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Congo Time Line

  Congo's Kabila Steps Up Offensive

By James Rupert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page A23

KINSHASA, Congo—Two weeks after Congolese President Laurent Kabila and his foreign allies turned back an offensive on Kinshasa by ethnic Tutsi rebels and their foreign allies, he is pressing a new military offensive in the east and dismissing any idea of negotiating with his foes.

At the same time, feeling strengthened by his military success and popular support for his fight against a rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila appears to be ignoring calls from Congolese for a broadening of his 16-month-old government. Notably, his government is preparing to tighten its control over this year's main political event in Congo, the elaboration of a new constitution.

With these initiatives, military and political, Kabila risks overreaching himself and is likely to prolong, rather than resolve, the turmoil and violence embroiling this country, Congolese scholars and foreign diplomats say.

Kabila is urging Angola and Zimbabwe -- two of the handful of African nations that came to his aid in the weeks after the rebellion broke out Aug. 2 -- to help him mount an offensive in eastern Congo to drive out the rebels and their Ugandan and Rwandan backers. He reportedly also is recruiting and rearming thousands of ethnic Hutu Rwandans who have been living in eastern Congo since 1994.

Last year, Kabila relied largely on troops sent by Rwanda, Uganda and Angola to topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and seize power. Those nations retained influence and provided support in Congo until this summer, when the breakup of that coalition effectively divided Congo into spheres of foreign military influence. That, plus Kabila's inability to form a solid domestic political base, risks furthering what has been a slow dissolution of Central Africa's largest state, several analysts said.

On July 28, Kabila ordered Rwandan troops still stationed here to go home. Within days, Rwanda and Congolese Tutsis, joined by Uganda, launched a war to oust him. They flew troops across Congo to the Atlantic coast and marched to the edge of Kinshasa with startling speed. But when Kabila got Angola and Zimbabwe to back him with troops and planes, with Namibia and Zambia also providing support, the reversal was just as fast.

In the two weeks since Kabila and his allies dispersed the offensive on Kinshasa, fighting has been scattered and inconclusive. But diplomats said Kabila's military is working to organize Rwandan Hutus who, throughout the 1990s, have fought an episodic civil war against the Tutsis. In 1994, a well-organized Tutsi force ousted a Hutu-extremist Rwandan government whose troops and militias had launched genocidal massacres against Tutsis that killed more than a half-million people.

Those Hutus and tens of thousands of civilian refugees fled Rwanda and today are scattered in Congo, the Congo Republic, the Central African Republic and Angola. Kabila "is getting them weapons to let them carry the war back into Rwanda," where the Tutsi-dominated government is fighting Hutu militants, said a European diplomat, who added that the result "would be a humanitarian and political catastrophe."

But Kabila may need the ill-disciplined Hutus because it remains uncertain whether his strongest ally, Angola, is willing to join him in pushing for an overall military victory. Angolan and Zimbabwean officers express confidence in their ability to drive all the way to Congo's eastern border, but diplomats voice doubts whether Angola's government will make that investment.

Angola's overwhelming purpose in intervening is to cut supply routes through Congo to the former Angolan rebel movement known as UNITA. Conflict between Angola's government and UNITA -- the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola -- has sharpened this year, increasing fears of renewed civil war there.

Angola has kept its Congo intervention limited, military analysts said, sending an estimated 2,000 troops to help Kabila in westernmost Congo, an area key to the defense of Angolan oil facilities. Angolan leaders "would not want to overreach themselves in a less predictable war in the east" of Congo, an African diplomat said.

A successful offensive in the east by Kabila and his allies would not end the war, analysts said. "Uganda and Rwanda are in for the long haul," said William Zartman, director of African studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. "The Rwandans have now escalated the thing to the point where they have got to hang in or they will be wiped out."

[African nations on both sides of the conflict said Wednesday that their troops will remain in Congo until a peace agreement is worked out, news services reported. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, acknowledging for the first time that Ugandan troops are operating in Congo, said they will remain there "until there is a regionally agreed model for peace." Zimbabwean Defense Minister Moven Mahachi told his country's parliament that "allied troops which include Zimbabwe will remain in (Congo) until we are convinced and satisfied that permanent peace, stability and tranquillity have been restored in that country and that the process is irreversible."]

Congolese scholars and politicians say that Kabila's victory at Kinshasa -- and a surge in popular support for his battle against what most Congolese see as foreign, Rwandan Tutsi domination -- may be leading him to overreach himself in domestic politics. Kabila "seems not to understand that the applause is for his [nationalist] position" and not for his authoritarian political style, said Christophe Lutundula, a former vice president of parliament who helped lead the democracy movement against Mobutu in the early 1990s, when Congo was known as Zaire.

Lutundula and others voiced concern over signals from Kabila's aides that they plan to scrap a broad legislative assembly that was to have convened in June to prepare a final draft of a proposed constitution. Kabila instead is to name a limited "technical commission" to prepare a draft for submission to a plebiscite, perhaps by the end of the year, political sources said.

Kabila "has practiced a politics of exclusion from the start, while the Congolese seek more participation," said Floribert Chebeya, head of the Congolese human rights group Voice of the Voiceless. Last year, Kabila banned political activity during what he said would be a two-year transition to democratic rule, and his government has repressed the media more severely than in the latter years of Mobutu.

He has continued to retreat to a narrow political base of people from his home region, ethnic group and family. Last year, he drew key officials from several constituencies -- Tutsis, his own Luba ethnic group, and the Kinshasa political elite.

But Kabila increasingly has relied on Lubas, especially those from Katanga, his home province in the far south. He has made his cousin, Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji, the clear number two of the regime.

While Kabila understands, and plays to, Congolese national pride in the face of Rwandan and Ugandan pressure, "he cannot understand that the people want him to reconcile with other political forces and to share power," said a Congolese analyst who asked not to be named.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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