Africa’s First World War
The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 contributed to the overthrow of dictator Mobutu after many years in power. But the new rulers were not interested in a real democratization of Congo-Kinshasa and in 1998 war broke out. More and more other countries were drawn into the conflict, sometimes referred to as “Africa’s First World War”.
The conflict between Hutus and Tutsis
Of crucial importance to the conflict in Congo-Kinshasa are the conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis, who are the dominant ethnic groups in Rwanda and Burundi east of Congo-Kinshasa.
According to agooddir, Rwanda and Burundi are among the most densely populated countries in Africa. The Hutus are in the majority in both countries. Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language and have lived mixed in the same villages. Some researchers see them as two castes within one and the same people.
Less well known is that the neighboring countries of Rwanda and Burundi also have indigenous minorities of Hutus and Tutsis, although they have other names. The Tutsi of the Congo-Kinshasa call themselves banyamulenge. Uganda’s Tutsis are called hima or bahima. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni belongs to hima, which is a small but significant group.
Genocide in Rwanda
Since Rwanda and Burundi became independent in 1962, they have occasionally been shaken by opposition and violence between Hutus and Tutsis. It culminated in 1994 with a genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. It was not a spontaneous outbreak of violence but an extermination campaign that the Hutu regime then in power had carefully planned. The UN received clear signals that something was going on but did not intervene.
Hutu extremists demanded that all Hutus take part in the massacre they staged. Hutus who did not want to join were killed along with the Tutsis. According to UN estimates, the massacre claimed at least 800,000 lives.
Even before Rwanda became independent, many Tutsis had fled fighting, mainly to Uganda. Thousands of exiled Tutsis had fought in the Uganda Civil War in the 1980s, on the side of the victorious President Museveni. It was now an exile army of Tutsis from Uganda that stopped the massacre in Rwanda. The exile army brought a Tutsi-dominated regime to power.
Mass exodus to Congo-Kinshasa
The genocide in Rwanda was followed by a mass exodus of Hutus who feared that the Tutsis would take revenge. In Congo-Kinshasa (then called Zaire), President Mobutu leased land in the east to refugee camps for over one million Hutus from Rwanda. Mobutu also donated weapons to the Hutu extremist militia, Interahamwe . By taking a stand for the Hutus in Rwanda and Burundi, Mobutu took the Tutsis in these countries against him, as did Uganda. From the camps, Interahamwe made raids into Rwanda. The Hutu extremists and their Congolese protectors also attacked Congolese banyamulenge who lived near the camps.
To stop Hutumilis’ raids across the border with Rwanda and to protect banyamulenge, in 1996 Rwanda and Uganda sent troops to Congo-Kinshasa. The fighting led to the evacuation of Hutu camps and most of the refugees were forced to return to Rwanda. Some militant groups remained in the country and in 2000 several of them formed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Congolese rebels, who wanted to overthrow Mobutu, took advantage of the Tutsi armies’ presence in the country and made contacts with them. Led by Congolese warlord Laurent-Désiré Kabila, in the spring of 1997 the rebels marched on Kinshasa, backed by Rwandan Tutsi soldiers.
In southern Congo-Kinshasa, other rebels advanced with the support of Angola. The fact that the neighboring country was on Kabila’s side was due to the fact that Mobutu had previously supported the Angolan Unitagerilla in its war against the Angolan government.
Kabila takes power
In the end, Mobutu had lost almost all its support, and when Kabila’s rebels marched into the capital in May 1997, they were greeted by cheering crowds (Mobutu himself had already left the country). Kabila proclaimed himself president. He made promises of free elections, but it turned out that Kabila had no visions other than securing power and he almost immediately began to persecute political opponents.
Kabila saw that it did not serve his purpose to appear friends with the Tutsis. The reason was that many Congolese do not see banyamulenge as “real” Congolese. In the summer of 1998, Kabila began firing Tutsis from high positions and replacing them with relatives and friends from Katanga in the south. He ordered all foreign troops – mostly Tutsis from Rwanda – to leave the country and also began inciting the Tutsis on the radio. Kabila’s campaign against the Tutsis provoked outrage in Rwanda and marked the beginning of the great war in Congo-Kinshasa.
Several countries are interfering in
In August 1998, local Tutsis and Rwandan troops launched an uprising in eastern Congo-Kinshasa. The uprising was also supported by Uganda. A rebel movement, the Congolese Assembly for Democracy (RCD), began marching against Kinshasa.
Kabila would have fallen if Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe had not come to his defense. Despite objections from South Africa, the three countries sent troops and weapons, after Kabila appealed for help to the regional cooperation organization SADC. In Angola, as in Namibia, it was feared that the Congolese rebels would cooperate with the Angolan Unitagerilla. Zimbabwe’s involvement is more difficult to explain. Possibly President Robert Mugabe simply wanted to profile himself as a leader in the region.
The rebels’ advance was halted and the RCD returned to eastern Congo-Kinshasa. The war continued, albeit with low intensity and without major battles. Yet several other African countries were involved in what was described as “Africa’s First World War”.