Less than two decades ago, this is what happened to a huge African country once known as Zaire:
Rebels backed by Rwanda’s recently installed, ethnic Tutsi-led government moved out of their strongholds in the eastern flank of the country and advanced toward the Zairian national capital, Kinshasa, and overthrew the central government.
To Rwandan Tutsi, eastern Zaire — part of a country then under the waning rule of the flamboyant dictator Mobutu Sese Seko — was the unacceptable refuge of ethnic Hutu militias directly responsible for the deaths in 1994 of at least 800,000 (some researchers say more than a million) Tutsi and their moderate Hutu allies. The Hutu flight into Zaire followed 100 days of slaughter that took a prominent place in the global annals of genocide. For Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s new leader, the moment was right to punish Zaire. In Rwanda’s view, the United Nations as well as Zaire had failed him.
The 1990s rebels, grandly calling themselves Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, were led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, once a supporter of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister after independence in 1960, who was deposed by Mobutu and later killed. (His death has inspired conspiracies, including a widely held belief that the United States and Belgium, the former colonial power, were complicit in the murder.) By May 1997, Kabila captured Kinshasa, forced Mobutu out of the country, declared himself president and renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For those who have followed events in central Africa closely over recent decades, what is happening now is eerily familiar. A new group of rebels and Congolese army mutineers with roots in eastern Congo and varying agendas again claim to threaten Kinshasa — where the president is Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. The rebels call themselves the M23, named for a short-lived peace deal enacted on March 23, 2009. Again, UN experts and others say, the rebels are backed by Kagame and ethnic Tutsi fighters.
Eastern Congo’s North Kivu regional capital, Goma, fell to the rebels on Nov. 20. UN peacekeepers, outnumbered and outgunned, had to step aside, much as they did in Rwanda in 1994, when the Security Council, under pressure from the administration of President Bill Clinton, decided not to intervene.
“For anyone who has followed the region’s convulsions since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it’s déjà vu,” David Smith, Africa correspondent of The Guardian newspaper in London, wrote recently.
The spoils of military victory by any armed group in eastern Congo are well known. The region is rich in minerals, including rare metals, and other natural resources. There are diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc as well as coltan, which is used in mobile phones, and cassiterite, a tin ore used in food packaging. Rwanda, denying its direct involvement in the fighting, could nevertheless emerge with two major gains: trade in minerals and the creation of a buffer zone between Rwanda and the million or so Hutu whom Kagame still fears as the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.
Also well known is the criminal record of Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, the Rwanda-born commander of M23, a once-powerful officer in the Congolese national army who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, which has issued two warrants for his arrest, covering his army career and his current rebel leadership. The court indictment lists seven counts of war crimes: enlistment of children under the age of 15, conscription of children under the age of 15, using children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities; murder, attacks against the civilian population, rape and sexual slavery, and pillaging. Ntaganda is also facing three counts of crimes against humanity: murder, rape and sexual slavery and persecution.
There are some notable differences between this rebel movement and those led over the years by Laurent Kabila and others. In the late 1990s, numerous African countries were directly involved in the war in eastern Congo, among them – apart from Rwanda and Uganda, which is still thought to be complicit but denies the charge – Angola and Zimbabwe. A Zimbabwean military officer told me at the time in Kinshasa that he and his fellow soldiers had no interest in the region beyond their orders to secure valuable sources of diamonds for the government of President Robert Mugabe. At the UN, diplomats called the Congolese crisis “Africa’s first world war.”
It is too soon to know whether the current rebellion has the potential to threaten Kinshasa, more than 1,100 miles away by road – if roads existed. Congo, the size of Europe, has no functioning national transportation network. Rusted railways hold only memories of Belgian colonial times half a century ago. River travel is hazardous and time-consuming. Health and education systems have collapsed. The country’s riches have never reached the poor majority of Congolese.
When a Security Council delegation visited Congo after the 1990s war ended, people in one small city reachable only by plane raced into the unpaved streets to greet the approaching VIP convoy, begging, in French, “Peace! Peace!” But peace didn’t come then. It still has not come to Congo.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.