In March 1997, in his usual dubious and manipulative way, Kagame “assumed” the chairmanship of the RPF (the ruling party) from Colonel Alexis Kanyarengwe. After protesting army massacres of Hutus in his home province of Ruhengeri, Kanyarengwe was made to resign his honorific position during a government reshuffle. As a serving member of the armed forces, Kagame was, in theory, automatically disqualified from taking the RPF’s top executive position, a post reserved for civilians. In doing so meant replacing a Hutu with a Tutsi in a high-profile position, a man handpicked by Fred Rwigyema, and in an attempt to reach out to the Hutu majority. The administratively correct approach, was for the RPF party chairmanship to go to President Pasteur Bizimnugu not Kagame.
The point of friction appeared procedural. Every Rwanda citizen, Western diplomat engaging with Kigali, knew who commanded the RPF and as it wasn’t either Kanyarengwe or Bizimungu, why fuss? RPF’s top cadres didn’t all see it that way. With Kagame, they knew they were dealing with a master of side manoeuvre, a tactician with a self-interest laser-like vision while fixed on a distant objective (set out by the “Western friends” pulling his strings). What they glimpsed was the opening gambit in a major power grab (another coup).
Once Kagame, already Rwanda’s defence minister and vice president, had also been elected chairman of the RPF, political stalemate was inevitable. At the cabinet table Bizimungu was the boss, at the party table Kagame was the boss. Essentially, in government, Kagame was the junior, but in the party, the senior. The ultimate control of power laid in between.
In February 1998, Kagame was made RPF chairman, while Bizimungu was “given” vice president. The ‘election’ of the new “RPF leadership” happened in a very opaque way. It was very unclear which body took the decision and the new composition confirmed the Tutsi nature of the party: among three members of the executive committee and the eight commissioners, Bizimungu was the only Hutu. As was anticipated, the result was a deadlock. From 1998 until 2000, Rwanda was involved in a political contradiction. The power tussle between the president and the party vice chairman came to the fore and the internal conflicts began.
While in a period of transition due to end in 2003, there was no logic removing Bizimungu early rather than be given a “soft landing” in 2003 and allow for more political cohesion. The concerns were mirrored by Kagame’s closest “allies” Nyerere and M7. As was Kagame’s “Western string pullers” UK and US – Rwanda’s key donors told Kagame as much, urging him not to alter the status quo “Bizimungu might be a fig leaf, but in a country in desperate need for ethnic reconciliation, fig leaves matter”. The bickering continued with Bizimungu telling Kagame he had no right to take the lead in cabinet meetings and Kagame telling Bizimungu he had no say over what was decided in RPF get-togethers.
Kagame activated the RPF smear campaign against Bizimungu and parliament. The end result, Kagame brought parliament, who was showing in his (Kagame) view disconcerting tendency to flex its muscles, neatly to heel. In March 1999, at RPF’s behest, Rwanda’s four political parties agreed to join a Forum of Political Parties with the power to remove individual MPs, a power till then reserved for the parties themselves. “Sold” as a just and fair system of checks and balances on parliament, the reality was neither. Once created, the forum immediately began removing MPs seen as troublemakers.
Those actively involved in government oversight or who had criticised the government, directly, or indirectly were targeted. In the space of a month, eight lawmakers were removed.
If there was any lingering doubt, the forum did not remove (vote out) MPs who belonged to the RPF or the military, those members were simply told to leave. Next came the judiciary. Although the constitution did not give the government any such power, the Supreme Court’s deputy justice Augustin Cyiza1, who made the mistake (or not) of ruling against the government in a dispute with a company (RPF owned), had been removed. Thereafter, five of the six Supreme Court’s judges were replaced within the space of a year by candidates handpicked by the RPF.
Congo’s 6-Day War
Nationally, the other problematic issue (although not for Kagame’s Western friends in the UK and US), was Rwanda’s expanding involvement in DRC. In 1998, Laurent Kabila was no longer following the script written for him by Rwandans and why should he take instructions from Kagame? Rwanda later let it be known (for Lame stream benefit) it was Kabila’s flirtation with the battered remains of the Interahamwe that “poisoned” the relationship with their protégé, but as usual, the explanation reverses the truthful events. Kabila only reached out to the génocidaires once the “relationship” with his former backers had irreparably broken down, depriving him of military backup.
Kabila wanted the RPF in Congo out, their presence making him look like a puppet. He wanted to assert his “authority”. Kagame wanted them to stay as he had certain “expectations” in terms of resources. Kagame felt Rwanda had lost a lot during the fighting and deserved compensation and “promises made were seen as not being realised”. What form of compensation Kagame regarded as appropriate would become abundantly clear.
On 13th July 1998, Kabila fired his army Chief of Staff James Kabarebe, two weeks later he ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan troops out. In Kigali, Kagame held an “inner circle” meeting to agree a response. Kagame (on Western friends – Clinton and Blair orders) wanted to dump Kabila and replaced with someone more compliant, just as Mobutu had been. Kabarebe having been humiliated and anxious to impress his “boss” was keen to lead a second invasion.
Other senior RPF cadre (from NRA days) counselled a more conciliatory approach and that Kabila could be managed. Lessons the former NRA circle learnt in Uganda came to. bear citing the Tanzanian troops used to oust Amin who, as liberators at the start swiftly became resented occupiers. Kagame was counselled that Congo would never accept Rwandan occupation, it never had. A further point Kagame ignored was the RPF was weary. With older commanders seeing action since the early 1980s and the younger generation being in a state of constant battle readiness since the early 1990s, they needed a break with the trials of war only making sense if they saw the fruits of peace. Locally on the ground, again was the impact of a second Rwandan assault would have on the DR C’s Tutsi Banyamulenge community, already seen in Kinshasa as 5th columnists.
The key perspective, again ignored by Kagame was the advice on the preparations for the First Congo War in collating a pan-African coalition that had backed the AFDL. Any intervention would carry insurmountable risks politically and strategically.
Kagame’s response to all points was to “think about it”. Two weeks later (orders from Blair and Clinton), the RPF went in again, Kagame had agreed with Kabarebe. Senior RPF cadres again attempted to form another Congolese coalition. What would become known as the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) were presented as a Congolese uprising, not a Rwandan insurgency. Kagame had to be involved and personally picked Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, a Congolese professor of political science who’d spent years in exile in the US and Tanzania as the political head.
Wamba who looked and behaved like an absentminded Oxford Don leading a collective supporting cast party that were capitalists, socialists; Mobutists and those who’d thrown them out of power; academics and people who’d never read a book. The tatty “cover story” even more threadbare than the first one played out. The assumption was Kinshasa would be taken (again) within a month.
Second Congo War
The Second Congo War was a multi-pronged affair. Wamba leading the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), which was backed by Uganda and Rwanda and based in the town of Goma. This group quickly came to dominate the resource-rich eastern provinces. The RCD quickly took control of the towns of Bukavu and Uvira in the Kivus. The Tutsi-led RPF, allied with Uganda, and Burundi also retaliated, occupying a portion of north-eastern Congo. The diamond center of Kisangani fell on 23rd August and forces advancing from the east had begun to threaten Kinshasa by late August. Uganda, while retaining joint support of the RCD with Rwanda, also created a rebel group that it supported exclusively, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC).
The third prong, involving a 1,200-mile airbridge, was intended to culminate in Kinshasa’s encirclement. Hijacking four civilian airliners parked at Goma airport, Kabarebe flew 3,500 RPF and Congolese fighters to Kitona, a little-used airbase 200 miles west of the capital, where the Congo River spills into the Atlantic Ocean.
Kabarebe continued to shuttle in fighters, supplies until with sufficient strength marched East. Also incorporated were the motley collection of troops based at Kitona (ex-FAZ, but also Angolan UNITA elements and former Pascal Lissouba militiamen from Brazzaville) who were in poor condition and unwilling to fight unless fed and given weapons. They were quickly won over to the Rwandan side. Capturing town after town, once they’d seized the massive hydroelectric Inga Dam, the rebels shut down turbines plunging Kinshasa into darkness.
Kabila having failed to rustle up diplomatic support, fled to his home province of Katanga in southern DRC. It was at this point Rwanda’s failure to lay the necessary diplomatic groundwork (within Africa) came home to roost. In mid-August, Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe (SADC members are bound to a mutual defence treaty in the case of outside aggression) agreed to join the Second Congo War. Only this time, they chose the government side, flying in soldiers and turning their formidable air power on the Rwandans, Ugandans and Congolese proxies.
The rationale being it was one thing, as far as the region’s concerned, to rid Central Africa of a past-his-sell-by-date dictator who specialised in hosting rebel groups. It was another for Rwanda, and to a lesser extent, Uganda, to make a habit of high-handedly deciding who ran their giant neighbour.
Marooned on the wrong side of Africa, without hope of resupply, Kabarebe retreated this time capturing a small Angolan regional airport Maquela do Zombo. Kabarebe spent two months flying in generators and construction equipment, with troops working 24/7, extended the airstrip to take cargo planes to evacuate the RPF.
Operation Kitona was Rwanda’s equivalent of WWII’s A Bridge Too Far. Kabarebe was eventually evacuated. At the turn of the century, Rwanda’s repeated interventions in DRC split apart the coalition that had ousted Mobutu, alienating a handful of previously friendly regional states. But at least its neighbours Burundi and Uganda remained on its side. Then to diplomatic astonishment (not UK and US), Rwanda and Uganda went to war with one another.
Congo 6-Day War
The immediate trigger was a split in the RCD, which saw Wamba dia Wamba fleeing from Goma to Kisangani, where he was hailed by Uganda as the RCD’s legitimate leader. Behind him in Goma, Emile Ilunga took over the rump movement, with Rwanda (Blair-Clinton orders, Kagame) offering support.
The two allies’ troops, busy establishing a lucrative trading network in DRC’s north-eastern and eastern provinces, found themselves eyeball to eyeball on Kisangani’s streets, markets and airports. After Kinshasa, Kisangani being the largest inland port on the Congo River, gateway to equatorial heart. Who controlled it mattered.
Rwanda and Uganda jostled to control the region’s fabulous mineral wealth, either directly or through armed surrogates. On 5th June 2000, fighting between their armed forces erupted at Kisangani, the DRC’s fifth largest city, which straddles a region rich in diamonds.
The two sides poured down artillery and mortar rounds on each other across the Tshopo bridge, killing over 800 civilians, wounding about a thousand others, according to a 2010 UN report, and destroying hundreds of buildings in the city’s centre until the fighting halted on 10th June as a result of signed UN ceasefire. A few days later, shocked Ugandan officers took delivery of at least 140 of their own soldiers. The majority appeared to have been blindfolded with elephant grass and shot in the back of the head. Ugandan forces had withdrawn to a training camp seven miles north of the bridge. RPF commander Col. Karenzi Karake said. “We were fired at. We won because our soldiers know what they are fighting for. We are now leaving Kisangani regardless of Ugandan intentions.”
Despite its troops massively outnumbering Rwanda’s at the conflict outbreak, Uganda clearly lost the Kisangani battle. The price paid was the two countries’ relationship would never be the same again. Worried about murmurings of a looming new Rwanda-Uganda clash, Dfid Sec Claire Short, called Kagame and M7 for a summit in London in November 2001. Short made no sizeable progress as feelings still ran high, that former old friends on the delegations would not make eye contact over the conference table. Kagame’s view (off record), “Humiliation and maximum pain had been deliberately inflicted on a former friend, the better to leave a lasting impression.”
1Cyiza, a Hutu former Lt Col who persuaded some 800 FAR troops to serve in Kagame’s post-genocide army disappeared in April 2003.
© AW Kamau 2023