Africa's 7-nation, 4-month war and how to tell who's winning

Summit today seeks peace in Congo. Key is cohesion of two multi-nation coalitions.

Four months ago, an officer and a couple of soldiers from the Congolese Army drove up to the radio station in this eastern Congolese town and proclaimed the beginning of a rebellion against President Laurent Kabila.

Today that rebellion has claimed nearly a third of Congo's vast mass - the size of Western Europe - sucking in the armies of seven countries in the region.

So concerned is all Africa that the 53-nation Organization of African Unity has scheduled a call for Congo peace at the summit meeting of its conflict-resolution body today and tomorrow in Burkina Faso. Both President Kabila and rebel leaders are expected to be there, but hopes of progress are slim in light of failed previous conciliation efforts.

Rwanda and Uganda are supporting the rebels on one side.

Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad are supporting President Kabila on the other.

Battle lines have been redrawn across time zones. After a bid to take Congo's capital, Kinshasa, failed in August, the war moved back to the east. Towns and airports have been lost to a slow rebel encroachment on the mineral-rich provinces of Kasai and Katanga - but the jury is still out on who is winning the war.

The degree of cohesion within the two coalitions is likely to be a determining factor, analysts say. The outcome is important not only to the people of Congo but to a continent trying to preserve stability across borders after decades of turmoil.

The Rwanda-Uganda alliance has experienced some turbulence, but it is essentially a solid alliance, more visceral in nature because of the security concerns both countries have in Congo.

The war's roots lie in Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi conflict of 1994.

Hutus and Tutsis

A Hutu massacre of perhaps a million Tutsis was followed by the rise of a Tutsi-controlled government.

More than 2 million Hutus fled, mainly to refugee camps in eastern Congo.

The current rebellion supported by Rwanda goes back to Kabila's failure to control extremist Hutus on Rwanda's border.

Eastern Congo has long provided haven to armed rebels seeking to overthrow the governments in Uganda and Rwanda. It is an area with strategic interests too great for either country to sacrifice to a passing dispute.

The pro-Kabila coalition, on the other hand, presents a number of weak links. Already, there are indications of a low-profile retrenchment on the part of Angola, Kabila's most-needed ally. An entire battalion was reportedly pulled out of Kitona, 200 miles southwest of Kinshasa, two weeks ago. Served by the largest Army in Africa, Angola could single-handedly determine the outcome of the conflict in Congo.

Angola's internal problems

But the fact is that, at home, this Army is fighting Africa's second-largest army: the rebels of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. Daily clashes significantly reduce Angola's scope of action beyond its borders.

"Angola is having internal difficulties of its own," says Congolese rebel leader Ernest Wamba dia Wamba. "UNITA has resumed its attacks and Angola can't afford to go back home and find Savimbi there."

All the same, analysts agree that a partial pullout of Angolan troops and hardware does not necessarily imply the end of the alliance with Kabila.

"The Angolans did business with Kabila and want to keep doing business with him," says a long-term observer of the region. "They know him, they know they can work with him. And they know they can control him a lot more easily than they ever could Rwanda or Uganda," which are believed to have masterminded the insurgency in Congo and are known to be heavily involved in the fighting there.

Angola needs to maintain a presence in western Congo to prevent UNITA rebels from reestablishing their rear bases there. It also needs the territory to access the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda in the north. Angolan President Jos Eduardo dos Santos has, however, shown no inclination to join the fighting in the east, despite earlier proclamations to the contrary by Kabila's closest ally, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has no security concerns in Congo and, in most people's opinion, can scarcely afford the cost of a protracted war. The degree of its involvement in Congo - where it has sent thousands of troops and is footing the bill for a bombing campaign against rebels in the east - has baffled some and led others to suspect the existence of private economic interests linking President Mugabe to Kabila.

Sources in Goma, the political headquarters of the rebellion, say that Zimbabwe, before it entered the war, was given an 80 percent share in the Minire de Bakwanga (MIBA), a diamond mine in Mbuji-Mayi, a town in the mineral-rich province of Eastern Kasa.

The 80 percent share still belongs to the Congolese government, but the profits from it, the sources say, go to Zimbabwe.

Mbuji-Mayi is currently under government control, but rebel troops are advancing from Kabalo, 250 miles to the east.

"Mbuji-Mayi is going to be a big turning point," says Nicaise Bel Oka, the editor of a small independent newspaper in Goma. "The economic interests there are enormous. If the government loses Mbuji-Mayi, Zimbabwe will have to reconsider the level of its involvement."

Mugabe is also under tremendous pressure at home. A Gallup poll conducted last week showed that 70 percent of Zimbabweans were bitterly opposed to the war. The former British colony is in financial disarray; civil servants and Army officers are paid erratically, if at all.

To put a lid on the simmering discontent, Mugabe recently imposed a ban on public demonstrations. Analysts say that will only make matters worse.

"I strongly believe that Congo could be Mugabe's downfall," says the long-term regional observer. "The state is practically insolvent and Mugabe is bombing rebels in eastern Congo. Out of all the players, I think he is the one who has lost his head."

The remaining partners in the pro-Kabila coalition are Namibia and Chad. Their presence in Congo is too small to pose a threat to the rebels.

Namibia's 2,000 troops

Namibia has contributed 2,000 troops and $30 million, citing security concerns to justify its involvement.

"We have special security interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Angola is our neighbor, and any threat to Angola means a threat to Namibia," Namibian Prime Minister Hage Geingob told Agence France-Presse recently.

"It's really expensive and that's why we are maintaining a small force proportionate to our ability."

That leaves Chad, which deployed 2,000 men, ostensibly to counteract Rwandan and Ugandan aggression toward a sovereign state and to sustain neighboring Sudan's indirect participation on Kabila's side.

However, military and civilian sources in Goma say the Chadian campaign in Congo has been a disaster, with Chadian troops suffering the greatest number of casualties as a result of their inability to cope with the densely forested terrain of eastern Congo. Chad is a largely arid country with little vegetation.

"They lost a lot of men, so much so that there are rumors that they quietly pulled out," says the rebel leader, Mr. Wamba dia Wamba. Like Angola, Chad is reported to have reconsidered the degree of its involvement to the detriment of Kabila.

This is good news for Rwanda and Uganda, which have deployed 4,000 and 5,000 men respectively, most of them seasoned fighters with extensive knowledge of the terrain backed by as many as 50,000 disaffected elements of the Congolese Army.

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