Eastern Congolese region remains volatile as Congo begins long journey to peace

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A boy walks past a poster of slain Congolese leader, Laurent Kabila. Photo Tawanda Kanhema

By Tawanda Kanhema

BARELY a week after the final episode of the Dark Age of colonial servitude, proclaimed by Patrice Lumumba’s historical “blood and fire” speech, the Congo erupted into conflict, triggered by widespread mutiny in its army ranks, the secession of mineral rich provinces by mercenaries and invasion by Belgian paratroopers.

Since the country’s independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960, foreign aggression, tribal conflicts and the looting of resources continued to hang a sword over prospects of peace and stability, with millions of lives succumbing to hostilities and resultant factors.

Congolese militias

Peace prospects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an expansive 905 000 square miles on the Congo River Basin, have started to brighten, despite the false starts that have accompanied its delicate transition process.

Secessionist Katangese rebels, the MaiMai, Banyamulenge and other forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mystical rebel clique may have walked a thousand miles, absconded negotiations and spurned their seats in the transition government, but they have found peace and will not lose it easily.

Barely four days after relinquishing his office as one of the four vice presidents in the DRC’s transitional government, Azarias Ruberwa, leader of the former rebel group Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCDGoma), last week walked back to Kinshasa and reclaimed his office.

General Ruberwa’s action, however startling, is nothing strange to Congolese politics. It is reminiscent of the translucent curtain that has, for the past 44 years, separated the nationalist aspirations of Patrice Lumumba from the regionalist politics of Congo’s founding president and leader of the powerful Bakongo tribe, Joseph Kasavubu.

The Congo got its independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960 and carnivals sweeping across the continent in the same year could easily have spelled a brilliant future for the wealthy country. The menace of tribalism, among other factors, however, spelled a different fate.

Most of the 17 black African countries that managed to emancipate themselves from the fetters of colonial servitude in 1960 had a smooth transition to majority rule. For the Congo, where seeds of civil strife had been sown through decades of exploitation, self rule came on a platter dripping with blood.

Five days after Congo’s equivocally granted independence, which left Belgian officers in control of much of the army, soldiers in the Congolese Army revolted, calling on colonial officers to step down and make way for native officers in the Army.

Ensuing disturbances in Thysville and Leopoldville, led to the spread of the rebellion throughout the Congo and the media was awash with reports of arson, rape and murder, leading to international damnation of the new nation and its new found independence.

Belgian paratroopers stormed into the Congo just ten days after independence under the pretext of protecting the white population, and besides rifting the country’s new government, the intervention ignited insurgencies countrywide.

While the Government battled to suppress the insurrections and repel foreign aggression, Moise Tshombe, another tribal leader who had not been included in the government declared the secession of the country’s wealthiest province, the mineral rich Katanga, in the south.


Patrice Lumumba

The Belgian backed secession of Katanga, which soon formed a confederacy with the diamond and copper rich province Kasai, was secured a force of 500 white mercenaries and Russian technicians had already arrived to help expel the mercenaries.

Meanwhile, President Joseph Kasavubu and his arch-rival nationalist Premier and Defence Minister Patrice Lumumba had reached a stalemate over how to repel the foreign intervention, as Lumumba, frustrated with UN’s inactivity, turned to the Soviet Union.

With the democratic mechanism in temporal paralysis only three months after independence, army head Joseph Mobutu tried his hand at power for the first time and staged a bloodless coup, taking the reins for two months before handing them back to Kasavubu.

The young nation’s problems came to a head when President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba and handed him over to the secessionist Tshombe in Katanga, in whose hands he died a few weeks later.

Firebrand nationalist Lumumba’s death spelled the death of the nationalist cause in the Congo and sparked a spate of insurgencies led by tribal warlords and rebel leaders that further divided the country.

By February 1962, there were at least four self proclaimed governments, divided along ethnic and ideological lines and claiming control over different areas.

The power vacuum created by Lumumba’s death pitted the heavyweight tribal leaders Tshombe and Kasavubu against each other and in 1965, parliament reached a deadlock over the formation of a new government.

In five years of self rule, attempts to establish a democratic nationalist government in the Congo, having cost thousands of lives in tribal clashes and assassinations, yielded vaporous benefits and paved way for a military dictatorship.

General Joseph Mobutu, who had become the most powerful man in the country, launched another coup against Kasavubu’s troubled regime in November 1965 and, with the might of the Congolese Army, reigned the Katangese secessionists in, bringing the Congo to relative peace, sans a parliamentary democracy.

The 32 years of Mobutu’s rule had their positive highlights, including the expansion of the Congo (renamed to Zaire)’s mining industry and exploitation of resources for the benefit of the masses, albeit, in the first few years.

However, over years of iron fisted military rule, corruption in General Mobutu’s regime became exceedingly blatant and in 1997, exiled leader Laurent Desire Kabila’s Banyamulenge (people from the moutains) rebels, overthrew him in a military coup, surreptitiously aided by southern African governments.

With his Banyamulenge, MaiMai, Katangese secessionist forces, Rwandese, Burundi and Ugandan supporters, Kabila marched on Lubumbashi and took over the reins from General Mobutu.

Transparency International (TI), revealed in its Global Corruption Report that by the time Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, he had stolen “almost half of the $US12 billion in aid money received from the International Monetary Fund during his 32year reign.”

The rein of Laurent Kabila, however, was short lived as the same rebels who had helped him depose Mobutu started fighting to depose him in 1997. He was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in January 2001, barely four years after his ascension to power.

President Laurent Kabila’s government started faced increasing rebellion on the August 4, 1998 and, realising that the rebels, whom had backed him a few months earlier, could overrun his forces, he appealed for Sadc aid. Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola responded expediently, deploying troops to the DRC within a few days.

A fractured Sadc alliance managed to repel the rebels, who were close to overrunning Kinshasa, and intense fighting continued into 1999. The September 98 Lusaka Peace Process (LPP), in which then Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba, assisted by Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, was appointed to lead mediation efforts.

Disagreement over the participation of Congolese rebels in the negotiations dealt a blow to the outcome of LPP and Sadc forces held up against rebels and dragged them to the negotiating table for the first time since the breakout of the conflict in the Libyan brokered Sirte Agreement in April 1999.

Joseph Kabila, definitely not the first Joseph in DRC politics but probably one with more profound nationalist spirit than his predecessors succeeded his father after the 2000 assassination, and the country took a different course.

After the cessation of hostilities in July 2003, factional warlords and rebel leaders continued to hold the country’s delicate peace at ransom.

The author, Tawanda Kanhema is the Zimbabwe Bureau Chief of the Southern Times, a regional weekly based in Windhoek, Namibia. Published in The Southern Times 28 August 2004