DRC allies roll out tanks against Rwanda, Uganda 

Uganda People’s Defence Forces soldiers at Gbadolite airport in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 29, 2002. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • In the second instalment of the Africa’s Forever War series, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa writes that a can of worms was opened when Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a volatile, dyed in the wool communist, found himself in charge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the ousting of the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. 

With the conspiracy that the America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had not forgiven his rebel group for abducting three Americans in North Katanga in 1984, the spectre of a coup or assassination—orchestrated by Western powers—hang over the early days of Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s presidency.

Paranoid and a hostage to rival power centres, Kabila, an ultra-nationalist, fed the suspicion of the West when he failed to shed his Marxist posture.

President Museveni had also ominously warned that “[Kabila] came to power with no army or security force other than the RPA [Rwanda Patriotic Army] and the Banyamulenge, because of his [and Rwanda’s] insistence that they lead the war against the Mobutist forces.”

Accounts from the book titled, Crisis in the Congo: The Rise and Fall of Laurent Kabila, the author, the late American Prof Francis Ngolet, argued, “ …this coalition of fortune was doomed to fail because it had to accommodate too many constituencies: its Rwandan backers, Congo’s political opposition to Mobutu’s rule, and its own military factions that ran the entire gamut from Mai Mai fighters to Tutsi troops to child soldiers known as kadogo.”

He added: “Its own ethnic cleavages, between Baluba of the Katanga region [Balubakat] and Congolese ethnic Tutsi [Banyamulenge] ended up undermining the tenuous equilibrium within the movement even before [Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire or] ADFL troops made their triumphant entrance into Kinshasa after a gruelling seven-month trek from the eastern border where the rebellion had originally gathered steam.”

Following his ascendancy to power in Kinshasa and formation of a new government, President Kabila appointed Col James Kabarebe of Rwanda as army chief of staff and other Banyamulenge, including Bizima Karaha as foreign affairs minister; Deogratius Bugera as the state minister in the president’s office, and Moise Nyarugabo, the powerful chief of staff to Kabila, among others.

Doomed from the start?
As he commenced his rule, President Kabila was entirely dependent on the Banyamulenge officers. Security was never firmly established, as intermittent fighting by Mobutist elements, ex-FAR (elements of the former Rwandan army) and Interahamwe and other enemies of the new government broke out in various regions. 

At the same time, large concentrations of former Forces Armées Zaïroises (FAZ) and ex-FAR encamped in neighbouring countries plotted a counter-revolution. Faced with such security threats, President Kabila relied on the RPA to keep his government in power. 

“President Kabila’s inevitable failure to meet the high expectations unleashed by the ouster of the Mobutu dictatorship, popular Congolese revulsion at the heavy-handed influence wielded by Rwanda and the RPA, and the concentration of political power in his narrowly-based AFDL, steadily eroded support for his government,” reads Uganda’s counter-memorial.

By late 1997, the government was in danger of collapsing. Popular support had almost completely evaporated, political opposition was rapidly spreading, despite the government’s attempts to repress it, and rebellious outbreaks of groups formally loyal to the government were occurring with greater frequency in various regions. 

“With the survival of his government in grave jeopardy and no obvious way out of the crisis, President Kabila adopted a bold, albeit cynical strategy: he decided to exchange his allies for his enemies, and his enemies for his allies. In concrete terms, he chose to seek support for his beleaguered government from Congolese ultra-nationalists and anti-Tutsi elements, outraged by his government’s dependence on Rwanda and the Banyamulenge, by severing his alliances with the latter. 

Since this meant depriving himself of the most effective elements of his army and security forces, he had to create a new army and negotiate new military alliances before he could sever his existing relationships. 

“He began by releasing hundreds of ex-FAZ from incarceration, inviting thousands more to return from exile in neighbouring countries, and incorporating them into the Congolese army,” reads the counter-memorial.

On August 3, 1998, several media houses reported that rebellion had broken out across the DRC, a week after Kabila had asked Rwanda soldiers to leave the country and a month after accusing Uganda of looting Congo’s resources, including gold and diamond.

Fighting erupts
Amid reports of attacks in several cities in the Kivu provinces, as well as fighting in Kinshasa, the commander of the DRC army’s 10th battalion based in Goma— the lakeside capital of North Kivu—said over state radio, “We, the DRC army, have decided to seize power from President Kabila.”

This report was monitored across the border by the Rwanda News Agency in Gisenyi, the lakeside city in Rwanda at the border with DRC. Rwanda deployed troops and tanks alongside its border.

“In the name of government troops, we denounce the regime,” Commander Sylvin Mbuchi said on radio, accusing Kabila of nepotism, corruption and bad governance. 

This statement was repeated by Commander Birunga Kamanda in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu.

“The Banyamulenge are unhappy over the departure of the Rwandan soldiers, but we will not tolerate their disturbing public order,” a high-ranking interior ministry official told AFP. “We are going to raid the camps [in Kinshasa] where they are holed up,” he revealed further.

Faustin Munene, the deputy Interior minister, ordered a three-day dusk-to-dawn curfew as the government began to hunt down these rebellious factions.

Fighting had broken out in a number of towns and specifically in Baraka, South Kivu Province and in Tshashi camp on the outskirts of Kinshasa where soldiers fired automatic weapons and Banyamulenge fighters attempted to ‘commandeer vehicles’ at the entrance to the camp as shooting spread to the Kokolo camp.

Reuters news agency reported that as fighting raged on in the capital, three powerful figures of Banyamulenge ancestry—Bizima Karaha, Deogratius Bugera and Kabila’s senior aide, Moise Nyarugabo—fled. That notwithstanding, President Kabila was in a belligerent mood a few days later. During a news conference in Kinshasa, he warned Kigali that he would take the war towards the neighbouring country. 

“We are not going to lower ourselves to be the pawn of a little country like Rwanda and a little people,” he said, adding, “There is a vast plot by the Tutsi, who wanted to run the government and occupy our country. Whatever the degree of involvement of nationals and foreigners, we will throw the aggressor out of our country.”

Genesis of the war
Barely a day after the al-Qaeda terrorist group struck US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, on August 8, 1998, where hundreds were killed and thousands injured, it was reported that UN sources had reported that “as many as 3,000 Rwandan fighters and possibly Ugandan soldiers crossed the border into Congo in recent days.”

The Foreign ministry immediately denied Uganda’s involvement as Kabila’s aides warned that the country was on the verge of declaring war against Rwanda. 

A highly-placed source, who spoke anonymously, says Uganda and Rwanda were still major allies and it is likely that the Ugandan officers “were embedded with Rwandan troops inside the DRC at the start of the rebellion against Kabila.”

In response, Rwanda’s President Pasteur Bizimungu warned that his country may be compelled to be “drawn into the fray.”

According to the US-based Boston Globe newspaper, some American troops were also seen in Gisenyi, Rwanda, arousing the spectre that the CIA was keen on getting rid of Kabila. A spokesperson of the US European command was, however, quick to reveal that the soldiers were training Rwandan soldiers on counter-insurgency tactics against Hutu militias who were hiding in Congo.

There are questions about whether Kabila reneged on a secret deal. Pascal Tshipata Mukeba, a Congolese intelligence officer, told the Boston Globe that the revolt was sparked by Kabila’s obstinance to honour a secret deal to turn eastern Congo over to the minority Tutsi after the ousting of Mobutu, which was signed after the Lemera protocol that established the ADFL coalition.

War breaks out
US officials reported that Tutsi were being targeted and jailed as fighting spread to Kisangani and Lubumbashi cities. Congolese troops went on an offensive and captured back the strategic ports of Boma and Matadi about 350km south-west of the DRC’s capital. DRC’s Information minister Didier Mumengi revealed that Uganda’s troops that had invaded Bunia, Ituri province, were encircled by government troops.

Yet beyond the propagandist spin, the rebellious troops backed by the neighbouring states continued to make advances. Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the military leader of the Tutsi-led rebel movement, told AFP that his fighters had captured Matadi airport and Inga dam, 250km southwest of the capital after fighting that left 128 government troops dead. The hydro-electric plant also supplied power to the neighbouring capital of Congo Brazzaville.

At the time, Rwanda’s foreign minister Anastase Gasana said Rwandans living in Congo, as well as Tutsi natives, “were being beaten, imprisoned in an arbitrary fashion, robbed of all their property and even massacred.”

Charles Onyango-Obbo, then an editor at The Monitor then, authored a story on August 14 titled “Rwanda type slaughter could come to DR Congo.” Obbo wrote, “In 1994, the world was horrified when nearly one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered by government troops and its allied Interahamwe militia. The genocide was so widespread and well-organised because the extremists exploited the power of radio with devilish ingenuity.”

He added: “As Kabila ADFL and their Rwanda allies made their way through the jungles of Congo to Kinshasa, they killed thousands of Hutu refugees who had fled there from Rwanda, arguing that they were actually the Interahahmwe or were being used as human shields by the militias who were allied to Mobutu.”

He proceeded to note: “Radios in Kabila-held areas fanned hostility against the Hutu in much the same way the Hutu-controlled radios had done in Rwanda.” 

Quoting the UN publication IRIN, Obbo opined that unlike former hate radio stations, the latest broadcasts calling for the killing of Tutsi were being made over government radio.

“Radio Television Nationale Congolaise in Bunia ordered Congolese people to arm themselves with a machete, spear, arrow, hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, irons, barbed wire, stones and the like to kill Rwandan Tutsi in Ituri district.”

In another broadcast on Radio Bunia, a DRC military commander condemned Ugandans and Rwandans who were reportedly trying to dominate Congo.

“Be ferocious,” he told listeners, adding, “You will detect the enemies and massacre them without mercy.”

In an interview, former Foreign minister Yerodia Ndombasi, a psychoanalyst, defended his anti-Tutsi diatribes. “And when one says vermin … and I repeat, these are vermin … a vermin is something that introduces itself insidiously into a body, or a piece of wood, or a plant, or clothes, and moves on. That’s what they did.”

Uganda embassy raided
As tempers flared, Uganda’s embassy in Kinshasa was raided on August 11, 1998. The attack, which commenced at 2pm Central Africa Time, was reported by this newspaper, whose reporter was Mr Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s current ambassador to the UN. 

A pick-up of rampaging soldiers forced its way into the embassy compound, this newspaper reported, with Mr Ayebare quoting a diplomat who picked the phone at the Uganda embassy in Kinshasa revealing thus: “Two men dressed in plain-clothes came out of the vehicle and entered the chancery and asked to check the whole place, but we told them it was not possible because we have diplomatic immunity, so they decided to take away Capt Joseph Ojolongu, a pilot working with Africa Air, who has been taking refuge here since yesterday. They promised to come back with a letter authorising them to look for what they called Ugandan and Rwandan rebels.”

According to Uganda’s counter-memorial filed at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), “DRC soldiers stormed the embassy, forced their way through the main gate, held the Ugandan ambassador and another diplomat at gunpoint, robbed them of their money and demanded that they surrender any Rwandese nationals who had taken refuge in the embassy to escape the government-inspired killings of people of Rwandese or Congolese Tutsi origin.”

As Western countries began evacuating their citizens, the United States sent two warships with about 1,200 troops to help their citizens to flee the war-wracked city.

Uganda also commenced plans to shut its embassy after the attack but in September 1998, Congolese soldiers returned and forcibly seized the Ugandan embassy. They occupied it and looted its contents. 

Former DR Congo President Laurent-Désiré Kabila. As he commenced his rule, President Kabila was entirely dependent on the Banyamulenge officers. PHOTO/COURTESY

Kabila bullish
Before, on August 16, 1998, barely after setting off for Zimbabwe to meet Defence ministers of his host country, Angola and Namibia, President Kabila sounded the battle trumpet during his address on national television where he warned Uganda and Rwanda.

“Naturally, little Rwanda and Uganda will not swallow Congo. The people must be valiant. We will arm them and 24 hours are decisive. It must be understood that victory will be ours.”

Instead, the plan changed at the last minute as the president sent his son, Joseph Kabila, to seek alliances with neighbouring countries across Africa to shore up his regime against the rebels who had superior fighting skills.

The DRC’s UN representative, Andre Kapanga, in an attempt to compel Uganda and Rwanda to withdraw, denounced “the blatant aggression of Uganda and Rwanda against the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Uganda immediately denied having troops in the DRC.

During a news conference held in Cape Town, respected South African president, Nelson Mandela, said, “It is possible that a statement may be issued by [Ugandan] President Yoweri Museveni … in which he calls for a ceasefire after a positive telephone conversation with DRC President, Laurent Kabila.”

Mandela, who was planning to call a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) conference as the chairperson to seek a peaceful solution, instructed his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to call President Museveni to urge him to enforce a ceasefire.

On August 22, 1998, President Museveni warned that Uganda could be forced to join the war in the DRC if foreign forces remained in the country. He said, “If unilateral intervention intensifies [in the Congo], Uganda may be forced after due internal consultations to take its own independent action in the protection of its own security interests.”

This came at the time of reports that Angola’s Special Forces backed by armoured vehicles were on the way to add reinforcements through Angola’s northern enclave of Cabinda.

Win some, lose some
On August 23, 1998, with nearly a third of the country in their hands, the rebels captured Kisangani City, the capital of Tshopo Province. They, however, lost their main supply base in the west to the Angolan troops.

Joined by other Congolese rebel groups led by Jean-Pierre Bemba and Prof Wamba dia Wamba, some of the rebel groups had moved as close as 30km outside the capital. They were, however, repulsed by Zimbabwe and Congolese soldiers who recaptured the strategic airport at Kitona in the South West.

Barely after returning from a SADC meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, President Museveni held an emergency Cabinet meeting at his countryside home in Rwakitura, Kiruhura District. There, he warned that the crisis in Congo “posed a serious threat to the security interests of Uganda.” 

This came at the time thousands of Angolan troops backed by tanks and other armoured vehicles streamed across the border through Cabinda. Reuters reported that government forces had retaken the oil port of Moanda. 

On August 25, 1998, twenty eight Ugandans died in bomb blasts as three buses on Kampala-Mbarara and Kampala-Gulu highways were targeted with explosives. The government blamed the attacks on ADF rebels holed up in the DRC.

On the same day of the explosions, Foreign Affairs minister, the late Eriya Kategeya, revealed that Ugandan troops had entered eastern DRC “to remove the bandits who were using the bases they had in the area to destabilise Uganda.”

This came at the time when Angolan and Zimbabwe’s air-force pounded the rebel-held Kisangani City where a number of civilians died and some rebel groups battled DRC troops on the outskirts of Kinshasa, prompting Kabila to declare a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

With heavy firing heard from South-east Kinshasa and infiltrating Tutsi-led rebels reported in some outlying suburbs, state radio said the curfew would run from 6pm to 6am until further notice.

Angola troops tilt balance
It was reported that Angolan troops, which entered the war in mid-August, had advanced from the southwest and cut off rebel supply lines, trapping about 6,000 troops involved in the rebellion.

Congolese and Zimbabwe troops had earlier blocked a rebel advance on the road approaching Kinshasa from the southwest, strafing their positions with MIG jets and helicopter gunships.

On August 27, 1998, Kabila who was gaining an upper hand in the conflict, claimed in what appeared to be embellished figures that “4,000 rebels consisting of Ugandans and Rwandans had been killed, wounded or captured during the fighting.”

Most of the forces, the statement claimed, had been annihilated by Angolans troops in Boma, Kitona and Banana towns as locals in Kinshasa displayed burnt corpses of rebels.

A day after, pockets of resistance by rebel fighters who had infiltrated the outskirts of Kinshasa were beaten into a retreat as they faced artillery fire and tanks. 

Tutsi-led rebels threatened to blow up a hydro-power dam if they were not given a safe passage. Residents in Kinshasa revealed that Congolese troops assisted by Zimbabwean and Namibian troops were setting up roadblocks and conducting intense search operations.

On August 30, 1998, Sunday Monitor reported that President Museveni had spent a week trying to get in touch with Angola’s President, Eduardo dos Santos. 

Gen Salim Saleh, a senior presidential advisor, said on phone from Gulu that, “Dos Santos had been unavailable for the last seven days.”

Saleh further revealed thus: “What is at stake now is the very survival of Uganda. We have intelligence that they were planning to invade us four months ago and this is true. At stake now is your own selves.”

As allies tilted the fight in favour of DRC troops and carried out mop-up operations, Kabila warned that he was planning to take the war away from the capital, where combat had been focused recently, to the doorstep of the rebels and their alleged patrons. This raised the prospect of an all-out regional conflict.