Rumblings of war in heart of Africa

US and UN send envoys to stop Congo conflict.

There's an eery familiarity to the military maneuvering in and around Congo, a giant nation in the heart of Africa.

Some observers worry that the region is slipping into a second African "world war" - a repeat of the 1998-2003 conflict that involved troops from six nations and left 3 million dead.

Refugees are now streaming out of eastern Congo. Congolese troops are positioning near the border with longtime rival Rwanda, which is threatening retaliation. Congo's young president, Joseph Kabila, reshuffled his cabinet after an alleged coup attempt and has apparently discussed getting military help from Angola and Tanzania.

Yet there are also signs that this war could be more easily prevented than the last. For one thing, this time the players have more to lose. Rwanda, for instance, gets most of its budget from outside donors and risks losing the money if it goes to war. And outsiders like South Africa want access to Congo's gold, diamond, copper, and other resources - hard to extract amid conflict.

For sure, though, it's a high-stakes game. If by bringing in troops and improving ties with anti-Rwandan militias, Congo's leaders "are creating an ad hoc army" to take on Rwanda, "they could have a real problem on their hands," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. Partly that's because "the Rwandans are the best in the business" of waging war in Africa.

Rwanda is tiny - smaller than the state of Massachusetts. Congo is more than three times the size of Texas. But Rwanda jump-started the 1996 rebellion that ousted Congo's (then Zaire's) longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. It also helped spark the rebellion that started the first big war in 1998. That conflict's rate of killing - including deaths by starvation and illness - was the equivalent of one Sept. 11 every day and a half for five straight years. A peace deal brokered by South Africa in 2003 ended the conflict and set up a power-sharing plan that included Rwanda-backed rebels in a transitional government. Congo aims to have elections by 2005.

Indeed, "The whole story of the Congo [conflict] is about the relationship between Congo and Rwanda," says a regional analyst who asked not to be named.

In the saga's latest chapter, earlier this month, two renegade militias in Congo occupied the eastern city of Bukavu for a week. Congo accuses Rwanda of actively backing those militias. Congo responded by chasing the groups out of Bukavu and putting 5,000 to 10,000 troops near the Rwanda border.

Rwanda reacted forcefully. "We shall not sit back and watch these developments, as we have a country and people to defend," said Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Muligande.

Besides the Rwanda tension, there was apparently a failed coup in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, on June 11. But it may not point to instability. Some figure Kabila orchestrated it to give himself an excuse to reshuffle the cabinet and consolidate power. In fact, some see the "coup" and the eastern troop deployment as pro-active efforts to assert more control over his notoriously ungovernable nation.

"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.

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.

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