Congo, Part III...Laurent Kabila
As we pick up our story, the genocide which took place in
Rwanda as a result of the Tutsi / Hutu conflict of 1994 left about
one million Hutu refugees in the eastern part of Zaire (Congo).
Zaire''s President Mobutu allowed the refugees to stay. Sick with
prostate cancer, he began to lose control and he didn''t see the
growing insurrection movement in the east.
While the Tutsis were in control in Rwanda, the Hutus hanging
out in Zaire used the country as a base for their attacks on
Rwanda. Needless to say this wasn''t a good situation. So
Rwanda decided to back a rebellion of disaffected Tutsi officers
in Mobutu''s own army (they hadn''t been paid in months), getting
help from Uganda and Angola.
In October 1996, a former guerrilla fighter and nightclub owner
(the combination actually makes sense), Laurent Kabila, was
placed in charge of the rebel force. Meeting little resistance, he
rapidly advanced west towards the capital of Kinshasa. [It
should be noted that the West was not coming to Mobutu''s aid at
On May 16, 1997, Kabila''s army was ready to take control when
the ailing Mobutu stepped down, flew to Morocco, and died
some 3 months later. Kabila then declared himself president and
changed the country''s name from Zaire back to Congo.
Kabila pledged to revitalize Congo, halt corruption, and improve
the infrastructure, while preparing the nation for free elections.
Regarding the latter, he said he would hold them once Congo
established appropriate institutions.
At first, the people gave him a chance. After the dictatorship of
Mobutu, Kabila was seen as the great liberator. But when the
foreign troops didn''t appear to be leaving any time soon, and
after the president banned pants and short skirts on women,
initial support for his rule fell quickly.
Kabila had to deal with the fact that Rwanda and Uganda, his
benefactors, were really out for Congo''s riches and weren''t
exactly concerned about the 50 million people. Kabila was just
their tool. So they became enemies.
Rwanda accused the former nightclub owner of supporting Hutu
militiamen (remember, Rwanda was ruled by Tutsis), and in
August 1998, Uganda and Rwanda backed a second rebellion for
the purpose of overthrowing Kabila. Confusing?
With eastern Congo back under rebel control, Kabila received
aid from Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Chad. [Burundi sent
troops to Congo, but mainly to battle its own rebels who were
hiding out there.] Voila! Africa''s First World War.
Tens of thousands died in the ensuing fighting and over 2 million
were displaced. Food was hard to come by and many began to
starve, with the death toll from famine and disease, alone,
placed at an additional 1.5 million!
Why all of the interest from these other nations? Most simply
wanted a piece of the diamond and oil markets, with the
resources helping to prop up their own tottering regimes back
The mass chaos only got worse when the original rebel group
(from back in 1996), the Congolese Rally for Democracy, split in
two, with Rwanda backing one force and Uganda the other. So
now you had these two slugging it out inside Congo. In one
artillery duel last summer, over 600 were killed, mostly innocent
villagers. And throughout all of this, the ethnic strife between
the Hutus and the Tutsis continued to take its own toll.
Finally, in the summer of 1999, a peace accord was brokered
whereby the UN was to establish a peacekeeping force of 5,500
within Congo. Only one problem, no one wanted to be part of it.
So the fighting continued, though at a reduced level.
Then this past January, Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one
of his disgruntled bodyguards. No coup had been planned, just
your basic "payback time." So Kabila''s 29-year-old son Joseph
(he''s been variously described as being anywhere between 29
and 31 years of age), assumed the presidency. And two weeks
ago, a new effort to restart the peace process appeared to gain
some traction. The UN has vowed to place 500 military
observers in the field, backed by 2,500 troops. But, again, no
one is stepping forward to lead the force.
So, as Joseph Kabila has one sleepless night after another while
he awaits a bullet to the head, we have a situation where Rwanda
still has 20,000 troops within Congo, Uganda 10,000, Zimbabwe
2,000, Angola 7,000, and Namibia 2,000. As for Zimbabwe and
their dirtball leader Robert Mugabe, he can''t withdraw his
presence in Congo because the diamond concession that he is
taking as tribute is the only thing keeping himself in power. If he
lost the ability to bribe his generals, they''d probably kill him too.
Africa...a country of immense potential. But as columnist
Gwynne Dyer put it recently, "No other part of the world is
suffering remotely similar levels of violence, social breakdown
and economic collapse." 40 years ago, when the nations of
Africa began to win their independence, they were more
developed, better educated, and had higher living standards than
they do today. Hopefully, the people will rise up and take
control of their own destiny.
R. W. Johnson / London Times
"Africana," Gates and Appiah
Ian Fisher / New York Times
Howard French / New York Times
Gwynne Dyer / Star-Ledger