Power Shifts In The Congo
Herbert Weiss, a long time student of the Congo and Research Associate of the Institute, spoke recently about the wave of change sweeping central Africa. According to Weiss, the Congo Revolution marks a watershed in central African politics ushering in a new generation of post-independence leaders and radically changing the region's geopolitical balance and political culture. Furthermore, the Congo revolution has largely benefited state actors at the expense of the numerous armed and unarmed oppositions groups once supported by the Mobutu regime. However, Weiss warned, "the end of these changes is not yet in sight," citing the civil war in Congo-Brazzaville and the attempted coup in Zambia.
Weiss described the Mobutu regime as famous for its willingness to intervene in the domestic politics of neighbors, often at the behest of its cold war allies, the United States and France. After years of fighting movements based in and supported by Zaire, Uganda, Angola and Rwanda joined forces to overthrow the Mobutu regime. Weiss pointed out that this new openness about intervening across national boundaries marks a shift in the region's political culture that may ultimately have a destabilizing effect.
According to Weiss, the Congo rebellion was triggered by events following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Hutu "refugees" fleeing Rwanda presented regional actors and the international community with a difficult dilemma. They represented a new kind of refugee. They arrived with their social and military structures intact, "the same structures responsible for the genocide in Rwanda," commented Weiss. The rump state they created in the western Congolese province of Kivu disrupted the local balance of ethnic power, destroyed the environment, and created jealousy among the Congolese ineligible for western aid. However, it was only when Hutu militia from the camps brought their war of genocide to South Kivu that the Congo revolution began. South Kivu Tutsi fighters, the Banyamalengue, fought back tenaciously, finding immediate support in the Rwandan vice president and military leader Paul Kigame. According to Weiss, the United Nation's failure to resolve the new problem of "violent refugees" destroyed its ability to influence events as they unfolded in the crumbling Zaire.
As Weiss pointed out, the Congolese didn't fight the Congo revolution. Jonas Savimbi's Unita forces, Hutu militiamen, and an assortment of Serb mercenaries struggled to defend the Mobutu regime from a largely foreign military threat, ostensibly lead by Laurent Kabila. Kabila was chosen for political reasons, and had little military power in the beginning of the rebellion. The intervention of Rwandan, Ugandan and Angolan military units proved decisive.
According to Weiss, Kabila had the best revolutionary credentials to lead the rebellion, and to serve the interest of his military supporters. He was one of the only leaders untainted by association with Mobutu. Perhaps more importantly he was not a Tutsi, who are widely distrusted in Congo. As a zone commander in the 1960s Congo Rebellion, the biggest post independence struggle anywhere in Africa, Kabila established a mountain redoubt that he occupied until the mid-1980s. He then fled to Uganda, disappearing until he was resurrected ten years later by a foreign alliance.
Once the rebellion had established control in Kivu, its efforts should naturally have turned towards the resource rich southern Congo, opined. However, the rebels advanced to the north instead, a decision Weiss said, that "shows who was controlling the rebellion in its early stages." The first objective of the rebel alliance was to destroy bases from where armed movements attacked Rwanda and Uganda. Only after the destruction of these bases and the pivotal battle of Kisangani did the rebel advance turn south. By then, Weiss said, "the war had been won."
Weiss was critical of UN efforts to mediate a solution to the conflict. Claiming that they failed to understand the dynamics at work, and thus made themselves irrelevant. "Proposed talks never included the important actors," he said, "Kigame, Museveni, and Dos Santos were never invited, nor were the domestic politicians opposed to the Mobutu regime." These actors determined the outcome of the revolution and will establish the geopolitical order that follows.
In his concluding remarks, Weiss explored some implications of the more interventionist strategies pursued by regional leaders. In particular, the Angola government greatly improved its hand, he said. Dos Santos was able to shut down Unita bases in the Congo and the FLEC movement in the Cabinda oil region located to the north of Angola wedged between the two Congos. Weiss suggested that the Dos Santos regime might be preparing for a final effort to defeat Savimbe's Unita movement. He speculated that the latest attempted coup in Zambia may have been an Angolan attempt to close down Unita's only remaining conduit for arms and supplies.
Weiss cautioned that the situation in the Congo remains unstable observing that "Kabila enjoyed the shortest honeymoon period in history." His government of exiles has no political structure and will find it increasingly difficult to develop consensus and control the sprawling nation. Additionally, Kabila must contend with non-governmental institutions and opposition politicians who are popular with the Congolese.
The fighting may be over in the Republic of the Congo, but the violence has spread to Congo Brazzaville. Here too, Weiss pointed out, state interests were pursued in violation of national sovereignty. Angola became involved to protect its Cabinda oil fields and the French oil company ELF weighed in to protect its contracts. Today a climate of uncertainty prevails in regional relations. It is unclear whether the nations that allied against Mobutu will continue their aggressive policies now that he is gone.