The Great Game Over the Great Lakes, Part 2
The World's Longest Pipeline, The Great African War and the Rwandan Genocide
The Great African War
“It is in the interest not only of the people of Congo-Zaire that there should be a settlement; it is in the interest of the whole continent of Africa. Zaire, as we have pointed out, has nine borders, has borders with nine different countries and instability in that country has a ripple effect which affects all the neighboring countries. And it is for that reason that we think it is absolutely crucial for us to bring about peace in that country and we are confident that we are making progress”
-Nelson Mandela 1998, in the press briefing after peace talks with Laurent Kabila and Mobouto
During the period that followed the events in Rwanda, Bill Clinton expressed regret for a supposed failure to stop the genocide. He made several trips to Africa throughout the later 1990’s and held meetings with a group of African leaders he upheld as blazing a new path for African politics. The leaders of this cohort were the ones closest to the United States, namely Museveni and Kagame and were christened in condescending fashion, part of the new African renaissance. These leaders were supposed to represent a new political path, past the restrictions of ideological commitment the Cold War enforced. However, this attempt by the Clinton administration to show that they had a handle on events was about to deeply embarrass them and show how unserious the United State really was about Great Lakes.
After the events of the Rwandan Genocide, a massive network of Hutu dominated refugee camps arose in the borderlands between the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda namely in the Kivu provinces and Ituri province. The leader of the DRC (at the time called Zaire) Mobuto, was a long-time anti-communist western ally but in the face of the new generation of leaders his usefulness was declining. American support had decreased dramatically at the end of the Cold War and the country’s economy was spiraling. Throughout his career he made a wide array of militant enemies both inside Zaire and across Africa. In this new period of African politics, Mobuto stood opposed to Museveni and Kagame’s ambitions. He had long tolerated Tutsi refugees in eastern Congo but after the Kagame’s rise he quickly began a symbolic process of Tutsi discrimination. This deeply angered the RPF.
The RPF argued that when Hutu extremist escaped into the DRC, they massacred the Tutsis that were already living there. It is important to understand that more than a million people left Rwanda and settled in endlessly expansive informal refugee camps. These areas were spots of massive death and destruction as lack of aid made the weakest die first. Mobuto understood that for his poorly managed country a refugee crisis like this was impossible to stabilize. His new strategy around 1995 was to arm and train Hutu militias to go back to Kigali and take back Rwanda from the RPF. It is debated what level of support the Hutu extremist groups received or how much encouragement they really needed but the RPF took this as a realistic threat to their hold on power. In response to this, Kagame and Museveni used their competence in guerrilla war and intelligence to establish Tutsi militias in eastern Congo armed by Uganda and Rwanda. Refugee camps are perfect recruiting grounds for the informal militias that span across the mountains of the Great Lakes.
This began what is now called by scholars of the First Congo War. A series of informal ethnic militias fighting in refugee camps and jungles with varying degrees of state support. Eastern Congo was also home to neighboring mining projects near the refugee camps where rebels could find an easy source of self-sustaining revenue with an endless labor supply. Guerilla fighters and state backed armies were now marching towards the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, taking the upper hand in refugee camps.
Taking villages, sometimes exterminating ethnic rivals, capturing infrastructure, and setting up a system of rents for resource extraction were all part of the advance westward. Kagame was quite aware of the rising commodity prices the tech boom had brought to previously worthless minerals in the rich Great Lakes basin. This “seize and extract” practices in the first Congo War laid the tactical groundwork for the banditry activities the region is still dealing with, usually conducted by veterans or sons of this war.
Rwanda and Uganda also helped organize and arm a non-Tutsi anti-Mobuto army called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). This was led by Laurent Kabila who had been a rebel in eastern Congo since Patrice Lumumba was overthrown in 1961 and previously had a falling out with Che Guevara in the later 60’s. Kabila was for a long time thought to be washed up and elderly. He was a lifelong rebel against Mobuto, but his sincerity and morality were questionable. Strategically, he was a recognizable face Uganda and Rwanda thought the Congolese people would see as a possible replacement leader.
Kagame took the initiative in helping the Congolese rebels and Tutsi fighters to secure and establish a friendly state in Zaire. RPF fighters fought alongside Tutsi militias and the AFDL. These armies used their elaborate access to semi-legal arms trafficking routes established through Kagame and Museveni’s war careers and international connections. Massive weapons infusions and military training to almost all parties in the conflict throughout the 1980’s as part of Cold War policy deeply intensified the scale of the war.
The First Congo War had major international implications as there was significant money to be made and Mobuto had a long list of enemies and allies. The Tutsi government in Burundi along with Zambia, Angola, Eretria, Ethiopia, South Sudan South Africa and Zimbabwe all supported the anti-Mobuto coalition in various ways. Mobuto drew support from a wide array of mercenary connections across countries like Chad, Niger, and Sudan. France worked diplomatically to try and stop the rebel advance because Mobuto had for a long time been one of France’s key allies in Africa.
“The big mistake of Mubutu was to involve himself in Rwanda. So it’s really Mubutu who initiated the programme of his removal. Had he not involved himself in Rwanda, I think he could have stayed just like that; as he had been doing nothing to develop Zaire but stay in what the call power by controlling the radio station and so on.”
- Museveni in 1997
"There are not many people who thought that Mobutu was very weak. They thought of Mobutu as a big monster who wouldn't be defeated, with his big hat and his big stick. They thought little Rwanda and big Zaire,"
- Kagame in 1998
The war was absolutely devasting given the lack of medicine and food and denial of the severity of the situation by political leaders. Atrocities were committed on both sides. This was a new type of war, not one defined by communism versus capitalism or independence versus colonialism but a cynical conflict fought for self-preservation and revenge. This essay is not going to attempt to argue what could have been done to avoid all this bloodshed. This essay, however, has argued that the legacies of history and the souls of dead generations are always with us and that the powers that be, are all too quick to forget that. It also seems that due to Kagame’s reputation as a peacekeeper and being educated by the American military, countries in the west were more likely to ignore or work around Kagame’s ambitions viewing him as someone cosmopolitan or enlightened. The legacies of colonialism and the Cold War haunt these prolonged conflicts. It is not enough to boil them down simply to individual ethnic hate but in the history spanning systems that force us into corners and make us lash out.
Kagame and his allies ignored international calls for peace negotiations and rebel forces marched swiftly to Kinshasa taking mass amounts of territory. Mobuto’s lack of infrastructure spending throughout his career bit him in the ass as he was not able to communicate with the front or quickly send support due to a lack of roads and a under supplied military. Mobuto eventually fled to Morocco where he died later that year in 1997 after a 32-year career. Kabila was installed as the new president and initiated a violent crackdown supported by his international allies on Mobuto supporters.
Kagame and Museveni seemingly had fulfilled their lifelong projects. There now existed a Tutsi friendly government in the massive DRC. This peace would not last long as Kabila did something that is rarely seen in international politics and adds to the drama and tragedy of this geopolitical story. The original plan was for him to be extremely friendly to Uganda and Rwanda because of their military support. Kabila and his Congolese allies had plans of their own and detested their treatment at what was to be a puppet government.
The First Congo War ended in March of 1997 and the Second Congo War began in August of 1998. Therefore, some scholars have begun to talk about both conflicts as one wider conflict, the Great African War. Barring any romanticizing, this concept asks the question, well were does the conflict really start? The Rwandan Genocide and the events of the Ugandan bush war are also key to these wars, they are the same people. But this people were born into worlds and conditions they inherited from past decisions, past people, past worlds intimately connected to ours. The story of war in the Great Lakes is the story of impossible countries never meant to inhabit a Westphalian system forced upon them by generations of colonialism. These are not failed states, but states that were not allowed to mature and or come into being on their own but have always been followed by the painful stabbing of colonialism that lives in everyday consciousness and perpetuates personal hate.
Kabila was fed up with taking orders from the Rwandan representatives in his government and expelled them. Rwanda and Uganda responded by inciting a rebellion in the eastern Congolese provinces they held great influence over. Kabila then armed Hutu militias loyal to him and the war quickly returned in full force much like the year before. Kagame was publicly decreed eastern Congo as “historical Rwanda”.
Uganda had moved their militias into Ituri province and Rwanda into the Kivu provinces. They exported vast amounts of gold, diamonds and coltan to help fund their war efforts. These minerals legally belonged to the Congo and their cheap prices were quickly taken advantage of by global buyers. Informal control over these provinces also resulted in violence and enforced labor.
One of the most forgotten episodes of the war was the genocide of the tribal Pygmy people in the jungles of Ituri province by Ugandan backed militiamen. It is a vastly understudied and bloody event. The supposed Ugandan militia officer who organized the conflict was dismissed at the International criminal Court due to a lack of evidence.
Kagame as always was creative in making war. To try and bring a quick end to the conflict in late 1998, several Rwandan pilots flew three highjacked civilian aircraft packed with militiamen into an airport outside Kinshasa. It was a surprise attack that caught Kabila unprepared and gave Rwanda the upper hand by launching a second front inside the capital itself.
Kabila fled abroad were he conducted a long international tour seeking out allies. He found friends in Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who saw an opportunity to help his old “Marxist” pal. Zimbabwe supplied a large amount of equipment and weapons to revitalize the Congolese army. Kabila also found real allies in Namibia, Angola, Chad, and Sudan while Rwanda and Uganda had friends in Burundi and across eastern Congo’s militia landscape. People like Nelson Mandela and Muammar Qaddafi tried to negotiate peace but were routinely unsuccessful.
The war raged on into the early 2000’s bringing death to mostly innocent people who had been left to the exposure of mosquitoes and toxic water supplies. The war finally reached a breaking point when Kabila was killed by a bodyguard who had betrayed him in an operation set up by Rwandan intelligence. He was replaced by his son Joseph Kabila. During 2002 and 2003 a series of peace negotiations mediated by Nelson Mandela, the United States and the United Nations looked like it was finally bringing a formal end to this conflict. It had become the bloodiest conflict since the WWII. Armed militias were still active and after the peace now have taken on the title of bandits who still attempt to seize villages and mineral supplies with varying degrees of state support. The environmental destruction during the war can only be matched by Uganda’s pipeline plans.
Joseph Kabila throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s kept relations stable with Rwanda and Uganda as well as leading the country to a democratic transition. In the first peaceful democratic transition ever in the country’s history (even though eastern Congo was still rife with conflict) a man named Felix Tshisekedi came to power. He was the son of Mobuto’s long time domestic political rival and was educated in Brussels.
Tshisekedi represents multiple new geopolitical trends that have been brought about with the conclusion of the Great African war. He released some of Kabila and Mobuto’s political prisoners and has worked closely with Rwanda and Uganda. These projects also take the form of joint construction of infrastructure. There seems to be a new agreement between the three countries that mineral exploitation and stability in the eastern provinces requires a new consensus. These three countries have now been working together to militarily eliminate the remnants of their shared war across the great lakes.
These operations still compel a cycle of violence in which people in the Great Lakes weather Hutu or Tutsi are displaced whether by war or resource extraction and compelled to join a militia as a chance for survival. This is all too convenient for this new alliance as it gives them an excuse to expand state control into these previously wildly provinces. The expansion of state control means more secure and profitable resource extraction. Therefore, Uganda has the full rights over the oil under Lake Albert because the DRC has settled for the fact that cooperation with Uganda means full access to mineral resources on their side of the border. This has given the DRC more power and integrated them into the western system of IMF and World Bank loans Kabila wanted to leave. The DRC even was able to successfully accuse Chinese miners in their eastern territory of illegally mining and extradited them back to China for sentencing, a power they did not hold during the war.
The original tactics by Julius Nyerere that proposed a continent spanning socialism to justify arming foreign troops has been stripped of its ideological content and used for its military advantages. Museveni and Kagame learned from Nyerere a lesson he never intended them too, that proxy guerilla warfare through ethnic agitation is a great way to overthrow a government.
In todays, world the Trump administration released a white paper defining policy in the Great Lakes. The main change was the United States was going to focus on countries that help themselves in a geo- political sense and are ambitious. This continues the longtime relationship between Museveni and Kagame’s projects and the United States military apparatus. As stated at the beginning of this essay, the United States is set to join these countries in combatting supposedly ISIS connected militants. Gaining international support to combat militias left over from the Great African War is a great way to secure territory for an oil pipeline or massive mine.
Museveni like his ally Kagame in Rwanda is a key contributor to the military aspect of the African Union. The African Union experienced pressure from the United States in the wake of the War on Terror to increase its peacekeeping presence. Museveni was put in a convenient position to use Uganda’s deeply powerful military to contribute troops to American efforts in Somalia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. His keenness to work with western powers has resulted in around 1 billion in international military aid being sent to the country annually. The United States maintains a military base in Uganda and has trained more Ugandan troops then any other Sub-Saharan country other than Burundi. This aid has been the subject of much criticism as Museveni although he holds elections, keeps quite a restrictive political system with significant power held by the military.
When the post-Cold War world is observed, it appears that Museveni is one of the big winners and one of the shrewdest tacticians. He started his journey in the refugee camps of Tanzania but took power in Uganda, helped his allies take power and arguably won the largest war the world has seen since WWII. He continues to maintain his great relationship with the United States and has a massive boost to his revenue in store when he is set to start pumping oil in 2025. All these power struggles have contained the suffering of innocent people swept in historical trends and pursuits of vengeance they have no part of. Museveni may be one of the few winners of this long conflict but even he cannot taste victory, his long career represents his thirst for power and the blood he sacrificed to never give up his position.
"This old man who has saved the country, how do you want him to go, how can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?"
-Museveni during an election rally on the question of why doesn’t he give up power
Innocent people are the ones who have some suffered the most throughout these years of conflict in the wake of colonialism. The documentary This Is Congo provides an honest firsthand view of what live is like for the adventure person in the Great Lakes region. A militiaman, military officer, gem dealer, miner, refugees are all followed and interviewed as they showcase their lives in the beautiful jungles and mountains of Africa.