One year ago yesterday, Rwanda invaded Congo to topple President Laurent-Dsir Kabila. The reason: Rwanda claims Mr. Kabila was - and is - harboring rebel forces in eastern Congo that are trying to destabilize its government.
Rwandan troops have steadily advanced into Congo and are now poised to capture the diamond-rich town of Mbuji-Mayi. If this town falls, it could tip the balance of the war in Rwanda's favor.
Mbuji-Mayi's diamond production has never been accurately assessed, but estimates range from $20 to $30 million a month. The town's fall would leave President Kabila without the means to finance a defense against Rwanda and its ally, Uganda. Moreover, the money would provide Rwanda the means to continue its campaign.
In an extremely complex scenario - possibly more difficult to solve than Fermat's Last Theorem - at least three rebel groups and six African countries are fighting on two opposing fronts in Congo. On one side, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are allied with Kabila. And on the other, Rwanda and Uganda are supporting rebel troops inside Congo to overthrow Kabila.
It is by no coincidence, observers say, that a peace deal to silence the guns in Congo was signed by the six African governments three weeks ago, on the eve of the battle for Mbuji-Mayi. Little attention was paid to the tribulations of three different Congolese rebel groups bickering over who should sign. The fact that so far only one has seems to confirm what a senior participant in the peace talks called "the only safe assumption ever made about the war in Congo": That it would be sorted out by everyone but the Congolese.
Rwanda and Uganda stand more to lose from a real cessation of hostilities than Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. The latter three rallied in enthusiastic support of Kabila in August 1998 and since have resigned themselves to fighting a defensive war for the half of Congo they still control.
Rwandan officials say they were pressured to sign the peace deal, mainly by the United States. Uganda signed too, but its recent arbitrary carving out of administrative districts in Congolese territory has been interpreted as further aggression. More important, Rwanda is within reach of Mbuji-Mayi. If it takes the city, Zimbabwe, which is fighting on the side of Kabila and is Rwanda's main military opponent, might withdraw.
Zimbabwe's heavy-handed intervention in the conflict - even though it poses no security threats to its government or its people - has been traced to personal economic interests. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is reported to have his sights set on Mbuji-Mayi's diamond wealth. In addition, Congo's Kabila owes Zimbabwe $40 to $200 million for military support. Zimbabwe would not trust neither Rwanda nor Uganda, if they come to power, to repay the debt Congo owes to Zimbabwe. "Without Mbuji-Mayi, [Zimbabwe's President] Mugabe has no reason to keep fighting," says a Western diplomat. "His Army didn't have a reason to start with, so they'll be really glad to get out."
Rwanda, on the other hand, has great reasons to keep fighting. For one, it is close to take Mbuji-Mayi. If Rwanda in fact takes the city, the diamond wealth will help Rwanda to finance its war.
Mbuji-Mayi is now defended by a force of 7,000 to 10,000 men, consisting of Zimbabwean troops and Kabila's Army, the Forces Armes Congolaises (FAC). The town is also defended by the Interahamwe - Rwandan Hutu supremacists who nearly succeeded in exterminating Rwanda's Tutsi ethnic minority in 1994, killing an estimated 1 million people before fleeing to Congo and regrouping.
For a year now, the Interahamwe have been fighting Kabila's war against Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, training in government camps in Western Congo and more recently, according to the Rwandan government, in Zimbabwe.
"The Zimbabweans have really organized them. [The Interahamwe] are not the way we found them," says Col. Patrick Nyamvumba, Rwanda's military commander in Kisangani, the troops' headquarters. "Our only objective is to get rid of them, organized as they are, in military formation in Congo."
Now that it's close to Mbuji-Mayi, Rwanda is under severe international pressure to stop fighting. Well-informed sources in Kigali say the US government has repeatedly asked the Rwandans to leave Mbuji-Mayi in Kabila's hands, for reasons that have more to do with oil-rich Angola than with Congo.
The US government, these sources say, is convinced Rwanda is collaborating with the Angolan rebellion, UNITA. The US worries that a genuine partnership between Rwanda and UNITA would destabilize Angola at a time in which US companies are looking to tap its vast oil reserves.
Undersecretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice has infuriated Rwandan government officials by insisting on the connection with UNITA in the face of their adamant denial.
Because it relies on US and international aid, Rwanda has agreed to stick to the cease-fire and halt its advance on Mbuji-Mayi. Under the terms of the agreement, however, Rwanda is free to fire back if attacked. Rwanda has already accused Zimbabwe of bombing its positions in Congo last week, in violation of the cease-fire. "We have orders to respect the cease-fire," says Colonel Nyamvumba, the Rwandan commander in Kisangani. "But if they keep attacking us, maybe two or three more times, then we will have the right to respond."
Regional analysts say that the battle for Mbuji-Mayi will take place, and that Rwanda is likely to win. Two of Mbuji-Mayi's supply routes already have been cut. The Zimbabwean Army, which constitutes the core of the town's defense, is poorly motivated, its Congolese allies poorly trained, and the Interahamwe alone will not be able to hold off the Rwandan Army.
But because Mbuji-Mayi is surrounded by a ring of Savannah - a vast open space that makes an attacking force visible from miles away - diplomatic and security sources believe the battle for it might be the deadliest yet.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society