Civil War: Democratic Republic of the Congo (1996-1997 and 1998-Present)

Kyle Wilson. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


During the 1960s and again in the 1990s, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) became embroiled in civil war. Today, the DRC continues on the path of postconflict peace building, striving to move along the continuum from relief to rehabilitation and sustainable development. The latest civil war in the DRC (formerly Zaire) caused the death of 3.3 million people (International Rescue Committee 2003 ). Although the war began as a civil war, it later became an interstate war, which its participants called a civil war. At times, the war involved seven sovereign states, including Angola, Burundi, Chad, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The events that led to this devastating civil war reflect the unique history of the region.

Country Background

During the age of discovery, European vessels searched the shores of Africa for riches and glory. The unknown region of what is now known as sub-Saharan Africa turned out to be an inhabited region where peoples and cultures flourished. As the explorers came upon the Congo River and landed on its shores, they recognized that the area was different from anything that they had ever seen. The Portuguese arrived first at the mouth of the Congo River, encountering the people of the area. This encounter began a long and destructive relationship that still affects the people of the DRC (Hochschild 1999, 7-18).

More recently, the DRC has suffered from the colonial legacy of King Leopold II of Belgium. Formerly known as the Congo Free State, the DRC endured Leopold’s destruction, devastation, and extraction. As the personal colony of the king, the DRC provided Belgium with substantial revenue and cheap (free) labor. Condemnation of his activities mounted with the creation of the Congo Reform Association in 1904. Through the work of such intellectuals as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Crime of the Congo) and Mark Twain (King Leopold’s Soliloquy), King Leopold’s control over the Congo gradually declined until 1908, when his personal rule over the Congo formally ended and Belgium assumed the role. Despite the end of his brutal leadership, the problems created by Leopold remained. Anticolonialism became the new focus of the intellectual community but faded quickly, leaving the people of the Congo in the hands of Belgium for several more years (Hochschild 1999, 185-306).

After fifty-two years of Belgian rule, the DRC gained independence on June 30, 1960. Joseph Kasavubu became the head of state and Patrice Lumumba the prime minister. Within one week, the Army mutinied, and the mineral-rich region of Katanga declared its independence on July 11, 1960, with the provincial governor, Moise Tshombe, as its leader. Due to Katanga’s vast wealth from its mining industry, the region believed it possessed the right to independence. In September 1960, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba, and Lumumba attempted to dismiss Kasavubu. Later, after the government reversed the dismissals, Kasavubu dismissed the parliament, and with the help of Joseph Desire Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), the Army chief of staff, his forces took Lumumba prisoner and handed him over to the Katanga separatists. Lumumba died a mysterious death in early 1961. The international community believed that a single, united Congo would benefit the stability of the entire region, so the United Nations began its first attempt at peacemaking, a role that its charter did not envision, with the goal of stabilizing the situation in Katanga. In September 1961, UN troops used their mandate to protect themselves when Katanga troops opened fire on them. The UN responded to the aggression with military operations designed to end the insurgency. By November 1964, the UN had contained the rebellion with the help of Western troops. Despite the UN’s eventual success, it suffered one of its most challenging periods when Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on his way to meet with Kasavubu.

After the cessation of hostilities in the Katanga region, the government attempted to include the secessionists in the national government. Tshombe participated in this effort and sought to build a nationwide political base. He succeeded, but after taking charge of the government formed by Kasavubu, he immediately became a threat to Kasavubu’s authority. Kasavubu replaced him with Evariste Kimba. Kimba was scheduled to take office in November 1965, but Joseph Desire Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) seized power on November 24, 1965, and proclaimed himself president, ending any semblance of democratic rule in the Congo.

After taking power, Mobutu enjoyed a period of relative calm; however, his despotic ways began to trouble his people, and the restive regions with ideas for independence made arrangements to overthrow the despotic ruler. In 1971, Mobuto Sese Seko changed the country’s name to Zaire to reflect its African heritage; he also renamed many of the regions within the DRC for the same reason. Katanga became Shaba, but its new name did not stop the rebels from preparing for war in Zambia and Angola. Twice (in 1977 and 1978) these soldiers tried to regain control of their mineral-rich region, but both times Mobutu mustered enough loyalists to put down the rebellions. These rebellions showed Mobutu’s weakness but warned secessionists that rebellion would be met with overwhelming force. Mobutu ruled with an iron hand over the Congo/Zaire and maintained power for more than thirty years, using techniques that earned him the designation as one of the “Strongmen of Africa.” Under Mobutu, Congo/Zaire sunk into chaos despite its vast natural wealth.

Although signs of decay developed much earlier, Mobutu’s regime began to erode as the Cold War came to an end. The United States no longer felt motivated to support the kleptocratic regime of one of Africa’s last strongmen, as the Communist threat in Africa had dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Mobutu’s grip on power weakened, an unarmed opposition began to form, demanding democracy. Entienne Tshisekedi led the unarmed opposition and negotiated a sovereign national conference in which all groups in Congolese society participated. Tshisekedi even became prime minister; however, Mobutu undermined the democratic process, quashing the aspirations of millions of Congolese. Mobutu’s prime ministers changed several times during this period, and the erosion of Mobutu’s regime continued until the rebellion led by Laurent Kabila forced Mobutu into exile, where he died shortly thereafter.

Conflict Background

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda directly contributed to the war in the DRC. With the fall of the Hutu government in Rwanda, the ex-Rwanda army and the Interahamwe militia fled into eastern Congo along with thousands of Hutu refugees (see article on Rwanda for more details). These different groups of people were indistinguishable from refugees, making repatriation and disarmament difficult. As the international community responded to the humanitarian emergency in eastern Congo, they empowered the military elements of the Hutu refugees to deliver humanitarian assistance. The military elements rebuilt their strength and intended to retake Kigali from the Tutsi rebels. Rwanda and Uganda, realizing that the rebels intended to destabilize their countries with low-intensity strikes on their territory, decided that eastern Congo must cease to be a haven for Hutu rebels. Both countries made their case to the government of Zaire and the United Nations, but Mobutu was unable or unwilling to assist, whereas the UN did not initially believe that the refugee camps contributed to the Hutu rebellion. Therefore, Rwanda and Uganda devised a military strategy for ending the Hutu threat.

A Tutsi people called the Banyamulenge had lived in the Congo since the eighteenth century, maintaining their Tutsi identity and thereby building animosity between themselves and their Congolese neighbors. Because they were different from the other tribes in the Congo, they remained outsiders. Mobutu rescinded their citizenship in 1981 after he had granted full Congolese citizenship to the Tutsis in 1972 (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, 405). Therefore, when Rwanda and Uganda searched for a platform on which to achieve security in their countries, ending the Hutu threat was their main priority, and using the Banyamulenge was a means to achieve this goal. The Congolese Tutsi provided a platform on which Rwanda and Uganda could achieve their goals under the guise of an internal Congolese rebellion. This led to the rise of Laurent Kabila, a Congolese who led a group of four Congolese rebel groups, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

Laurent Desire Kabila came to power on May 29, 1997, with the support of Rwanda and Uganda after leading a devastating military campaign across the country. Each country despised Mobutu’s support for Hutus involved in the genocide in Rwanda. As Kabila’s forces moved across the vast expanse of Zaire, Mobutu’s military forces collapsed in successive battles. After capturing Kinshasa, Kabila renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo and promised a new future for his people based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Unfortunately, his socialist background and despotic tendencies quickly surfaced. He also alienated Rwanda and Uganda by expelling their military advisors.

After the fall of Mobutu, Laurent Desire Kabila began to consolidate his power. As his power grew, the other members of the AFDL began to lose influence and recognized that Kabila had no intention of including them or any other Congolese party in a new government. Kabila’s actions resembled Mobutu’s previous actions and infuriated both the armed and the unarmed opposition. Eventually, Kabila consolidated power and began to rule the DRC without a mandate from the people. An important component of his power was the support of Rwanda and Uganda. In exchange for their support, Rwanda and Uganda expected the inclusion of Tutsis in the government, a focus on securing the eastern Congo to prevent rebels from conducting cross-border raids, and continued economic and political support. In mid-1998, Laurent Kabila began to dismiss individuals with allegiance to Rwanda and Uganda and requested that all Rwandan military forces leave the DRC immediately.

Rwanda and Uganda condemned Kabila’s actions and began to plan the ouster of their former ally. Soon after the public split between Kabila and his former allies, a movement began to overthrow Kabila. Under the pretense of democracy, new rebel groups emerged and made rapid military gains throughout eastern Congo. With the support of Rwanda and Uganda, the rebels made a bold initiative by opening a western front. When the rebels threatened the Inga Dam (which supplied electricity and water to Kinshasa), the world realized that the war went beyond internal rivalries. The rapid movement of the rebel groups from eastern Congo to the west seemed beyond the capability of a homegrown rebel insurgency. Eventually, Rwanda admitted to supporting the rebels, which explained their ability to move troops and materiel across the vast country. Eventually, the Rwanda-Uganda alliance came within miles of the capital of Kinshasa; however, at the last minute Angola came to the aid of Kabila and turned the tide of the war in the west. Zimbabwe and Namibia also supported Kabila and sent troops to stabilize his failing government.

After a great deal of bloodshed, the parties to the dispute agreed to meet in Lusaka in late October 1998. The parties realized that the conflict was stalemated and that to negotiate peace was the only way to end the conflict. The rebels demanded representation in the government, while Kabila opposed their participation. Although high hopes existed when the conference produced a treaty, neither side had any intention of implementing the agreement until the other side yielded. Kabila continually resisted his obligations under the treaty, hoping to change the situation on the ground to benefit his cause. His lack of cooperation with the United Nations also distanced his government from the mainstream concerns of the international community.

Laurent Kabila’s brief reign as president of the DRC ended when his bodyguard killed him on January 16, 2001 (Turner 2001, 1-2). Joseph Kabila quickly came to power upon the death of his father with the support of the military, which he had led prior to his father’s death. At twenty-nine years old, Joseph Kabila became the youngest world leader, and despite controlling less than half of his country, he immediately went about forming support for his leadership among Western countries. He succeeded in garnering the initial support of France, Belgium, and the United States with promises to end the war using the methods agreed upon in the Lusaka Accords.

Once again, the United Nations became involved in the Congo, but this time the UN realized that peacemaking was not the appropriate approach. Therefore, the Security Council ensured that the United Nations Observer Mission in the Congo (MONUC) remained strictly a peacekeeping mission. Unfortunately, the international community did not fully meet its obligations under the Security Council resolutions by understaffing the mission especially in relation to the size of the DRC.

The Insurgents

One unique aspect of the Congolese civil war is the wide variety of parties to the dispute who joined together to form a common front against the kleptocratic rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. In the second phase of the conflict, the parties to the dispute did not achieve the same level of cohesiveness, because Laurent Kabila created divisions within their ranks and solidified his base to protest the foreign intervention by Uganda and Rwanda. With these distinct aspects in mind, the depth and breadth of participants is discussed following.

In the 1996-1997 uprising against Mobutu Sese Seko, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire included the People’s Democratic Alliance, the National Resistance Council for Democracy, the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Zaire, and the People’s Revolutionary Party. The Alliance Democratique des Peuples (People’s Democratic Alliance [ADP]), is a group of Congolese Tutsis known as Banyamulenge and led by Deogratias Bugera (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, 225; Otunnu 2003, 66). The Conseil National de Resistance pour la Democratie (National Council for Resistance and Democracy [CNRD]), is a Lumumbist guerrilla group established in 1993 in eastern Congo by Andre Kisase Ngandu (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, 225). The Movement Revolutionnaire pour la Liberation du Zaire (Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Zaire [MRLZ]), is an opposition group centered around the Bashi of South Kivu and led by Anselme Masasu Nindaga (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, 225). The Parti de la Revolution Populaire (People’s Revolutionary Party [PRP]) was founded in 1967 by Laurent-Desire Kabila (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, 225; Otunnu 2003, 49, 66).

Sources: Institute for Security Studies 2005 ; International Rescue Committee (IRC) 2003, 2004; Marshall and Jaggers 2002; United States Committee for Refugees 2004.
War: AFDL vs. government
Dates: October 1996-May 1997 and 1998-present
Casualties: 3.3 million (IRC) through 2002, 3.8 million (IRC) through 2004
Regime type prior to war: -8. Score ranges from-10 (authoritarian) to 10 (democracy)
Regime type after war: Initial collapse of central authority (Interregnum -77)
Current: Transitional government (Transition -88)
GDP/capita year war began: US $110 (1995)
GDP/capita 5 years after war: US $108 (2003)
Insurgents: Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)
Issue: Struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Rwanda, Uganda, natural resources
Role of geography: Large country made defense difficult, distribution of ethnic groups.
Role of resources: Natural resources are an underlying reason for the war.
Immediate outcome: AFDL victory
Outcome after 5 years: Relapse to war within one year
Role of UN: Facilitated peace talks; peacekeepers (MONUC)
Role of regional organization: SADC actively involved
Refugees: 3.2 million internally displaced persons, 440,000 refugees
Prospects for peace: Uncertain
Table 1: Civil War in Congo

The grouping relied on their common hatred of Mobutu Sese Seko but suffered from an underlying distrust of each other’s motives. Throughout the campaign against Mobutu, the groups maintained their cohesion despite centrifugal forces opposed to their cooperation. Years of kleptocratic rule galvanized their resolve to overthrow Mobutu. Mobutu’s decision to cling to power despite the movement for democracy envisioned by the Congolese National Conference made a negotiated settlement impossible. The AFDL’s military success through a blitzkrieg strategy also strengthened their hand. After the fall of Kinshasa to the AFDL, Kabila immediately moved to cement his power. Despite calls for the inclusion of the unarmed opposition, Kabila maintained power in the face of calls for democracy.

In the 1998-2001 uprising against Laurent Desire Kabila, rebel groups included the Parti pour la réconciliation et le développement (PPRD), the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie-Goma (RCD-G), the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie-Mouvement de libération (RCD-K/ML), the Mouvement pour la libération du Congo (MLC), and the Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS).

President Joseph Kabila founded the PPRD in March 2002. Its membership includes virtually all the former members of Laurent and Joseph Kabila’s governments. Congolese vice president Azarias Ruberwa, a close political ally of the Rwandan government, leads the RCD-G. It controlled much of eastern DRC, and many of its leaders hail from the Banyamulenge community. Mbusa Nyamwisi, the minister of external commerce in the transition government, leads the RCD-K/ML. The RCD-K/ML broke away from the RCD and is a political ally of the Ugandan government. It controlled an area known as the Grand Nord, which stretches from Kanyabayonga to Beni. Millionaire businessman Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice president in the transition, leads the MLC. The MLC has close links to the Ugandan government, which controlled much of northern and central DRC. Many of the MLC’s senior members hail from the civilian and military structures of ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The UDPS is the main unarmed opposition party, led by opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Tshisekedi declined to participate in the transition government but intends to run in the presidential elections. There are a multitude of other, smaller parties, many of which were involved in the inter-Congolese dialogue and now have representatives in the transition government.

The groups involved in the second uprising relied more heavily on external patrons and suffered from the same mistrust as the groups involved in the first uprising. In the second uprising, this mistrust led to several changes in leadership and an inability of the groups to focus on their original common goal of overthrowing Laurent Desire Kabila. Because of their lack of cohesion, Kabila was able to focus his attention on highlighting the foreign support of the rebel groups. Kabila used Congolese nationalism (their hatred for Tutsis) to stalemate the rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda (Afoaku 2002, 109-128).


The DRC is the third-largest country in Africa after Sudan and Algeria. The military tactics of the civil war therefore reflected the size and scope of the theater of operations. During the civil war of 1996-1997 and during the war of 1998-2001, the rebels based their operations out of eastern Congo, where the government maintained the least control. In the jungles of eastern Congo, rebel groups and sovereign states used the geography to hide their forces. For example, the Hutu militiamen and the ex-Rwandan Army soldiers used the jungle to evade capture and disguise their forces. The DRC is the second-largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, with about 2,344,885 square kilometers, roughly the size of United States east of the Mississippi River. Because of its size, the peacekeepers that United Nations and its member states provided were unable to maintain peace. This led to destabilization, which continues to exist in the DRC. The DRC has one of the largest, most diverse populations in Africa. An estimated 60,085,804 (July 2005 est.) inhabitants live within its borders. These estimates explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS (resulting in lower life expectancy), higher infant mortality and death rates, lower population and growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex. Because of the war, many of the inhabitants have suffered from disease and malnutrition despite the DRC’s vast natural wealth. The large population in the DRC has provided ample personnel for the various rebel groups while at the same time making it nearly impossible for any government to provide jobs for the unemployed. With the size and extent of the DRC, the population is inherently diverse, making animosities between groups easy to manipulate. Throughout its history, the DRC’s leaders have used these differences to maintain control. During the civil wars, this tactic has directly impacted the Tutsi minority in the eastern DRC.

The climate of the DRC varies greatly, owing to the geographic extent of the country and its proximity to the equator. Ranging from tropical rain forest in the Congo River basin to tropical wet-and-dry in the southern uplands, to tropical highland in eastern areas, the DRC’s climatic diversity provides the resources to sustain conflict. Despite being devastated by war, the DRC was able largely to avoid the famine and widespread hunger suffered by many other war-torn states. This was mainly due to the geography of the DRC, which provided food for those fleeing the violence. Although there was widespread suffering for the people of the DRC during the conflicts, the availability of food did not deteriorate as it did in other countries with less abundant food supplies.

The Congo River system, with a length of 2,718 miles, is an extensive network of navigable waterways with substantial hydroelectric potential. Because of its position on the equator, the river flows year round, and commerce thrived along its banks. Limited infrastructure requires the Congolese to rely on the river for much of their transportation. During the wars, however, commerce and transportation came to a halt on the Congo River, bringing substantial hardship throughout the areas usually served by the river. The warring parties used the river to move troops and materiel throughout the theaters of operation.

Finally, the DRC possesses vast stocks of natural resources. These include cobalt, copper, niobium, tantalum, petroleum, industrial and gem diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, uranium, coal, hydroelectric power and potential, and timber. These resources became the driving force behind the wars in the DRC. Without the natural resources, the warring parties would not have been able to finance the war. Behind their public rationale for the war, the warring parties privately used the DRC’s resources to enrich their supporters and finance the materials needed to conduct war.


Throughout the civil war, all sides used multiple tactics to conduct military operations. These tactics include the use of child soldiers, natural resources to fuel conflict, genocide, mercenaries, external intervention, ethnic animosity to increase instability, and others. The variety of tactics increased the complexity of the conflict. As tactics changed, the parties to the dispute adapted to the new situations.

In the second part of the war, the rebels initially adopted a blitzkrieg strategy, a lightning-fast advance across the DRC. This strategy relied on the assumption that Kabila would receive no external and little internal support. The rebels quickly realized that they could not logistically support such a grand strategy while defending against external support for Kabila from such countries as Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola (Afoaku 2002, 120-121).

During both phases of the war, but more publicly in the second phase, natural resources fueled the conflict. The UN secretary-general submitted five reports to the organization dealing with exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. These reports were the first Interim Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/2001/ 49) of January 16, 2001; the Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/2001/357) of April 12, 2001; the Addendum to the Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/2001/1072) of November 13, 2001; the second Interim Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/2002/565) of May 22, 2002; and the Final Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/2002/1146) of October 16, 2002. The international community’s attention to the plight of the DRC, especially the illegal exploitation of its natural resources, greatly exceeded the attention given to the exploitation that occurred during the conflict to overthrow the despotic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.

Causes of the War

The war was caused by the interaction of Mobutu’s despotism and ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in eastern Congo (an extension of the Rwanda genocide). Seven factors contributed to the civil war in the DRC/Zaire. The following paragraphs explain how these factors created the environment of the conflict.

First, the refugees in eastern Zaire were a destabilizing force. Not only did the presence of the refugees create a problem, but their composition complicated relations between Zaire and its neighbors. The United Nations created large refugee camps in eastern Zaire after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. These camps contained large numbers of Rwandan refugees, mainly ethnic Hutus. The refugees in the camp included ex-Rwanda army and Interahamwe militia as well as the former government of Rwanda. These elements used the refugees as shields to regain their strength to battle Rwanda and Uganda. Many refugees believed that they could not return to Rwanda, because propaganda from their leadership led them to believe that Rwanda was not safe. The presence of refugees inside the borders of Zaire contributed to the instability that propagated the final collapse of Mobutu’s regime.

Second, the complete collapse of the Zairian state caused by Mobutu’s kleptocracy, lack of democracy, and lack of development contributed to the war. Throughout his regime, Mobutu’s first priority was to maintain power; his second was to enrich himself at the expense of the Congolese people. Despite the great economic potential of the Congo, its wealth never benefited the people, only Mobutu and his cronies. Mobutu used the resources of the Congo to extract financial wealth from multinational corporations, from which he created a praetorian guard to help him maintain power. Mobutu’s actions over his long reign created the conditions that led to the complete collapse of the Zairian state.

Third, the inability of the Sese Seko regime to secure its borders with Rwanda and Uganda forced two small states into a proxy war against its larger neighbor. Prior to the war in the DRC, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, a Tutsi, allowed the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) to base its operations in Uganda for years. The Tutsis of the RPF fled Rwanda in the 1960s and have resided in Uganda since then. With Museveni’s rise to power, the RPF gained an ally who supported their cause. During the genocide in Rwanda, the RPF launched an all-out attack on the genocidaires, overthrowing the Hutu government and forcing them into neighboring countries. These refugees were reconstituted in the DRC and launched attacks into Rwanda, destabilizing the region. The Sese Seko regime tacitly and directly supported the cross-border attacks. Rwanda, still recovering from genocide, and Uganda recognized that the remnants of the genocidaire government in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire threatened their security—a threat that they believed required preemptive action through the support of the AFDL. Mobutu’s inability to adequately address the security concerns of its smaller neighbors led to conflict.

Fourth, due to the vast wealth of DRC/Zaire, the parties to the dispute garnered economic benefits by participating in the conflict. With abundant supplies of copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds, timber, water, coltan (short for the mineral columbo-tantalite) tin, and other natural resources, the disputants used the resources to finance military operations. By signing mining contracts in territory they controlled, the AFDL obtained the financial resources to purchase weapons and materiel. The existence of these resources impacted military strategy because there was a strategic advantage to hold territory containing natural resources. Military campaigns therefore centered on areas with abundant natural resources. Not only did the natural resources of the DRC/Zaire contribute to the conflict, they also fueled the conflict, making it profitable for the external participants to continue their campaigns.

Fifth, Africa’s decision to accept its colonial borders, inherited from colonial demarcation, meant that many borders did not respect the distribution of ethnic groups. Specifically, the Tutsi ethnic group overlapped the borders of DRC/Zaire, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Many Tutsi identified with their ethnic group before identifying with the colonially constructed state boundaries. This identification by Tutsis in the Congo isolated them from other Congolese, making them the target of reprisals and unfair government policies. Although the borders did not directly cause the conflict, they contributed to the overall conditions that led to it.

Sixth, during the independence movement in DRC/Zaire, the rapidly unfolding events prevented Belgium from gradually handing control over to the Congolese. Belgium’s colonial policies did not allow indigenous people to rise to important leadership positions. Therefore, the people of the Congo relied on Belgium to manage the complex bureaucracy with little input from the indigenous leaders. At the time of independence, few educated indigenous personnel possessed the expertise to run the vast territory. For example, the military had few indigenous people who possessed the skills to lead an army. The violence surrounding independence led to an exodus of Europeans from the territory. Also, Belgium’s policies in Rwanda supporting the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority created tensions that crossed Rwanda’s borders and fueled an animosity that would later lead to war in the DRC. Overall, the colonial transition contributed to conditions that eventually led to the conflict (Turner 2000, 1-4).

Finally, during the Cold War the United States supported the Mobutu regime, artificially extending its duration. U.S. support lasted until the end of the Cold War, when the United States no longer needed Zaire’s bases to support Angolan rebels. From its independence, Cold War rivalries affected the politics of the DRC. The battle between Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Kasavubu, and Joseph Desire Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) became a side story to the Cold War politics between the United States and the Soviet Union. Lumumba’s move toward the Soviet sphere of influence, coupled with his election as prime minister, alarmed the United States. Covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives facilitated the assassination of Lumumba and the rise to power of Mobutu. The lack of external support for the Mobutu regime removed an important support infrastructure that hastened the collapse of the regime, eventually leading to the conflict.

Despite several contributing factors, it is clear that no single event caused the war in DEC/Zaire. Throughout Mobutu’s regime, the contributing factors directly caused or exacerbated by his regime culminated in the conflict.


After the fall of Kinshasa, the AFDL began the process of forming a government. Initially, the nonviolent opposition would be part of a coalition leading the country in the spirit of the Congolese national convention held years earlier. This initial optimism soon turned to a realization that Laurent Kabila was not the democrat the people of the Congo had anticipated. This led to another conflict, which lasted for several more years. After years of conflict, the parties to the dispute realized that a continuation of the conflict was not feasible due to war fatigue, the death of Laurent Kabila, and the embrace of the peace process by Joseph Kabila.

Conflict Status

Initially, Kabila’s victory led to peace; however, within one year of his victory he had squandered his political capital with behavior reminiscent of his predecessor. Therefore, the conflict continued, evolving into a new, more deadly stage that included several sovereign states. A transitional government eventually took power, with Joseph Kabila as its leader and several leaders of the rebellion participating. An election was scheduled for July 30, 2006. That election led to a runoff on October 29, and on November 15 the Independent Electoral Commission announced that Kabila had won.

Although the parties to the dispute in the DRC realized peace with the Lusaka Accords, the momentum of those meetings did not change the situation on the ground. The tense relationship between the various parties involved in the conflict continued after the accords and required substantial compromise. On March 15, 2005, the secretary-general released a report about the status of MONUC in response to Security Council Resolution 1565. The report covers developments since December 31, 2004. The Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo made progress on several fronts; however, security sector reform and the legislative agenda did not make progress. In January 2005, the MLC nearly withdrew its support of the Transitional Government because of Kabila’s dismissal of several ministers for what he called “inappropriate activities.” The MLC viewed these dismissals and subsequent replacements as a violation of the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement and the Transitional Constitution. To facilitate a compromise, the International Committee for Support of the Transition (CIAT) offered proposals to end the stalemate. Fortunately, the parties came together and made a compromise to bring the transitional government back together. On January 3, 2005, the parliament ended its three-month session with achievements in the areas of armed forces, nationality, and voter registration. Unfortunately, the parliament was not able to reach agreements on referenda, amnesty, the status of the political opposition, the financing of political parties, the draft constitution, and the electoral law.

Many observers and the participants themselves believed that there would be an election in the DRC in June 2005. The president of the Independent Electoral Commission announced on January 7, 2005, that an election in June 2005 was not feasible but that an election in late 2005 was more realistic—which later became July 2006. Regional tensions continue to make peace difficult to maintain. The Joint Verification Mechanism and the Tripartite Commission have worked throughout the country to maintain peaceful relations among all parties. MONUC created Joint Verification Teams in Goma and Bukavu to monitor all agreements and build confidence. These teams include representatives of the DRC, Rwanda, MONUC, and the African Union (AU). These groups continue to work on building peace in Ituri province as well as North and South Kivu, where conflicts occurred (United Nations Security Council 2005a, 2005b, 2005c).

Duration Tactics

The rebels and the government both relied on natural resources and the related concessions to maintain the war effort. As the rebels seized territory, they immediately rescinded government concession agreements and began negotiations with multinational corporations for new concession agreements. The rebels used advanced payments to purchase arms and materiel. Stealing of natural resources became the main source of rebel financing; during the second stage of the conflict, external actors blatantly removed resources from the DRC and made substantial gains at the DRC’s expense. Both sides of the conflict used child soldiers to fill the ranks of their militias.

Both sides of the conflict inflamed ethnic rivalries to benefit their cause. Hutu, Tutsi, and Congolese ethnic identity became the center of the group’s movement to overthrow the government. Kabila used anti-Tutsi sentiment to slow the advance of the rebels. He believed that the longer he could fight to a stalemate, the longer he would have to garner support from his allies. He was able to hold out long enough for Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and others to join his cause.

The war continued, owing to resource stealing and ethnic rivalries. During the first war, Laurent Kabila was able to use Congolese animosity toward Mobutu to build his support and eventually overthrow the government. During the second war, Laurent Kabila was able to stay in power by using Congolese animosity toward the Tutsi to slow the rebels’ campaign against him and allow him to build a coalition of sovereign states to ensure his regime’s survival.

External Military Intervention

Generally defined as an internal conflict, despite the active participation of external actors in both phases of the conflict, the war in the DRC involved a variety of tactics. Owing to the DRC’s geographic extent and the policies of Mobutu Sese Seko, external actors possessed both the ability and the will to intervene in the internal affairs of the DRC. Each phase included external intervention that impacted events during the internal conflict. It is important to understand the complex relationships between the DRC and its neighbors to understand their decisions to intervene.

During the 1996-1997 rebellion, Uganda, Rwanda, and Angola tacitly supported the AFDL, whereas unsubstantiated reports believed that Sudan and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) supported the Mobutu government. Uganda supported the rebels to secure its border from insurgent attacks from eastern Zaire, to obtain economic benefits, and to support Rwanda. Rwanda supported the rebels to secure its border from insurgent attacks from eastern Zaire, to obtain economic benefits, and to install a friendly government in Zaire. Angola supported the rebels to counter Mobutu’s support of the UNITA regime. Also, Angola needed to secure its border with Zaire near the enclave of Cabinda, which Zaire had invaded in the past. Sudan may have supported the government because Sudan supported rebels looking to overthrow Yoweri Museveni, whereas Uganda supported rebels fighting against the government of Sudan. UNITA relied on its bases in Zaire for launching attacks on Angola; therefore, keeping Mobutu in power ensured UNITA’s ability to use bases within Zaire.

During the 1998-2001 rebellion, Uganda and Rwanda supported the rebels, whereas Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and others supported the government of Kabila. Uganda participated in the conflict in the DRC to protect its interests in the region. As a small state dominated by Tutsis, Uganda realized that instability in the DRC threatened its security. The leaders of Uganda and Rwanda shared a common background as they worked together to bring Tutsi governments to their respective countries. Museveni came to power first, but Kagame provided support during Uganda’s difficult times. When Kagame finally realized the opportunity to bring a Tutsi government to Rwanda, Museveni supported Kagame in this quest. When the conflict in the Congo began to threaten the efforts of Museveni and Kagame to bring peace to their countries, both realized that they could affect the situation of their neighbor through military force (Clark 2002, 145-168; Otunnu 2003, 21-84). Rwanda participated in the conflict in the DRC to protect its interests in the region and to ensure that its fragile peace did not unravel because of cross-border military operations conducted by remnants of the former Hutu government. The history of genocide in Rwanda led its leadership to realize that instability in the Congo could threaten Rwanda’s security. Therefore, with the support of Uganda, Rwanda used its military strength to bring about the conditions necessary for security at home. Rwanda and Uganda used their militaries to hold some territory in the DRC, but the true role of the troops was to manage the rebel groups fighting on their behalf while also overseeing the wholesale looting of the DRC’s natural resources (Longman 2002, 129-144; Winter 2003, 109-136). Burundi participated in the conflict in the DRC as an extension of Rwanda/Uganda. Also, Burundi’s civil war spilled across the DRC’s eastern border, creating instability and a purpose for cross-border operations similar to the reasons Rwanda and Uganda cited for their incursions into the DRC (Rogier 2003, 3). Burundi’s rebel groups used the lawless parts of the DRC to launch incursions into Burundi like those of the Interahamwe militia and the ex-Rwanda Army (Rogier 2003, 5). Burundi’s official rationale for participating in the conflict focused on their attempts to dispel their rebel movements (Turner 2000, 1-4).

Zimbabwe participated in the conflict in the DRC to protect its interests in the region and to enrich its economy by obtaining resources from the DRC (Rupiya 2002, 93-108). Namibia participated in the conflict in the DRC as part of the South African Development Community’s mission to the country. The president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, and Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, shared the freedom fighter mentality from their respective fights for independence. Their relationship and shared membership in the SADC brought Namibia into the war; however, Namibia’s participation in the conflict did not rise to the level of Zimbabwe’s. Angola participated in the conflict in the DRC to protect its interests in the region and to ensure that UNITA rebels did not maintain a presence in the DRC. During the first phase of the conflict, Angola supported the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko because of his open support for UNITA rebels; however, Angola shifted its support in the second phase to Laurent Kabila to ensure that Rwanda and Uganda did not gain undue sway over a future government of the DRC (Turner 2002, 75-92). Zambia participated in the conflict in the DRC at a minimal level, mainly to protect its border with the DRC, to ensure that the conflict did not spill over into its territory. Zambia contributed to the peace process by hosting the parties to the dispute at peace talks on Lusaka. Chad participated in the conflict in the DRC at the request of Laurent Kabila as a means of showing Francophone unity against the aggression of Rwanda and Uganda. Chad’s participation provided more moral support than military utility. Overall, the DRC’s allies used military tactics that initially stopped the advancing forces and then deployed to protect the economically strategic assets (diamonds, gold, timber, etc.) of government-held territory.

During the conflict, the United Nations became involved in the DRC for the second time in its history. Several statements issued by the UN condemned the warfare in the Congo, urged its member states to support a UN mission into the DRC, and demanded an end to the bloodshed. Despite their moral and legal obligations, the UN member states did not immediately rush to the aid of their fellow member state. Prior to the full mobilization of Kabila’s forces in the first wave of the rebellion, the UN nearly sent a mission to the refugee camps on the border with Rwanda and Uganda; however, many refugees left the camps for Uganda and Rwanda before a mission could be formed. Debate still exists as to why these refugees suddenly and voluntarily repatriated themselves, but the end result was the determination that a UN mission was no longer necessary.

Kabila felt emboldened when the UN chose not to intervene in the refugee camps, and he began a campaign across the country, eventually toppling the Mobutu regime. Later, after the first Kabila’s regime collapsed and a second Kabila came to power, the UN again considered involvement. The UN worked with Laurent Kabila to form a peacekeeping mission to separate the parties to the dispute in the second rebellion. Kabila initially supported the UN in his country; however, when it began to inquire about human rights abuses, he curtailed its operations. With his death and his son’s rise to power came a political opening for the UN to finally deploy a peacekeeping mission. Joseph Kabila supported the UN’s role and cooperated with its envoys.

United Nations involvement escalated when the parties to the dispute signed the cease-fire agreement on July 10, 1999, in Lusaka, Zambia, opening the way for the UN to participate in the peacebuilding of the DRC. The DRC, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe agreed to a cessation of hostilities at that time, whereas on August 1, 1999, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo also signed the agreement. The Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) did not sign the agreement. The agreement called for the normalization of the situation along the DRC border, the control of illicit trafficking of arms and the infiltration of armed groups, the holding of a national dialogue, the need to address security concerns, and the establishment of a mechanism for disarming militias and armed groups. The agreement created a Joint Military Commission (JMC) composed of two representatives from each part under a neutral chairman appointed by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and proposed an “appropriate force” to be constituted, facilitated, and deployed by the UN in collaboration with the OAU (MONUC 2005 ).

Based on the recommendations in the secretary-general’s report of July 15, 1999, the Security Council in Resolution 1258 (August 6, 1999) authorized the initial deployment of MONUC to the capital of the signatory states, the JMC headquarters, and the rear military headquarters of the main belligerents in the DRC and to other areas deemed necessary by the secretary-general. On February 24, 2000, Security Council Resolution 1291 authorized the expansion of MONUC to 5,537 military personnel, including 500 observers or more if the secretary-general determined there was a need. In the secretary-general’s special report of September 10, 2002, the secretary-general noted the withdrawal of 23,400 Rwandan troops from the DRC as well as withdrawals of Ugandan, Zimbabwean, and Angolan troops. With the secretary-general’s recommendation, the Security Council expanded the mission to 8,700 military on December 4, 2002, with Security Council Resolution 1445. In the secretary-general’s special report of May 27, 2003, the peace process moved beyond Lusaka; therefore, the mission was reconfigured to address the transition. Security Council Resolution 1493 raised troop levels to 10,800 and created an arms embargo of the eastern provinces where conflict still raged. On October 1, 2004, Security Council Resolution 1565 increased the force by 5,900 to a total of 16,700 while laying out its role in the transition. Despite receiving an increase, the secretary-general wanted 23,900 troops and 507 civilian police (MONUC 2005 ).

Conflict Management Efforts

Several international, regional, subregional, and internal peace initiatives failed during the civil war of 1996-1997 and the advance of the AFDL. Due to the strength of Kabila’s coalition and its patrons and the relative weakness of the Zairian armed forces, Kabila continued his march on Kinshasa. Mobutu’s thirty-year reign of terror over the people of Zaire increased support for Kabila, the lesser of two evils. Although attempts at peace did not succeed, the study of these attempts warrants further discussion.

As the AFDL moved across the country, diplomatic initiatives occurred regularly, without success. Before the AFDL consolidated its military strength, the Zaire government believed it could end the rebellion through the use of military force and was unwilling to negotiate. After the fall of Kisangani, the center of the governments’ defenses, the government changed its position and began negotiating with the AFDL; however, the AFDL now possessed the advantage and refused to negotiate until Mobutu resigned. Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa, attempted to broker an agreement that would avoid further bloodshed. He believed that bringing Kabila and Mobutu together would allow them to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the dispute. After several disagreements about the terms of the negotiation, the parties agreed to meet on a South African naval warship off the coast of Zaire. Mobutu demanded that the AFDL stop its advance on Kinshasa to allow him to step down for health reasons; however, Kabila was unwilling to negotiate unless Mobutu stepped down immediately.

On November 15, 1996, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1078 and later Resolution 1080, which outlined the mandate for a multinational force in Zaire. The United Nations discussed the refugee issue in Zaire within the context of the AFDL march across the country. The international community agreed on creating a multinational force (MNF). The United States offered to provide the logistics and troops, and Canada would lead the force. Other European countries also promised to contribute. The stated goal of the MNF was to repatriate the Rwandan refugees still in Zaire after the Rwanda genocide. However, before the bulk of the forces deployed, the AFDL surrounded the main refugee camps, disarmed the leaders of the camps, and urged the remaining refugees to return to Rwanda. This unorthodox approach sent hundreds of thousands of refugees back to Rwanda and removed the main purpose of the multinational force, thereby leading to its dissolution. A meeting of African states was held in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the deteriorating situation in Zaire, but the sides did not reach an agreement.

During the second phase of the conflict, 1998-2004, peace negotiations took place throughout the conflict, without success. After a year of conflict, the parties to the dispute agreed to meet at Lusaka, Zambia, and negotiate peace. Although the parties formed an agreement, the conflict continued. Three distinct phases existed during this process: the Lusaka, Zambia, phase; the Sun City, South Africa, phase; and the Pretoria, South Africa, phase.

The Lusaka phase extended from the Lusaka cease-fire agreement initiated by the Zambian president on behalf of the South African Development Community (SADC). The DRC, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Angola signed the agreement on July 10, 1999; the MLC signed on August 1, 1999; and the RCD signed on August 30, 1999. After the parties to the agreement signed the document, the inter-Congolese dialogue began. This dialogue was an attempt to solve the problems of the Congo in a deliberate, peaceful process where all sides address their concerns. The stated goal of the dialogue was to bring together a transitional authority to run the country while preparing for democratic elections. Four main issues were also included in the process: a new Congolese Army, new Congolese institutions, elections, and a new constitution.

The Sun City phase began after the failure to implement the Lusaka peace accords. South Africa took an active role in the peace initiatives after Zambia proved unable to garner the support of the parties to the dispute. As another member of the SADC, South Africa attempted to end the stalemate. On December 16, 2002, the parties to the dispute agreed to a Global and All-Inclusive Agreement on the Transition. After several years of conflict, the parties to the dispute, the government of the DRC, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, the political opposition, civil society, the Democracy/Liberation Movement, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-National, and the Mai Mai, came to together and created the agreement. Despite high hopes for peace, prosperity, and development in the DRC, in the absence of conflict the full implementation of the agreement did not occur until 2004, when all main parties finally implemented the agreement.

On November 19-20, 2004, the heads of state and government met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for the International Conference on Peace, Security, Democracy and Development in the Great Lakes Region. The culmination of their discussions produced the Dar Es Salaam Declaration on Peace, Security, Democracy and Development in the Great Lakes Region. This document addresses four core areas: peace and security, democracy and good governance, economic development and regional integration, and humanitarian and social issues. The participants decided to set forth the principles for a follow-up mechanism and a vision for the future and agreed to meet again in 2005 to create an agreement on security in the Great Lakes Region (Relief Web 2005a, 2005b; United Nations Vienna 2005 ).


The tragic history of the DRC/Zaire represents the harsh realities of armed conflict in Africa. Despite a substantial resource endowment, an incredible hydroelectric potential, a superb natural infrastructure, and considerable foreign direct investment, the DRC/Zaire collapsed from a multitude of causes. The civil uprising of 1996-1997 sprang from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and festered under the extreme nepotism of Mobutu Sese Seko. At the intersection of ethnic conflict and kleptocratic leadership, conditions were formed for civil war in the DRC/Zaire. Millions of Congolese died, millions more suffered during the postcolonial period, and the suffering continues today.

After years of internal conflict, the DRC stands at the doorway of democracy, human rights, and freedom. The decision to walk through that doorway requires continued growth of the political space between the various groups in the transitional government. Each group holds the power to destroy the joint efforts to realize peace, prosperity, and sustainable development. As the country approaches the end of the transitional period and goes to the polls, the international community must expand its support for peace in the Great Lakes Region. The DRC, central to this goal, requires substantial financial, technical, logistical, and human resources from the international community. Despite support from the United Nations, the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, and the donor community, the country lies on the boundary between peace and war. To realize peace, the international community must maintain the political will to see the situation through to completion.