The European Union has sanctioned five members of different armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including the spokesman for the M23 militia. It did not, however, sanction Rwanda, Uganda or the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents, despite decades of UN Group of Experts reports that the militias operating in the eastern DRC are largely Rwandan and Ugandan, though they typically claim to be Congolese. I spoke to Nixon Katembo, Congolese journalist and executive producer with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, about the history of the conflict and the situation on the ground today.
ANN GARRISON: Rwanda, and Uganda have been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 26 years, since they first invaded in 1996. And this has been confirmed in report after report by the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, could you give us a summary of what has happened during those 26 years?
NIXON KATEMBO: What has happened in those 26 years is the wholesale destruction of Congolese society, including the pillaging of its natural resources, but not only the natural resources. It has included killing children, and women, old and young women, who have really born the brunt of this conflict.
You will recall that after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, most of the Rwandans fleeing General Paul Kagame’s army crossed into the Congo.
And after they got to the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda entered the DRC, chasing and massacring them, but also joining the rebellion against President Mobutu Sese Seko with the blessings of the United States and the United Kingdom. The international community said they needed to assist the regime in Kigali because they had not acted to stop the genocide while it was happening in Rwanda.
The regime in Kigali used the genocide excuse to massacre the refugees, calling them all “interahamwe,” meaning Hutus guilty of killing Tutsis during the genocide. But UN reports said that fewer than 10 percent of the refugees were interahamwe or now, FDLR,, However, President Kagame has continued to use this claim that he is going after genocide criminals in DRC as a pretext to pursue the interests of Rwandan Tutsi elites. And he has had the support of the United States, the UK, and many other international powers to the benefit of multinational corporations that need DRC’s resources.
That’s what this long running, devastating war has been, in a nutshell. The UN has estimated that about 6 million people have died as a result, but the collateral damage of the war cannot be quantified because there is so much psychological trauma with longterm implications, The generations that have lived through these 26 years of war are deeply traumatized and many have died because of the after-effects of the war, not just due to military violence but also due to the consequence of displacement. They have died in flight or in IDP camps for lack of food, clean water, and basic medicines. Ten or twelve million people have probably died in the Congo during this time, since 1996, with no one lifting a finger to end the catastrophe.
AG: In October 1996, as you said Rwanda and Uganda invaded, ostensibly chasing genocide criminals, but then joined Congolese forces led by Laurent Kabila to drive President Mobutu Sese Seko from power in May 1997. As these forces advanced on the Capitol, Newsweek ran a story headlined “Washington’s Africa move,” which said that Mobutu’s surrender was by then a formality, and that President Bill Clinton had written Mobutu a letter in April, “firmly telling him that the time had come, at last, for him to go.”
Newsweek also wrote that “the letter has signaled something more significant, that the United States intends once and for all, to establish itself as the dominant power in the region.” It’s therefore arguable that the tragedy that has unfolded since is largely the responsibility of the U.S. Would you agree?
NK: I agree that it is the responsibility of the U.S., for one, because the U.S. was a longstanding ally of a powerful dictator, Mobutu, in what was called Zaire at the time, but is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The U.S. actually supported Mobutu over the years, to drive U.S. interests in the Great Lakes Region, but by 1996, they had decided to let him go.
Responsibility also lies with the Congolese state, and with DRC’s neighbors, particularly with Rwanda and Uganda, and Burundi to a certain extent.
But why is the U.S. responsible? Because the invasion of the Congo by Rwanda and Uganda came just a few years after the end of the Cold War, In the early 90s. When the U.S. needed a new ally in the Great Lakes Region. They felt that Mobutu had reached his “sell-by” date, and therefore, given the shifting alliances in the region, the CIA appointed someone new, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the President of Uganda. He was the new strongman picked by the U.S.
In the early 1980s, Museveni had been a general leading an armed rebellion, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). The National Resistance Army included many Rwandan Tutsis who had fled during the Rwandan social revolutions between 1959 and 1961, which saw Rwanda transition from a Belgian colony and Tutsi monarchy to an independent, Hutu-dominated state.
These Tutsi joined Museveni’s rebellion and even became officers or government officials after Museveni seized power in Uganda in 1986. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was at that time the deputy chief for military intelligence in Uganda.
The U.S. came here at that time to nurture these rebellions in the Great Lakes Region, first in Uganda, then in Rwanda. Kagame’s army, which was then part of the Ugandan army, invaded and toppled Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, and that triggered the Rwandan social dynamics that had been exacerbated colonial times. The colonial masters, starting with the Germans, then the Belgians, had planted seeds of division by saying that the Tutsi cattle keepers were a race superior to the Hutu farmers. The Tutsi monarchy dominated the Hutu before then, but the colonizers worsened that class divide that erupted in the Rwandan Genocide.
Bill Clinton said that he needed to support Paul Kagame when his troops invaded DRC, which was then Zaire, because he had failed to do anything to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Clinton’s UN Ambassador Madeline Albright knew that the Rwandan troops were massacring the Hutu refugees who had fled across the border to escape Kagame’s army, and this was also reported to he United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But those reports just gathered dust at UN headquarters.
Rwanda and Uganda joined Congolese rebels to take over in Kinshasa and drive the U.S. policy agenda behind the new president, Laurent Kabila. But the U.S. did not anticipate that Kabila would try to be his own man, and drive a nationalist agenda. He not only began to rebuild the Congolese state, but also tried to get rid of the Rwandan and Congolese troops who had helped him drive Mobutu from power. He told Rwanda and Uganda that they needed to pack their things and go, that they could not remain and occupy the Congo.
Kabila also had to die because he was challenging U.S. interests and Bretton Woods institutions by changing the national currency and planning to pay off the International Monetary Fund and World Bank debt. It seemed that he was killed by one of his own but it has since been declassified that the U.S. planned to kill Kabila with the Rwandan Special Forces.
Under Mobutu’s misrule, the Congolese state had all but collapsed. The invasion was the last nail in its coffin. Laurent Kabila tried to rebuild it, but no subsequent leaders did after his assassination. The Rwandan and Ugandan invaders backed by the U.S. know that the Congolese state cannot withstand their invasions.
AG: So you’re saying that neither the Congolese state nor the Congolese military have ever recovered?
NK: Yes, and recall that the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries have both been built, trained, and funded by the United States. AFRICOM’s first commander, Kip Ward said they were making sure to train them to to serve their mutual interests.
But their interests were not peace or development of the region but serving the multinational corporations of the United States and the Bretton Woods institutions and securing the natural resources of the DRC. DRC has the critical mineral resources needed by the industries of the U.S. and Western Europe.
Congo holds 70% of world’s coltan, which is critical to cell phone and computer manufacture. The same is true of cobalt, which is critical for the manufacture of aerospace and renewable technologies. DRC holds about 80% of the world’s cobalt reserves. That should tell you how critical it is to the U.S. and the rest of the West to keep Congo in a state of disarray so that it can’t control and benefit from its own resources.
However, the U.S. and European nations do not want to put boots on the ground in Africa, so they are using Rwanda as a proxy. And you will recall that tiny Rwanda has become not only the top gold producer but also the top coltan producer in the region, thanks to minerals looted in the DRC.
The United States and the West have supported their own agenda but also that of Rwanda’s Tutsi elite. The Rwandan population is about 85% Hutus and only 15% Tutsis, but the Tutsi minority dominates and wants to extend that domination to the DRC with the support of the United States and the rest of the West. And they want to play on the Western world’s guilt for not stopping the Rwandan Genocide.
AG: Well, it’s arguable that the U.S. does not really feel guilty about the genocide because they backed Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front when it invaded, waged a four-year war, and overthrew the Habyarimana government, and then backed their invasion of the Congo. When she was Clinton’s UN Ambassador, Madeleine Albright prevented the UN Security Council from expanding a peacekeeping force in Rwanda to stop the carnage. Instead the peacekeepers on the ground were withdrawn.
NK: I think that tells you how deeply the U.S. was involved in that conflict, and it is still involved. When the M23 was starting its war again, there was a group of U.S. Senators in the Ugandan and Rwandan capitals having discussions with those regimes. So it would be naive to say the U.S. is not deeply involved today.
Kagame has also paid millions of dollars to lobbyists in Washington DC, and spent millions on PR campaigns in Europe and Washington to sustain this narrative that Rwanda is a victim of genocide, They always point to the FDLR, a Rwandan refugee militia, as their excuse for being in DRC.
AG: During the first week of December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly told President Paul Kagame that he should stop supporting the M23 militia in eastern DRC. “Supporting” is an understatement because, as you’ve said yourself, not only Rwanda’s M23 militia but also Rwandan Special Forces are in eastern DRC.
Back in 2008, the M23’s predecessor, the CNDP, was rampaging through the Kivu provinces. Then in 2009, on Obama’s Inauguration Day, it was announced that the CNDP would be integrated into the Congolese army. Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice actually came out and applauded that the next day. And then in 2013, those same Rwandan troops that had been “integrated” into the Congolese army emerged as M23, claiming that they hadn’t gotten everything they had been promised in the agreement signed on March 23, 2009. Hence the name M23.
So the U.S. is implicated in the creation of M23 and Blinken’s statement couldn’t be phonier, but do you think the U.S. might finally be serious because of all the international condemnation of M23?
NK: No, I don’t think that the U.S. is serious. Making a statement is one thing but the talks behind the scenes are what matter. If they were serious, they would stop supporting Rwanda and Uganda.
The statement by Secretary and Blinken is not genuine, though there may be something coming up. In 2013, the UN Force Intervention Brigade was sent in to drive M23 from DRC, but nothing really changed.
In the context of the Ukraine War, Europe needs to secure alternative energy sources. And the African continent is being seen as the go-to continent for natural gas and other natural resources. Recall that despite the Blinken statement, the European Union actually awarded Rwanda 20 million Euro to support its military action in Mozambique. That was purely because Total Energy, which is a French company, has invested about $4 billion in natural gas exploration in northern Mozambique, in the province of Cabo Delgado, which has been ravaged by ragtag terrorist organizations. So Rwanda has become critical as a proxy force for Western interests in Africa, not only in DRC.
Recall that Rwanda is also in Central African Republic and Mali, where France and the U.S. are struggling to stop the Russian Wagner group.
AG: Okay, just to make things simple for listeners who aren’t familiar with this situation. Did you say essentially, that if Biden got on the phone and told Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame that it’s over, that they have to get out of DRC, that would be the end of it?
NK: Yes. That would be the end of it. I believe, in no uncertain terms, that if the U.S. told Rwanda and Uganda to back off, the war in the eastern DRC would be over in a week.
However, the U.S. and the West would then have to stop trying to destabilize DRC, so that the Congolese can rebuild state institutions and an effective army to defend its borders.
AG: Do you think that Congolese President Felix Tshisikedi was serious in his recent statement about driving Rwanda out of DRC?
NK: No, I don’t. I think he was just electioneering. President Tshisikedi has been in power for four years and he has not addressed the weakness of the Congolese army and the insecurity in the east. The Congolese people want Rwanda out of DRC, so he has to pretend that he’s trying to get them out to get re-elected.