The Second Congo War

Phase I, 1998-1999

Soldiers with the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), a rebel army, march with captured arms and equipment September 15, 2000 in the remote village of Dongo in northwestern Congo. The MLC had recently made a significant advance in the area against President Laurent Kabila's army, seizing a large amount of weapons. Tyler Hicks/Liaison/Getty Images

In the First Congo War, the support of Rwanda and Uganda enabled Congolese rebel, Laurent Désiré-Kabila, to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko's government.  But after Kabila was installed as the new President, he broke ties with Rwanda and Uganda. They retaliated by invading the Democratic Republic of the Congo, starting the Second Congo War. Within a few months, no less than nine African countries were involved in the conflict in the Congo, and by its end nearly 20 rebel groups were fighting in what had become one of the deadliest and most lucrative conflicts in recent history.

1997-98 Tensions Build

When Kabila first became president of the Democratic Repubilc of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, who had helped bring him to power, exerted considerable influence over him. Kabila appointed the Rwandan officers and troops who had participated in the rebellion key positions within the new Congolese army (the FAC), and for the first year, he pursued policies in regard to the continued unrest in the eastern part of the DRC that were consistent with Rwanda's aims.

The Rwandan soldiers were hated, though, by many Congolese, and Kabila was constantly caught between angering the international community, Congolese supporters, and his foreign backers. On July 27, 1998, Kabila dealt with the situation by summarily calling for all foreign soldiers to leave the Congo.

1998 Rwanda Invades

In a surprise radio announcement, Kabila had cut his cord to Rwanda, and Rwanda responded by invading a week later on August 2, 1998.

With this move, the simmering conflict in the Congo shifted into the Second Congo War. 

There were a number of factors driving Rwanda's decision, but chief among them was the continued violence against Tutsis within the eastern Congo. Many have also argued that Rwanda, one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, harbored visions of claiming part of the eastern Congo for itself, but they made no clear moves in this direction.

Rather they armed, supported, and advised a rebel group comprised mainly of Congolese Tutsis, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD).

Kabila saved (again) by foreign allies

Rwandan forces made quick strides in eastern Congo, but rather than progress through the country, they tried to simply oust Kabila by flying men and arms to an airport near the capital, Kinshasa, in the far west part of the DRC, near the Atlantic ocean and taking the capital that way.The plan had a chance of succeeding, but again, Kabila received foreign aid. This time, it was Angola and Zimbabwe who came to his defense. Zimbabwe was motivated by their recent investments in Congolese mines and the contracts they had secured from Kabila's government.

Angola's involvement was more political. Angola had been engaged in a civil war since decolonization in 1975. The government feared that if Rwanda succeeded in ousting Kabila, the DRC might again become a safe haven for UNITA troops, the armed opposition group within Angola. Angola also hoped to secure influence over Kabila.

The intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe was crucial. Between them, the three countries also managed to secure aid in the form of arms and soldiers from Namibia, the Sudan (who was opposed to Rwanda), Chad, and Libya.

Stalemate

With these combined forces, Kabila and his allies were able to stop the Rwandan-backed assault on the capital. But the Second Congo War merely entered a stalemate between countries that soon led to profiteering as the war entered its next phase.

Sources:

Prunier, Gerald. Africa’s World War: The Congo, Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe. Oxford University Press: 2011.

Van Reybrouck, David. Congo: The Epic History of a People. Harper Collins, 2015.