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Great Lakes Policy Forum—Meeting Summary—September 10, 1998

September 10, 1998
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

The meeting featured an update on the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from Ambassador Howard Wolpe, a statement by the Permanent Representative of the DRC to the United Nations, Ambassador André Kapanga, a field report from Professor Emeritus Herbert Weiss of Columbia University, and comments by Peter Rosenblum from the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.

The War in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a Regional Perspective

While Congo can (and some argue should) be analyzed separately because of the breadth of that country’s territory and internal strife, the regional ramifications of the current crisis are clear and present. In each capital in the region, governments are concerned about the political and economic ramifications of their involvement, militarily or otherwise, in the DRC war.

Uganda perceives that Kabila, and his approach to governance, was the root of the problem. Ugandan officials expressed frustration over ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) rebel operations based in North Kivu that continue to infiltrate the border during insurgencies, and the DRC’s reported dealings with Sudan. Any involvement by Sudan could have serious ramifications on Ugandan border security to the north and their ongoing struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army. There was no acknowledgment on behalf of Uganda that their troops were involved with the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) rebels in DRC territory. There was, however, anger that Zimbabwe had decided to send troops. Uganda was interested in negotiations and a cease-fire, following a public statement by Rwanda to work toward the same.

Rwandan concerns for national security were paramount and rooted in a not unfounded fear of ethnic annihilation. Rwandan officials expressed grave concern about Banyamulenge vulnerability in Kinshasa as the battlefront encroached upon the capital. There was both acknowledgment and denial of Rwandan troop involvement. Acknowledgments were based on the premise that this was an internal problem that the Kabila government had failed to control. The Rwandans claim evidence of Congolese complicity with ex-FAR and Interahamwe, including military training and alleged orders that Congolese troops should not intercede with genocidaires moving into Rwanda.

Angola expressed anger and a sense of betrayal about the decisions by Rwanda and Uganda to undertake military intervention. They also expressed strong desires to avoid direct military conflict with Rwanda. The Angolans reasoned that the Kabila government had failed to keep borders secure, but also that the rebellion lacked any sufficient indigenous base. They believed that these conditions would continue to generate regional chaos that could play into the hands of UNITA and threaten their internal security imperatives. There were some claims that UNITA forces and former Mobutuists were openly part of the rebel coalition, and a reported siting of some 800 UNITA troops moving into Congo territory was the last straw. Angolan military involvement was based on the premise that their intervention would not be an extended engagement, but would rather be discrete and quickly lead to a military stalemate, making conditions ripe for a negotiated settlement. Officials acknowledged that there had not been much thought put into a diplomatic solution. Further, there was resentment about a possible South African leadership role in any negotiations. The Angolans clearly preferred to take their lead from Mugabe and the SADC (Southern African Development Community) element.

Zimbabwe expressed strong anger about not having been consulted by the Rwandans and Ugandans prior to their intervention. Viewpoints aired by Zimbabwean government officials about the ethnic component of the conflict – specifically about Tutsi takeover conspiracies – were described as "very disturbing." There was an equally strong perception that South Africa and the US were playing partisan roles with respect to the conflict, based on military interventions to Rwanda and Uganda (training by the US and weapon supplies by South Africa).

South Africa wanted to avoid further division with Zimbabwe and the rest of the SADC member countries that was being fueled by the growing DRC conflict.

The Perspective of the DRC Government

The eastern portion of the country has been an arena of armed conflict for decades, yet the corruption and decay of the Mobutuist state virtually ensured that Zairian territory would serve as a haven to guerrilla groups opposing neighboring regimes. All of the military campaigns that have been waged in the eastern provinces on behalf of external problems have brought not only instability to the region but also prolonged suffering to the Congolese people living there.

"Countering genocide" is a legitimate national security interest of Rwanda, and it has been used to explain why Rwandan troops remain active in the Kivu provinces. Several questions were raised that do not directly challenge this justification, but do bear some consideration:

  • Is it possible to launch "surgical strikes" against suspected genocidaires in the Kivus without widespread collateral damage?

  • If the Rwandans failed to subdue the Interahamwe during the 1996 war, when they were nominally serving in the national army, why would an attempt to subdue them now be any more successful * particularly when the Rwandan action today is viewed by the Congolese people as a foreign invasion and has aroused both hostility and resentment?

  • If there is an attempt to temporarily seize territory and create some type of "buffer zone," what is to take place within this zone, and how will those who control it deal with their perceived "enemies"?

It is the view of the DRC government that all foreign forces must withdraw as a precondition to any lasting peace in the region.

The United States Response

The US understood the concerns and imperatives of the Rwandans and Ugandans on border security, and the use of Congolese territory as a base for launching attacks into their territory. The US also shares regional concerns about internal governance issues in the DRC, Banyamulenge citizenship, and the genocidal threat that is implicit in the "ethnicization" of the conflict. Yet, none of these concerns justify foreign intervention in DRC, and the US argued against the action taken by Rwanda and Uganda as dangerous and counter-productive, particularly in as much as it has exacerbated the threat of wider conflict, regional destabilization, and the mobilization of Congolese nationalism and manipulation of anti-Tutsi sentiment. In the end, these are all diversions from the needs of a more stable Congolese transition.

The US opposed the intervention from southern African countries, on the basis that it was likely to widen the conflict, and continues to press for an immediate cease-fire and troop standstill, accompanied by the withdrawal of all foreign forces from DRC territory. The US is actively engaged in attempts to establish a diplomatic framework for negotiating both external questions of border security and internal questions of governance and Banyamulenge citizenship.

The US pulled the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) mission from Rwanda, as well as a Defense Assessment Team that was in the process of evaluating whether or not there was substantial need or evidence for further training collaborations between the US and Rwanda.

The Paradoxes of the Current Congo Crisis

Paradoxes are for the most part an academic enterprise, but there are some worth mentioning:

  • People talk about the "Banyamulenge" or use the term "Tutsi" as if these terms identify a homogenous community. This is not the case at all. There are many Congolese Tutsi who do not support the risky Rwandan/Ugandan intervention. They also do not support Kabila, because he has not fulfilled the implicit promise of their participation in his rise to power. The Tutsi and Banyamulenge are not a united community. There are real biological definitions being given to people from the east, the Tutsi, and people who look like them. The Banyamulenge are between a rock and a hard place. What they want most is to be accepted as Congolese citizens, but they are now identified as a conciliatory force to the foreign invasion. These correlations have set them back permanently with respect to their goal.

  • The 1996 war was seen as a Congolese revolution aided by Rwanda and Burundi. The opposite is the case now; the movement against Kabila is referred to as a foreign invasion. Yet, ironically, the 1996 war was almost exclusively fought by foreign troops, including the Katangan gendarme that was then an integral part of the Angolan army. In the current conflict, both sides have more Congolese participation than in 1996. The perception that it is a foreign war misses the point that there is a genuine Congolese mobilization. The size and tenacity of this mobilization (in terms of training and arms) is certainly questionable, but there is currently no modality for bringing this group or into the international talks.

  • The arguments that are currently being made by the Kabila government for assistance in fighting back a foreign invasion are precisely the same arguments that were voiced two years ago by the Mobutu government. The arguments today seem to have a resonance that did not exist then. The irony is that the Kabila government came to power by precisely the same ideology. The question is what claims are legitimate (or being taken seriously) now that were, for some reason, not legitimate then?

    Kabila’s legitimacy grew substantially when his administration improved some of the basic conditions that have real meaning to the majority of Congolese people – particularly inflation and domestic security. Public opinion polling proved that his popularity was much more accepted by the general population than it was by members of the political class, intellectuals, human rights groups, civil society leaders, and the press. Freedom of association and free speech, and most especially the concerns of mass human rights violations in the West, are not issues that resonate greatly with the average Congolese citizen. Therefore, it is possible that the perception abroad that Kabila has little support or acceptance is false. Although, by failing to develop any type of political infrastructure, governance structures, or party organizations to mature, stabilize, and institutionalize his public support, the power and tenacity of his this support remains a legitimate question.

Comments and Questions on the Crisis

  • There are many Congolese political forces and leaders that are currently on the sidelines that would like to participate in a global redefinition of political power and institution-building in the DRC. They reject the DRC rebels, who have adopted violence and are supported by foreign powers. They also reject the Kabila government, because it has closed the door to their participation. They are hoping that an international conference, or reconciliation with foreign forces, might have the effect of creating an all-parties negotiation. Unfortunately, it is not apparent that these now dormant forces will become active or gain enough power to be a dominant voice for change. Rather, the majority of influence now rests with those who have guns. The real conclusion is that authoritarian rule and autarchic power in DRC must end. Kabila has declared this to be his agenda, but it is not clear that he is effective at achieving it.

  • US diplomats and international NGOs agree that it is important to engage civil society in the process of bringing about a peaceful settlement to the conflict, but there is a real lack of negotiating tools to do so. Consequently, negotiations remain focused only on high-level government officials.

  • There is great exuberance to find unfair foreign intervention in African affairs, and the presence of the JCET and Defense Assessment Team in Rwanda is a minor example of the way that the US finds itself the target of much criticism and suspicion.

  • There is an argument that US policy toward Africa is to identify an African leader, in whom we believe and trust, and then to support that leader almost unconditionally. A good test for this criticism would be for US officials to ask themselves if we are now treating Mobutu the same way that we once treated Museveni?

  • The only clear way to view the issues surrounding the war in DRC is to have all foreign forces removed from the country. One must ask what the balance of power would be if only Congolese forces were fighting each other. The question is whether or not the challenge to Kabila would collapse without Rwandan or Ugandan interventions. On the other hand, a naïve notion by the DRC government or international community that the mere withdrawal of all of foreign forces will somehow resolve the vast array of problems and internal strife turns a blind eye to the realities on the ground and the need for dramatic reform.

  • By way of conclusion, there are two key words, or fundamental problems, that block progress toward a cease-fire and sustained negotiated settlement in the DRC and Burundi, as well as the entire region: insecurity and trust. There can be no resolution between opposing countries or ethnic groups until pervasive and persistent insecurity is addressed. This is not just a Tutsi mindset. It exists everywhere in the region, and both figuratively and literally invades people’s daily lives and their ability to make rationale choices. The second issue is one of trust. How do you rebuild sufficient trust in light of insecurity, fighting, and a preponderance of foreign troop involvement? To address this issue, one must first deal with perceptions vs. objectivity and somehow establish a baseline of objective dialogue between the parties involved * the kind of dialogue that must take place in order for trust to begin to be established.

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