TOPICS > Politics

Conflict in Congo

October 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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CHARLES KRAUSE: For more, we’re now joined by Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for the New Yorker, who’s written frequently about the situation in the Congo. He’s also the author of a new book titled We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Stories From Rwanda. Also joining us is Eyamba Bokamba, a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois. He’s Congolese by birth and is close to the Kabila government. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor Bokamba, from your perspective, what is the root cause of this rebellion that began last August?

EYAMBA BOKAMBA, University of Illinois: The root cause is the disgruntlement of the generals who were lent to President Kabila by Rwanda and Uganda. Their dismissal in July and in August led to the mutiny, which involved eventually other Congolese.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And why did President Kabila feel that he had to dismiss them? What was the problem?

EYAMBA BOKAMBA: The problem basically was that these generals were seen along with the military officers and others that Kabila brought with them in May of ’97 as an occupational army which replaced, as it were, the Congolese Army that worked under Mobutu, and he felt the pressure from the masses, particularly from politicians in Kinshasa, that they did not want to have small Rwanda, as well as Uganda compared to Giant Congo being governed by – you know – dictates or directives from Rwanda through the officers in his government.

CHARLES KRAUSE: So then what you’re saying is that President Kabila decided because there was pressure from his own people he dismissed these foreigners, these foreign generals who then went off and organized a rebellion, is that – is that essentially it?

EYAMBA BOKAMBA: That’s right.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Philip Gourevitch, from what your understanding of the situation is, is that it? Is it a question of Rwandan generals from outside, starting a rebellion against the president of Congo?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH, The New Yorker: Well, there’s certainly no question that Kabila, who was not really so much brought the Rwandans with him when he came to power but was brought to power by Rwanda and a Pan-African alliance of nearly 10 countries — he really had no army of his own, except as he was going, he was recruiting Congolese. He came to power backed by all of these foreign African governments. And he was installed in power by their grace. He then was under tremendous political pressure internally. There’s a long tradition. Throughout the time, he was seen as a foreign invader, and anti-Rwandan rhetoric was used against him. He realized that in a country that’s been weakened, that had no national army, and he himself a weak leader, anti-Rwandan sentiment was a way of creating nationalist Congolese sentiment. It’s more than the Rwandans who were lent to him who led this rebellion. He has a mutiny on his hands of three quarters of his army or more throughout the Eastern reaches of his country. And he’s now twisted the issue so that he has turned it into a question of yes, he’s allied himself with the former Rwandan Hutu genocideres, the army and militias of the Rwandan genocide, and has embraced the rhetoric of that genocide and has also now stripped of his won army brought in other foreign armies, Namibia, Anglo, in particular Zimbabwe, Chad, as well as Sudanese and various guerrilla movements from around the country to try and shore him up since he himself is quite defenseless.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Well – and what has been the — you wrote a piece in the New Yorker recently talking about the anti-Tutsi campaign — many of these people apparently born in the Congo, itself. Tell us about that.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, I think, as the professor said, the reason that Kabila turned against his Rwandan sponsors and his Rwandan allies, former Rwandan allies, was simply because he’s a man who has been tremendously unpopular and was seen as a pawn of these people. Now to prove his Congolese credentials, as it were, and to drum up a kind of Congolese national sentiment, he has employed the rhetoric of anti-Tutsi and anti-Rwandans. And when a Congolese says Rwandan, they almost invariably in political rhetoric mean Tutsis, even though half a million or more Tutsis are Congolese citizens. He’s stripping them of their citizenship; he’s dismissed them from office. He’s expelled them. And he’s essentially trying to use the rhetoric of a popular war, calling on people to – the state radio is calling on people to arm themselves with the same sorts of crude implements we saw in Rwanda, sticks and machetes and clubs, and to eliminate the enemy, to give the enemy no quarter, and to massacre the enemy without mercy, and whatever the causes of this war may be, whatever the claims may be, the merits on either side, I think that the most alarming factor that we’ve seen is that Kabila weakened resorts to the rhetoric of genocide, which would seem to be no child’s play in that region.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And is it just rhetoric, or, in fact, is this happening?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well we saw – in your lead-in footage we saw a man being thrown off a bridge in that famous clip, which was from a period when there were round-ups of Tutsis in the streets of Kinshasa, people who were either Tutsi or believed to be Tutsi simply on the basis of their physical appearances. There has been mass street violence against people. There are people detained illegally. Zimbabwean troops brought in to defend Kabila, fighting on Kabila’s behalf, recently reported that they had to stop his own Congolese recruits, these kids he’s been recruiting, from massacring Tutsi prisoners. So even his allies at times have been forced, although shockingly there’s been very little outcry from Africans either, including Mandela and others, who are regionally allied with him, against the fact that there’s an element of genocide very much front and center in this war.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor Bokamba, is it true that he has got Hutus and others out there trying to kill Tutsis?

EYAMBA BOKAMBA: I do not have any independent confirmation of that. It is entirely possible that under the circumstances where he found himself beleaguered, as Mr. Gourevitch has stated, that he’s drawing on whatever help he can get to be able to fight back this rebellion, which is directed from Kigali.

CHARLES KRAUSE: So, in a sense, you are saying that the ends justify the means and that Mr. Kabila – whatever his methods — is trying to remain in power?

EYAMBA BOKAMBA: In part, but I don’t agree with the statement the end justifies the means. This is someone who’s in a foxhole, has been dumped into a hole and someone is throwing him some ropes, or he finds help and he is not going to ask, are you a Hutu, or are you whoever? And I think this is part of his problem and they can be rectified in a different way. I don’t believe that the Congolese people, especially the intellectuals, accept the idea of pushing Congolese to kill other Congolese. What is clear is that we have never had an ethnic, you know, strife in the Congo of the sort that is emerging now.

CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. Philip Gourevitch, do you think that a kind of regional war that you have written about and others, can that be avoided?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, it’s very hard to avoid it. If the regional powers are not interested in making peace but are interested in fighting. And you will find them. I mean, I saw a collection of U.N. ambassadors going at each other quite publicly the other day at a speech given by an American diplomat. They took the occasion immediately to pounce on one another. There’s a lot of tension right now. And the alliance – the terrifying thing is the alliance that unified in the struggle to push the genocideers away from the Rwandan border and remove Mobutu from power, who is despised on the continent, has now splintered and has turned against itself. So that what looked like a period of Africa attempting to bring peaceful resolution to its most terrifying conflict actually seems to be a moment when it’s really taking all kinds of new shapes, and it’s changing very fast. And it’s very dangerous.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor, I wonder if you would respond. Do you agree that this is a very dangerous situation? Is there any way to avert it?

EYAMBA BOKAMBA: Absolutely. This is very dangerous, because what is being injected into this conflict is an ethnic rivalry that has characterized much of the history of Rwanda and Burundi that is coming into the Congo, where such conflict has never existed, and because of the economic interests that surrounding countries, as well as countries outside of Africa have, they are going to be supporting one side or the other. And this must be avoided, and the only way it can be avoided is to have countries like the United States, with all the power that it has both at the U.N. and around the world, to get the combatants to sit down and find a political solution.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Thank you. Thank you both very much.

EYAMBA BOKAMBA: Thank you.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Thank you.