The Great Game Over the Great Lakes, Part 1
The World's Longest Pipeline, The Great African War and the Rwandan Genocide
“Whoever controls the Congo controls the World”
- Mao Zedong 1961
“We know that Africa is neither French, nor British, nor American, nor Russian, that it is African. We know the objects of the West. Yesterday they divided us on the level of a tribe, clan and village…They want to create antagonistic blocs, satellites”
- Patrice Lumumba, 1960 opening speech at the All-Africa Conference in 1960
Beautiful world, Dire politics
Astronauts who have gazed at earth from space have said that the most eye-catching geographical feature of our planet is the Great Rift Valley. This giant depression in central Africa, was created by the shifting eastward of the tectonic plate that contains countries like Somalia and Ethiopia. The giant rift in the earth created massive deposits of water which spawned what is now called today, Africa’s Great Lakes Region. These seven lakes are populated by the seven nations that make up the region. Each with its own political situation but with intertwining histories.
The high-quality soil in this massive basin created an ancient ecosystem of some of earth’s most sublime biodiversity. Creatures from across the deserts and jungles of Africa come to drink and eat from these rich lakes. Before European and Ottoman penetration, massive confederation of tribes created complex trade routes and social systems that fed Europe and Asia with ivory and exotic pelts.
The German, British and Belgian empires were all active in the region during the colonial period. Constant rebellions, an unforgiving landscape and it being a natural borderland caused the empires to rely heavily on colonial armies staffed by native people. They used a hyper ethnic division in their army hierarchies to create a more stable and reliable ethnic hierarchy within the society. The Belgians for example, originally created a Tutsi dominant government in Rwanda but then switched their support to the Hutus when it suited their interest. The British relied heavily on the Baganda peoples who they armed to untie the indigenous kingdoms that became Uganda.
The complexity of the natural landscape can only be matched by the all the too human geopolitical games played over its soil. While most experts have claimed the Pacific is the geopolitical region undergoing the most change, the political climate of the Great Lakes is changing at a rapid pace. The long conflicts that have made this region the site of intense human devastation, may have reached a new consensus among the powers. This has been motivated by the ever-increasing demand for rare minerals and the recent discovery of gulf like oil deposits surrounding the lakes. There is a shaky new landscape between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda which is a massive departure from the politics of the Great African War and the Rwandan Genocide.
Limited land, displacement and very personal relationships between leaders are all catalysts of increased change and strife. Increased pursuit of oil and minerals by nation states that agree on the necessity for revenue, will continue to increase mass evictions of traditional communities. These surplus people by virtue of their inability to escape their poor conditions, make up the young workers of gold, diamond and coltan mines and the young soldiers in ethnic and sectarian rebel militias.
Continued arm rebellion against this new alliance of nations states is a convenient way to expand an internationally backed military presence. The current president of the DRC Felix Tshisekedi, demonstrated his new power by successfully requesting the deployment of American troops into eastern Congo’s Ituri and Kivu provinces. This operation will be accompanied by cooperating Ugandan and Congolese troops, a new connection. The goal is to combat the Allied Democratic Forces a shadowy but violent Islamist militia group.
The dramatic intrigue and geopolitical plots that make up the history of the region has caused massive violence but also showcased a realpolitik cunning among its national leaders. Yoweri Museveni, the leader of Uganda has been the effective president/dictator for 35 years. His ambitious foreign policy played a key role in the success of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) takeover of Rwanda after the Genocide. His plotting was also key to the beginnings of the Great African War. These leaders are however, only one part of the story, loose military structures and informal paramilitary networks have created a complex web of militias surrounding the Great Lakes. These groups may or may not have national connections, sectarian or ethnic ideology. It is an easy way for opportunistic armed players to grab a piece of the resource pie. This essay will look at how these dynamics were created and why Uganda and its allies may have come out on top.
For the elites of Uganda and their international partners, the future is bright. In 2006, an oil reserve containing possibly two billion barrels worth of oil was discovered under Lake Albert. This find was accompanied by several other minor oil deposits under the marshlands. Uganda lobbied for a longtime to find international partners to help create the massive project in central Africa. In April of 2021, they finally found a pair of oil firm partners, the French oil company TOTAL and the Chinese offshore oil company CNOOC. The agreement is that the pair of companies will work with their partners in international banks to construct the world’s largest heated oil pipeline. This multi-billion-dollar project is proposed to stretch from Lake Albert to the port city of Tanga in Tanzania.
The successful completion of this project might be Museveni’s ultimate success. This would put Uganda in an extremely privileged position within the politics of the Great Lakes. This position is only set to increase as Uganda continues to develop refineries along the pipeline. Some major banks have publicly refused to fund the project due to its environmental consequences and TOTAL’s history of bribery in a multitude of countries. This has been accompanied by a fierce pushback in Ugandan politics and by environmental groups around the world. The pipeline is set to run through multiple nature reserves, rare forests and national parks including the famed Virunga Gorilla reserve. It is also set to run alongside Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria, and the threat of spills to a water supply that important gives one chills. Museveni history has shown, is a cold strategist and this oil pipeline is a representation of his life’s work securing previously unstable territory for his country.
Museveni was born to cattle raising parents in southwestern Uganda near the borders of the DRC and the plateau that makes up Rwanda. His childhood in cattle raising communities gave him a close relationship to the Tutsi people who can be found across the Great Lakes. Tutsi, however, is not really a distinct ethnic group but is more of an economic class. The Belgians created the category and defined it as people who own more then ten cows. These pastoralist people made up the colonial warrior caste of both Uganda and Rwanda. Hutu is simply the farmers of the Great Lakes and were seen as the peasants of the region.
Museveni Attended university in Tanzania and quickly became radicalized as a self-proclaimed Marxist. Tanzania at the time was led by famed independence leader Julius Nyerere. Uganda was undergoing a period of strife as Idi Amin had taken power in a military coup in 1971. Nyerere vocally opposed Amin’s ethnic killings and political purging. Bordering Tanzania quickly became home to many Ugandan refugees living in squalor and with a vendetta against Amin. Museveni quickly left for these refugee camps seeing his opportunity to fight for his principles and disadvantaged cattle raising people.
“I am happy when I speak of Nyerere because I am his supporter. I said he was the greatest black man that ever lived. There were other black men such as Mandela, Nkrumah, but Nyerere is the greatest black man that ever lived.”
- Museveni in 2019, who has grown to like Nyerere in his old age
Nyerere armed the Ugandan opposition in Tanzania and launched an 8 yearlong bush war against Amin with varying degrees of support from the Tanzanian military. Museveni held leadership of his own guerrilla group that worked closely with the main rebel forces. He recruited heavily from the other cattle raising people of the Great Lakes including a significant number of exiled Tutsis from Rwanda. The previously strong Tutsi led Belgian colonial state had been replaced with a Belgian supported Hutu dominated independent Rwanda and Tutsis now suffered from a number of discriminatory practices.
After years of bush war in the lush jungles of central Africa, Amin was overthrown and replaced with the previous president and close Tanzanian ally Milton Obote. Museveni and his band of multinational exiles felt this leader was oppressive as well and continued into another years long period of bush war. This time fighting against a Tanzanian backed Ugandan government. Museveni tried to find a new state sponsor in Mobutu Sésé Seko, the leader of Zaire (DRC). Mobutu gave his vocal support but later betrayed Museveni by backing Obote at the final battle for the capital in Kampala.
Museveni eventually won through finding support in military officers and successfully launched a coup that brought his guerilla rebels to power in 1986. Now that he had a grasp over Uganda, he would go on to remember his friends and foes during his governance from the 15 years of bush war he fought. His dedication to the freedom of Uganda in his youth might only be matched by the grudges he continues to hold into his old age. He quickly gave up his Marxist principles and privatized several industries that Amin and Obote had nationalized.
The beginnings of his rule over Uganda were unstable and Museveni had just watched two leaders before him fall in violent wars. He was wise enough to understand that the only path to stability for his regime was throwing his country into the western consensus and denouncing any political ambiguity that Amin or Obote held. Uganda begun participating in IMF and World Bank programs in 1987 and this quickly integrated the country into the global capitalist market and the protection of the United States. The Cold War was still a few years from ending and a decade of hot war in Sub-Saharan Africa held Cold War policy makers eyes to the region. Amnesty international released several reports throughout this early period criticizing Museveni’s government. He was still consolidating power and liquidating ethnic and political rivals.
''This is not a mere change of guards. I think this is a fundamental change in the politics of our government. Any individual, any group or person who threatens the security of our people must be smashed without mercy”
- Museveni to the New York Times after a trip to United States in 1987
Enter Paul Kagame
The cattle raising warrior caste that made up the colonial security apparatus of Rwanda and Uganda who had been ousted by the independence movement now had a secure home in Uganda. Tutsi forces in the 1960’s had taken power in Burundi through a civil war, but the country was too small to have much geopolitical significance. Museveni had a strong understanding of trust. He had been betrayed and cast aside several times but each time he came back stronger and more determined. He rewarded the allies that had stuck by his side once in power. He governed through a strict military dictatorship and supported a series of special forces units including his exiled Rwandan Tutsi allies.
Tutsis who left Rwanda for Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania were typically poor refugees escaping a climate of discrimination or political radicals who wished to fight for a Tutsi dominated state. One of these Tutsis was the current leader of Rwanda Paul Kagame. Kagame was born to direct descendants of the Tutsi royal family that ruled the Rwandan plateau in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the independence revolution in 1959 led by the Hutu underclass in Rwanda, Tutsis were massacred and fled in mass. Kagame at the time just two years old was carried by his family from their estates into the Tutsi refugee camps in Uganda.
Kagame was raised in a refugee camp and met fellow Tutsi children that would become his close allies for the rest of his life. Kagame attended a prestigious elementary school just 10km away from the refugee camp and learned English. During this period Tutsis were suffering under the oppressive Amin government. Kagame grew up in a world where Tutsi’s had been robbed of their previous privilege. Kagame besides being internally from a high-ranking Tutsi family did not feel this previous privilege. He would have grown up hearing stories of another world in which Tutsi’s ruled and he felt anti-Tutsi discrimination throughout his upbringing.
Kagame’s political radicalization occurred while watching politically active friends disappear during the Amin regime to fight with informal rebel forces. He was not a Marxist, but his radicalism was defined by his Tutsi heritage and stateless upbringing. He made several trips to Rwanda where he studied the country deeply. After Amin was overthrown by the Tanzanian supported bush war in 1979, Kagame was introduced to Museveni who had the aura of a victorious hero. He had seemingly liberated Uganda from Amin through a hard-fought bush war with a unit of Rwandan Tutsis and Ugandan exiles. Kagame joined Museveni’s Tutsi special forces as a fighter. Early American backing of Museveni allowed Kagame to study military intelligence and tactics at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Kagame’s intelligence training was a key reason Museveni was so effectively able to combat Obote in the second part of the bush war. Kagame established a wide array of intelligence assets in the Tutsi refuge communities he knew so well that spread throughout Uganda and central Africa. When Obote was overthrown, Kagame became the head of Ugandan military intelligence through Museveni’s decree. Museveni rewarded other key Tutsi allies with key positions in the new government as well. Now that Uganda had been secured and stabilized through western support, Museveni and his Tutsis allies turned their eyes towards their next objective, the taking back of Rwanda.
It is important to remember that by this time in Rwanda before the civil war started in 1990 and after Museveni took power in 1987, Rwandan society was relatively peaceful. The military and government were still dominated by Hutus but there was a strong political movement to equalize ethnic relations through political affirmative action. Only the most radical Hutus in government and the disadvantaged Tutsi’s abroad held ethnic hate for the opposing group. Museveni, however, was incredibly ambitious and began the process of an invasion of Rwanda led by Kagame and supported by Uganda.
Kagame use his intelligence expertise and access to an arsenal of military aid sent by western powers to Uganda to begin construction of his invasion force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF began their invasion of Uganda with more then 4000 troops in 1990, it has become a major historical marker for the beginnings of a new geo-political world without the Cold War. The RPF took heavy losses in the beginning from the Rwandan army. Rwanda was for all intents and purposes a democratic nation and the RPF represented a militant take over of the country defined by ethnic lines. Kagame also increased his influence into Burundi and Tanzania working closely with his Tutsi militant and political allies.
Kagame found immense success establishing a base in the Virunga mountains, the towering peaks home to the world’s highland gorillas that straddle the borders between the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda. Through this success Kagame began the process of guerilla war taking swaths of rich soil and then disappearing into the night when the Rwandan army came looking. Land is an immense commodity in the Great Lakes. The rich soil makes conflict over land incredibly intense, especially considering the two economic class Hutu (agriculturalist) and Tutsi (cattle raising nomads) both require large land use.
As Kagame found success taking territory in the remote mountains of Rwanda he began a process of ethnic cleansing in the region. The RPF expelled Hutu farmers and replaced them with Tutsis. This violent process resulted in uncounted deaths and increased resentment among Hutu’s who had to flee into the DRC. In 1992, during a period of increasing success for the RPF, a coalition of Hutus and Tutsis within Rwandan government passed a series of constitutional reforms. The main change being the granting of political equality to Tutsi political groups. Kagame halted his advance and began peace talks with the Rwandan government.
This process angered the Hutu radicals in Rwandan society who were fueled by the paranoia of an approaching RPF and a revitalized Tutsi political society. Their logic is easy to understand but deadly in its conclusions. Years of ethnic discrimination by the Hutus made those who had caused the most violence fear reprisal attacks. In 1993, after the assassination of the Rwandan president by mid-air missile strike Hutu extremist groups launched a campaign of mass killings of Tutsis. This became what we now call the Rwandan genocide and effectively broke down Rwandan society. Tutsis are not the majority people in any central African country they inhabit. Their communities and sympathetic Hutus were easy to target, and the speed of the genocide and high peaks of Rwanda made escape near impossible. Up to 1 million people died. It lasted 100 days.
Kagame responded by launching a fill scale assault on Kigali and quickly secured key infrastructure. As the RPF approached the mountain peak that defines the geography of Kigali, Hutu extremists vanished. Most of them into the jungles and mountains of the DRC. Large numbers of innocent Hutu’s also left for the newly established refugee camps in the DRC, fearing reprisal attacks by the ethnically charged RPF.
When Kagame entered the capital, the main perpetrators of the genocide had already fled, and he was left to face a city of complete chaos. His lifelong project of reclaiming Rwanda for the Tutsis was successful, but the blood shed throughout this conflict exceeds comprehension. Museveni and Kagame were successful in their assault on Rwanda but now the conflict had simply spread. Kagame and Museveni were determined to hunt down their Hutu enemies while at the same time increasing the territorial influence of Museveni and his allies. The world was appalled by the Genocide and Kagame had limited international issues gaining support for his next venture.
“Well, all along, the people who had been targeted were actually the Tutsis. From the 1960s, I talked about -- In 1959, it was all of us who became refugees. It was that kind of categorization we could talk about in 1960s, in 1973. Even when we had started the peace process in 1992, end of 1992, killing started in the north. You know [Tutsis] were killed in the north, and actually that disrupted the peace process. So we were very sure that these massacres had the kind of connotation relating to genocide. I don't know whether genocide just becomes -- I don't know. I cannot be able to say it's only when such a number has been killed that you call it genocide. But what I think is more the intent and the philosophy and the ideology behind the killings that describes anything to be a genocide. So we were sure the massacres were being carried out, and the Tutsi were being targeted, and it had happened before.
What we were not sure of was … the full magnitude and scope of the problem. We didn't fully understand it at the start. But we knew it was the same kind of thing that was [going on] at this time.”
Kagame in a Frontline interview, 2004