Saturday, November 01, 2008

Congo: whitey to the rescue?

Johann Hari has rightly pointed out that what is driving the wars in the Congo is fierce competition over mineral resources, particularly coltan. To this extent, he helps see off some of the more obnoxious 'heart of darkness' myths that habitually appear in coverage of the conflict, in which almost five and a half million have died. This murder is part of a process of modernity, of extraction, global trade and capital accumulation. Curiously, Hari does not refer to the imperial history, either that involving Belgium or the United States - perhaps he doesn't see the relevance. Nor does he discuss the problems with Kabila's rule, and its origins. Although it is incorrect to overlook the role of African states, which Hari doesn't (although there is a lack of detail here), to omit larger powers from the analysis is to neglect a big part of the story. I would just like to draw out one or two relevant issues, then.

The dream-team of David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, both vocal advocates of humanitarian intervention, is on the way to Goma and then to Kigali, with the aim of resolving the current crisis - or, as a British official put it, to "deliver Europe in Africa". The UK government is urging Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila who was assassinated in 2001, to talk to rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda. Nkunda is reportedly in a position to take control of substantial areas of the country's eastern regions. The first question that occurs to me, as an averagely ignorant consumer of the news, is "who the fuck is Laurent Nkunda when he's at home?" (The Guardian's Mark Tran is little help on this question, merely rousing more mysteries than he puts to bed). Secondly, why is there a rebellion, and who is in the right, if anyone? Thirdly, how does this relate to the 'civil war' that supposedly ended in 2003? There is an embarrassing paucity of detail in most attempted answers to these questions in the media, to the extent that these questions are even discussed. People are left to conclude that it must be some 'tribal' affair, some particularly African disorder that, if it cannot be remedied by outside forces, cannot be remedied at all: this is what is meant by a humanitarian crisis.

A couple of years ago, I mentioned one dynamic in the early insurgency that brought Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power, namely the impact of the Rwandan war and genocide: "The RPF did shortly win its war and deposed the regime, sending about a million Hutus (some of them guilty men) fleeing into neighbouring countries, mostly to what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was still ruled then by the CIA's local kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, and he found the regrouped Interahamwe (formed from among the refugees from the RPF advance) useful in terrorising opponents of his crumbling rule. The RPF government, for its part, backed Laurent Kabila's opposition movement ... Kabila was not himself a powerful figure at all - a gold and ivory trader, and a former military go-between for Mobutu and Garang (the late SPLA leader), he had no significant popular base, and his position relied chiefly on the support of Museveni in Uganda, Kagame in Rwanda and a loose alliance of four guerilla groups. They relied on child soldiers to intimidate civilians, and would not have got far had it not been for the Rwandan soldiers who committed acts of genocide against Hutu refugees in the Congo. However, having put Kabila in power, Rwanda, Uganda and later Burundi swiftly took advantage of the disintegration of the Congolese state and tried to undermine Kabila, who showed alarming signs of wanting to govern on his own."

The early insurgency was, incidentally, the background for one of the failures of 'humanitarian intervention' as the Interahamwe and former Rwandan troops regrouped themselves in refugee camps funded by the UNHCR, who also helped Mobutu form a security force intended to guard the camps and prevent militia control - but which effectively became an auxiliary to the militias. The RPF, at that point receiving extensive military aid and training from the US government - often via private military firms, acted in 1996 to destroy the camps, driving hundreds of thousands of refugees deeper into the Congo. In 1997, the RPF helped Laurent Kabila depose Mobutu with the assistance of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea (and also the United States who had turned against their former ally). As Renton et al outline in The Congo: Plunder and Resistance, the other dynamic involved was the citizenship crisis in the eastern regions of the Congo. This is a legacy of the colonial era, during which a strict racial/ethnic hierarchy was maintained with white settlers at the apex. At the bottom were the Banyamulenge, people who were not considered properly indigenous and denied citizenship rights (many of them labourers who had been encouraged by the Belgian authorities to migrate from Rwanda). The overthrow of colonialism had replaced white rule with black rule, but did not alter the situation for those denied citizenship. Hutus from this layer were adjoined to Hutu refugees and other groups in opposition to the RPF-supported forces and then to Kabila, and they participated in pogroms against the relatively privileged Tutsi layers who have sided with the RPF. It also happens that the eastern regions which they inhabit, particularly the Kivu province which is connected to the Great Lakes system, are where the richest coltan deposits are to be found, and it is over control of and access to those deposits that regional powers have clashed - even allies such as Uganda and Rwanda have enaged in combat in the territory, over respective spheres of influence that they each claim.

Kabila was a former Lumumbist influenced by Maoism, who had created a 'liberated' zone under the nose of Mobutu. He had worked alongside Che Guevara, whose account in The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo records an impression of hopeless incompetence on Kabila's part. Despite retaining his stronghold until the late 1980s, he had been effectively finished as a leading rebel until this loose alliance led by Rwanda thrust him to prominence. He had no coherent idea of what to do upon taking power, and little appeal. His success was the result of a regional dynamic rather than a national revolt. It could reasonably be surmised by his backers that his weakness and lack of a popular base would make him far more responsive to pressure. Western mining capital looked to him with hope: before his armies had even successfully overthrown Mobutu, he was reportedly signing deals with prominent multinationals for concessions in respect to the country's ample mineral resources. It was clear that the processes of exploitation, privatization and IMF-led 'structural adjustment' would find no obstacle in Kabila, and the new regime made no effort to expropriate Mobutu's kleptocratic family. Nonetheless, Kabila depicted his insurgency as a liberation for Zaire - soon renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo - and attempted to attenuate the concessions to multinational capital with appeals to popular nationalism and the iconography - if not the substance - of Lumumbism.

However, Kabila inherited a number of problems that would transform his own situation: in the post-Cold War era, many states had seen their ability to govern break down, and the slow decline of Mobutu's regime had been accompanied by a serious degeneration in the mining industry. The army (the Forces Armees Zairoises) had possessed diminishing authority, and borders were extremely porous. Thus, rebel forces from Uganda and Burundi as well as Rwanda had been able to operate from bases on the Congo, and their respective militaries had been equally able to penetrate Congolese territory to pursue their opponents. The mining contracts largely evaporated, the IMF and World Bank refused to endorse his proposals for economic expansion, former allies among the Banyamulenge turned against Kabila as he refused to grant them indigenous status, and Kabila adopted an increasingly autocratic style to remain in power, depending on sources of tribal support to make up for the lack of popular legitimacy. Finally, in order to assert decisive control over the country, he turned against his RPF backers, formed an alliance with the Hutu refugees, and sought to expel the Rwandan army.

The Rwandan ruling class, whose political expression is the Rwandan Patriotic Front, now simply depends upon the mineral resources of the Congo, as it lives well above the means that its own country's resources could provide. The exploitation of Congolese resources is built into government policy and is directed by a component of their External Security Organization. There was no way they were going to accept being deprived of leverage in the Congo, and this was the main cause of the war that then erupted in 1998. Kabila successfully galvanised substantial layers of the population against his former allies, but his rhetoric verged on genocidal as he called on them to "erase the enemy", lest they "become slaves to these little Tutsis". The US, for its part, backed the alliance of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Banyamulenge in order to get a new regime more aligned to its own priorities, with the justification being that the Banyamulenge were merely engaged in a legitimate revolt, while Rwanda and Uganda were intervening to protect the security of their own borders. (A subsidiary justification was that sponsoring Rwanda and Uganda would help contain the Sudanese state). In fact, Rwandan and Ugandan forces had plotted the overthrow of Kabila and directed the first rebellions in Goma and Kinshasa that marked the beginning of the war, and they were decisive in founding the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD), which unites a disparate array of forces around an inchoate programme. Even the leftist elements that split from the alliance in 1999 to form the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie - Mouvement de liberation (RCD-ML) were rapidly subordinated to the designs of Uganda's Museveni and extortion by the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF). What was a straightforward act of aggression by regional powers backed by the world's superpower, overwhelmingly targeting the civilian population, was to be sold as an obscure civil war.

Zimbabwe, which had backed Kabila's revolt with millions of dollars and weapons (themselves probably supplied by the UK before an incoming Blair government fell out with Mugabe), did not join the Rwandan-led alliance. Georges Nzongola-Natalaja argues that the Zimbabwean elite saw the Congo as an "attractive market for Zimbabwean goods and services" and was "determined to make good on its investment", which has resulted in land concessions and joint mining deals between the associates of Mugabe and Kabila. By August 2000, it had spent $200m on the Congo war, supporting Kabila's forces, and this was sufficient to get ZANU-PF in on the diamond-exporting business just as the 'international community' was turning against Mugabe and applying sanctions. Predictably, those sanctions were partially justified by Mugabe's involvement in the Congelese war, despite the fact that the US, the UK, the IMF and other global powers strongly supported Rwanda and Uganda during their worst phases of plunder. The biggest global donor to Rwanda and Uganda in the late 1990s was the UK, which abstained from criticising the two regimes despite their atrocities (sometimes genocidal in the case of the RPF), even as it launched intense rounds of invective against Mugabe.

It would be difficult to overstate the extent of corporate involvement in the DRC. In 2002, a detailed report by a UN Panel of Experts detailed the interests of 85 companies in the country, eight of them US-based companies including the world's largest coltan-refiner, the Cabot Corporation. Given the instability created by the war and de facto partition, a coherent national strategy for developing and exploiting those resources could hardly be generated, and one of the main forms of looting has been to simply buy concessions and then sell them off at a greater price. But for those with longer-term goals in the region, doing business with the Rwandan and Ugandan state has been a hugely profitable enterprise. And if their forces have to make up for a labour shortfall, often brought about by their killing, through enslavement, so much the better for the profit margin. Arguably, it would be better for commercial interests if a stable political structure amenable to global capital could be arranged, and to that extent the negotiations process may have seemed promising, particularly once Laurent Kabila was murdered by his bodyguard, enabling his son to take over. Laurent Kabila had, after all, been a disaster: his autocratic government, the viciousness with which he waged the war, and the incoherent polity and economy that he presided over, contributed to a massive contraction of the GDP with 500% inflation. His replacement was more open to negotiations, and a ceasefire was agreed in 2002, backed by EU forces operating under a UN mandate, and a withdrawal of most invading forces. It led to the creation of a Transitional National Government, and many of the mining interests that had avoided the Congo until then began to get involved. Rebel forces were included in discussions and integrated into the national army, while others were to be demobilised by their foreign backers. The UN placed 17,000 peacekeepers in the country (though they are themselves involved in the rapes of women and children, as well as the smuggling of resources). A constitution was eventually agreed, and presidential elections took place in 2006, which Joseph Kabila won. Hardly ideal, you might think, but still better than a viciously exploitative war that has killed millions.

Yet, here we are, six years after the original peace agreement. Fighting has continued, sometimes involving the Interahamwe, sometimes the forces demobilised by the invaders, and sometimes the Banyamulenge who remain unrecognised. If the Banyamulenge have at times committed terrible atrocities in the course of their insurgency, they have also been the subject of pogroms and massacres, such as the killing of 152 refugees at a camp in Gatumba in 2004. The atrocities may have abated in intensity, but they never stopped. The peace agreement that was signed accepted the legitimacy of forces aligned to Uganda and Rwanda, and thus conserved their interests by integrating them into the new state. The army itself remained fractured along the lines that developed in the war, with some elements aligning with Rwandan Hutu exiles to extract gold and tin. The elections themselves were essentially a contest between those who had gained a position of power in the context of the war of plunder, and were for that reason boycotted by the former elected Prime Minister Étienne Tshisekedi, who said that the process was fraudulent. The main opposition figure, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was a cellphone entrepreneur and a leader of the Mouvement de Liberation Congolais, which essentially represented Ugandan interests. Others in the race included the son of Mobutu Sese-Seko, leading a slate advocating an oxymoronic 'Mobutist Democracy'. And now we see an escalated rebellion by forces under the leadership of a Rwandan Tutsi in a mineral rich area on the border with Rwanda, who have reportedly engaged in the burning of refugee camps, and caused the flight of up to a million refugees. It has been three years since General Laurent Nkunda founded the National Congress for the Defence of the People, which operates in the Kivu region, having split a number of the Banyamulenge from the RDC. This latest insurgency has not emerged out of nowhere. He is alleging that his goal is to force the government to stop the atrocities of the Interahamwe against ethnic Tutsis, who continue to operate from within the Congo. The Congolese government holds Rwanda responsible for backing the insurgency. This is a reasonable assumption, repeated in the Francophone Congolese press, and it would appear to be borne out by the fact that negotiations are due to take place between Kagame and Kabila without bothering to involve Nkunda: what I mean is that if the negotiations to resolve this issue don't require Nkunda's involvement, he must be a subordinate. If this is correct, a further inference would be that the rebellion constituted an attempt by the Rwandan ruling class to affect the ongoing negotiations process inside the DRC and gain further leverage over the still fragile government. Perhaps it is futile to second-guess the situation to this extent, and the intricate dynamics of plunder, ethnic repression, state-building, regional aggression, insurgency, capital accumulation and UN superintendency don't necessarily yield to such a simple explanation. Even so, speculation of this order is at least superior to the miasmic non-explanations that have hitherto been offered in much of the reporting, which reduces it to a stark humanitarian drama to which the residents of the Congo can supply no answer.

David Miliband is threatening to send troops if there is no diplomatic resolution. Well, then - can whitey help? Can he deliver Europe to Africa? The terms of such a question, in light of the co-responsibility of European states for the plunder and massacre, are insulting. In fact, it is implicated in precisely the sort of racist colonial ideology that not only abetted one of the most vicious slave empires in the world, but also drove the United States to crush authentic self-determination for the Congolese people when they finally broke Belgian rule in 1960. The overthrow of Lumumba and his ultimate murder had been justified on the grounds that, as Claire Timberlake, the US ambassador to the Congo, argued, there was neither "a civilized people or a responsible government in the Congo". Lumumba was "anti-white", "just not a rational being", and was perpetuating a "Commie design", because he intended to govern the resources of the extraordinarily rich country in accordance with the interests of the population. The idea that whitey, not those who had just overthrown the vicious Belgian colonists, spoke for the interests of the native population, was as ubiquitous then as it is today. I would just point out, for those who think that those who destroyed Belgian rule have forgotten how to resist, that the civil society opposition in the Congo, based in the working class movement, made the first serious dents in the US-imposed Mobutu regime for all its brutality, imposing elected rule for a period (which rule was, incidentally, never supported by the West). The Kabila insurgency could not have happened without the prior development of a mass resistance, which both weakened the Mobutu regime and created the language of liberation that Kabila would try to usurp. Even in the early, brutal phases of the war, the population managed to contain Laurent Kabila's autocratic degeneration, and might well have been able to overthrow him if the military hadn't preemptively dumped him. The popular resistance to the plunderers expressed in the Mai-Mai was and is hardly perfect, but it has to be acknowledged as a major force holding off the armed groups, and its longevity shows that, despite the horrendous trauma of the war years that has been largely imposed by those now purporting to bear the solution, the people of the Congo are not reduced to bare-forked figures whose sole hope wears a cape and red underwear.

A closing note: the language being used to mobilise sentiment for a potential intervention is at times rather bizarre. Consider Bernard Kouchner's shrill warning that: "a massacre on a scale that has probably never been seen in Africa is happening virtually before our eyes." This is a manifest exaggeration, unless Kouchner really has evidence of killing to beat the Rwandan genocide. It does reflect France's imperial commitments, in which it supports the Interahamwe against the RPF. Kouchner, it is worth mentioning, was an interlocutor for the Mitterrand government during its intervention in the Rwandan genocide (or rather, its contribution to the genocide), and attempted to persuade the UN to assent to a French-led mission into the country which would inevitably involve backing the genocidaires. He still defends the French government's intervention in Rwanda, whitewashes its involvement in atrocities. He says only that they 'misunderstood' the politics of the situation, and otherwise it was humanitarian intervention. Had the French military intervened more than they did and thus helped the murder proceed much more efficiently, it would have been humanitarian intervention ultra. You see how this works?