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Issue 36, March 1999

Behind the Congo war

    Expectations not fulfilled
    New wars and further fragmentation

Last autumn the regime of Congo president Laurent Kabila appeared on the verge of collapse. Rebels from the Congolese Reassemblance for Democracy (RCD), supported by Rwanda and Uganda, stood at the gates of the capital, Kinshasha. The similarities with events two years before, when Kabila's own guerilla forces chased out the dictator Mobutu, were striking.

There were, however, significant differences, most importantly the fact that Kabila still enjoyed some popular support. And, since the autumn, the balance has shifted, with Kabila-allied troops reconquering a number of cities at the expense of the RCD rebels. ERIC BYL, of the Belgian section of the Committee for a Workers' International, looks at how Kabila came to power and the prospects now.

WHEN KABILA'S REBELLION first began in late 1996 in the Kivu region in eastern Congo (then Zaire), it was reported as a tribal rising. The first to act against Mobutu were the Banyamulenge, Congolese Tutsis, victims of Mobutu's tactic of diverting unrest amongst the population along ethnic lines.

On 7 October, Mobutu's 'vice-governor' placeman in the Kivu town of Bukavu announced that 300,000 Banyamulenge had to leave the country within a week. This, together with the attacks from extremist Hutu-refugees from Rwanda on Congolese Tutsis, led to a revolt.

But it was soon clear that the rebellion was more than an ethnic rising. The Banyamulenge joined the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) on October 18. This alliance was led by Laurent Kabila, until then the leader of the Party of the Peoples' Revolution (PRP). It contained also the National Council of Resistance for Democracy (CNRD) led by Kissasse, the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MRLZ) led by Masusu Nindaga, and the Democratic Alliance of the People (ADP). Déogratias Bugera, a Banyamulenge, became the first general secretary. Today he is one of the leaders of the RCD.

  Initially international observers and the media thought that the AFDL was no more than a cover for an invasion from Rwanda and Uganda. Both of these neighbouring regimes had good reasons for an intervention.

When the Patriotique Front of Rwanda (FPR) took power in 1994 in Kigali (Rwanda), many Hutus fled to Zaire. Amongst them were 30,000 adherents of the extremist Hutu-militia, the 'Interhamwe', and 40,000 soldiers of the former Rwandan army (FAR). Those forces launched daily attacks on Rwanda from their base in Zaire. Kigali accused Kinshasha of not wanting to solve this problem and threatened to remove the refugee camps in Zaire themselves.

Furthermore, other armed forces, amongst them the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF), had attacked Uganda from Zairian territory. It was no accident then that both countries considered the rebellion by the AFDL and the Banyamulenge as an opportunity to enhance their position and they supported it right from the start.

So ethnic conflicts and support from Rwanda and Uganda were necessary for Kabila to be able to start his offensive and gain a certain combat force. The same is valid for the less explicit, but nevertheless important support that came from Burundi, the south Sudanese rebels, Angola, and especially the Catangese gendarmes. This support however is insufficient to explain the rather easy victory of Kabila's forces in a short, seven-month, sweep across the country.

On the contrary, even with this external support, Kabila's troops were very poorly equipped. It certainly wasn't their weaponary nor the combat power of the rebels which explains their victory. In fact, once Kivu was occupied, there was little fighting left. The hatred of Mobutu was so deep that nobody wanted to fight for him. His troops were underpaid or not paid at all, they were completely demoralised, started to loot before fleeing, or joined Kabila's troops who did get paid.

It was predicted that Kabila's forces would be stopped by the special presidential division (Mobutu's elite troops). Some claimed that the AFDL would never be capable to conquer Kinshahsa, a city of six million inhabitants. They claimed that the French and the US troops were ready to intervene. Their mistake was that they only saw the military side and didn't understand the enthusiasm for Kabila's 'liberation' army. Kabila didn't conquer power: once Kivu was 'liberated', he was forced into power by the population.

  top     Expectations not fulfilled

ON 16 MAY 1997, 32 years after being chosen by the West to defend its interests in the region, the critically-ill dictator Mobutu fled the country. The next day the troops of the AFDL entered Kinshasha and Kabila declared himself president of the 'Democratic Republic of Congo'.

The new regime had an immense task: Mobutu and his clique had ruined the country. Since 1988 the economy had contracted by 40%. The foreign debt stood at 141% of GNP. Interest repayments accounted for two thirds of government expenditure in 1991. Less then 2% of the budget was spent on education and health.

Services had collapsed completely. The whole economy was orientated to the interests of Western imperialism and the world market. Agriculture and infrastructure were neglected. This had led to enormous contradictions. In the city of Mbuji-Mayi, for example, every week £90 million worth of diamonds were extracted, yet there was no drinking-water, sewerage, electricity, phones, or hospital, practically no asphalt roads, and only one partially-functioning school!

Kabila could have appealed to the population to break through this economic impasse. He could have involved workers and poor peasants in the drawing up and application of a reconstruction plan. He could have confiscated the goods and money of the Mobutu-clique, not to repay the debts made by this corrupt regime, but to start a massive programme of public works. He could have nationalised the key-sectors of the economy, to enable them to be planned in the interests of the masses. He could have based himself on the broad masses by allowing unions to organise, developing the peoples' committees and starting social projects (schools, hospitals etc). He could have introduced a state monopoly of trade, controlling the export of wealth.

In this way Congo could have kept its independence from imperialism, could have put the interests of the population on top, and could have acted as an example for the whole of black Africa - and become a pole of attraction for international solidarity.

  Kabila choose another way. He tried to rally the support of imperialism. He made deals with mining companies, such as American Mineral Fields and Anglo American. Belgian investors such as Texaf, George Forrest International, Petrofina and Union Minière, were not hindered.

Some said that 'Kabila had no choice. The conditions for a socialist planning of production are not present. First there has to be a period of capitalist development, during which a working class can be formed. We are now in the stage of a national democratic revolution, a stage where workers, small farmers and parts of the national bourgeoisie, struggle together against imperialism'.

It is however a capital mistake to think that it is possible to organise production to meet the needs of profit as well the social needs of the population. We know what capitalism means today for workers and farmers in the ex-colonial countries: special economic zones where working days of 16 hours at hunger wages are normal.

Countries which don't accept these conditions have no chance on the world-market. 'Social' capitalism is utopian, even in the West, but certainly in a ruined and plundered country such as Congo. Kabila tries to combine things that can not be combined. This explains his inconsistency which expresses itself in only partially sticking to his former deals with the mining companies. It also explains his inconsistent attitude towards workers and small farmers.

On the one hand Kabila has been able to (temporarily) reduce corruption, decrease prices and pay wages. This partially explains the credit he still enjoys amongst the population, especially in Kinshasha. On the other hand, Kabila plays the role of the moral knight, by prohibiting 'indecent clothes' and censuring music. He is called 'papa Kabila', or 'Mwee Kabila', in Kinshasha. This expresses the way Kabila sees himself, as 'leader of the Nation' above the classes. We call that a dictatorship.

A dictatorship was the logical outcome of Kabila's regime. His take-over was not based on the conscious mobilisation of the population, especially the urban population, but on the military discipline of a peasant army. When Kabila appealed to the urban masses it was as a secondary support for his military action.

Marxists do not exclude guerillaism as a tactic in a struggle against a regime such as Mobutu's. But, to ensure the conscious involvement of the workers and peasants in the democratic control and management of society, guerillaism can only be a secondary tactic, to support the struggle of the masses which is the decisive factor in revolution.

On a capitalist basis there is no way out for the Congolese masses from poverty. Kabila's refusal to choose between capitalism and socialism is the reason why he hasn't been able to solve the impasse. His inability to solve the problem of the Hutu-militias in the east has already undermined his support. This explains the disaffection of the Banyamulenge - opening up, once again, the opportunity for the Ugandan and Rwandan regimes to intervene in their own interests. It led to the latest rebellion which nearly toppled Kabila.

  top     New wars and further fragmentation

TO SAVE HIS regime Kabila had to look for support in the Organisation of African Unity. Angola and Zimbabwe intervened, followed by Namibia, Sudan, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) rebels from Burundi and, most importantly, Rwandese Hutu-militiamen.

The rebellion has created openings which are being used by the old powers to regain influence. The former alliances have collapsed. Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi now fight with the new rebellion. Their aim is probably to install a more reliable regime in eastern Congo. Recent military victories will harden Kabila's position: that a truce is only possible after all foreign troops have left the country; and that direct negotiations with the rebels 'are not excluded', but only if they are held in Kinshasha. The rebels countered this proposal with an invitation to meet in Kisangani, their stronghold.

However, the rebels seem to be faced with major problems. They have suffered important military defeats in the rich province of Katanga where Kabila's troops reconquered Moba and Nyunzu from the RCD. In Equateur province the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, a rich businessman under Mobutu, has had to pull back to Lisala and Bumba after losing the important centres of Libenge and Businga.

The major difficulty for the rebels, however, is political. The RCD was set up as an unholy alliance between ex-Mobutists, so-called left progressives, and former Kabilists. To win the support of the main imperialist powers an academic, Arthur Ngoma, who formerly worked for Unesco, was nominated as co-ordinator. The RCD opposed the personality cult around Kabila and stood for a liberal economic policy, in order to attract foreign investors. In October last year the nationalisation of the gold-concessions of the Canadian firm Banro in south Kivu was cancelled by Alexis Thambwe, ex-minister of transport under Mobutu and now one of the 'co-ordinators' of the rebellion.

But Arthur Ngoma has since resigned from the RCD because it represents nobody except itself. Both Uganda and Rwanda complain that the RCD is seen by the population as an occupying army and is failing to win support. Uganda has consquently promoted Bemba's MLC while Rwanda continues to sponsor the RCD.

  The war itself has led to a scramble for Congo's minerals. Military commanders, including those from Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola, have started businesses in Congo. Clearly, whatever the outcome of this particular war, future wars over Congo's wealth would lead to the further disintegration and possibly 'Balkanisation' of the area.

Instead of mobilising the population on the basis of a socialist project, Kabila prefers the methods of his predecessor and other dictators in the region, showing that he has no hestitation in stimulating ethnic divisions in order to hang on to power. In the end, however, such a policy will eventually lead to a further pillage and finally the break up of Congo.

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