New Left Project

Western Intervention in the Great Lakes (Part 1)

When most Westerners think of Western involvement in the Congo, they probably think in terms of humanitarian assistance or atrocity prevention. I hope, in the limited space provided, to give a more layered overview of Western involvement that reveals the dynamic character of both sets of actors. 

To begin, it’s important to see Western involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in its historical context. That history begins with Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth century and the subsequent devastation of the Kongo Kingdom by the slave trade; continues with the peculiar personal ownership of the vast region by the Belgian king in the nineteenth century; and still affects the country today as a result of Belgian colonial policies in the twentieth century.[1] 

From the era of European imperialism onward, the economy was bifurcated. Africans were not allowed to participate in the official economy of the colonial state, so any economic activity they engaged in was 'unofficial' or 'informal'. These economic networks continued to function and evolve after independence. 

Independence came in 1960, and the next year Western powers were insidiously involved in the planning and execution of the assassination of Congo’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. (Belgium recently reopened an inquiry into the killing.) At the same time, Belgium supported the secession of Katanga, a mineral rich province in the southeast where Belgian mining companies had large concessions. While the Belgians sent troops to Katanga to protect Belgian civilians and support the secessionists, the government in Kinshasa requested the help of the UN to keep Congo united and evict Belgian troops. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed between 1960 and 1964, which eventually saw the reintegration of Katanga back into the Congo. 

Mobutu Sese Seko officially consolidated power in 1965 with the help of his Western allies. The country was named Zaire in 1971 as part of Mobutu’s authenticité campaign. Thanks to Cold War delirium and his skill at fashioning himself as an anti-Communist 'traditional' African leader, Mobutu was able to secure a steady flow of cash from the international financial institutions (IFIs—the IMF and World Bank).[2] Mobutu had been chosen by Western powers as a patron after Lumumba failed to convince them he wasn’t in league with the Soviets, and after he antagonised the Belgians during the Katanga secession. Mobutu promised to be a loyal ally of the West in exchange for Western support in bringing him to power. 

By the 1970s, after a disastrous attempt to nationalize all privately owned businesses, the official economy was in a shambles and the state was in enormous debt. As a Western ally, seen as a critical friend in the fight against Communism, Mobutu was able to continue borrowing from the IFIs without undertaking the economic reforms he promised them he would; and often without paying them back. In the meantime, the country continued to accrue debt. Mobutu used the economic and military support he received from the West to finance his patronage network, quell domestic opposition, and purchase luxury housing in Europe. The second economy remained a lifeline for ordinary Congolese.[3] 

Western support for Mobutu waned when the Cold War ended, and by the time an anti-Mobutu coalition had formed with support from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda in 1996, only France was still interested in propping up his regime; an interest which it soon dropped. In the absence of support from his Western allies, Mobutu was vulnerable and the rebels easily took the capital, toppling Mobutu, in 1997. After rebel leader Laurent Kabila became president, the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The West and Rwanda

Coinciding with these political developments was the genocide and civil war in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The Hutu dominated government of President Habyarimana was a long-time ally of France. 

In the geopolitics of the region, France was keen to maintain a francophone sphere of influence in central Africa. This entailed support for French speaking regimes such as Mobutu and Habyarimana. In 1994, discussing the crumbled Arusha process, the special counsellor for African affairs at the French President’s office told scholar Gérard Prunier, 'We won’t have any of these meetings in Tanzania. The next one has to be in Kinshasa. We cannot let anglophone countries decide on the future of a francophone one.'[4] 

In addition to being Rwanda’s largest bilateral aid donor throughout the 1980s, France signed an agreement with Rwanda that guaranteed military support to the government, including ground troops, in order to ensure the Habyarimana regime’s security. 

The United States, on the other hand, was allied with the anglophone Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invited its leader Paul Kagame—now the president of Rwanda—and his comrades to receive military training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The RPF was formed in the mid-1980s, and emerged from the community of Tutsi refugees in Uganda; they had fled there after the 1959 revolution, and many of them had fought in Museveni’s army— which took power in Uganda in 1986. The U.S. interest in the region was in part to cultivate its own sphere of influence, with staunch political allies who would also implement market liberalisation policies favoured by Washington, as well as to counter Islamic fundamentalist influence that might spread from Sudan.[5] 

The RPF invaded Rwanda from the north in 1990. This marked the start of the Rwandan civil war, which culminated in peace talks in 1992 and the Arusha Accords in 1993. A peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was deployed in December 1993 to monitor the ceasefire and implementation of the peace accords. 

There were several problems with the Arusha process, however, and on April 6, 1994, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, killing all those on board.[6] The death of the president sparked a full-fledged genocide against Tutsi and the targeting of politically moderate Hutu in Rwanda. Hard-liners in the government, in the FAR (Rwandan Armed Forces), and allied militias (notably, the Interahamwe) orchestrated the genocide. 

France was initially the only permanent member of the UN Security Council to express any real interest in Rwanda.[7] Under the aforementioned bilateral military aid agreement, Habyarimana summoned Paris for assistance when the RPF invaded in 1990. French forces were sent immediately and were able to keep the RPF from reaching Kigali, and Paris continued to provide support and military aid to the government even after the genocide began. The day after Habyarimana’s death, hard-liners in the Rwandan Army killed ten Belgian peacekeepers, with the intention of compelling the force to withdraw. The interim prime minister, Madame Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, was also murdered.[8] 

A detailed 1999 report investigating the genocide, by Human Rights Watch and the Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH), summarises the Belgian reaction to the murder of ten of its UNAMIR peacekeepers: 

'On April 8, the day after learning that the ten peacekeepers had been killed, the Belgian cabinet decided that Belgian participation in UNAMIR would end unless the mandate were broadened and the force were strengthened—with soldiers from a country other than Belgium. Hours earlier, the Belgian ambassador at the UN had informed Brussels that certain 'permanent' members of the Security Council had decided against any such broadening of the mandate. So by the time members of the cabinet made this decision, they presumably knew that the U.S. and the UK, and apparently France as well, would block any broadening of the mandate. They submitted the request to Boutros-Ghali anyway but made no serious effort to win support for the proposal. On April 9, Belgian authorities knew that Nigeria still favoured a broader mandate and intended to work for such a change in the week to come, but on April 10 they decided that the mandate was not likely to be strengthened and they made the decision to end Belgian participation in UNAMIR.' 

By this time, although some officials at the State Department pushed for 'firm action', U.S. policymakers at the highest level were working to limit U.S. involvement in peacekeeping. They began to see the conflict as senseless 'tribalism' that the U.S. could do little about, and this sentiment was reinforced by the killing of American troops in Mogadishu in October 1993. The Clinton administration issued a presidential directive decreeing that the U.S. would not engage in peacekeeping unless there was a direct national interest in doing so, and when reports of the violence hit the international news media Clinton officials refused to use the 'g word,' fearing that it might oblige them to take decisive action. 

Meanwhile, the French government, or French companies with government authorisation, sent arms to the FAR five times in May and June 1994 via Zaire. On 5 May the French government officially announced the suspension of arms shipments to Rwanda. The director of SOFREMAS, a state-owned company that manages transactions between French arms manufacturers and other countries, said that the company cancelled an $8 million order once the arms embargo of May 17 went into effect, and that no more arms shipments were sent to Rwanda after that. But neither the French government nor SOFREMAS mentioned halting arms shipments to Zaire. In fact, the director of SOFREMAS himself admitted that 'it is possible and even probable that Mobutu’s government agreed to have Goma serve as a conduit for material meant for Rwanda'. 

In interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch and FIDH in 1997 and 1998, Rwandan military sources asserted that Captain Paul Barril, a French policeman who served as a security consultant to Habyarimana, was hired by the Ministry of Defense to conduct a military training program in the northwest. Despite his connections to the French president, Barril claims that while he was in Rwanda he acted independently. The training program was intended to recruit volunteers to attack the RPF behind enemy lines, and was code-named Operation Insecticide

The French eventually sent in a peacekeeping force of its own, ostensibly to protect civilians and prevent further massacres, in June 1994, called Operation Turquoise. The mission was authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. When the French foreign minister approached the head of UNAMIR, Roméo Dallaire, to request support for Turquoise, Dallaire swore at him. 'As far as I was concerned,' he writes, 'they were using a humanitarian cloak to intervene in Rwanda' to support what little strength and legitimacy the government had left.[9] 

The RPF finally took Kigali, bringing an end to the war and genocide, on 4 July 1994. The United States continued to support them, as well as the Museveni regime in Kampala. The RPF allegedly received counterinsurgency and combat training from U.S. Special Forces. 

Operation Turquoise was deployed in the southeast to much fanfare, especially on the part of Hutu hard-liners, who thought the French were finally arriving to help them defeat the RPF (indeed, many of the French troops were also under the impression this was part of their mission, even the main objective). But another, smaller, contingent was deployed quietly, with almost no international attention, in the northwest. 

While they made a show for the journalists of dismantling roadblocks and disarming militia in the southeast, the 200 elite forces that arrived in the northwest did not intervene with army or militia activity. The Human Rights Watch/FIDH report suggests that this elite force was deployed to protect the recently ousted regime, and was seen refuelling Rwandan Army vehicles. 

Human Rights Watch and FIDH also document human rights abuses and killings perpetrated by the RPF

Once the RPF took Kigali, approximately two million mostly Hutu refugees fled to eastern Zaire. About 40,000 Interahamwe, the militia primarily responsible for the genocide against the Tutsi, fled along with them.[10] The Interahamwe organized themselves in the refugee camps, duly took advantage of the presence of Western humanitarian aid there, plotted to re-take Kigali, and attacked Rwanda from eastern Congo. As the new Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) marched west into Zaire in pursuit of the Hutu militia, it attacked civilian Hutu refugees and massacred approximately 200,000 of them. 

The presence of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe exacerbated local conflicts over land and citizenship in eastern DRC. By the late 1990s, a Rwandan-supported rebel group (the RCD) and a Ugandan-supported rebel group (the MLC) had formed. By 2000, a group formed that was composed in large part of ex-FAR and Interahamwe: the FDLR. Local defence militias, collectively known as Mai Mai, also emerged. 

Part two of this article will provide an overview of these dynamics and Western involvement in them. 

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] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)

[2] Kevin C. Dunn, Imagining the Congo: The International Relations of Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

[3] Janet MacGaffey, The Real Economy of Zaire: The Contribution of Smuggling and Other Unofficial Activities to National Wealth (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991)

[4] Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (Columbia UP, 1997), p. 279

[5] See Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis, pp. 279-80

[6] On the Arusha process, see Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Da Capo, 2004)

[7] See Dallaire, Shake Hands, p. 62

[8] Nicole Hogg, "Women's participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters?" International Review of the Red Cross 92.877 (Mar 2010), p. 75

[9] Dallaire, Shake Hands, p. 425

[10] Ola Olsson and Heather Congdon Fors, "Congo: The Prize of Predation," Journal of Peace Research 41.3 (May 2004), p. 323

About this article

Published on 21 December, 2012
By Carol Jean Gallo