The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (ADFL) has come to power beset by allegations that it massacred Hutu refugees. This spotlight on the refugees has helped illuminate the extent to which the new regime in Congo (formerly Zaire) is beholden to Rwanda's Tutsi-led government. Much about the nature and degree of this control is still unknown: The Rwandan command structure is among the world's most secretive. But it puts into question any hope the Congolese people have for a prosperous and democratic future.
Reacting against a state-sponsored campaign of violence, the Banyamulenge - Zaireans of Tutsi extraction - launched a rebellion in eastern Zaire in mid-October. Among their first acts was dispersing the Hutu refugee camps in Kivu province. These camps had been reconstituted as military bases by the Hutu "genocidaires," who fed off the million dollars per day in international aid meant for the civilians.
Initiated by people who looked back to Rwanda, rather than ahead to the eventual capture of Congo's capital, Kinshasa, the rebellion in the east took on a runaway momentum that probably surprised its leaders as much as anyone. Indeed, Laurent Kabila appeared only after the rebellion was well-launched - once, some argue, the "real" (i.e. Tutsi) leaders recognized the need for a non-Tutsi face at the head of the alliance.
Defying predictions, the rebels proceeded to seize town after town, usually encountering little or no resistance. Along the way, they won the respect of the Zairean population and many in the West. Yet allegations of terrible misdeeds on the part of the ADFL persisted. Unfortunately, they were voiced most stridently by France, whose close ties to the Mobutu regime made the allegations suspect.
At first, the US responded by claiming that few refugees remained in Zaire after the massive repatriation to Rwanda that followed the ADFL's dispersal of the camps in November. Then, once tens of thousands of refugees were discovered near Kisangani, the US expressed skepticism about the massacres.
In retrospect, it appears likely that the ADFL struck a Faustian bargain with the Rwandan government, acquiring its support in return for giving it a free hand with the Hutus in Zaire. Reports indicate that Rwanda dispatched special military units to areas known to harbor Hutus, and that humanitarian assistance was used as bait to lure refugees out of their hiding places before sealing off the areas for "security" reasons. Disappearances, mass graves, and eyewitness accounts indicate that massacres were an all-too-frequent occurrence.
Now the ADFL may be discovering that the bargain it struck has put it in a vice. The top military officers, with the exception of President Laurent Kabila's son Joseph, all appear to be Rwandans, though little is known for sure. Furthermore, Rwandan Tutsi and Banyamulenge control most of the top positions in the ADFL political party. Perhaps most ominously, Mr. Kabila's bodyguard is reported to be exclusively Tutsi, raising questions about the extent of his autonomy.
The Rwandan government, as well as Congolese Tutsi, have legitimate security concerns. Over the last few years they've watched as the West failed to stop the genocide, then housed and fed many of those responsible, and finally dumped tens of thousands of refugees back into Rwanda without screening out the killers - all of which have contributed to growing instability and violence within Rwanda.
Yet, however accidental their conquest of Congo, the Banyamulenge and Rwandans appear to be settling in and casting an acquisitive eye on Congo's vast mineral wealth. The danger is that their presence will provoke Congolese nationalism and anti-Tutsi prejudice, a flammable mix. With the ADFL comprising at least two Tutsi-led forces, as well as Katangans, raw new Congolese recruits, and former Zairean soldiers, the prospects for conflict are considerable. A few incidents could convince Tutsi of the need to exercise a more iron-fisted control over the population, as they do in Rwanda.
And yet, if one could somehow put aside the question of Rwanda and the refugees, prospects are bright for Congo. Many of the ministries are occupied at the national and provincial level by well-educated, if apprentice, technocrats. Their mantra - that former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was not just a man, but a system - indicates their commitment to bringing about fundamental change. Furthermore, a vibrant civil society is determined to engage productively with the new government. There is also a vociferously critical press.
Four policy implications flow from this complex situation. First, although Kabila needs to be held publicly accountable for the massacres committed in the country, the Congolese people should not be punished by withholding aid and support. Not only would this hurt the wrong people, as Western humanitarian workers insist, it would hardly register as a gesture in Congo, where US aid, in the small amounts being discussed, is something of a non-issue.
Second, the US and other Western nations need to start pressuring Rwanda about the Hutu refugees - and offer help in dealing with the unresolved issues of justice and reintegration.
Third, considerable diplomatic effort should be focused on weaning the new Congolese government from Rwanda. This will be difficult, since everyone involved denies the connection.
Finally, we should insist more on ending the massacres than on investigating them. By seeking both to end the behavior and punish it, we may accomplish neither.
While their security concerns should be acknowledged, the Banyamulenge and Rwandans must be convinced that control of Congo is not a viable solution. Kivu province, particularly, needs major intervention if it is not to go the way of Burundi and Rwanda and become a cauldron of violent ethnic tensions.
* David Aronson, who recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Congo, is at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.