International dimensions of the conflict in Eastern Congo

By IndepthAfrica
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Jun 7th, 2012
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The African territory which includes Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in virtually a state of war since 1995; that is at war with each other. This has engaged the national armies, militias, ‘civil defence’ groups, looters, pillagers, child abductors and abusers, rapists and murderers. Each category is not mutually exclusive. Virtually every category contains most if not all of the sociopathic designations. One can add to this the United Nations Peacekeepers whose range of social debilities accurately mimics those whose peace they are purported to be keeping.

The wars in the Eastern Congo have been responsible for the deaths of millions of Congolese who paid the price of living in a very rich and unmanaged country with failing or non-existent civil institutions. These wars, centred mainly in eastern Congo (North and South Kivu and Maniema) have involved nine African nations and directly affected the lives of 50 million Congolese.

Between August 1998 and April 2004 some 3.8 million people died violent deaths in the DRC. Since 2004 this number has almost doubled. Many of these deaths were due to starvation or disease that resulted from the war, as well as from summary executions and capture by one or more of a group of irregular marauding bands. Millions more had become internally displaced or had sought asylum in neighbouring countries. Rape was endemic.

By 1996, the war and genocide in neighbouring Rwanda had spread across the border into the DRC. Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe) were helped to escape from Rwanda by the French Army in Operation Tourquise. This allowed the creation of Hutu refugee camps in the DRC which were filled with Interahamwe escapees. Not surprisingly this attracted the attention of the victorious Tutsi in Rwanda and the Tutsis resident in the DRC (the Banyamulenge) who feared that these DRC-based Hutu camps would lead to attacks against Rwanda.

In October 1996, Tutsi-led Rwandan troops (RPA) entered the DRC with an armed coalition led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, known as the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL). Kabila was installed in power with the ouster of Mobuto on the 17 May 1997. Kabila declared himself president, consolidated power around himself and the AFDL, and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC’s military was renamed the Forces Armees Congolaises (FAC).

As the FAC was being reorganised the Rwandan troops took over the security in the East. They were confronted by several competing militias:

· The Interahamwe militia of ethnic Hutus, mostly from Rwanda, which fought the Tutsi-dominated Government of Rwanda;

· Hutu members of the former Rwandan Armed Forces, believed to be responsible for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, which also fought the Government of Rwanda;

· The Mai Mai, a loose association of traditional Congolese local defence forces, which fought the influx of Rwandan immigrants;

· The Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), made of up Ugandan expatriates and supported by the Government of Sudan, which fought the Government of Uganda; and

· Several groups of Hutus from Burundi fighting the Tutsi-dominated Government of Burundi.

During 1997, relations between Kabila and his former backers (Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda) deteriorated. In July 1998, Kabila ordered all foreign troops to leave the DRC. They refused to leave; claiming that the DRC troops could not defend their interests from the exile groups operating the Eastern Congo. On 2 August 1997, fighting erupted throughout the DRC as Rwandan troops ‘mutinied’, and fresh Rwandan and Ugandan troops entered the DRC. Kagame ordered his troops to attack Kinshasa to depose Kabila in the hopes that his Banyamulenge Tutsi allies in the newly formed Rwandan-backed rebel group called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) would take over. Soon after, Museveni created the rebel group called the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC) to fight for Uganda’s interests and sent into the Congo thousands of Ugandan soldiers. This campaign was impeded when Angolan, Zimbabwean, and Namibian troops intervened on behalf of the DRC.

However, this left the Eastern Congo (where the war was being fought), in the hands of Uganda and Rwanda with some sections held by the Mai-Mai and Burundi. This created a situation where the occupying forces could engage in the massive looting of eastern DRC’s riches. Numerous accounts and documents suggest that by 1997 a first wave of ‘new businessmen’ speaking only English, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili had commenced operations in eastern DRC. Theft of livestock, coffee beans and other resources began to be reported with frequency. By the time the August 1998 war broke out, Rwandans and Ugandans (top officers and their associates) had a strong sense of the potential of the natural resources, especially coltan, and their locations in eastern DRC.

The Ugandan decision to enter the conflict in August 1998 was defended by some top military officials who had served in eastern Zaire during the first war and who had had a taste of the business potential of the region. The Ugandan forces were eager to move in and occupy areas where gold and diamond mines were located. In September 1998 this looting was put in the hands of General General Salim Saleh (born Caleb Afande Akandwanaho, 14 January 1960), Museveni’s brother, a proven money-launderer, drug dealer, resource thief and plunderer. Salim Saleh formed a company which would supply the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo with merchandise, and would return with natural resources. The project never materialised in this form, but took the form of pure looting and pillage under the protection of the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni.

Despite their claims of a security concern generating their interest in the DRC, some top army officials clearly had a hidden agenda: economic and financial objectives. A few months before the 1998 war broke out, General Salim Saleh and the elder son of President Museveni reportedly visited the eastern DRC. One month after the beginning of the conflict, General James Kazini was already involved in commercial activities. He already knew the most profitable sectors and immediately organised the local commanders to serve their economic and financial objectives.

This was mirrored in the activities of the Rwandans. At the heart of the financial setting was the Banque de commerce, du développement et d’industrie (BCDI) located in Kigali. This was the initial vehicle through which all revenues were passed at the initial stages of Rwandan and Ugandan engagement in the DRC. Then, when the war broke out the Rwandans retained the BCDI as their conduit and the Ugandans set up their own. The extraction of minerals rose to a fever pitch as hostilities began with no attention to safe or rational methods of extraction.

In September 1999, the UPDF local commander demanded the extraction of gold from the pillars of the Gorumbwa mine galleries in which dynamite was used. The galleries collapsed, leading to the death of a number of Congolese miners. Some months later, Ugandan soldiers who came to mine in the same area contracted respiratory disease. Even when the local commanders were informed about the dangers of these activities, there was an acceptable level of tolerance for death and disease

Local Congolese have been mining for years for their own benefit as artisanal miners. The novelty of their involvement lies in the fact that some of them were used as ‘convincible labour’ to mine gold, diamonds or coltan. In the Bondo locality within Equateur Province, young men from 12 to 18 years were recruited by Jean-Pierre Bemba. The Ugandan allies trained the recruits and shared with them the idea that the Ugandan army was an ‘army of development’ that aimed at improving ordinary people’s living conditions. After the one-hour morning physical training session, they were sent to gold mines to dig on behalf of the Ugandans and Bemba.

In Kalima, the RPA commander Ruto enrolled two teams of local Congolese to dig coltan; these Congolese worked under the heavy guard of Rwandan soldiers. In the Kilo-Moto mineral district, Ugandan local commanders and some of the soldiers who guarded the different entry points of the mining areas allowed and encouraged the local population to mine. The arrangement between the soldiers and the miners was that each miner would leave at the entry/exit point one gram of gold every day. On average 2,000 individuals mined this large concession six days a week. It was so well organised that the business ran smoothly. On average 2kg of gold were delivered daily to the person heading the network.

The other form of organised extraction by the occupying forces involved the import of manpower for mining. Occupying forces brought manpower from their own countries and provided the necessary security and logistics. In particular, Rwanda utilised prisoners to dig coltan in exchange for a sentence reduction and limited cash to buy food. There were 1,500 Rwandan prisoners in the Numbi area of Kalehe alone. These prisoners were seen mining coltan while guarded by RPA soldiers.

The illegal exploitation of natural resources went beyond mineral and agricultural resources. It occurred in respect of financial transactions, taxes and the use of cheap labour. Local banks and insurance companies operating in Goma, Bukavu, Kisangani, Bunia and Gbadolite dealt directly with Kigali or Kampala. A system of tax collection – enforced in some cases – was implemented by MLC, RCD-ML and RCD Goma with their established Ugandan and Rwandan counterparts. In the rebels’ own words, these taxes were aimed at ‘financing or supporting the war effort’.

Indeed, part of the funds collected was sent to Kigali (in the case of RCD-Goma). In the case of the former RCD-ML and MLC, not only was part of the taxes sent to Kampala but also individual colonels would claim direct payment from RCD-ML. In Bunia and Bukavu, people protested, demonstrated and denounced this practice of abuse. In areas controlled by Bemba, peasants carrying palm oil on bicycles had to pay taxes on the bicycles. In the mining sector, direct extraction was carried out in three ways, namely (a) by individual soldiers for their own benefit; (b) by locals organised by Rwandan and Ugandan commanders; and (c) by foreign nationals for the army or commanders’ benefit.

This was the pattern of exploitation of the DRC and its human and mineral wealth even when peace agreements, like the Lusaka Accords which supposedly ended the war, were signed. Instead of warring armies Eastern Congo became controlled by warlords and militia groups whose exploitation took the form of pillage, rape and murder. Most of these groups have affinities with either the Rwandan or Ugandan governments which handle the physical trade in the wealth which is exported. The Rwandans have been backing ‘rebel’ military warlords like Laurent Nkunda or Bosco Ntanganda. These provide the fig leaf for Rwanda’s continuing rape of the Congo. Others do the same for Uganda. They operate with impunity. The people most responsible for the continuing atrocities are protected. These include Yoweri Museveni, Salim Saleh, Paul Kagame, James Kazini, Moses Ali, James Kabarebe, Taban Amin, Jean-Pierre Bemba, Laurent Nkunda, Bosco Ntanganda, Meles Zenawi and a long list of people whose culpability is without question; many of whom have been named for atrocities again and again. Bemba was finally brought to the ICC to stand trial. This was more to do with his political opposition to Kabila Junior and the Central African Republic than his depredations in the Eastern Congo.

Theoretically, the United Nations has teams of peacekeepers in the DRC as MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo); since 1 July 2010, MONUC was renamed the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). The track record of MONUC is not impressive. In the words of a Zimbabwean general: ‘They are like tits on a bull. They are there but serve no useful purpose!’ Two of the inbuilt reasons for their lack of success was (1) relying at the beginning on the French military who encamped at Ituri and refused to leave the city because the rebels killed two French officers on the first outing; and (2) relying on Rwandan troops to co-ordinate the fight against the rebels they are covertly supporting in the name of MONUSCO. This scheme offers limited optimism for the Congolese. In fact many peacekeepers of the MONUC were engaged in rape, murder and pillage for their own account. Some have been prosecuted and sent home. Their presence in the DRC adds to the fears of the population.

As this conflict is continuing, the world has turned its attention to another battle nearby; the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a Ugandan organisation with a bloody history. The Ugandan reaction to the LRA has been equally brutal. In September 1996 the government of Uganda put in place a policy of forced displacement of the Acholi in the Gulu district into displacement camps. Since 1996 this policy has expanded to encompass the entire rural Acholi population of four districts – one million people. These displacement camps have some of the highest mortality rates in the world with an estimated 1,000 people dying per week. The LRA has derived most of its support from the displaced and dominated Acholi people who have been driven from their homes and whose families remain in displacement camps.

Joseph Kony (born 1961) is the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) He has declared that the LRA will conduct a political, military and spiritual campaign to establish theocratic government based on the Ten Commandments in Uganda. The LRA say that God sent spirits to communicate this mission directly to Kony. The LRA has earned a reputation for its untrammelled violence against the people of several countries, including northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. The LRA has abducted and forced an estimated 66,000 children to fight for them, and has also forced the internal displacement of over 2 million people since its rebellion began in 1986. There were many international attempts at peace and an end to the abduction of children by the LRA between 1996 and 2001. All of them failed to end the abductions, rape, child soldiers, and civilian casualties including attacks on refugee camps. After the September 11th attacks, the United States declared the Lord’s Resistance Army a terrorist group and Joseph Kony a terrorist.

Following the breakdown of peace talks in late 2008, the National Security Council authorised AFRICOM to support a military operation (one of the first publicly-acknowledged AFRICOM operations) against the LRA, which was believed to be in the Congo at the time. AFRICOM provided training and US$1 million in financial support for ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’ – a joint endeavour of the Ugandan, Congolese and South Sudan forces in Congolese territory launched in December 2008 to ‘eliminate the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)’. According to the United Nations, the offensive ‘never consulted with partners on the ground on the requirements of civilian protection. Stretching over a three-month period, it failed in its mission and the LRA scattered and retaliated against the Congolese population; over 1,000 people were killed and up to 200,000 displaced.

This battle against the LRA has to be seen as a continuation of the battles in Eastern Congo. In October 2011, US President Obama authorised the deployment of approximately 100 combat-equipped U.S. troops to central Africa. They will help regional forces ‘remove from the battlefield’ Joseph Kony and senior LRA leaders. ‘Although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defence’, Obama said in a letter to Congress.

There is no doubt that the LRA is a vicious, sociopathic organisation which engages in brutal behaviour. However, the people who are leading the fight against the LRA (Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame) have committed and continue to commit equally outrageous crimes and attacks of a similar nature, especially among the displaced wanderers of the Eastern Congo, but are feted and rewarded by the US Government for their willingness to provide mercenaries for the US ‘War on Terror’ and the protection of the newly emerging oil industry in their countries and region. Unfortunately, the area in which the LRA conduct their atrocities is exactly where major new finds of oil have been discovered.

Underpinning the Western interest in the region is the discovery of oil in Kenya, Uganda and along the shores of Lake Albert. The war between Sudan and South Sudan has made it imperative to find a route for the oil to reach the ports of the Indian Ocean as the Sudan pipeline is closed to them. The routes out all go through the territory of the rump of the remaining LRA (there are less than 600 fighters left). This struggle against the LRA has allowed the US to continue its policy of building African mercenary armies to fight its battles against ‘Global Terror’ in the Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Kenya. It supplies weapons, instructors and communication facilities to the Ugandan and Rwandan armies to combat the LRA and to fight against the US’ enemies in Somalia. Unfortunately this has also empowered the Ugandans and Rwandans in the rape of the Eastern Congo in the name of fighting the LRA.

In 2009 Heritage Oil discovered oil in Uganda. There have also been sizeable finds in Kenya. In May 2012 Kenya announced its second profitable oil discovery in two months; and large oil deposits in the remote northern Turkana region. Kenya has become the latest African country to join the great African oil boom, following recent discoveries in Uganda and the DRC. Even Rwanda and Burundi will benefit from this oil as part of the East African Community (EAC). The EAC can count on a better energy future with the discovery of oil in Kenya, in addition to the substantial reserves in Uganda and the gas discovered in Tanzania. There are also explorations in the Lake Kivu Graven in Rwanda. South Sudan, with its large oil reserves, has applied for membership of EAC. There are large oil and gas fields in Somalia. Africa is the main continent in the world with frequent and substantial new findings of oil and gas. A joint report by the African Development Bank, African Union and the African Development Fund observed that oil reserves in Africa grew by over 25 per cent, while gas has grown by over 100 per cent since the late 1980s.

This ‘new horizon’ of African oil and gas has started to attract the big fish of the international oil industry, Chevron, Shell, Exxon, Total and the Chinese oil giants. This extraction process and the refineries which will accompany the flows will require vast sums of cash up front; money the Africans don’t have. There is a symbiosis involved in the activities of ‘Big Oil’ and Africa. Big Oil has the money, Africa has the untapped oil and gas and, most importantly, the military to protect the prospective investments. The US does not have the public support for the sending of combat troops to East and Central Africa. It does have the equipment, cash and trainers to create surrogate forces in the area. In this, having a common enemy, like the LRA, is a convenient hook on which to hang a commercial policy. The LRA doesn’t have to be strong; it just has to be considered vicious and beyond the pale. It matches those criteria. The US interests and the Ugandan and Rwandan military ambitions overlap and the two armies are being paid vast sums to act as US surrogates. Museveni and Kagame are feted by the West as valuable allies, despite their activities in the DRC.

This policy is likely to continue the unrestrained pillage of the Eastern Congo and the continued misery, poverty, fear and violence of and to the Congolese people. The Congolese echo the question posed originally by the Tribune of the People, Tiberius Gracchus, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who is going to protect us from our protectors?’).

  Dr. Gary K. Busch is an international trade unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political affairs and business consultant.

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