Shadow Networks: Violence, War and Plunder in the Great Lakes Region of Africa

May 2, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

King Leopold II purchased what became the Congo Free State (CFS) because it contained “unspeakable richness” and was merely lacking an “enterprising capitalist” to exploit its resources. His personal acquisition of the CFS in 1885 gave freedom to Western capital, and death and enslavement to the indigenous population. The recent conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while significantly more complex than those of the colonial enterprise, is also primarily motivated by resource exploitation networks and profit. Brutality of genocidal proportions was perpetrated against the inhabitants of the CFS so that the proceeds of ivory and rubber would be felt in Brussels. In the current scramble the loot is diamonds, gold, coltan, copper, cobalt, timber, wildlife reserves and fiscal resources. The region’s great wealth has paradoxically been its curse.

The war in the DRC is not primarily a civil or ethnically motivated war. Rather it has diverse international, regional, and local dynamics and transcends state boundaries. The country endured a relatively brief struggle for independence when compared with its neighbours. However this period (1958-1960) was marred by Belgian support to the Katanga secessionists in the south, and by Cold War manoeuvring, by the US and its allies, that led to the brutal murder of Patrice Lumumba in the “Dragon Rouge” operations, and the installation of the Mobutu military dictatorship in 1965. Zaire, as it was then renamed, became a key staging post for US “anti-communist” wars in Africa.

Under Mobutu Sese Soko, Zairians enjoyed few political freedoms and suffered severe social fragmentation and marginalisation, while the corrupt regime became wealthy from resource exploitation with the aid of foreign corporate concessionaries. Zaire’s incorporation into the world economy has resulted in genocide, forced labour and displacement, and its impact is felt in the nature of politics, the dependence of these economies on resource extraction and conditions of endemic structural violence.

The catalyst for the recent conflict was the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. In 1995-96 the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries conducted a Western-backed terror campaign in the Kivus against the refugees and the Intrehamwe militia; by 1996, approximately a million Rwandan Hutu had fled into the Kivus in eastern DRC. The migration completely changed the balance of power in the Kivus as those responsible for the genocide re-established political and military structures from their UNHCR camps and conducted sporadic attacks against the new Rwandan government.

Just as King Leopold’s “rubber agents” actively engaged in the genocide of around 10 million Africans, Kellogg, Brown and Root reportedly trained Rwandan army units on the border, Bechtel Corporation provided reconnaissance information so that Kagame could monitor the movements of Mobutu’s troops, and US Special Forces trained the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) in counterinsurgency, combat, psychological operations, and instructions about how to fight in Zaire.

When Banyamulenge militia attacked the ANZ and the southern Kivu refugee camps in September 1996, Rwandan, and later Ugandan, forces officially invaded and the ex-FAR (former Rwandan Army) and Intrehamwe fled westward, fought for the Mobutu regime, and were massacred by the advancing anti-Mobutu armies.

A period of concerted pressure against Mobutu began as Rwanda and Uganda sought Congolese allies to legitimise their aggressive actions in DRC. The main opposition, Union pour la democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS), showed no support for violence against Mobutu, so the foreign anti-Mobutu forces turned to the Congolese revolutionary parties in exile who formed the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo (AFDL), led by Laurent Kabila.

Foreign support for Mobutu dried up – the old, Cold War-linked and corrupt leaders had to go, and Mobutu was not only the most important representative of this group, he was its symbol. The Katanga Tigers – a secessionist militia who fled to Angola after their defeat by UN forces in 1962 – together with some Angolan soldiers, entered Southern DRC and joined the “anti-Mobutu alliance”. By this stage Mobutu had been largely abandoned by his former allies and financiers in the West; neither the UN nor the OAU condemned the invaders and the notion that what was happening was largely a revolution against the Mobutu regime gained wide currency.

Despite modest support from France, some Serb mercenaries, the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi and the ex-FAR/Intrehamwe, Mobutu’s forces retreated rapidly, looting, raping, and killing as they went. This violence would lead to widening support for the AFDL among the Congolese population. Kinshasa fell in May 1997. The ‘First Congo War’, as it became known, involved several African groups and their international backers. While Rwanda and Uganda continued to enrich themselves with the plunder, they received praise from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for increasing their gross domestic product.

The “anti-Mobutu alliance” generally justified their aggression on the pretext of ‘counter-insurgency’; that the Hutu in the UNHCR camps (Rwanda), the UNITA rebels (Angola), and the Lords Resistance Army, West Nile Bank Front, and the Allied Democratic Forces (Uganda), presented a threat to the security of their respective nations. Other governments, such as in Namibia and Zimbabwe, gave their support to Kabila largely due to connections formed during the independence movements of the 1960s. The US and its associates had also begun to pursue a new strategy in the region and sought new leaders.

In April 1997 the US-based mining company American Mineral Fields (AMF) provided money for Kabila’s military campaign in return for future diamond mining rights and exploration rights for cobalt, zinc, and copper. Kabila faired badly in the subsequent elections which were largely won by the UDPS and the now booming ‘civil society NGOs’; the ADFL was fragmented.

Kabila’s authority was by and large supported by Tutsi soldiers, Katangans, and “kadogos” – young men and boys recruited by the AFDL in the westward march to Kinshasa. Though the political power structure of the DRC changed under Kabila, it is arguable that no substantial break with the Mobutu era occurred as a result of the conflict. The ‘old elite’ was incorporated into the new, and those unsuccessful in brokering deals with the new regime had their property confiscated.

Under successive Kabila regimes the DRC witnessed an intensification of competing and predatory economic interests revolving around the exploitation of the resources of the country by a whole range of economic agents. The UN Panel of Experts concluded in 2002 that the elite networks that emerged as a result of the conflict have entrenched themselves and “have built up a self-financing war economy centered on mineral exploitation.”

As a result of the war, there exist real interests in maintaining a situation in DRC that is popularly referred to as ‘no war, no peace’. In other words, if major forces in the region have vested interests in maintaining and expanding the “war economy”, then the assumption that every party has an interest in peace-building is highly misplaced. This has been called the ‘logic of plunder’ by Nzongola-Ntalaja, meaning that globalization engenders the “growing tendency for states, Mafia groups, offshore banks and transnational mining companies to enrich themselves from crisis.”

Kabila, in collaboration with some neighbouring armed forces, particularly Rwandans, established the New Force Armees Congolaises (FAC) in an attempt to integrate the various armed units under one command. The U.S. began financing both Kabila’s Congolese Army and the rival Congolese Rally for Democracy.

During this period violent conflict in the Kivus continued.

Pressure mounted on Kabila as Angola showed signs of dissatisfaction, and Rwanda, Angola, and Uganda continued their protracted counter-insurgency campaigns in DRC. In January 1998 their were rumours circulating suggesting that Kabila was financing and supplying arms to the insurgent groups in the east and south, and that discussions had been held within the Rwandan, Ugandan, and Angolan “intelligence community” regarding the desirability of deposing him. By June, Rwanda had publicly charged Kabila with recruiting and training the Intrehamwe militia at Kamina military base. The ensuing “rebellion” resulted in foreign control over large parts of Eastern DRC. In February 1999, Uganda backed the formation of the Mouvement pour la liberation du Congo (MLC) and established joint control over the northern third of the country.

The DRC was then divided into three de facto segments and the ensuing political stalemate led to the signing of the Lusaka accord and the beginning of the Inter-Congolese dialogue. In January 2001 Laurence Kabila was assassinated and his son, Joseph, became premier. The Inter-Congolese Dialogue, while having little initial success, produced an ‘all-inclusive’ power sharing agreement in Pretoria in December 2002; the Pretoria accord led to the withdrawal of Namibian, Angolan, and Zimbabwean troops from the DRC, and in 2003 Ugandan troops officially withdrew. Fighting continues in the Eastern DRC between rival militia groups, raiding villages and fighting over control of the border trade and gold fields; the threat of a return to all-out war is always present.

The ‘Second Congo War’ has resulted in an expensive situation for most, yet a lucrative one for some. Foreign elites have consolidated their politico-military status and translated it into economic advantages: Rwanda and Uganda exploit the diamond, gold, and rare metal deposits in Eastern DRC; Angola created a joint venture for petroleum extraction in the Lower Congo and is involved in the massive diamond trade in Kasai; and Zimbabwe has gained considerable control over copper and cobalt extraction in Katanga.

Meanwhile Laurence Kabila established ‘patronage networks’ to serve as resources through which clients could be rewarded for their support, such as the ‘state purchasing company’ that allowed him to bring the country’s revenue under his direct control. In doing so he somewhat alienated Western client companies; for instance, the seizure of Banro Resources Corporation’s assets provoked venture capitalist Arnold Kondrat to comment, “Your President [Kabila] is a crook and this country is going to suffer a lot in a very short time. You Congolese must know that this country and all its minerals are not yours but ours.”

The war is, first and foremost, an imperialist war and like all imperialist wars it is a war about the distribution of wealth and power. Africa is only beginning to experience what Latin America experienced in the late 19th century and Asia has been undergoing in the late 20th century.

Western powers have maintained a preference for ‘military princeships’ and warlords in sub-Saharan Africa, operating in inter-related networks; the UN found that a complex web of interaction between warlords, diamond plunderers, smugglers and dealers, authoritarian states, gun runners, imperialist countries, weak states, private military companies and money launderers, exists in the region, in a network that extracted and transported diamonds to reproduce the conflict in Angola.

The need for the US to secure access to the resources of the DRC to feed the insatiable appetite of its military-industrial complex has redefined the old colonial spheres of influence in the Great Lakes region. The French seek to expand their influence into traditionally British areas, while Britain and the rest of the EU, in collaboration with the US seek to dislodge France. This is what is referred to as the “second scramble for Africa” which aims to impose a post-Berlin Conference order in the wake of the end of formal colonialism and the demise of the Cold War.

There are often direct links between groups exploiting the resources of the DRC, and foreign political establishments. For instance, former US President George Bush Senior is a major shareholder of Barrick Gold Corporation that exploits the DRC’s gold reserves. Kissinger Associates (KA) has been involved in the DRC conflict for some time. Kissinger himself is an overseer of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that produced a report on mortality in the DRC; he is also associated with the Freeport McMoRan gold concern in Katanga. The IRC has a history of involvement in CIA/NSA activities, such as the transport of weapons; and receives large loans from the US taxpayer via the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Belgian Viscount Etienne Davignon, who was directly involved in the “Red Dragon” operations that installed the ‘kleptocracy’ of Mobutu (1964-5), is also a director of KA. The Scowcroft group is involved in the DRC through Walter Kansteiner’s directorship of Moto Gold (operating in Ituri province) and the “conservation” organization, African Wildlife Foundation that finances mercenary activity in the Virungas Mountains under the guise of gorilla protection programs.

The manipulation of statistics regarding the conflict is often carried out by the same persons that stand to gain from its continuation. For example, the IRC report excludes the period 1996-98 from its equations because the Pentagon, along with US-based private military companies (PMCs), Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) and Kellogg, Brown and Root (Halliburton), were directly involved in the violence; and to shield the governments of now military President Paul Kagame, in Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni, in Uganda, and their inner circles and extended networks of syndicated, organized crime. The terror campaign in 1995-96 committed by the RPA and their backers, the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, MPRI and other mercenaries had Pentagon oversight and resulted in hundreds of thousands of violent deaths in the ensuing invasion.

Slavery still exists in the heartland of the DRC, perpetuated by foreign-owned transportation, shipping, aviation, telecommunications, agriculture, logging and construction empires pioneered by James Blattner in the 1980s.

In 2006 German diplomat Albrecht Conze described the relationship the West has with the DRC as “like being the Congo’s foster parents”, downplayed the region’s wealth, and suggested a return to white patronage would be good for the country. There is also evidence of collusion between the UN mission to the DRC (MONUC), foreign concerns, and local warlords. For instance, MONUC was headed by former US Ambassador Kenneth Brown who is a director of Anvil Mining. The company has been has been implicated in massacres in DRC.

Professor Laurence Juma terms the interconnections between local and international participants in the DRC conflict ‘Shadow networks’. These comprise: the whole spectrum of transnational entities, legal and illegal; visible and invisible and are sustained by a complex system of economic and political alliances that involves powerful political establishments, multinational corporations, and many other institutions functioning in the international realm. They are not encumbered by local law, police, or courts, but their legitimacy is derived from the international system through ‘institutional dependencies’ and corporate manipulation. The profits of subcontracting arrangements and joint ventures undertaken by these networks becomes legitimate through their laundering via globalized financial arrangements.

The continuing lack of a sustainable peace in DRC is often misrepresented in the West; warfare in Africa is represented as barbaric and atavistic – a regression of Africans to pre-modern tribal societies. This was the case in the recent Kenyan conflict, in Sudan, the Rwandan genocide, and in the DRC. The situation serves the interests of foreign investments and brings into question the motives of western academia and the corporate-owned media for propagating misinformation and not challenging ‘established truths’. As Juma wrote, “ethnic differences had nothing to do with the war until politicized groups seeking to gain access to the countries wealth came in.” This was evident in the case of the Hema and Lendu of Bunia, in the ravaged Ituri province. In 1999 Rwanda and Uganda supplied them with arms to overthrow Laurant Kabila; when the Ugandans left, despite living for generations in peace, they began to fight.

The complexity of the war, when viewed in the context of the international system, negates the simplistic explanations of ethnic or civil “breakdown”. Rather, the warring parties are very much a part of the “war economy” of the Great Lakes Region and, by definition, are guided and motivated by regional and international goals that often defy state sovereignty. For instance, beginning in 2000, the RPA made $250 million in 18 months extracting coltan from the DRC and selling it on the international market; this caused a vicious cycle in which the RPA provided protection and security for individual and corporate plunderers who, in turn, shared their profits with the army to ensure continued protection and exploitation.

Congolese Finance Minister Athanase Matenda Kyelu stated that the 2007 draft budget was “in line with what was agreed with IMF services” and their “macroeconomic stabilization” program for the country; the program violates several fundamental charters, including the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the Preamble to the Congolese Constitution. Because of the relationship between various groups in the DRC and their international backers, the threat of full-scale war is imminent; as Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi reportedly aim to create a “Tutsiland”, with Minembwe at its centre in the east.

The overriding issue in the DRC, as in much of the world, remains the influence of the Great Powers and, as King Leopold II called it, their “great work of civilization.”

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This post was written by Daniel Pye

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