GREAT LAKES REGION IN TURMOIL by B. Skanthakumar (London - 5th January 1997)
I The threat of foreign military intervention in Zaire (Congo-Kinshasa) has receded. The dismantling of the Rwandan Bahutu refugee camps there and the flight of those people has removed the stated goal of this "humanitarian operation". However from the start, it seemed that the western powers were far more concerned over the success of anti-Mobutu forces and the stability of their client regime in Zaire than the lives of the refugees. The Rwandan military leader General Paul Kagame bitterly commented to the Belgian daily Le Soir, "The more people talk about it, the more ridiculous this becomes .... For us, it's a matter of using a humanitarian pretext on Mobutu's behalf." The most vocal advocates for a military operation were the French government, which is notoriously compromised in the region for its backing of dictators and involvement in the suppression of popular movements, but also the many aid agencies active in the region. In this regard these NGOs are indeed Africa's new missionaries. The old missionaries brought religion and demanded colonial government to "civilise the natives". The new missionaries bring food parcels and demand "humanitarian intervention" because they have claimed the right to speak on behalf of the silenced and suffering. They know what is best, and what is best is for a permanent dependency of people upon them and the legitimisation of their work in the grand project to recolonise Sub-Saharan Africa. These NGOs, with a few honourable exceptions like Oxfam, invented mortality figures in the camps, plucked out of thin air the 'fact' that one million people would die in the absence of western troops in the region securing the distribution of food and medical supplies. They were completely irresponsible in demanding further western military interference whose goal would have been to defeat the rebellion against the Zaireois dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and instead of disarming the militias which had run the refugee camps, would have supported them in the consolidation of a Bahutu supremacist outpost in eastern Zaire. Alex de Waal of African Rights in an excellent critique of N.G.O. policy in the region summed it up, "Who could imagine a political solution in a situation in which one side, the Hutu extremists, does not believe the other has a right to exist? If we are not prepared to go and destroy the Hutu militias we should not stand in the way of the people who are prepared to do so".(1) The camps near the Zaireois towns of Goma and Bukavu had become havens for the leaders of the Interahamwe Bahutu militia, the former Rwandan armed forces and politicians and intellectuals of Bahutu supremacist ideology. That is, the instigators of the 1994 genocide of the Batutsi minority in Rwanda.(2) Some of the civilians in these camps participated in that genocide and fear returning to Rwanda because they will be identified by their former neighbours and other survivors in the genocide trials. However many refugees have remained in those camps over the last two years against their will. They were used as human shields not only to physically protect the real scoundrels but also to justify the existence of these camps as a Hutu homeland in exile, while they exaggerated the real population of these camps to obtain increased supplies they can sell on the open market to Zaireois townspeople in return for cash to finance their activities. Even at the height of the fighting around the camps people were forcibly prevented from returning to Rwanda by militia leaders who assured them, "they would soon be attacking Rwanda and we would all go back together" said one woman refugee speaking to The Guardian.(3) While thousands have been driven deeper into Zaire, around 600 000 refugees have returned to Rwanda, abandoning the camps which had been a destabilising factor in the region. (4) Using the camps, Bahutu militias had mounted cross border raids into Rwanda, selectively killing witnesses to the 1994 genocide who might testify against them. They were also stock-piling arms and ammunition purchased from the west including from at least one British company. It was an open secret that Goma airport was the destination for regular airlifts of military equipment but western governments had done nothing to turn off the supply. Preparations have been underfoot ever since the exodus from Rwanda after the R wandan Patriotic Front took control ending the genocide, for the Bahutu supremacists to begin a military campaign against the new government. This would have plunged the entire Great Lakes region into years of low intensity war and undone the healing that is underway in Rwanda. The Rwandan government had been trying for months to reach agreement with the Zaireois central government on the repatriation of the refugees. They wanted to prevent the camps being used as they were and to prove that their administration would not victimise Bahutu as the previous Bahutu government victimised Batutsi and genuinely wished to build an inclusive society and not the "Tutsi empire" spanning the Great Lakes that their detractors insist is on the cards. In August, Zaireois Prime Minister and Presidential aspirant, Leon Kengo Wa Dondo was in the Rwandan capital Kigali to initial an agreement on this. He has his own interests in this matter. It was rumoured that in the 1997 Presidential elections in Zaire, Mobutu's party would give the Bahutu voting rights converting them into voting fodder for Mobutu or in the event of his death or abdication, a designated successor. Thus Kengo Wa Dondo wanted them out as soon as possible. II The Bahutu militias in collaboration with the Zaireois army had also been engaged in attacks over 1996 on the Banyamulenge community also in eastern Zaire. This people have many connections with the present Rwandan government and some of them had been involved in the resistance war against the Hutu supremacist government of Juvenal Habyarimana government in Rwanda before 1994. Many have lived in Uganda where Yoweri Museveni's government has been sympathetic to the resistance. So it wasn't surprising and quite laudable that the Rwandan and Ugandan governments have given them support ranging from uniforms and arms to combined military manoeuvres against the Zaireois army and its Bahutu allies. But the immediate trigger to the fighting in the region from October was an order of expulsion served on the Banyamulenge by regional deputy governor, Lwasi Ngabo Lwabanji - who gave them a week to leave. He threatened those who tried to remain saying, "they will be treated as rebels and like rebels ... will be exterminated and expelled".(5) On this occasion, with their very survival at stake, the Banyamulenge took a stand and fought back. They had little choice. One of the rebels insisted, "the government tried to take our land and they told us we had to leave the country and go back to Rwanda. But we don't come from Rwanda and they cannot force us to go because we know how to fight and the army does not."(6) The Banyamulenge people are often referred to as 'Tutsi' by the media and commentators who insist on viewing African politics through the "tribal" prism. However as I have argued previously, these ethnic identities are constructs of the 20th century and while useful to understand some of the political dynamics in central Africa, do not help explain them.(7) The Banyamulenge community currently numbers around 400 000 people who have been settled in eastern Zaire for at least two centuries and because of its sparse population been using it historically to graze cattle and for agricultural production. They originally settled near the Mulenge hills from which they took their name. This community had been swelled and differentiated in this century by different migrations from Rwanda and by a specialisation in their occupations. Thus they were often pastoralists in Masisi and cultivators in Runduru.(8) Many came to Zaire or the Belgian-Congo as it then was to escape German and Belgian colonial oppression in Rwanda-Burundi. Zaire is such a vast country that they knew they could live relatively free of the colonial administration in Leopoldville (present day Kinshasa). However there have always been tensions between the Banyamulenge and other communities in the region. Resentment grew particularly as the Banyamulenge became more prosperous using their trading connections in Rwanda. The Mobutu regime has survived for the last thirty years by fostering and using ethnic tensions among the 45 different communities across the country. In 1981 it stripped the Banyamulenge of Zaireois citizenship and one of the main demands of the current rebellion is for the restoration of that right and an end to discrimination against them. III The Banyamulenge had been allies of Mobutu in the early days. They participated in the crushing of the radical nationalist movement led by Pierre Mulele between 1964 and 1968. This movement for the 'Second Independence' of Congo-Kinshasa was a continuation of the struggle against western imperialism's stooge governments. It was destroyed with the direct involvement of western troops and the callous murder of the radical nationalist Mulele by the Mobutu regime, when they invited him to Kinshasa for discussions. Now the Banyamulenge have united in a broad coalition with Mulele's comrades notably Laurent Kabila in the struggle against Mobutu. Kabila is political co-ordinator of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) which he said was formed with the intention to, "overthrow the irresponsible clique of people in power and to put in place a transitional government which would eventually organise democratic elections".(9) Laurent Kabila is leader of the Peoples Revolutionary Party which has a Marxist-Nationalist past and has been active since the military defeats of the late 1960s in propaganda work and consolidation of its influence in liberated zones it controls. There are three other parties in the coalition. The Democratic Peoples Alliance which is composed mainly of Banyamulenge; the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Zaire which is based in southern Kivu and the National Resistance Council for Democracy whose stronghold is in Kasai province and whose leader Andre Kissasse Ngandu is also military leader of the Alliance The strategy of the Alliance appears to be to gain control over the mineral rich provinces where they can rely on the disaffection of the local communities angry that nothing of this wealth finds its way back to them disappearing instead into the pockets of the Mobutu regime. There are secessionist movements in Shaba (formerly Katanga) and Kasai Occidental provinces which have in response to the raping and killing of the army, the crude and successful attempts by Mobutu to spark ethnic riots and the impoverishment of these areas at the expense of venality in Kinshasa, modified their previous goal of autonomy to one of outright independence. The Alliance itself does not support the secession of these provinces favouring a federal model instead and will hope to starve the central government of revenue from this region and attempt to levy and extract 'taxes' to fund their military campaigns. Their forces have so far captured the Sominki gold concession in southern Kivu and was making progress towards the gold mines in upper Zaire. Mobutu's personal gold mining concession area has recently fallen to them. The western companies which exploit these mines have withdrawn and Zaireois troops in retreat have looted and destroyed much of the property. Kabila issued an invitation to the companies to return and threatened to revoke their licenses and sell it to their competitors if they didn't. IV On the whole western businesses are fairly sanguine about the recent developments. They have got used to the weak control the central government has over the provinces and are accustomed to bribing the regional government and paying army battalion salaries in return for protection. In Zaire we already experience the fruition of the proposal made by a right wing British 'think-tank', the Institute of Economic Affairs that, "TNCs should be invited to bid for the right to run African countries under 21 year leases extracting taxes in return for bringing efficiency and discipline to an otherwise spendthrift and wayward continent".(10) A further fragmentation of Zaire and even instability in the central government won't affect their profits from Zaire. They are far too important to all sides for that. They are under no threat of nationalisation and there are still huge fortunes to be made (for them and not the Zaireois people of course) from gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper and cadmium deposits. In return for their generous contributions to the military budget and the personal bank accounts of the army hierarchy and political elite, these companies are on the fast track to make even more money from the privatisation of state firms in the near future. Mobutu's political response upon return in December from convalescence in one of his French riviera villas (after a prostate cancer operation in Switzerland) was to consolidate his authority within the government. He hasn't in a long while exerted real political authority over this "virtual country, where no legitimate power exercises control over daily existence", (11) but he does have a magical hold over the affection and loyalty of his people. Since 1990 there has been a Parliamentary Conference of opposition parties which denounce and fawn over Mobutu in equal measure. Their leaders are craven politicians eager to be represented in a post-Mobutu Zaire. "The Guide" as he likes to be called on the other hand treats them like an indulgent father would some spoilt children. When a Prime Minister was nominated by the opposition, Mobutu first ignored and later dismissed him. Etienne Tshisekedi who leads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) has not obtained a seat in Mobutu's new cabinet either or has his party. This in spite of Tshisekedi's death bed visit to Mobutu (he was thought to be seriously ill) in France and his plea for his quick recovery as the "President couldn't leave them before the transition was completed". There are any number of likely consequences to the turmoil in the Great Lakes. There are many divisions within the military. Soldiers are not regularly paid and their ill discipline is notorious. They survive by extorting the rich and poor alike and pillage and rape at will. "The soldiers are our enemy. They stop you, strip you naked and steal everything. Last week they even took my shirt" complained a Kinshasa resident.(12) Mobutu himself only relies on the absolute loyalty of his Presidential Guard. There is always the possibility of a coup and politicians in Kinshasa are ingratiating themselves with military figures in preparation for such an outcome. The military defeats in the east could backfire on Mobutu as demands for a stronger, healthier leader more in charge become pronounced. The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) cannot with its small forces and narrow base and in the context of the size of Zaire expect at present to be more than one factor in this equation. What may make the difference is urban protest channelled against the central government. Protests and strikes by workers, public sector employees, the urban poor and students would rock the government and could make a difference in toppling Mobutu. In and of itself that wouldn't change the nature of the Zaireois state but it is a beginning. NOTES: 1. The Guardian (London and Manchester), 15th November 1996. 2. F. Vercammen, "Rwanda: Anatomy of a Genocide", International Viewpoint (Paris), No. 260, October 1994. 3. 11th November 1996. 4. While the media noted the involvement of the Rwandan and Ugandan army in military encounters within Zaire or across the border, they place it out of context when they ignore the documented links between the Zaireois government and the Hutu militias and armed groups in Uganda, Burundi and Sudan. 5. The Guardian, 21st October 1996. 6. The Guardian, 21st October 1996. 7. Socialist Outlook (London), No. 85 June 10 1995. However for greater insight and analytical depth, cf. Mahmood Mamdani, "From Conquest to Consent as the Basis of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda", New Left Review (London), No. 216 March/April 1996. I do not share all his arguments. 8. From which observation some would label the former Tutsi and the latter Hutu, reading back into history recent ethnic identities. 9. The Guardian, 2nd November 1996. 10. The Guardian, 2nd October 1996. Though as Nicholas Hildyard points out in the same article, structural adjustment policies have already set the trend viz. Rio Tinto Zinc in Papua New Guinea, Shell in Ogoniland in Nigeria etc. 11. C. Gabriel, "From Rwanda to Zaire - Africa Martyred", Socialist Outlook, No. 111 23 November 1996. Translated from Rouge (Paris) 7 November 1996. 12. The Guardian, 21st December 1996. ENDS. ________________________________________________________________ International Viewpoint * Inprecor * Inprekorr Address: PECI, BP85, 75522 Paris cedex 11, France. Fax +33-01 43 79 29 61 , E-mail ________________________________________________________________