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First Congo War
Part of Congo Conflict
Rwandan refugee camp in east Zaire.jpg
Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994
Date November 1996–May 1997
Location Zaire
Democratic Republic of the Congo AFDL,
Uganda Uganda,
Rwanda Rwanda,
Burundi Burundi, [1]
Angola Angola [1]
Zaire Zaire,
Flag of Unita.jpg UNITA[2]
Rwanda Army for the Liberation of Rwanda
Democratic Republic of the Congo Laurent-Désiré Kabila Zaire Mobutu Sese Seko
Casualties and losses
Civilians killed: Over 200,000

The First Congo War (November 1996 to May 1997) ended when Zairean President Mobutu Sésé Seko was overthrown by rebel forces backed by neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. Rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila declared himself president and changed the name of the nation back to Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war set the foundation for, and was quickly followed by, the Second Congo War, which began on August 2, 1998.



Mobutu had ruled Zaïre since 1965 with backing from the United States, which viewed him as a bulwark against the Communist MPLA in Angola, ZANU in Zimbabwe, and ANC in South Africa.[citation needed]

A wave of democratization swept through Africa in the 1990s. There was substantial internal and external pressure for a democratic transition in Zaïre and Mobutu promised reform. He officially ended the one-party system he had maintained since 1967, but ultimately was unwilling to implement broad reform, alienating allies both at home and abroad.

There had long been considerable internal resistance to Mobutu's rule. Opposition included leftists who had supported Patrice Lumumba as well as ethnic and regional minorities opposed to the dominance of the Kinshasa region. Kabila, an ethnic Katangese, had been fighting the Mobutu government for decades.

In what became known as the Great Lakes refugee crisis, 2 million Hutu refugees fled from Rwanda, fearing retaliatory genocide, after the Rwandan Patriotic Front took over the country in July 1994. Among the refugees were members of the interahamwe, militia groups linked to political parties who took part in the genocide earlier that year.[3] They set up camps in eastern Zaire from which they attacked both Rwandan Tutsis and Banyamulenge, Zairian Tutsis. Mobutu, whose control of the country was beginning to weaken, supported the Hutu extremists for political reasons and did nothing to stop the ongoing violence.

Course of the war

Zaire, ca. 1996

When the vice-governor of South Kivu Province issued an order in November 1996 ordering the Banyamulenge to leave Zaire on penalty of death, they erupted in rebellion. The anti-Mobutu forces combined to form the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire (AFDL). The AFDL received the support of the leaders of African Great Lakes states, particularly Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Lacking foreign military assistance, many elements of the Zairian Army joined Laurent-Désiré Kabila as they marched from eastern DRC on Kinshasa.

History of DR Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo (orthographic projection).svg

With active support from Rwanda, Uganda and Angola, Kabila's forces moved methodically down the Congo river, encountering only light resistance from the crumbling regime based in Kinshasa. The bulk of his fighters were Tutsis and many were veterans from conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Kabila himself had credibility because he had been a longtime political opponent of Mobutu, and was a follower of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent Congo who was murdered and overthrown from power by a combination of internal and external forces, to be replaced by the then Lt.-Gen. Mobutu. Kabila had declared himself a Marxist and an admirer of Mao Zedong. He had been waging armed rebellion in eastern Zaire for nearly two decades, although according to Che Guevara's account of the conflict, he was an uncommitted and uninspiring leader.

Kabila's army began a slow movement westward in December 1996 near the end of the Great Lakes refugee crisis, taking control of border towns and mines and solidifying control. There were reports of massacres and brutal repression by the rebel army. A UN human rights investigator published statements from witnesses claiming that the ADFLC engaged in massacres, and that as many as 60,000 civilians were killed by the advancing army (a claim strenuously denied by the ADFLC). Roberto Garreton stated that his investigation in Goma turned up allegations of disappearances, torture and killings. He quoted Moese Nyarugabo, an aide to Mobutu, as saying that killings and disappearances should be expected in wartime.

In March 1997 Kabila's forces launched an offensive and demanded the government surrender. The rebels took Kasenga on March 27. These reports were dismissed by the government which would begin a long pattern of disinformation from the Defense Minister as to the progress and conduct of the war.

Talks were proposed in late March. Etienne Tshisekedi, a long time rival of Mobutu, became Prime Minister on April 2. Kabila, by this point in rough control of 25% of the country, dismissed the coalition government as irrelevant and warned Tshisekedi that he would have no part in a new government if he accepted the post.

Throughout the month of April the ADFLC made consistent progress down the river, and by May were on the outskirts of Kinshasa. On May 16, 1997, the multinational army headed by Kabila battled to secure Lubumbashi airport after peace talks broke down and Mobutu fled the country. He died on September 7, 1997 in Morocco. Kabila proclaimed himself President on the same day and immediately ordered a violent crackdown to restore order. He then began an attempt at reorganization of the nation.

However, once Kabila was in power the situation changed dramatically. He quickly became suspected of corruption and authoritarianism comparable to Mobutu. Many pro-democratic groups abandoned him. He began a vigorous centralization campaign, bringing renewed conflict with minority groups in the east who demanded autonomy. Kabila began to turn against his former Rwandan allies when they showed little sign of withdrawing from his territory. He accused them and their allies of trying to capture the region's mineral resources. His reliance on the Rwandan government for political and military aid contributed to the perception that he was a puppet of the Rwandan :P government.

In August 1998 Kabila dismissed all ethnic Tutsis from the government and ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan officials to leave the DRC. The two countries then turned against their former client, sending troops to aid rebels attempting to overthrow Kabila.

Further reading


  1. ^ a b "Passive Protest Stops Zaire's Capital Cold" by Lynne Duke, Washington Post Foreign Service, Tuesday, April 15 1997; Page A14 ("Kabila's forces -- which are indeed backed by Rwanda, Angola, Uganda and Burundi, diplomats say -- are slowly advancing toward the capital from the eastern half of the country, where they have captured all the regions that produce Zaire's diamonds, gold, copper and cobalt.")
  2. ^ "Congo Begins Process of Rebuilding Nation" by Lynne Duke, Washington Post Foreign Service, Tuesday, May 20, 1997; Page A10 ("Guerrillas of Angola's former rebel movement UNITA, long supported by Mobutu in an unsuccessful war against Angola's government, also fought for Mobutu against Kabila's forces.")
  3. ^ ISN Security Watch - North Kivu: How to end a war


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