Kabila Returns, in a Cloud of Uncertainty

by Thomas Turner 


Since the 1960’s, Laurent Kabila had led a group of insurgents against the dictatorial Mobutu Sese Seko government in Kinshasa, operating along Zaire’s eastern border (1). Kabila’s group was one of the many rebel movements in the East that had arisen with the aim of furthering the political program of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, the popular and charismatic leader who was assassinated in 1961. The major Lumumbist insurgencies had been subdued by Mobutu using foreign mercenaries between 1965 and 1967. The small surviving groups such as that of Kabila posed no threat to the Mobutu regime.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide changed all that. Approximately one million Rwanda Hutu refugees fled to eastern Zaire, which was already near the boiling point due to conflicts over land use and political representation. In an effort to break out of its diplomatic isolation, the Mobutu government provided backing to the Hutu, including army and militia elements, thereby earning the enmity of the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda. Tutsi of South Kivu, the so-called Banyamulenge, staged an uprising in the summer of 1996, with the support of the Rwanda government. By the second half of that year, the alliance of Banyamulenge, Tutsi of North Kivu, and Lumumbists and others, headed by Kabila, had taken over substantial parts of eastern Zaire, with the corrupt and demoralized Mobutu army disappearing in the face of their advance. After a short seven month campaign, Kabila and the new armed coalition entered Kinshasa as Mobutu fled into exile.

Kabila’s victory is significant on the local, national and international levels. Locally, in South and North Kivu, Tutsi victims of ethnic cleansing turned the tables on their rivals. Nationally, long-time opponent Kabila overthrew Mobutu and restored the country’s name, Congo. Internationally, Mobutu can be seen as one of a number of French-supported dictators ousted or in difficulty, while Kabila can be seen as of a series of former guerrilla leaders now supported by Washington, along with the current heads of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda (2).

The ethnic factor is found on all these levels. Locally, it is entwined with land rights. Nationally, the ethnic identities of leaders constitute resources and handicaps. However, one must beware of simplistic notions, e.g., Tutsi as a “cohesive, insular tribe.” The Tutsi of Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo have distinct interests.

Kabila is dependent upon an ethnic minority and upon his foreign backers, in particular the Ugandan and Rwandan governments. His survival will depend upon his ability to dominate the Tutsi within his government, who have ties to their foreign backers, especially in Rwanda. To establish his autonomy vis-à-vis his foreign backers he will need more support from Congolese other than the Tutsi. It seems unlikely he will be able to gain such support without reaching a compromise with other anti-Mobutu forces including the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social, UDPS) and Unified Lumumbist Party (Parti Lumumbiste Unifié, PALU). Tutsi elements of the Kabila government likely would resist dilution of the coalition, unless the UDPS led by Etienne Tshisekedi and PALU expressed support for the demands of the Tutsi of North and South Kivu. Tshisekedi’s complaint that Kabila is held hostage by “foreigners” feeds the resistance of the people of Kinshasa to the Tutsi and makes a compromise between Tshisekedi and Kabila less likely.

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