Capitalism, Imperialism and the Wars in Africa. The Meaning of the Conflict in Congo

In May 1997 Kabila came to power in the former Zaire (which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo), ousting dictator Mobutu. The US diplomacy was euphoric. They now had a string of "client" regimes which included Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda, the DR of Congo and also a great deal of South Africa's foreign policy in the region was dictated by Washington. But many things have happened since. At least nine African countries have become involved in the Congo conflict which broke out on August 2. What is the meaning of the conflict in the DR of Congo?

"The world will witness the birth of African economic lions, comparable to the Asian tigers." (Vernon Jordan, US envoy to Africa referring to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda and the DR of Congo amongst others. February 1998)

"One hundred years from now, your grandchildren and mine will look back and say: this was the beginning of a new African renaissance" (Bill Clinton during his 12-day, six-nation tour of Africa, March 1998)

Kabila is part of a "new breed" of "strong new leaders" and "beacons of hope". (United States secretary of state, Madeleine Albright in her Africa tour, December 1997. Amongst the other "beacons of hope" are Uganda's Museveni and Rwanda's Kagane)

 

In May 1997 Kabila came to power in the former Zaire (which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo), ousting dictator Mobutu, after a lightning speed guerrilla campaign of 8 months.

His military victory (with the backing of Rwanda, Uganda and Angola amongst other countries) meant a victory for US imperialism and a defeat for French imperialism which had backed Mobutu until the end. This was part of the battle between Washington and Paris for spheres of influence and markets in Africa.

The US diplomacy was euphoric. They now had a string of "client" regimes which included Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda, the DR of Congo and also a great deal of South Africa's foreign policy in the region was dictated by Washington. There was also a joint offensive by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda against the Sudanese regime, the following target of the US offensive in Africa.

But many things have happened since which have disorganised Washington's plans. Two of the would-be "African lions", Ethiopia and Eritrea have been in war against each other since last May in a bitter border dispute. At least nine other African countries have become involved in the Congo conflict which broke out on August 2 and South Africa has wasted any of the prestige she might have had as a "progressive" regional power with her intervention in Lesotho to prop-up an unpopular regime. The government of Uganda's "beacon of hope" President Museveni has been involved in a $69.6 million corruption scandal. It is also worth noting that none of these "strong leaders" has been elected, a minor detail described by Washington as "uni-party democracy" (i.e. dictatorship). So much for the "African renaissance" and the "new breed" of "strong leaders" and "beacons of hope"!!

War in the DR of Congo

What is behind the conflict in the DR of Congo? You cannot understand the reasons for the current war in the DR of Congo without going back at least to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (see Crisis in Central Africa, by Ted Grant, Socialist Appeal November 1996). Following the death of Rwandan and Burundian presidents in a (probably provoked) plane crash, the Hutu dominated Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and the Hutu Interahamwe militias unleashed a genocidal campaign in which at least half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The Tutsis are the minority ethnic group and the Hutus are the majority one. Both German and Belgian colonialists used to play one group against the other in order to secure domination in Rwanda and Burundi.

In the aftermath of the 1994 massacre, the Tutsi guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) came to power, and as a result over a million Hutu refugees fled the country to Eastern Zaire. The refugee camps in Eastern Zaire were under the control of former Rwandan soldiers and Hutu militias which used them to launch attacks against the newly established FPR government in Rwanda, using the refugees as 'human shields'.

This also increased tensions in Eastern Zaire where the local Tutsi Banyamulenge population had been discriminated against for decades by the Zairea Mobutu regime. Mobutu was brought to power in Zaire in the mid-60s with US and French support after assassinating independence leader Patrice Lumumba. Mobutu had played his role as a bulwark against the "communist" threat during the whole of the Cold War period. But by the end of the 90s, after the fall of Stalinism, he was no longer a useful element for imperialism. This was yet another case of a puppet of Western imperialism turning against his masters. His corruption had became an obstacle for an efficient exploitation of the country's natural resources on the part of US and Canadian companies.

The final straw for him came when in the Summer of 1996 Mobutu tried to use the race card to prop up his regime and decided to expel the Banyamulenge Tutsis from Eastern Zaire with the excuse that they were 'foreigners'. In September 1996 they organised a rebellion and soon linked up with a number of other opposition groups forming the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL). Kabila, a former 'Marxist' guerrilla who had been fighting Mobutu since he first came to power in the 60s became its public figure.

The ADFL received backing from the Rwandan regime which wanted to get rid of the Hutu militias operating from the refugee camps in Kivu (Eastern Zaire) and from Uganda (which is also an ally of Rwanda) which wanted to get rid of the Ugandan rebels (the Alliance of Democratic Forces and the Lord's Resistance Army) operating from Eastern Zaire. One of the first consequences of the rebellion was to break the Hutu militia domination over the refugee camps, thus pushing the refugees back to Rwanda. The Interahamwe genocidal militias fled, some to as far away as Congo-Brazzaville, some to the Central African Republic, some deep into the Zairea jungle.

The main aim of Rwanda had been accomplished (and in the process many of the Hutu refugees were also massacred), but the rebellion took on a momentum of its own as Mobutu's army, unpaid, unfed and demoralised, seemed to be collapsing at the mere sight of the advancing ADFL forces.

The rebellion also got support from Angola, as the UNITA rebels fighting the Angolan regime also had bases in Zaire and had been supported by Mobutu since they were set up by Washington to fight Dos Santos' Stalinist regime. After the fall of Stalinism, Angola abandoned any pretence of socialism and embraced the 'free market' economy. But the UNITA rebels wanted to keep their lucrative control over the Angolan diamond mines on the Zairea border, despite having put their signature to a democratic transition with Dos Santos.

The US and Canadian mining corporations bankrolled Kabila, as Mobutu's corruption had become too much for the normal running of a capitalist corporation. Finally, Washington also supported the ADFL thinking they could place a more reliable government in place in Zaire, under the control of its local allies, Uganda and Rwanda.

Kabila in power

In the short space of eight months the ADFL crossed a country as big as the whole of Western Europe and were welcomed by the masses, relieved after years of oppression under Mobutu. Therefore, when Kabila took control of Kinshasa in May 1997 and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he did it as the head of a very unstable coalition of groups with different interests and agendas. The fact that his main backers were Ugandan and Rwandan troops presented him as an agent of foreign powers in the eyes of the masses.

Washington and the other imperialist powers showed very little interest in giving any aid to the new regime, which had inherited a country bled dry by more than 30 years of corruption and plunder by the West and its local agent Mobutu. The last meeting of the country's foreign aid donors produced contributions totalling only $32 million, about 75 cents for each of the Congo's 46 million people.

Also, as the Wall Street Journal noted on August 5th that Kabila "has alienated potential foreign investors, especially the crucial mining sector, by making deals and then breaking them." The fall in the prices of raw materials badly hurt the country's export revenues. A report in mid-July said that all economic indicators, including mineral production, were down, and there had been virtually no new foreign investment since Kabila came to power.

The world market for minerals is already saturated and the prices have gone down very rapidly. Therefore the exploitation of the Congolese mines is not that necessary and could even damage the interests of the mining companies by further increasing overproduction. Having exploited the country's resources for decades, they are now quite prepared to let the mines lay idle.

Kabila managed to alienate Washington also in relation to his foreign policy, by establishing links with and visiting Cuba and China (where he praised China's model of economic development).

Added to this was the fact that the regime had failed to put an end to the activities of different guerrilla groups still operating from Eastern Congo against Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila, in an attempt to gain popular support replaced most of the Rwandan officers in the army and the government by people from the Katanga province (where he is from), many of them from his own family. At the same time, the Congolese Tutsis and their Rwandan backers started to consider the new regime as unreliable and started to plot a coup to replace Kabila with a more reliable ruler.

A number of other elements in the ADFL (including its leader and state minister Deogratias Bugera) had also been removed and some even jailed by Kabila and were accumulating grievances against him. France had also been helping out the ousted Mobutu generals to reorganise, with the help of some South African mercenary groups linked to the former apartheid regime. All these forces united in a marriage of convenience against the Kabila regime.

At the end of July, Kabila ordered the withdrawal of the remaining Rwandan troops from the country and this was the signal for all these discontented forces to organise a coup. On August 2nd a number of army commanders from mainly Tutsi Banyamulenge units in Kivu mutinied and in a matter of days took control of most of Eastern Zaire. They had the support of Rwanda and Uganda and had been given the green light by Washington and Paris, although all these countries tried to deny their involvement.

Shortly afterwards the rebels were airlifted to Kitona (South Western Congo), at the opposite side of the country. There they were joined by some 30,000 soldiers of the former Mobutu army and managed to take the key dam of Inga which supplies water and electricity to Kinshasa (DR of Congo capital) and most of the mineral rich Southern Congo provinces. It looked like the fall of Kinshasa was just a matter of days. The rebels were just a few miles away from the capital.

Completely isolated and about to lose control of the country Kabila decided to play the race card. Congo's state radio repeatedly broadcast appeals to use "a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones ... to kill the Rwandan Tutsis." This was aimed not only at Rwandan invading forces but at anyone looking like a Tutsi regardless of his or her country of origin or political allegiance. Meanwhile, there were reports of massacres of the local population in Eastern Zaire by the Tutsi rebel forces (Congolese and Rwandan), adding to the poisonous atmosphere of ethnic hatred.

This was mixed with a nationalist and anti-imperialist feeling on the part of the masses which allowed the regime to resist until a few weeks later, on August 22nd, the intervention of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia on Kabila's side, completely changed the course of the conflict. By August 28th, the mutineers had been defeated in the west. What led these countries to take sides in the Congo war?

Congo Coalition

Zimbabwe's support for Kabila is in part determined by the $93m that the Kabila regime owes it for weapons and equipment and the numerous trade links—said to be worth US $1 billion—between both countries (many of them involving President Mugabe's own family). But money is not the only reason. This intervention has been used to divert attention from the social and political crisis in Zimbabwe where real wages have fallen by a third since 1990. As a result, strikes have become frequent and opposition has grown even within the ruling ZANU-PF party. In December last year riots broke out in the capital Harare during a general strike called by the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions. In January six hungry rioters were shot dead by armed troops.

Angola was forced to intervene after rumours that the Angolan UNITA rebels were linking up with the Congolese rebels. Dos Santos is not interested in a UNITA friendly regime being installed in Kinshasa. Invading South Western Congo also conveniently allowed the Angolan regime to go into oil rich Cabinda (an Angolan enclave separated from the rest of the country by a strip of Congolese land) and smash the Cabinda separatist rebels.

Finally Namibia also had a $25 million trade deal with the DR of Congo to defend. However, another factor for these countries' intervention on Kabila's side, against the attempts of Nelson Mandela to reach some sort of compromise in the conflict, reveal a deeper resentment against South Africa which has been playing the role of a regional imperialist power after the trade sanctions against the apartheid regime were lifted. South Africa's economy is three times bigger than the combined economies of all the other members of the Southern Africa Development Community. Mugabe of Zimbabwe has taken the opportunity to cast himself as a regional strongman and assert his leadership of the southern African states against that of President Mandela. Mugabe portrays Mandela as acting on behalf of American and has adopted anti-American demagogy.

Nevertheless, these countries, which form the so-called Congo Coalition seem reluctant to enter into direct military conflict with Ugandan and Rwandan troops operating in Eastern Congo. Their role has been mainly to wipe out the rebellion in South Western Congo, safeguarding the capital Kinshasa. Angola has enough problems of her own with the virtual resumption of the civil war with the UNITA bandits after they were expelled from the National Unity government on September 4th.

President Mugabe of Zimbabwe has come under strong criticism at home as a result of his Congolese adventure. In the words of Mavis Chidzonga, a ruling party member of parliament: "In Zimbabwe people are suffering, dying from hunger, there are no roads, clean water but we can afford to fund a war in Congo." Even some of the soldiers sent to Congo refused to go and mutinied on September 21st. According to the same report by the Electronic Mail and Guardian "Zimbabwe is believed to be spending more than $1 million per hour on maintaining its foreign operation" (EMG, September 21st).

Mugabe's problems have been aggravated as a result of the present turmoil in the financial markets. The local currency has devalued by 40% so far this year and a steep fall at the end of September forced the government to increase food and fuel prices by 40%. ''I wouldn't be surprised if people take to the streets again like they did the last time over similar increases,'' said a resident of Warren Park, a low-income suburb in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. The Zimbabwe Standard warns that: ''From now onwards, Zimbabweans may not be able to eat, bath, dress, or travel decently. Simple existence on a day-to-day basis will become a privilege for the selected few. Popular reaction against the root cause of this crisis-extravagance, graft, corruption, and general gross misgovernance, may well push the nation towards the apocalypse,'' (reported by the EMG, September 29)

Namibia has only contributed with a few hundred soldiers and therefore does not play a key role.

Kabila's new allies

When this became obvious in mid-September, Kabila started to look for other potential allies to help him on the Western front. Most of these new allies were convinced to intervene in the Congo war on the basis of the old principle "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

The Hutu Interahamwe militias have now come back to the Eastern Congo (from where they had been expelled in September 1996 by Kabila's ADFL) and are fighting on Kabila's side. Libya has also sent military aid to Kabila, although only a couple of planes, probably in a move against Washington. Chad has also sent troops to fight in the DR of Congo.

But maybe the most important development has been the intervention of the Sudanese regime in the conflict. According to a September 23 report by Stratfor Systems Inc., Sudan airlifted 2,000 troops "from Khartoum and Juba to front line positions in Kindu, Isiro, and Lubumbashi" (in Eastern and South Eastern Congo). Khartoum's involvement in the conflict is mainly the result of its conflict with Uganda in Southern Sudan. There the SPLA guerrillas have been fighting the Sudanese regime for 15 years in a war which has left 1 million dead. The SPLA guerrillas are supported by Uganda and by Eritrea and Ethiopia (at least until these two countries went to war with each other six months ago), as part of Washington's plans to get rid of the Sudanese Islamic regime. At the same time, Khartoum provides support and bases to the different guerrilla groups fighting the Ugandan regime from Southern Sudan and North Eastern Congo.

Sudan's intervention in the Congolese war coincides with a renewed offensive of Ugandan troops in Southern Sudan to help the SPLA guerrillas and with Washington's efforts to put an end to the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, so that both countries can concentrate on the "main enemy": Sudan. Sudan has declared a general mobilisation of forces, closing down schools and universities. This could mean that the Congo war for the first time involves open fighting in another country. There have also been a couple of reports of Congolese bombings of Uganda and Rwanda.

South Africa

So, what has been the role of South Africa, the main regional power, in this conflict?. In 1997 when Kabila was advancing at high speed to Kinshasa, Nelson Mandela insisted on the need for a negotiated settlement with dictator Mobutu, but he was unable to even get the two sides to sit together for talks. In the present conflict South Africa has taken the same position arguing the need for peace talks hosted by the South African Development Community. But the problem is that three of the countries involved in the SADC are already involved in the war on Kabila's side.

The main contradiction in South Africa's foreign policy is the attempt to maintain the image of a "progressive" anti-imperialist regime (welcoming Castro and keeping links with Gadaffi, for instance), while the ANC leadership has embraced Washington's policies for Africa ("free trade", "opening up of the markets", i.e.. imperialist exploitation).

At the same time, bands of mercenaries based in South Africa are involved in the Congo civil war ... on both sides! Executive Outcomes got a contract from Kabila for VIP protection and were also involved in the defence of the Inga dam in August. It is an irony that some of these very same 'gentlemen' were hired by Mobutu to fight Kabila, only a couple of years ago! But then, these mercenaries are driven by nothing else but money.

Some other mercenary groups, mainly made up of members of the South Africa Defence Force at the time of apartheid with strong links to the UNITA gangs, have been plotting for a while with Mobutuists in order to overthrow Kabila.

The policy of alliances which is emerging out of this conflict is certainly complicated and might be a bit difficult to follow. This is due to the fact that all sides are fighting for their own narrow interests and ally one with the other on purely short term coincidence of these interests. But there are a number of general conclusions which can be drawn from the present crisis.

Failure of capitalism

One is the complete failure of capitalism to offer a way out for the people's of Africa or anywhere else in the underdeveloped world. Congo is probably one of the richest countries on earth as far as natural resources are concerned, but at the same time its population is suffering on the verge of the 21st century worse living conditions than in the past.

The legacy of imperialism in Africa is one of war, destruction and chaos. The different colonial powers played off one tribal group against another, one ethnic group against the other and drew arbitrary borders sowing the seeds for future wars, genocide and massacres.

But on the other hand the national bourgeois regimes which emerged after the struggle for independence have been completely unable to overcome the legacy of imperialism, despite the fact that many of them were supposed to stand for African unity and anti-imperialism.

Some African countries, because of the failure of capitalism to develop their economies, moved to copy the system that existed in the former Soviet Union: nationalised planned economy, but, as in the USSR, without the vital ingredient of workers democracy. Although these regimes undoubtedly represented a step forward, as they abolished capitalism and landlordism, they were subjected to a vicious campaign of sabotage on the part of US-trained guerrilla forces (this was particularly the case of UNITA in Angola).

Soon after the collapse of Stalinism in Russia, the Stalinist bureaucracy in all these countries embraced the 'free market' economy and abandoned any pretence of defending socialism. Some of them became Washington stooges or were subjected to the diktats of different oil and mining companies.

But the present problems of capitalism world-wide also mean that there is a vicious struggle for markets and spheres of influence taking place amongst different imperialist powers, in the case of Africa mainly between Paris and Washington. The domination of imperialism over the life (and death) of millions of people in Africa has become more asphyxiating and more destructive. Whole countries have been plunged into chaos and elements of barbarism have appeared as a result of the destruction of local industries by the push of "globalisation" and "opening up of the markets" (i.e.. naked imperialist exploitation of these countries' natural resources).

In countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, etc. the very structure of the state has collapsed, with the army breaking up into different warring factions fighting for the loot.

Back to Stalinism?

There might a temptation on the part of some African leaders, especially those with a Stalinist past, to break away from the market and go back to some kind of planning of the economy. We can already see elements of that in the DR of Congo. Laurent Kabila at the beginning of the war carried out measures of nationalisation, seizing all the assets of Banro Resources Corp. in the Congo, and then later seized some 45% of Telecel's equity and set up state control of the country's gold industry. He has stated publicly that the model of economic development for Congo must be the same which took China from a backward country to an industrial power.

According to a September 21st report from PANA, President Nujoma of Namibia surprised everyone with a speech in which he said: "We should root out imperialism and capitalism. It cannot be allowed to continue." He said imperialism and capitalism are causing people to move into central Africa and remove natural resources without benefiting the people. An IPS report of September 23rd quotes him as saying that the Central Africa war in the DR Congo is the work of "white imperialists" who want to control and plunder the Congo. He blamed the current poverty of Congolese citizens on these white imperialists, and he also lashed out at the Europeans, saying "These Europeans, they formed a political union and again they want to get our raw material without paying us."

This was clearly seen as a serious threat. Business analysts NCN issued the following statement: "NCN recommends Western, most pointedly European, companies having business activities in Namibia to take the necessary precautions to safeguard their people and investments, reassess your risks and exposure in Namibia, and quietly but quickly prepare contingency plans."

This came as a surprise, as Namibia's regime has been actively seeking foreign investment since its establishment. A number of companies had been granted Export Processing Zone (EPZ) status, and even the chairman of the US. Export-Import Bank recently completed his first-ever visit to Namibia as part of an outreach program to encourage foreign investment in the country.

The current push for "globalisation" and "opening up of the markets", the fall in the prices of minerals, the IMF's imposition of Structural Adjustment Plans, the increased looting of these countries by multinational companies, the attack of speculative capital against the currencies of one country after another, ... are all factors which are bound to provoke a backlash in the Third World. A first indication of that is the Malaysian regime trying to cut itself off from the world market and declaring that "the market economy does not work for the people". We will see more of this in the future especially if the current recession spreading all over the world turns into a deep slump.

Some former Stalinist regimes and leaders might even try to go back to the past to some sort of state control and planning of the economy. This will be especially the case if the process of capitalist restoration in Russia, now halted, is reversed.

But socialists should have no illusions in any of these leaders. Under capitalism there is no way forward, but Stalinism has also failed. Only a regime where the planning of the economy takes place in a democratic way, with the participation of the whole of society can offer a solution.

Wether Kabila will go down the road of Stalinism remains to be seen. Although this is a possibility, it depends very much on developments on a world scale. Socialists, while opposing the invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo by other countries, cannot support any side in this war as none of them stands for the interests of the Congolese people. We welcome any measure of nationalisation taken by the Kabila regime but at the same time we warn that only independent action on the part of the oppressed masses taking their future into their own hands can provide a real alternative to the present nightmare.

The only way forward for the people's of Africa is independent class action on the part of the workers in the cities and the poor peasants in the countryside. Only by taking over the mineral and natural resources, expropriating the big multinational concern and taking over the agricultural land and using all this wealth for the benefit of the majority of the population can there be any hope. This is a task which cannot be undertaken in one country alone. If there is one thing the present war in Congo shows is that the fate of the whole of Africa is completely interlinked. And the fate of Africa is linked to the fate of world revolution.

If the African masses fail to take power into their own hands, capitalism will force these countries into war and barbarism. But the general strike in Zimbabwe in December last, the big movements of the South African proletariat, the massive strike of 250,000 teachers in Kenya, all these movements of the working class show the potential for a decisive move on the part of the masses to transform the whole situation.

This would also be the only way to break away from tribalism and ethnic conflict, the poisonous legacy of colonialism. This can only be overcome on the basis of the industrialisation of society which brings together workers from all nationalities and ethnic groups fighting for their common interests.

Under the present conditions of the crisis of capitalism all over the world and in the era of almost instantaneous distribution of news reports, the beginning of a socialist transformation of society in any country of Africa would spread like wildfire to the whole continent and would soon find an echo amongst the workers and the oppressed masses throughout the globe.

Jordi Martorell
London, October 9, 1998

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