Tracing genesis of the DRC conflict

UPDF soldiers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • As countries continue to send boots on the ground in response to President Felix Tshisekedi’s battle trumpet against the M-23 rebels, the spectre of conflict has returned to haunt his war-wracked Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Uganda currently has thousands of troops in the restive eastern DRC under a bilateral treaty with Kinshasa to flush out the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and another batch of soldiers under the East African Community Regional Force. In the first instalment of this series titled Africa’s Forever War, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa relies on testimonies from sources and the evidence filed by both DRC and Uganda in the Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo filed at the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) to trace the roots of this intractable conflict. 

In 2022, Uganda was ordered to pay $325 million (Shs1.2 trillion) as part of reparations to the DRC after it was found guilty of war crimes and plunder, among others. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) also found that the DRC violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations through attacks by its armed forces on Uganda’s embassy in Kinshasa and the maltreatment of Ugandan diplomats.

In his book titled: Africa’s World War: ‘Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe,’ Gerard Prunier provides an insight into how the Rwandan genocide sparked a horrific bloodbath that swept across sub-Saharan Africa, leading to the deaths of about four million people. He provides an account of the aftermath of this orgy of bloodletting during which a third of Rwanda’s population fled to exile in Zaire (DRC) in 1996. 

The new Rwandan regime then crossed into DRC and attacked the refugees, including the Interahamwe, who were hiding in plain sight in the vast, lawless eastern part of the country. The Rwandan forces then turned on Zaire’s despotic and ailing President Mobutu and with the help of a number of allied African countries, overthrew him. 

But as Prunier shows, the collapse of Mobutu’s kleptocratic regime and the ascension of the weak and volatile Laurent-Désiré Kabila—his assassination— created a power vacuum that drew Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and other African nations into an extended and chaotic war.
In its counter-memorial filed on April 21, 2001, Uganda responded to the damning allegations filed earlier on June 23, 1999 by the DRC, accusing it of war crimes and plunder. 

Mobutu accused
On the contrary, Uganda claimed that it was the victim of armed aggression from the DRC since 1994, barely two years before Mobutu was ousted from power. 

“For seven years, without interruption, Uganda has been subjected to devastating cross-border attacks on a regular basis from armed insurgents based in eastern Congo. Except for a brief period, their activities have been coordinated by, and subject to the command and control of the Congolese government,” the report read. 

The various insurgent groups that were operating in the DRC included the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF); Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); Uganda National Rescue Front II (UNRF Il); Former Uganda National Army (FUNA); West Nile Bank front (WNBF); and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). 

Uganda claimed that as a result of such cross-border attacks, thousands of Ugandans—the majority innocent civilians like the 80 students at Kichwamba, Kabarole District in western Uganda—had been killed, more than 120,000 persons displaced and the economy of West Nile, northern and western Uganda ruined. 

The counter-memorial included the identification of the responsible parties and was evidenced by official documents and reliable testimony from knowledgeable and objective sources.
Between 1994 and late 1997, Uganda claimed that it confined its actions to its own side of the Congo-Uganda border by reinforcing its military positions along the frontier and tried to repel the cross-border assaults that grew increasingly frequent and destructive during this period. 

In May 1997, at the invitation of the DRC government, Ugandan troops crossed into eastern Congo and established bases on DRC territory, for the purpose of nipping in the bud the activities of the anti-Uganda insurgents who were operating in that region.

This invitation was reaffirmed in a written protocol of April 27, 1998, executed by the Internal security ministers of both states, which authorised the Ugandan armed forces to maintain a presence in eastern Congo to combat the insurgents, by means of ‘joint action’ with Congolese government forces. 

While this protocol was still in effect, and without provocation by Uganda, the DRC government was accused of making a pact with these insurgents it had committed itself to act against jointly with Uganda, an ally of the RPF government in Kigali, the counter-memorial  claimed.
“President Mobutu permitted these elements to conduct military training activities and stockpile ammunition on Congolese territory, and he provided them with military and logistical assistance,” the counter-memorial reads in part. 

Sudan role, Turabi influence
Kampala accused President Mobutu of entering into an anti-Uganda military alliance with Sudan, which he invited to occupy and utilise airfields in northeastern Congo for two purposes: delivering arms and other supplies to the insurgents; and conducting aerial bombardment of Ugandan towns and villages. 

“Hoping to spread its radical Islamic ideology to Uganda, Sudan under Omar Bashir and his chief ideologue Al-Hassan Turabi had allied itself with ldi Amin and provided sanctuary to some of Amin’s ministers, army officers and soldiers after the 1979 liberation war,” read the evidence filed.
Turabi in 1991 invited Osama bin Laden, the deceased al-Qaeda ideologue, to live in Khartoum after Saudi Arabia expelled him as he sought to establish a caliphate around the Great Lakes region.

A former spy chief in-charge of External Security Organisation, David Pulkol, has previously revealed that “what concerned Uganda most after Bashir had taken power was the declaration by the National Islamic Front (NLF) that for the Islamic revolution to succeed, it must be surrounded by chaos.” 
It is further claimed that they started sponsoring chaos in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and as far as South Africa.

“One time, we arrested some [ADF] boys we believed were behind the grenade attacks, but because President Museveni was magnanimous, he ordered their release. Next thing we learnt, they had established a camp in Mpigi where he flushed them out. Next thing we knew they were setting up camp in Kiryandondo and eventually they were in Buseruka with plans of sabotaging Uganda’s oil exploration,” Mr Pulkol narrated.  The government plans to construct an oil refinery in Buseruka, Hoima District. 

“When we flushed them out of Buseruka, they crossed River Semliki into eastern Congo. This partly explains why Uganda had to defend itself outside its borders,” Pulkol revealed.
Sudan took an aggressive stance against Uganda, accusing it of supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) under John Garang. 
SPLA was seeking autonomy for South Sudan from the rapacious dictatorship in Khartoum.

Sudan provided military assistance to the DRC-based insurgent groups, including the WNBF and the LRA led by Joseph Kony. The WNBF, which was initially based in Juba, in southern Sudan, was commanded by Taban Amin—the son of Idi Amin who is currently a deputy director in Internal Security Organisation (ISO)—and Col Juma Oris. 

In addition to the WNBF and LRA, Sudan and the DRC also supported anti-Uganda groups based in Congo, some of which consisted of former Amin soldiers and government officials who had fled to Congo. These included FUNA, the UNRF, and the NALU. Mobutu reportedly helped the WNBF and LRA establish bases inside DRC’s Garamba National Park. As reported by Lyavala Ali, a founding member of ADF, the successor organisation to NALU, in 1995 “[w]e established a base at Bunia [in eastern Congo, 30 kilometres from the Uganda border]. This was under the direct authority of President Mobutu ....” 

As the ADF began to grow, Ali said, it “opened up a camp at Buhira [20 kilometres from the border, which was] ‘where we were carrying out training for most of the combatants.” 

He further disclosed that their “main bases were those at Buhira, Bunia and Beni [50 kilometres from the border].”  
And that “we continued getting support from President Mobutu until he was overthrown by Kabila.” This support included the Congolese/Zairean government’s coordination of the ADF’s military operations against Uganda. 

Olive branch
A letter from the WNBF High Command to Maj Motindo, a commander in the Congolese army (FAZ), further evidences the military coordination between FAZ and the WNBF: 
“This letter will cement our good relationship existing since our movement started. We shall continue communicating through our coordinator, Yusuf Abdallah of Imgbokolo [north-eastern Ituri], in case of a delicate security issue.”

Both the ADF and the WNBF received their arms from the Sudanese and Congolese governments. As reported by the ADF’s deputy secretary-general: “At first, we had got 200 guns from NALU [one of the original Congo-based anti-Uganda rebel groups supported by Sudan]. Later on, our commanders went to Sudan and got some guns i.e. 82 mm [and] 60 mm mortars, 125 mm [machine] guns. (GPMGs, RPGs, MMGs, LMGs, MGLs, and SMGs, grenades, mines and ammunition. These weapons were being ferried in Zaïre government trucks escorted by Mobutu’s soldiers to our location in Buhira [North Kivu province].
At the peak of the Kampala-Khartoum hostility in 1995, the Ugandan army drove military tanks into the Sudanese embassy in Kampala and severed diplomatic ties.

Kampala claimed that fighters for the anti-Uganda insurgents were mobilised from among the ex-FAR and lnterahamwe génocidaires who were hiding in refugee camps in eastern Congo. Anti-Uganda insurgent leader Kabeba, in particular, established “links with the Interahamwe officers who made joint planning against Uganda with him. He is always at Gatare Camp, the headquarters of Interahamwe in Zaïre.” Kabeba “enjoys cooperation of the Interahamwe whom he has assured of leadership to kill Tutsi in Uganda and Rwanda.” 

(From L): Chairman of the Presidential council of Libya, Mohamed al-Menfi, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Felix Tshisekedi and Senegal's President Macky Sall attend the 5th mid-year coordination meeting of the African Union, at the United Nations (UN) offices in Gigiri, Nairobi, on July 16, 2023. PHOTO/ AFP

To this end, ex-FAR, Interahamwe and anti-Uganda insurgents were brought together for combined military training exercises at Garamba Park, in the northeast corner of Congo, adjacent to its borders with Sudan and close to the Ugandan frontier. Training was provided by Sudanese and Congolese military officers.’
The counter-memorial claims that the ex-FAR and Interahamwe constituted as great a threat to Rwanda as the allied Congolese and Sudanese government forces and the anti-Uganda insurgents did to Uganda. 

Banyamulenge’s salvo
In the face of this aggression, Rwanda took a more proactive posture than Uganda. 
In 1996, it created a military force of 2,000 Congolese Tutsi, who had sought refuge in Rwanda after the Masisi massacre, and incorporated them into the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). 

Then, when the ex-FAR and Interahamwe, supported by the Congolese army, attacked and threatened extermination of the Banyamulenge, Rwanda sent its forces to protect them and, together with several thousand Banyamulenge fighters, defeated the génocidaires and Congolese soldiers.
The combined RPA/Banyamulenge force went on to capture and secure all the major Congolese towns in the border region, including Goma, Bukavu, and Uvira under the overall command of Laurent Kabila from Shaba province, who took part in the 1964 “Simba” rebellion before forming his own rebel movement, the Parti de la Revolution Populaire (PRP), based in Fizi and the Baraka mountains, South Kivu province. 

Before the capture of the three towns by the RPA/Banyamulenge, Laurent Kabila came to Kampala and requested military assistance for his group, which President Museveni reportedly turned down, although Uganda was ‘sympathetic’ to his cause.
President Museveni advised the Rwanda government not to send troops into Congo to fight against Mobutu’s government. 

“It artificially distorts the outcome of the conflicts; one gets artificial ‘winners’ and ‘losers’; the political problems, therefore, remain unresolved because the winners win artificially and the ‘losers’ lose artificially. This could, however, be compensated for, if the artificial ‘winners,’ brought in all the legitimate political forces so that they all plan for the future together. However, one combines a scenario of artificial ‘winners’ and political exclusion, one is setting a stage for future political problems,” read Museveni’s statement as part of the evidence Uganda filed at the Hague.

Furthermore, Museveni opined that “since somebody is relying on external support primarily, he neglects internal political integration. He neglects making the necessary compromise internally because he is relying on external support to muffle internal fissures.”
Fighting alongside the Banyamulenge, the RPA quickly overwhelmed the Zairean Armed Forces, who fled to the Central African Republic, Chad, and Congo-Brazzaville. 

The central government, which never exercised much authority outside of Congo’s capital and a few major towns, quickly collapsed. 
The fiercest resistance was supplied by the ex-FAR and Interahamwe. However, the salvo of the RPA and various Congolese fighters, under the command of then RPA Colonel James Kabarebe, tore through the frontlines of Mobutu’s troops.

In May 1997, they reached Kinshasa. The war was effectively over. Laurent Kabila became President of the renamed DRC. 
He appointed Kabarebe as chief of staff of the Congolese national army, and Bizima Karaha as Foreign Affairs minister to placate the Tutsi ethnicity, which backed his rebellion.

Uganda in quicksand 

Gradually, the Kabila-Rwanda alliance began to crack under the welter of suspicion.  And Uganda found itself caught in the middle. In May 1998, the breaking point in friendly relations between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, formerly allies, was reached when President Museveni, and his Rwandan counterpart Pasteur Bizimungu, declined the invitations of President Kabila to participate in meetings meant to be held in Kinshasa on regional security.

Serious grievances were then made by the Congolese government against Uganda. Uganda was accused of plundering the wealth of the DRC. A Congolese minister said on television that, “Uganda traffickers, some of whom are high in the government, smuggle wood, gold and diamonds between eastern Congo and Kenya.” 

On July 28, Kabila decreed that the presence of Rwandan troops in the Congo be definitively ended, which also included ‘Ugandan elements.’ 
The statement filed as part of DRC’s memorial to the ICJ read, “The Supreme Commander of the Congolese National Armed Forces, the Head of State of the Republic of Congo and the Minister of National Defence, informs the Congolese people that he has just put an end, as of Monday, July 27, 1998, to the Rwandan military presence that assisted us during the period of the country’s liberation.”

On July 30, 1998, Celestin Lwangi, the DRC’s then Justice minister, revealed a “disinformation campaign after the departure of foreign military cooperation” while insisting that “the Congolese Banyamulenge, Burundians, other foreigners are free to go about their daily business and that respect for their rights will be perfectly guaranteed.” 

The release of the statement, according to the evidence, was also meant to pre-empt a plot by Putschists, who were planning to carry out a military coup during President Kabila’s visit to Cuba.
The Congolese officials accused the Kampala government of having thousands of troops in DRC and specifically ‘Rwanda-Ugandan’ Kabarebe and other commanders of the ‘same origin’ of harbouring a sinister plot.

The memorial claimed that in Kinshasa, about 1,000 Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers, who had escaped the repatriation operation at the end of July 1998, stormed the Tshashi and Kokolo military camps on the outskirts of Kinshasa, thus confirming the thesis of the coup in preparation. 
On August 2, 1998 in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, around 7pm, a group of Ugandan, Rwandan and Burundian soldiers seized the official radio. A statement signed by “the military commander” announced that South Kivu is “decoupled from the Kabila regime”. Another commander later proclaimed “the autonomy of the province.” 

“We are witnessing the mutinies of the 10th and the 22nd brigades, based respectively in Goma and Bukavu, composed mainly of soldiers of Rwanda-speaking origin who have lived a good part of their lives in Uganda and even served in the ranks of the Ugandan army and security services,” read a statement from the DRC government.

Kinshasa claimed that on August 4, 1998, “the existence of a plan to destabilise the government, as well as to conquer the country, was obvious when three Boeing-type aircraft from Congolese Airlines, Congo Air Lines and Blue Air Lines and a cargo plane from Congolese Airlines (LAC) were boarded from Goma airport by the armed forces of aggressor countries, including Uganda. After stocking up on kerosene and taking boxes of ammunition in Kigali, they will go to Kitoma, a military base located in the western fringe of the country, more than 1,500 kilometres from the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Uganda and the other aggressor country, next to Moanda, at the mouth of the Congo River.”

Congolese authorities claimed that “in several rotations, they landed several contingents of foreign soldiers, including Ugandans. After some exchanges of fire, and subject to promises of remuneration and rehabilitation, ex-FAZ are associated with the operation. In this regard, the testimony of Nigerian Inyang, captain of Air Atlantic’s Boeing 707 rented by Congolese Airlines, also boarded, is of major revealing importance.” 

To this will be added testimonies from Ugandan and other soldiers, captured and taken prisoner-of-war, in their vain attempt to take the city of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Kitona, Boma and Matadi, as well as to sabotage the Inga hydroelectric dam,” read the counter-memorial. 

Next week, in its second instalment, Africa’s Forever War will revisit how a murky plot to assassinate Laurent Kabila was set in motion by a series of events.