Sudan, Chad join DRC war theatre

Congolese rebel soldiers arrive at their headquarters in Goma in eastern DR Congo. PHOTOS/AFP. 

What you need to know:

  • The rebellion against Kabila broke out in the powder-keg Kivu provinces when the Banyamulenge, who had helped Laurent Kabila to topple President Mobutu, were accused of trying to create a Tutsi hegemony in the eastern part of the vast country.
  • In the third instalment of the Africa’s Forever War series, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa writes that the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s mineral-rich eastern part then, as now, played host to roaming tribal militias, mercenaries and professional cut-throats whose hands are tainted with the blood of the victims of war and plunder. 

One of the oft-repeated conspiracies was that after the signing of the Lemera protocol, which established the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), there was another secret pact signed to give the mineral-rich eastern DRC to the Banyamulenge Tutsi fighters who helped Laurent Kabila to topple Mobutu  Sese Seko. 

Rebellion against Kabila broke out on August 2, 1998.The first skirmishes occurred in Bukavu where Banyamulenge soldiers attacked the city jail and freed their fellow tribesmen imprisoned after the February 1998 mutiny. 

The two Tutsi-Banyamulenge remaining in the Kabila government—Deogratias Bugera (the former secretary general of the ADFL) and Bizima Karaha (the foreign affairs minister)—were said to have left Kinshasa to join the Tutsi rebels in the east.

These rumours were confirmed when Karaha announced from Goma that the rebellion was a countrywide revolution to topple Kabila, according to Francis Ngolet’s book: Crisis in the Congo; The Rise and Fall of Laurent Kabila.  

On August 4, the rebel strategy took a more daring turn when the former chief of staff of Kabila’s forces, James Kabarebe, hijacked a plane belonging to a domestic carrier, Congo Airlines (CAL). 

The hijacking happened in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province where rebels controlled both the city and the airport. The plane was flown to the military airbase of Kitona in the Bas-Congo province, thus opening up a second front in the west.

Kitona, a town situated 300 kilometres southwest of Kinshasa, contained nearly 20,000 former soldiers of the Mobutu army in the process of being retrained for incorporation in the new Congolese army. 

In Kinshasa, Kabila urged neighbouring states to resist the temptation to get involved in this new conflict. The minister of Presidential Affairs, Pierre Victor, Mpoyo declared on state television that the rebellion was planned by foreign officers (Rwandans) who were recently ordered to return home.

Although loyalist troops had the situation under control in Kinshasa, the rebellion continued to spread in both the east and southwest parts of the DRC. 

Former ADFL members in North Kivu declared that they would join the rebellion. From Bukavu and Goma, the rebellion spread to Baraka roughly 180 kilometres south of Bukavu. 

On August 3, fighting began in the town of Kindu in the Maniema province. Government troops stationed there started hunting down Banyamulenge soldiers, forcing them into a central location.

In Uvira, Banyamulenge soldiers and civilian Tutsi were killed, and many fled the town.

On August 3 and 4, Rwandan troops were reportedly seen among the rebels with a huge concentration in the town of Monova between Bukavu and Goma. 

The Rwanda-DRC border crossings at Uvira, Goma, and Bukavu were closed, but fighting between the Banyamulenge and loyalist troops continued in Baraka, Fizi, and Mboko, south of Uvira. In Uvira itself, fighting began on August 4. 

Mortar fire was heard nearby and the situation became tense in the city. At the end of the first week, the towns of Bukavu, Goma, and Uvira had fallen into rebel hands with no resistance from the population. 

An Angolan soldier in Kinshasa in 2001. Photo/File

Zimbabwe, Angola firepower
In early September, The Zimbabwe Herald reported that the allied forces, fighting alongside DRC soldiers, had captured Rwandan and Ugandan troops who were trying to flee to the neighbouring Congo, Brazzaville.

The newspaper also reported that 20 wounded soldiers surrendered to the allied forces.

Zimbabwe and Namibia soldiers had relied on a hailer to ask the ‘invading troops who were running out of food to surrender.’ 

Capt Shaban Bantariza (RIP), Uganda’s army spokesperson at the time, accused Zimbabwe, which had stationed 2,800 combat troops in DRC, of attempting to skew the war in its favour. 

“There is no UPDF soldier who has been captured by Zimbabwe that we know of,” he protested, adding, “Unless they have sneaked to our borderline and captured some soldiers. But even that we would know.”

This also came at the time the Angolan troops, with their superior aerial edge, had recaptured the vital Inga, the largest hydropower plant in the DRC. The allied troops indicated that they were now planning to raid rebel bastions in the eastern DRC.

“The forces are looking forward to the eastern offensive,” said Zimbabwean General, Mike Nyambuya at a meeting attended by commanders from Angola, Namibia and DRC.

Gen Salim Saleh, then a presidential advisor on military affairs, told this publication that the UPDF would cripple the allied forces if they dared attack it. 

“You tell those Angolans and Zimbabweans that if they dare come to the east of Congo and pose a danger to Uganda’s security, they will find out what they have been looking for,” he warned.

South Africa, through their deputy High Commissioner to Uganda, Goen Van Wyk, revealed that the rainbow nation had suspended the sale of arms to Rwanda and Uganda.

Crisis talks end in stalemate
On September 6, 1998, shortly before he departed for Victoria falls, Zimbabwe for talks on the DRC crisis, President Museveni said Angola and Zimbabwe were still friends of Uganda. Museveni, however, called for the deployment of an OAU force under the leadership of South Africa because “President Mandela is a very balanced person.”

As the talks commenced, Zimbabwe fighter jets circled the skies and bombarded the town of Kalemie, on the western shores of Lake Tanganyika.

At the commencement of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, it was not clear yet whether the countries accused of backing the rebels—Rwanda and Uganda—would be accepted into the meeting chaired by Zambia president Frederic Chiluba. 

Rwanda continued to claim that it did not have its troops inside the DRC as Kinshasa insisted that a truce could only be reached if the invaders, Rwanda and Uganda, ‘withdrew their troops.’

The rebels led by Karaha, who served briefly as Kabila’s foreign affairs minister, and Arthur Zahidi Ngoma, demanded that the talks could only progress if the allied forces withdrew from the DRC.

On Tuesday 8, 1998, the DRC crisis talks came to an end without a deal at Victoria Falls where seven presidents met. 

Without any ceasefire in place, president Chiluba revealed that “sometimes the atmosphere was charged and tense” as the meeting ended without the rebels holding a meeting with Kabila.

Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe later told the Zimbabwe newspaper, Financial Gazette, that he had video evidence of Uganda and Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC conflict.

“We have the evidence … we can give you the tapes on them,” he revealed. 

As he returned from Zimbabwe, his allied forces encircled the rebels and pushed them out of the city’s outskirts, Kabila made a triumphant return to the capital, which he had earlier on fled on August 18, 1998 and told cheering residents that they should prepare for a long-war against the invaders.

DRC state television announced on September 11, 1998 that government troops backed by their allies had retaken the eastern town of Lubutu where they found “English-speaking troops dressed in smart uniforms who were Ugandans.”

Lubutu, which lies along the major artery between Kisangani and Bukavu, was retaken after heavy bombardments that “reportedly left 45 dead and 19 taken prisoner on the enemy said”, claimed a government official.

As the war escalated, the president of the impoverished Chad, Idriss Deby, promised that his country would offer support to Kabila during a joint news conference in N’Djamena. Deby said a new military and political order was emerging in Africa where armies were relying on force to challenge the sovereignty of states.

“This is unacceptable,” argued the Chadian president, adding, “Tomorrow, the stronger will invade the other for whatever reason.”

Enter Gaddafi, Bashir
This came at the time Rwanda and Uganda reportedly reached out to Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi to intervene.

On September 14, 1998, the DRC, alongside allied forces, attacked the third largest city of Kisangani in an attempt to dislodge the rebels. The enemy was sandwiched in the town by Congolese Armed Forces based at Ubundu and Lubutu, south-east of Kisangani.

AFP reported heavy pre-dawn gunfire in the eastern DRC stronghold of Goma, with mortar shells thumping through the snap of rifle and machine gun-fire.

Rebel leader Jean-Pierre Ondekane announced on the Voice of the People radio that his fighters had killed and wounded many attackers. “We are now carrying out a mopping up operation,” he said.

Some of the attackers were Mai-Mai militias, who falsely believed that they could smear oil on their bodies to act as a shield against bullets. 

On September 16, 1998, Ondekane quietly visited Kampala to consult on security matters and the war effort as president Kabila defied a UN-embargo to fly to Libya to meet President Gadaffi as he sought to widen a coalition of the willing against the ‘invaders.’

On September 20, 1998, DRC fighters claimed they had shot down a rebel plane and destroyed four vehicles at Kavumu airport, south Kivu province, eastern DRC. In Goma, the rebels also claimed the capture of Kamituga town, south Kivu province.

As Africa’s forever war sucked in more countries, on September 25, 1998, Sudan announced that it had closed universities to allow students to join what president Omar Bashir called a decisive battle against Ugandan and Eritrean forces.

Bashir made the remarks during a one-day visit to Juba, the provincial capital in the South of the vast country. 

“This battle in eastern Equatoria will be decisive and final,” Bashir said in a speech broadcast on national television. 

Sudan had earlier on in September accused Uganda of invading the eastern Equatoria towns of Torit, Liria and Juba, accusations Kampala denied. In turn, Uganda accused its neighbour of arming insurgents based in the DRC to launch attacks inside Uganda.

“Rebel [John] Garang and [Uganda President Yoweri] Museveni wish it will be a decisive battle and they massed all their troops and equipment,” Bashir said, adding, “This will be the final battle to crush the SPLA and expel Ugandans and Eritreans.”

President Museveni had provided military support to the SPLA on the premise of an ideological front to free the South from the shackles of Khartoum. 

In turn, Bashir funded Joseph Kony and the LRA rebellion at the time al-Qaeda supremo, Osama bin-Laden, lived in Sudan under the protection of the Islamic scholar, Hassan-Al-Turabi and Osama’s minder, Gen Salah Mohammed Gosh, the powerful intelligence Tsar who is now exiled in Egypt. 

Sudan, DRC pact reached 
According to Uganda’s counter-memorial filed at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the Sudanese promised to help president Kabila militarily against Rwanda and Uganda, with troops, arms and equipment., an online publication, revealed that in early September, Kabila visited Bashir in Khartoum. The Sudanese president reportedly told Kabila that Rwanda and Uganda were seeking to overthrow Kabila on behalf of their alleged puppet masters, the United States and Israel.

Ugandan military intelligence subsequently confirmed that president Kabila agreed to put at Sudan’s disposal all of the airfields in northern and eastern Congo, and Sudan agreed to use them to deliver arms, supplies and fresh troops.

The two governments also agreed to resume direct military collaboration with the anti-Uganda insurgents, and to coordinate the insurgents’ military operations.

The Sudanese Air Force, according to Uganda’s intelligence, transported an entire Chadian brigade, consisting of 2,500 troops complete with armour and artillery, including 10 tanks, from N’djamena to Gbadolite, in northern Congo.

Their mission was to attack the three UPDF battalions stationed in eastern Congo, which were growing increasingly vulnerable, and to take effective control of eastern Congo. 

To defend its positions, the UPDF occupied Bunia and took over its airfield on August 13. 

Later in August 1998, President Kabila met with Sudanese vice president, Ali Othman Taha, in Gbadolite, where they agreed on joint military measures against Uganda, including a direct combat role for the Sudanese army and air force, the further incorporation of Sudanese-trained anti-Uganda insurgents into the Congolese army, and an increase in weapons and logistical support to the insurgents operating in eastern Congo. 

On August 26, a Sudanese Antonov aircraft bombed UPDF positions at Bunia. On September 2, Sudanese Colonel Ibrahim lsmail Habiballah delivered a planeload of weapons to the FAC in Gbadolite for use by UNRF II units, a Ugandan rebel group that had been incorporated into the FAC.

Days later, a Sudanese brigade of approximately 2,500 troops under the command of Sudanese Lt Gen Abdul Rahman Sir Khatim, arrived in Gbadolite. It quickly deployed to Businga, and prepared to engage the UPDF forces in eastern Congo. 

On September 14, president Kabila’s aides announced that the DRC and Sudan had agreed to jointly reinforce their deployment along the DRC’s borders with Uganda and Rwanda. 

On September 18, President Kabila returned to Khartoum where he received pledges of additional Sudanese troops and military equipment. He also reportedly met with leaders of the ADF, WNBF, UNRF II and LRA, Uganda’s insurgent groups based in the DRC.

Faced with this enormous and direct threat, Uganda had to reinforce its troops in Congo and deny Sudan and the insurgents the strategic positions they required to escalate their armed aggression against Uganda.

On October 6, 1998 the Chadian brigade attacked the UPDF at Aketi and was repelled. On October 27, at Dulia, a village in the Bas-Uélé province, the Ugandan army staged one of the deadliest ambushes of the conflict, which Chadian troops sleep-walked into. They were routed and fled in disarray, leaving all of their armour and artillery behind. 

Who killed Lt Col Mwebaze?
A highly-placed source has revealed that before Uganda deployed troops, Lt Col Jet Mwebaze, quite a popular figure in the army and brother of Brig James Kazini, was tasked to mobilise UPDF reserves to fight in the DRC war.

Barely three weeks after, our source further divulged, Lt Col Mwebaze was able to constitute a fighting force of 5,000.

On September 28, 1998, this newspaper reported that a Kenyan chartered Cessna plane carrying senior UPDF officers—including Lt Col Mwebaze—had gone missing. The plane was on its way to Bunia, eastern DRC.

The Army Commander, Maj Gen Jeje Odongo and junior Defence minister, Steven Kavuma, issued conflicting reports on the missing plane. On the same day, President Museveni flew to Libya to meet President Gadaffi.

Mr Kavuma revealed thus: “[Jet] Mwebaze, along with two other Ugandans, two foreigners and a pilot were on a mission that was totally private to them.”

Amongst those on the plane were two Israeli passengers—Zeev Shif and Arif Muiji, an Asian businessman. Shif was a manager of Eforte, a subsidiary of Calebs International owned by Maj Gen Salim Saleh and a director of Entebbe Handling Services, Enhas.

Earlier on in 1993, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) liberalised ground-handling operations at Entebbe International Airport. This paved the way for Enhas to be formed in 1995. It was immediately given the lucrative deal for ground-handling rights.

Enhas consisted of Uganda Airlines Corporation, which owned 50 percent shares, while Effortes owned by Gen Saleh and Global Airlinks owned by the former Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa, an in-law to the president, each received 20 percent shares. 

On August 31, 1998, the wreckage of the plane was found on the slopes of Mt Rwenzori in Kisomoro Sub-county, Kabarole District, but none of the 10 people on board were located.

On September 1, 1998, this newspaper, while quoting residents within the vicinity of the crash, reported that Mwebaze alongside others had survived the crash and had crawled out of the forested depths and deep escarpments across the mountain. Mr Kavuma also revealed that the others, including Mwebaze, had survived.

It was claimed that the pilot, who failed to scale the mountain ranges, died on the spot. 

On October 4, 1998, the Defence ministry issued a statement revealing that on October 1, 1998, Mwebaze had died and “his body was in a bad state and it had been directly taken to hospital.” His pistol was found tucked away in its holster. 

Army sources claimed that the immediate cause of Mwebaze’s death was “hunger and cold” as he struggled to find his way down the treacherous paths across the mountain.

The survivors were rushed to Kololo Hospital where they were recovering. 

“All of them look dehydrated, they are weak and have swollen feet,” a hospital administrator said.

On October 5, 1998, Brig Kazini, a stoic soldier, drained by the treacherous frontline, left his bunker inside the stifling DRC jungles and flew to Uganda to bury his younger brother and Luweero bush war comrade. 

As his casket was lowered in the bowels of the earth, accompanied by a haunting dirge and a salvo of gun fire that roared across rows of tombstones with weathered names of fallen comrades, the UPDF burial grounds at Kapeka, served as the custodian for the poignant, collective memory of those who did not make it out of the brutal wars alive. 

But it did little to appease those who were seeking answers for the mysterious death of Mwebaze, a flawed military genius who had daringly escaped death in mortal combat.

The Third Deputy premier and Disaster Preparedness minister, Paul Etiang, said the cause of the crash was due to the Cessna plane’s inability to fly over the ranges. 

“Pilots I have talked to, including my son, say the fateful plane could not fly over the height of 11,000 feet [above sea level],” he said.

On October 16, 1998, the government officially released the report into the plane crash incident. Amongst the dead were the pilot Enos Luwunzu, Andrew Gore, Said Rashid Ali, a Congolese, Jimmy Jurua Jagoo and Mwebaze. The survivors were Arif Muiji , an Indian national, Zeef Shif, an Israeli, Roseberry Kirungi and Taban Idi and Abuki.

On October 18, 1998, this newspaper published an article titled: Who killed Jet? It was a simple yet perilous question. 

The article revealed that the body of Mwebaze was found with a big bullet wound in the head, a deep cut in the neck and both his legs were broken.

If the battle-hardened soldier made it out of the aeroplane alive, did he succumb to the terrain in the Rwenzori Mountain or was he executed by assassins as this newspaper reported?

Was this a gold deal gone wrong and a quarrel, which started in the skies, was settled on the ground, as some conspiracies filtered through?

Barely after the burial of his brother, the crestfallen Kazini returned to the frontline in DRC.