including the area around Mulenge.[21]

In Congo in the 1960s, the descendants of the Banyarwanda Tutsi that had migrated in the nineteenth century began to refer to themselves as ‘Banyamulenge’—those coming from Mulenge. They did this to differentiate themselves from the Banyarwanda refugees fleeing from the Hutu rebellions next door, and to remove all doubt as to their citizenship.[22]

The status of Congo's Banyarwanda was a contentious issue, and an important one, since citizenship status determined land ownership rights. The 1964 constitution stipulated that Kinyarwanda speakers who were ‘transplanted’ from Rwanda to Congo between 1930 and 1954 would not be entitled to Congolese nationality. A 1965 law decreed that their descendents could choose to have Congolese nationality. A 1971 law then granted nationality to Banyarwanda who were established in Congo before 1960—but the following year, a decree was passed that denied nationality to Banyarwanda who arrived in Congo after 1 January 1950.[23]

Ten years later, in 1981, a decree was passed that revoked Congolese nationality from any Banyarwanda who couldn’t trace their ancestry in Congo back to 1885. A 1997 United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs briefing summarises the issue: 

Banyarwandan political influence ended when the Zairean parliament passed decree law No. 81-002 on 29 July 1981, amending law No. 71-020 of 26 March 1971, which had granted nationality on a collective basis to the Banyarwanda. The new law retroactively removed Zairean nationality and hence property rights from many Banyarwandans by granting nationality to only those who could prove that their ancestors had lived in Zaire since 1885… The Banyarwandans hoped that the nationality question would be resolved following the move to political pluralism and the opening of the 1991 National Conference (CNS). However, the CNS upheld the law. Following the Banyarwandans' loss of Zairean nationality, the Hunde, later aided by the presence of unpaid units of Zairean soldiers, tried to drive the Hutu and Tutsis out of the region.’ 

By the late 1990s in Congo, then, groups had emerged in opposition to both Hutu and Tutsi Banyarwanda migrants. In addition to this Banyarwanda vs. ‘autochtone dynamic, anti-Tutsi propaganda was spread by ex-FAR and Interahamwe. Identity in some places was polarised in such a way as to unite Congolese and Rwandan Hutu against Congolese and Rwandan Tutsi. In 1996, a coalition of ex-FAR and sympathetic Hutu militia formed the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALiR)

Laurent Kabila became president of Congo in 1997 after the AFDL overthrew the government with the help of Rwanda and Uganda (the latter had also lost patience with Mobutu's failure to deal with Ugandan rebels based in Congo). Under public political pressure over the prominence in his government and military of Rwandan elements, Kabila soon distanced himself from his former backers, to the point of antagonising them altogether and, in 1998, purging Tutsi from government posts. That same year, ALiR led an uprising that was defeated by the Rwandan Army

1998 thus marks the start of the Second Congo War. The Rwandan and Ugandan armies invaded eastern DRC, on the grounds that the Congo government was not adequately dealing with their respective rebel threats. But they also supported their own Congolese rebel groups: Rwanda supported the RCD militia, which emerged on a platform of defending Tutsis in the east, while Uganda backed its own Congolese militia, the MLC. Kabila, looking for allies in repelling the Rwandan and Ugandan armies and their allied militias, joined forces with ALiR

The committee that would eventually form the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) at first did not want to team up with ALiR because of its reputation as being made up of former génocidaires and of retaining an anti-Tutsi genocidal ideology. However in September 2000, ALiR and the FDLR merged. The FDLR was formed in part by the ex-FAR, Interahamwe, and ALiR; their intent was to re-take Kigali, and this continues to be a security threat for both Rwanda and Congo. 

It was also around this time that many Mai Mai groups emerged. These were generally community-based groups that were assembled to protect themselves, their interests and their local territory. In the early 2000s some were large and powerful, some were small and organic, some were allied with the Congolese government, some were allied with Rwanda and the RCD, some were allied with other groups, and often their alliances shifted according to advantage. They remain a disparate collection of groups to this day. 

This political background is essential for understanding Western involvement in the DRC precisely because it is so contentious and sensitive. Without appreciating the complexity of the region’s history and politics, a description of Western involvement says little about, or completely misunderstands, what exactly it is involved in, who it is supporting, who it is antagonizing and why. 

The Rwandan and Ugandan armies soon came to control access to a number of natural resources in the area, including coffee, timber, livestock, and minerals. They, along with Burundi, exported these Congolese resources home and then re-exported them as their own products. The Rwandan army made millions from the exploitation of coltan, which is used in the production of many electronics.[24] In 2000, international demand skyrocketed with the impending release of Playstation II and a slew of new gadgets like smart phones.[25] With the new demand came a huge rise in the price of coltan.

This intensified the political conflicts in the region. Rwanda and Uganda occupied parts of the eastern provinces, while Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan intervened on behalf of the government in Kinshasa. 

In 1999 the Congo government reached a ceasefire—the Lusaka Agreement—based on the withdrawal of all foreign armies from and the demobilization of armed groups in Congo. The agreement was signed by the Kinshasa government, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, the MLC and the RCD.[26] The FDLR and the various Mai Mai groups were not party to the agreement, however, and dealing with them would prove a particular challenge. The Lusaka Agreement was the beginning of a peace process which culminated with an ostensible end to the regional conflict in 2003—but which failed to address the deepest historical roots of the conflict. 

A UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, was established to monitor the ceasefire and the demobilization and repatriation of foreign armed groups. In 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated and succeeded by his son Joseph, who in 2002 did what his father was unable or unwilling to: he reached agreements with Rwanda and Uganda on the withdrawal of their forces from the Congo. 

The extreme violence—particularly sexual violence—associated with this war made compelling reading in the West. This eventually generated a narrative abroad which held that the armed groups committing these atrocities were fighting primarily over access to resources—resources which eventually found their way into Westerners’ cell phones. This inspired a movement in the U.S. to combat “conflict minerals”. This led in turn to a provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act which requires American companies to disclose whether their products contain "conflict minerals" and, if so, to submit a report on the measures taken to "exercise due diligence on the source and chain of custody". It does not require similar due diligence reports from, for instance, coffee or timber companies, and “conflict minerals” applies to whole kinds of minerals, regardless of whether or not they have or are thought to have financed an armed group. 

Political Developments: 1999 - 2009

Uganda and Rwanda officially withdrew from the DRC in 2002-03. In Congo's Ituri region the security vacuum left by the retreating Ugandans enabled another conflict, which was brought under control by an emergency European Union force. The Ituri conflict ostensibly ended with peace agreements in 2003 and 2004

The Lusaka process and the 2003 peace agreements mark the beginning of a strategy by international actors and the Congolese government to integrate former rebels into the national army in return for dissolving their militias. The 2003 peace agreement provided for a transitional constitution and a transitional government in which the four main rebel leaders became vice-presidents. This included the MLC and RCD, which became political parties. 

Elections were held in 2006, and the country received enormous amounts of international support in order to carry them out. There were some irregularities, but they were generally declared by international observers to have been free and fair. Kabila’s main competitor was Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the vice-presidents, who had been head of the MLC. In 2008 Bemba was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor.

Fighting in 2008 between the FARDC (the new government army, reorganized and renamed per the 2003 peace agreement) and the CNDP (a rebel group formed by a former senior RCD officer, Laurent Nkunda, in 2006) led to a deal in 2009 in which Kinshasa agreed to let Kigali send troops into Congo for joint operations against the FDLR. In return, Rwanda was to cease its support for Nkunda. The CNDP split into two factions, one led by Nkunda and one led by Bosco Ntaganda; Nkunda was arrested by Rwandan officials in January 2009, and Ntaganda agreed to integrate his troops into the national army and turn CNDP into a political party. Ntaganda is wanted by the ICC for war crimes committed in 2002-03. 

By 2005, Congo also had to contend with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group internationally notorious for its abduction of children and ruthless massacres. Previously based outside Uganda in Southern Sudan, where it received support from the Sudanese government against their SPLA rebels, the 2005 peace deal in that country compelled them to find a new base, and they moved to eastern Congo. Other foreign armed groups in eastern DRC are the ADF (a Ugandan Islamist group) and FNL (a Burundian rebel group). 

With this background established, one can better understand the implications of Western involvement in the Great Lakes region since 2009, which will be examined in part three. 

Carol Jean Gallo is a freelance writer and a PhD student at Cambridge University. She blogs for UN Dispatch and keeps her own blog at Usalama.



[1] Aside from citations indicating otherwise, this section is based on information provided in chapter 28 of Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005)

[2] Ola Olsson and Heather Congdon Fors, “Congo: the Prize of Predation,” Journal of Peace Research 41:3 (May 2004), pp. 79 & 83, and Stefaan Marysse, “Regress and War: The Case of the DR Congo,” European Journal of Development Research 15:1 (June 2003), p. 333

[3] Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 211

[4] Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of 50 Years of Independence (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), p. 527

[5] For more on this, see: Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton UP, 2002); Peter Uvin, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda (Kumarian, 1998); and Koen Vlassenroot, “Citizenship, Identity Formation & Conflict in South Kivu: The Case of the Banyamulenge,” Review of African Political Economy 29:93/94 (Sept.-Dec. 2002), pp. 499-515

[6] Uvin, Aiding Violence, Chapter 1

[7] Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, p. 101

[8] Uvin, Aiding Violence, p. 16

[9] Human Rights Watch & Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de L’Homme, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999)

[10] See Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), Chapter 1

[11] Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, p. 101

[12] Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination From Sparta to Darfur (Yale UP, 2007), p. 555

[13] Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, p. 98

[14] See Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers

[15] By this I mean a group that defines itself and/or is defined by others as ethnically distinct, and which acts politically on the basis of belonging to that group; or which comes to identify itself as an ethnic group on the basis of belonging to a particular political group; or a combination of the two.

[16] Daniel Tetteh Osabu-Kle, Compatible Cultural Democracy: The Key to Development in Africa (Broadview Press, 2000), p. 220

[17] United Nations, The Blue Helmets: A Review of United Nations Peace-keeping (UN Department of Public Information, 1996), p. 341

[18] Osabu-Kle, Compatible Cultural Democracy, p. 220

[19] Osabu-Kle, Compatible Cultural Democracy, pp. 220 – 221

[20] Meredith, Fate of Africa, p. 487

[21] Vlassenroot, “Citizenship, Identity Formation,” p. 502

[22] Meredith, Fate of Africa, p. 529

[23] See Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, “Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Procedure and conditions for Congolese nationals of Rwandan origin to reinstate their nationality,” UNHCR Refworld, January 2006; accessed at http://tinyurl.com/au2xkve on 22 January 2013; and Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacekeeping (Cambridge UP, 2010), pp. 136 – 137

[24] Carol Jean Gallo, “The Informal Economy and Resource Exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” St. Antony’s International Review (Oxford University), 7:2 (February 2012), pp. 8 – 31

[25] Nadira Lalji, “The Resource Curse Revised: Conflict and Coltan in the Congo,” The Harvard International Review 29:3 (Fall 2007), p. 35; and Stefaan Marysse, “Regress and War: The Case of the DR Congo,” European Journal of Development Research 15:1 (June 2003), p. 90

[26] International Crisis Group, “Rwandan Hutu Rebels in the Congo: A New Approach to Disarmament and Reintegration,” Africa Report No. 63, 23 May 2003, p. 1

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First published: 05 February, 2013

Category: Foreign policy, History, International, Racism

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