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Rumblings of war in heart of Africa

US and UN send envoys to stop Congo conflict.

(Page 2 of 2)

"We can't just assume that every time a gun goes off in Africa it's the start of another big war," says the regional analyst, asserting that Kabila's moves may be, at base, domestically motivated, rather than an effort to stir up trouble with Rwanda.

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If so, Kabila will have to assert control over the wild eastern region and convince Rwanda that Congo will contain anti-Rwandan rebel fighters, which have been holed up in Congo since the 1994 genocide. Many of them were genocide perpetrators. Rwanda claims they still number about 20,000 and cites their presence as reason for continued involvement in Congo.

Anecdotally, there's evidence of growing Rwandan reinvolvement in the area. Since late last year, increasing numbers of families in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, have talked about being afraid for the safety of their sons, who they say have gone to Congo. In Bukavu, many renegade militia troops wore brand-new uniforms - hints of Rwandan support.

Eastern Congo is also rich in resources, which partly explains many states' involvement in the 1998 war. There's copper, diamonds, coltan - used in cellphones and laptop computers - and methane, among other things.

Methane is key for Rwanda, given its severe electricity shortage. Rwanda has gotten a flood of foreign financial aid, in part out of guilt over inaction during the genocide. It's also courting foreign investors hard. In all, its construction sector grew some 16 percent last year. Thus the growing demand for electricity and the desire to tap methane beneath Lake Kivu, which straddles the Rwanda-Congo border. To its critics, Rwanda's methane appetite helps explain the occupation by Rwanda-friendly militias of Bukavu, which sits on the banks of Lake Kivu.

Yet Rwanda would lose much amid an all-out war. Loss of international aid would severely strain its economy and deter outside private investment. A new war could see Rwanda losing remaining goodwill sparked by genocide-related guilt.

Outside powers also have lots at stake. Uganda was heavily involved in the 1998 war. It too risks losing big budgetary support from foreign donors. South Africa seeks to reap economic rewards of a stabilized continent. South African President Thabo Mbeki has warned of a real possibility of "catastrophic war."

The United Nations' most-expensive peacekeeping operation in the world is in Congo. "People want to see a return on that investment," says the regional analyst. Indeed, on Monday, a UN helicopter fired on one of the two renegade militias - the first such action by this UN team. Even the US has sent a top diplomat to promote peace. In 1998, the parties were "left to their own devices" by outside powers, says the analyst. Not this time.

But much depends on the moves of the two renegade groups that started the crisis. One, led by Col. Jules Mutebutsi, retreated Tuesday into Rwanda. The other, which has regrouped north of Bukavu, is led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda. In a phone interview, he says he'll react to the next moves by his allies in Kinshasa. "I will make my next move [when they take] a new position," he says. That means the unfolding drama in Congo's capital is key.