A War in Africa Recalls August 1914 in Europe

US envoy travels for Congo peace this week, but there is no peace as 12 nations fail in yet another conference.

Some call it Africa War I. Twelve nations are fighting in Congo, and the world stands by. Talks go nowhere, and the heart of the continent is slowly carved up.

Washington's support for a cease-fire and withdrawal of all foreign forces, is now being conveyed on a trip to several African countries by the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Susan Rice.

But Zimbabwe's foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, set the tone of this week's two-day peace conference in Lusaka, Zambia, when he called his Rwandan counterpart, Anastase Gasana, "a rude, naughty little boy who needs his ears pinched."

No reply from Mr. Gasana, whose country, Rwanda, is widely believed to have engineered the three-month-old insurgency in Africa's third-largest country with help from neighboring Uganda.

Rwanda's and Uganda's unwillingness to acknowledge their military presence in Congo, against all evidence to the contrary, plunged defense and foreign ministers from 12 countries in the South Africa Development Coalition into an immediate impasse. Congo and its main allies - Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe - wondered why they should sign a cease-fire with two presumably disinterested observers.

Further complications arose when rebel leaders fighting to oust Congolese President Laurent Kabila were denied access to the talks. Congo, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe categorically refused to acknowledge the rebels' presence, saying the latter represented Rwandan and Ugandan interests.

After frantic negotiations by Zambian intermediaries, the parties agreed to let one rebel representative into the talks. Then Bizima Karaha, Congo's former foreign minister - among the first to defect to the rebels' side in early August - was briefly allowed into the conference room.

"What is shocking is the degree to which the world is not paying attention," says Barnett Rubin, director of the Center for Preventive Action with the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. "Here are 12 nations at war and no one seems to be watching."

Anxiety over the lingering conflict deepened last week with the announcement by economically struggling Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Angola - Africa's military giant - that they would send troops to fight rebels firmly entrenched in eastern Congo.

"How can these countries mobilize hundreds of millions of dollars for this war?" asks Mr. Rubin. "It's a war fought largely in the air, with enormous costs in terms of fuel, transport, and logistics."

Yet observers say that the vehemence of Angolan, Zimbabwean, and Namibian objection to Rwanda's and Uganda's brash intervention in Congo suggests a willingness to take the conflict to its extreme.

Rwanda and Uganda have said that any interference by them in Congo's affairs - should it exist - would be entirely justified. Rebels fighting to overthrow Rwanda's and Uganda's governments have long operated in eastern Congo, and President Kabila's failure to secure the territory has been privately cited as the reason for both outsiders' military involvement.

THE talks ended with a draft cease-fire agreement that might or might not be signed by the 12 parties at a "later date," according to the final communique. Also agreed on in principle was the need to involve the rebels in direct negotiations with the forces they are fighting.

The question now is what Rwanda and Uganda hope to extract from the conflict and whether peaceful negotiations would help them achieve their goals.

"If what they want is another Kabila, another puppet, then that's not the solution," Rubin says. "But if the goal is to ensure the presence of a regime that would respect their security interests in the east, that's legitimate and could lead to a solution."

Through its ambassador in Congo, William Swing, the United States has recently chastised Rwanda and Uganda for "foreign interference" in Congo's affairs, a declaration that appeared to exclude any willingness on the side of the US to provide financial assistance.

"People often say that this is like August 1914 in Europe," Rubin says. "But these are not countries that have the capacity to wage trench warfare for four years."

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