The Congo Wars: The Curse of Mineral Wealth Explored

In 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, defeated the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and exiled the civilian militias who executed it. For most people who know about the genocide, this is where Rwanda’s story ends. From there on continues the talk of how foreign actors ignored the genocide, and the embarrassing implications of certain Western nations who indirectly aided the genocidal government. Behind the curtain of Western ignorance, the events following the genocide would cascade into the First and Second Congo Wars, leaving over five million dead and spanning from the Great Rift Valley to the Atlantic coast.

Earlier this month (April 2018), the United States launched 59 tomahawk missiles against Syria, supposedly in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on civilian targets. Yet in 1997, when rape was employed as a weapon of war by tens of thousands of fighters, the United States was nowhere to be found. A 2005 United Nations committee reported the involvement of numerous foreign actors, including 125 European and American companies, in illegal activity in the eastern Congo during the war. The United States, not unlike Rwanda, is a state actor and shapes its foreign policy around securing its national interests.

Paul Kagame
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and chief architect of the Congo Wars

Most of the Hutus who fled the RPF invasion relocated to neighbouring Zaire, where then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko welcomed and armed them to strengthen his control over the lawless eastern Congo. Accompanying the Hutu refugees were the militias who had perpetrated the genocide, called the Interahamwe. Before long, the Interahamwe forces launched a campaign of cross-border raids into Rwandan territory. This placed Kagame’s government in the reverse position of just one year before: now the RPF was the national government fending off bush guerillas. The RPF leaders knew that these raids could go on indefinitely, since the Interahamwe forces could always flee back to Zaire, and enough Hutu civilians had migrated across the border to produce the next generation of fighters. Paul Kagame and his advisors decided that if this situation were to be dealt with, they would need to not only exterminate the Hutus who had fled the country, but also invade Zaire with the intent of removing Mobutu from power.

Rwandan Defence Force
A Rwandan Defence Force training exercise, 2011. Zairian soldiers were both untrained and unpaid, putting them at a severe disadvantage against well-trained and experienced Rwandans.

Rwanda had, and still has, one of the best-trained infantry forces in Africa. Even with this, however, the Congo was simply too large and Mobutu’s government too entrenched to take down alone. To fill in the gap, the RPF government contacted Zaire’s neighbours, none of whom were particularly fond of Mobutu, owing to his habit of funding rebel groups to harass bordering countries. Uganda, which funded the RPF for years prior to their takeover of Rwanda, was more than ready to cash in on its investment and lent its armed forces to the invasion effort. Rwanda’s southern neighbor Burundi joined as well, since cross-border raids from Interahamwe and related groups posed a mutual threat to their well-being.

Mobutu’s troubles were not only external. In the wake of the RPF takeover of Rwanda, a local governor in the eastern Kivu region declared that the Banyamulenge people, ethnically tied to Rwanda’s Tutsis, were no longer welcome within the country. Rwanda armed, organized, and mobilized the Banyamulenge and other disgruntled minorities to form the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (AFDL). These proxy fighters cut a bloody swath across Zaire’s eastern frontier, creating the perfect smokescreen for a Rwandan invasion.

Strategists in Kigali needed a leader for their rebel coalition, someone who would take over Mobutu’s position after the war, someone aligned with Rwandan interests but not smart enough to cause any trouble for them in the future. Enter Laurent Kabila, a washed-up old Marxist who fought against Mobutu for decades before retiring to the life of a brothel owner and part-time gold smuggler in Tanzania. Overjoyed at the news of new comrades to join him in the fight against Mobutu, Kabila dropped everything to take on the role of leader of the AFDL. His role would largely be symbolic, delivering grandiose speeches about the rise of an egalitarian era while his soldiers squabbled over loot and carried on the fight against Mobutu.

After a skirmish between Rwandan and Zairian forces across Lake Kivu, the war began in earnest, and Rwanda quickly launched an offensive deep into Zaire. Faced with a much larger force than they had bargained for, as well as insufficient rations and ammunition, huge chunks of the Zairian military abandoned their posts and dispersed into the jungle. Meanwhile, in Kinshasa, Mobutu was completely disconnected from reality, certain that this was a minor rebellion that would soon be crushed by his invincible regime. His advisors, however, were not so naïve, and called in European mercenaries to defend Kinshasa.

The Yugoslav White Legion and several ex-French Foreign Legionnaires (FFL) answered the call. Quickly after arriving in Kinshasa, the ex-FFL mercenaries tried to convince the Zairian elite that they were fighting for a lost cause, and most fled the nation before the Rwandans reached the capital. The White Legion, on the other hand, stayed until the end, and would actually cause more problems than solutions for Zaire. Most of their time would be spent patrolling border towns and shooting civilians who questioned their authority. Residents of Kisangani still remember Colonel Yugo, a deranged Serbian mercenary who tortured civilians by electrocution via car battery and shot and killed two ministers for not carrying an ID.

As the end drew nearer, rich government officials grabbed everything they could and fled overseas. Finally convinced that his reign was over, Mobutu collected his belongings and fled to Morocco, where he would die of prostate cancer two years later. Mobutu personally owned a fraction of every industry in Zaire, and over the course of his decades-long career, much of the Congo’s mineral riches translated directly into Mobutu’s personal wealth. Although Mobutu’s net worth at the time of his death is unknown, it is estimated to have been over US$4 billion. What became of this money after his death is unknown.

Without any soldiers defending the capital, the Battle of Kinshasa consisted of the ADFL walking in and declaring victory. Within a few days of Mobutu’s flight, Zaire would rebrand itself the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Laurent Kabila serving as head of state.

While the ADFL performed all the real fighting against mercenaries and Zairian forces, Rwandan armed forces remained in the east, on a mission to exterminate the Hutu refugees and Interahamwe fighters that Mobutu had granted asylum. We have only educated guesses as to how many Hutus were murdered in Zaire, but estimates range from the tens of thousands to upwards of one million. This genocide remains largely unknown in the West because Paul Kagame knew how to play PR to his advantage. As the victor of the Rwandan civil war and a fighter for those who were targeted during the genocide, it was easy for him to portray himself as the hero who ended the genocide. In fact, much of the foreign aid that was awarded to his government to help rebuild Rwanda after the genocide was used to finance the ADFL, enabling the slaughter of the Hutus in Zaire.

Back in Kinshasa, Kabila declared that this was the beginning of a new future for the Congo, and foreign experts shared this sentiment, as the nation’s dictator of four decades has just been ousted in an apparent revolution. Kabila also granted Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi mineral rights in the eastern Congo, as per their original agreement. It wouldn’t be long before the situation went south again.

AFDL fighters
Victorious AFDL fighters pictured here in the brief peace that followed the First Congo War.

Finally, in the position which he had coveted for so long, Kabila began crafting a cult of personality, and declared that elections would not be held until the country had stabilized. It was clear that he would soon become another Mobutu, just with more leftist rhetoric. This, frankly, is the norm in Africa and he would have gotten away with this had he not bitten the hand that fed him. As part of their agreement, Rwandan forces were allowed to remain indefinitely in the eastern Congo, ostensibly to provide security but realistically as leverage over Kabila in case he were to ever step out of line.

Very quickly, Kabila found himself buying into his own personality cult, seeing himself as the invincible leader of one of Africa’s largest nations. To invigorate the Congolese and bolster the sovereignty of his regime, Kabila publicly branded the Rwandans as foreign occupiers, and demanded that they leave his country. While the bulk of Rwandan soldiers complied with these demands, not keen on another war, the demands did not sit well with Kagame, who at once got to work devising a plan for a second invasion.

Uganda and Burundi once again joined Rwanda for the invasion, but this time they planned to get the job done even faster than before. Experts in Kigali stitched together a new rebel group from former ADFL fighters who did not earn jobs in the new Congolese military, called the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RDC). Unlike last time, however, Rwanda would play a forward role in this war. Kagame planned to end the war early by sending Rwandan paratroopers to occupy Kinshasa and then hold it until the RDC had cleared out the rest of the Congolese military.

Without any bombers in good enough shape or with enough range to carry the Rwandans all the way to Kinshasa, the plan seemed impossible. This was not the opinion of Rwandan military official Kabarebe. Under his leadership, 600 allied rebels marched to an airport in the Congo, where they hijacked a civilian airliner and flew to a drop point in the rainforests near Kinshasa.

Unfortunately for the Rwandans, this plan would not go as smoothly as expected. Amidst the chaos of the last Congo War, Angola invaded the southern Congo to hunt down UNITA, United States-funded rebels who Mobutu used to keep Angola in a permanent state of instability. Threatened by the sudden nearby presence of a Rwandan division, Angola deployed troops to aid Kabila in the defense of Kinshasa.

The Angolans were not Kabila’s only allies against the second invasion. Thanks to their shared partnership with China, Zimbabwe was granted mineral extraction rights throughout the Congo, which was of great benefit to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe entered the conflict with full force, sending armour and air units to aid in the defense of Kabila’s regime. The Zimbabwean strategy consisted of cooperating exclusively with other foreign allied forces, not Congolese forces, since they considered the Congolese military unreliable. This resulted in a communication gap between Zimbabwe and the Congo, impairing Zimbabwean combat effectiveness despite their apparently superior numbers and equipment.

Second Congo War
Belligerents of the Second Congo War, a truly Pan-African conflict.

Other allies of Kabila included Namibia, Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic, who also sent military support each for their own reasons, albeit on a smaller scale than Angola and Zimbabwe. Libya and Israel also provided logistical support to the DRC. What began as a scheme to depose a failed puppet dictator rapidly blossomed into a pan-African conflict.

Although the Rwandans had superior infantry, they relied on Ugandan armour to defend against Zimbabwean mechanized divisions, and they had almost no defences against Zimbabwe’s air force. Due to this and poor coordination of troop movements between Uganda and Rwanda, the war became an eternal battle of attrition. As the war dragged on, most of Zimbabwe’s war machines either broke down or were destroyed, and Zimbabwe grossly increased military spending to compensate. In response, the IMF and World Bank put their aid programmes to Zimbabwe under review, precipitating the Zimbabwean hyper inflation crisis of the early 2000s.

The prolonging of the war lead to the splintering of rebel groups, further confusing the situation. At the same time, Ugandan and Rwandan interests diverged. Ugandan officials were more concerned with the acquisition of a buffer region in the northeastern Congo than the deposition of Kabila, and they backed various rebel groups to carve that region out for them. Meanwhile, the Rwandans stayed true to their original goal and continued the push to the capital. Over the course of the war, the Ugandan-Rwandan rivalry grew into outright disrespect and contempt. This manifested in the battle of Kisangani in 2000, when a skirmish between Ugandan and Rwandan troops erupted into a full-scale battle, killing thousands.

The Battle of Kisangani marked a turning point in the war, after which the anti-Kabila coalition practically fell apart, and each country focused mostly on supporting various rebel groups. In January of 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards and his son Joseph Kabila took power. With the war dragging on and none of the major players personally active in the Congo anymore, the participants agreed to a ceasefire in July of 2003. While the Kabila regime was not destroyed, its influence was extinguished in the eastern Congo, which remains under the control of myriad rebel groups paid by various state and non-state backers to this day.

At large, the war ended the hegemony of Zaire in Central Africa, filling the power vacuum with new local military powers Rwanda and Uganda. For the first time since the days of Otto von Bismarck, two nations carved a local hegemony through nothing more than military might, without political or cultural influence in their areas of operation. Since the war, Uganda has used their newfound influence and experience to destabilize their neighbour Sudan so severely that southern rebels seceded entirely, forming the new country of South Sudan in 2011. Kagame has continued to lead Rwanda to the present day, and his influence has spread throughout Africa through his involvement in the African Union and reputation as an advocate for greater African unity. In January of 2018, Kagame was elected Chairman of the African Union for 2018.

Kagame’s greatest success was in the narrative he created around his rise from the Rwandan genocide, with major journals such as The Guardian going so far as to brand him a hero. His entire reputation, however, would be the complete opposite had Western powers taken notice of the Congo Wars, so why didn’t they? Western powers, exactly like their African counterparts, are complex bodies which pursue their individual interests. Mobutu’s government was not only a thorn in Kagame’s side; the United States of America supported his regime throughout the Cold War as a counterbalance against the USSR in Central Africa, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mobutu had outlived his usefulness to the Pentagon.

Congo mine
A typical mine in the DRC. Due to the dangers posed by bandits in delivering crops to market, many young people look for work in the mines despite poor wages and living conditions.

More importantly, the ’90s saw the rise of the information age as electronics were integrated into all aspects of life. One of the strategic resources key to the rise of the digital era was tantalum, abundantly found in the eastern Congo in the form of the mineral coltan. Since 2001, Rwanda has been a world leader in coltan exports, despite having significantly smaller reserves than would be needed to sustain such production. Under the anarchic conditions that persist in the region, militant-operated mines work miners 14 hours a day for less than a dollar a day, and the fruits of their labours are smuggled into Rwanda, who in turn sends them abroad.

A chance to land stakes in the Congo’s vast mineral wealth doubtlessly invited countless African nations to join in the plunder during the Second Congo War; what is less obvious is that this wealth also incentivized foreign powers to allow the conflict to carry on in the dark. Local and foreign exploitation of Congolese coltan reserves opened up a vast, cheap supply of tantalum to electronics manufacturers around the globe. While much of the world marched on into the Information Age, the Congo remained a squalid, faraway realm home to endless nameless conflicts. However, this is but a facsimile of the truth, as in every waking moment, the devices which surround us depend on the loot dredged from that very nation. While the bloodshed of Africa’s World War remains to most Westerners another nameless fight on the African continent, its consequences reverberate across the globe, whether we realize it or not.

Edited by Benjamin Aloi