How to Become an Expert on the Congo in Just Five Minutes a Day

Perhaps you’ve seen recent news articles about the Democratic Republic of the Congo and wondered to yourself, “what are Rwandan rebels doing in the Kivus?” Or you saw that Laurent Nkunda had announced his intention to “liberate” the entire country and asked yourself, “who is this guy, and where can I get a ‘rebels for Christ‘ pin?”

Then again, maybe you’ve just been reading our recent Congo coverage and thinking: “I too would like to be publicly snarky about events in a far away land that I’ve never visited, and perhaps make snide remarks at cocktail parties about other peoples’ activism efforts, but I just don’t feel confident enough in my background knowledge.”

Well, never fear! “WrongingRightsNotes™ – First and Second Congo Wars” (yes, I was calling them CliffsNotes before, but then I realized, that shit is trademarked), and the much needed appendix to the new edition, “Yes, They Ended a While Ago, But It’s Still an Issue and Here’s Why” is here!

So, down to business. The world said “someone really ought to do something,” then decided to go out for Thai food as 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda during the spring and summer of 1994. Here’s what happened next:

  • Members of the Hutu militias responsible for the Rwandan genocide decide they’d be much more comfortable if they had a couple million of their countrymen between them and the advancing RPF forces, craftily spark general panic of retaliatory genocide, prompt mass militia-disguising Hutu flight into neighboring Zaire (now DRC).
  • Militias hidden among fleeing Hutu civilians join refugees in what UN Special Rep. Shahryar Khan describes as “a revision of hell.” Over-crowding, disease, and inadequate aid lead to the deaths of over 50,000 people in the camps in mid-1994.
  • Massive influx of aid leads to stabilization of the humanitarian situation, gives Hutu militias the opportunity to reorganize, take control of the camps, begin launching attacks on Rwandan Tutsis and the Banyamulenge (Congo’s Tutsi group).
  • President of Zaire Mobuto Sese Seko looks other way, hums loudly as militias ship arms into the camps.
  • Humanitarian aid groups supplying the camps ask themselves if they really want their delicious Meals, Ready to Eat in the bellies of genocidaires, begin cutting off aid.
  • Global community, having not learned its lesson, ignores requests from UN for peacekeepers to separate out militias from genuine refugees in the camps.
  • Rwanda, pissed off at UNHCR for feeding its enemies, begins to arm the Banyamulenge.
  • The vice-governor of North Kivu decides in October of 1996 that it’s time for things to go from bad to worse, orders Banyamulenge out of the country.
  • All hell breaks loose. Banyamulenge, well-stocked with Rwandan-supplied arms, rebel.
  • A seemingly already-prepared Laurent Kabila emerges as head of an surprisingly well-organized new rebel group incorporating the Banyamulenge militias called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (ADFL). Mystery is later cleared up when Rwanda and Uganda admit: “Oh yeah, we totally orchestrated that whole thing.
  • As the ADFL sweeps through the Kivus clearing the camps, the Hutu militias decide it’s time for Operation Massive Human Shield: Phase 2 and push hordes of long-suffering refugees ahead of them from camp to camp.
  • Rwandan and Ugandan troops appear on the scene, assist ADFL as it decimates Hutu forces and Mobutu’s army. Angola, Burundi, and some Sudanese rebels show up for the party as well. ADFL insists that this was accomplished sans any incidental massacring of civilians; demographic statistics and eye witness accounts suggest otherwise.
  • ADFL, with Kabila at its head, begins march / amble to Zairian capital Kinshasa. Mobutu’s government insists that everything is FINE, thank you very much.
  • Mobutu gives up and flees the country in May 1997. Kabila declares victory, appoints himself President and announces that he never liked the name “Zaire” anyway. Proving that even corrupt warlords have a sense of humor, country is renamed the “Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

This concludes our discussion of the First Congo War. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment “the Second Congo War,” in which Rwanda and Uganda have second thoughts about their hand-picked stooge, and virtually every country in Africa decides to field an army.

[Please proceed to parts 2, 3, and 4.]

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. Incidentally, am I the only person who finds it strange that a one-year haitus can really be considered the end of one “war” and beginning of another? Is it because the two or three Western journalists crazy enough to go to Congo to report war stories took a trip home to visit their families for Christmas in 2007 and wanted the rest of the world to think they weren’t missing anything?

    Which is just as crazy, I think, as declaring the “Second Congo War” (such an ironic name–it could easily be renamed either “Only, Continuous Congo War” or “Twenty-Seventh Congo War”) to have ended in 2003.

    The Congolese I talked to in March 2008 had just returned home a year ago after living in refugee camps in Zambia. Yet 2007 doesn’t show up in any history books, or even Wikipedia (ooh, my mistake, there are a few references to articles such as “Congo war-driven crisis kills 45,000 a month: study”). The people I met had no illusions that they would be staying home long.

    The only palpable effect of the “end” of “a war” in Congo seems to be that everybody needs to buy pictures of a new president to hang in every shop and home. Which seems ironically inconvenient.

    So here’s a sincere question, because I’ve read your blog for a while and find it extremely well-informed. Clearly somebody says at some point, “I declare war” or “I declare no more war”, such that it gets written in the history books; but such declarations probably crop up every week in a country like Congo. Who decides which declarations “count”?

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I believe in this case, the demarcations have more to do with the status of international hostilities than minor concerns like whether people are being massacred, raped, displaced from their homes, etc.

    (Although I definitely prefer the theory that “First Congo War” “Second Congo War” and “nothing war-like to report here” would be media creations driven by war correspondents desperate for some home leave…)

    Anyway, the First Congo War ended when Kabila took the capital and the Zairian army stopped fighting against the ADFL and the Rwandan and Ugandan armies.

    The Second Congo War (which I will post on later today) started up when Kabila ordered the Rwandan and Ugandan forces to leave the DRC, the Banyamulenge rebelled, and forces from a staggering number of other African countries showed up to help either the DRC government, or the rebels. It “ended” in 2003 when all the foreign parties (allegedly) withdrew their troops and the transitional government was set up. Obviously, the various internal armed forces have continued to fight, with varying degrees of intensity, since then.

    So, as I understand it, we’re just employing a somewhat outdated, inter-state based, concept of “war” when we refer to these as separate wars. The truth of the matter is that this is the bloodiest conflict since WWII, and it has (as you point out) been ongoing since the mid ’90s.

  3. Hi Kate,

    Last July, I retired after almost 5 years as Chief of the MONUC/MONUSCO Video Unit, and I must say that your excellent presentation of the recent DRC histpry was very refreshing. It is also important, because I fpund last year’s discussipn in the US about M23 and the Rwanda Factor to be appalling at times, since people don’t bother to ( or don’t want to) check their facts. Many thanks for setting the record straight!


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