By mid-1996, Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame [of Rwanda] had stitched together an impressive alliance of African governments behind their drive to overthrow Mobutu. The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s dinosaur. Never had so many African countries united militarily behind one cause, leading some to dub the war Africa’s World War. Unlike that war, however, the battle for the Congo would not be carried out in trenches over years, leading to millions of military casualties. Here, the battles were short and the number of soldiers killed in the thousands, figures dwarfed by the number of civilians killed. Unlike World War II, the African allies banded together not against aggressive expansionism, but against the weakness of the enemy.
The leader of this coalition was its youngest, smallest member: Rwanda. It was typical of the RPF, who had played David to Goliath several times before and would do so again later. At the outset, it seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a just war: Kigali was acting as a last resort based on legitimate security concerns.
What seems obvious in hindsight—that Mobutu’s army had been reduced to a mockery of itself, that Mobutu’s hold on power had crumbled—was a vague hypothesis in RPF intelligence briefings at the time. When Kagame told his officers that they would go all the way to Kinshasa, they nodded politely but in private shook their heads. That was a journey of over 1,000 miles, through unknown terrain, similar to walking from New York to Miami through swamps and jungles and across dozens of rivers. They would have to fight against 50,000 of Mobutu’s soldiers as well as perhaps 50,000 ex-FAR and Interahamwe. It seemed impossible. “We never thought we could make it all the way to Kinshasa,” Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan intelligence chief, told me.
It is easy to forget, now that greed and plunder claim the headlines as the main motives for conflict in the region, that its beginnings were steeped in ideology. The Rwandan-backed invasion was perhaps the heyday of the African Renaissance, riding on the groundswell of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, and of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda from dictatorships. It was an alliance motivated in part by the strategic interests of individual governments, but also by a larger spirit of pan-Africanism. Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this sort of mobilization behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisors. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.”
Absent from these talks, however, were the Congolese. Their country was to be liberated for them by foreigners who knew little to nothing of their country. And of course, these foreigners would soon develop other interests than just toppling Mobutu. Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defense looked ever more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many decades.
In 1996, however, the future remained bright.
24 May 2011
Africa's New Leaders vs. Mobutu, 1996
From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 993-1030: