SOMETIME in 1998, thousands of Zimbabwean troops found themselves navigating the thick jungles of Central Africa. They were in the unfamiliar terrain of the Congolese rainforests. There, they fought a dangerous and long-running war, far away from home. Some returned, but others perished in the jungles. They had to contend with the elements that come with the rainforest, quite apart from their wily opponents, dwellers of the jungle and therefore, bearers of greater familiarity with the terrain; it was a hard war.
The expedition went on for a few years. At its peak, an estimated 11,000 troops were deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Some never returned home, and were interred in the alien forests or devoured by wild beasts. The enemy too, was said to favour certain parts of the human anatomy. Gruesome, yes. Though the official number of casualties has never been disclosed, those who witnessed the carnage say body bags arrived in large numbers for many months. It was a brutal, unforgiving war. Many more lost limbs, others were mentally scarred for life. They are a generation of war veterans whose demands are yet to be registered.
They had travelled the long journey to the DRC in aid of Laurent Kabila, the then relatively new leader of that country. He had only recently taken power after toppling the long-serving brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The country, then called Zaire, was renamed the DRC – the new name signalling a new, democratic dispensation. Kabila himself had waged a long struggle against Mobutu, until, finally with the backing of the Rwandan army, he marched triumphantly into Kinshasa in 1997. There was much promise, in fact, a lot of promise, at the time. But this was short-lived.
Barely a year later, Kabila had hit a rough patch. His relationship with Rwanda, former backers, had soured. He tried to expel Rwandan soldiers who were supposedly training his army, but the Banyamulenge mutinied. Banyamulenge were a rebel group from the East with close connections to Rwanda, partly by ethnic affiliation. This sparked a war, with rebels, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, threatening to topple the young regime of Kabila. Kabila made a plea for help.
Zimbabwe entered the fray, backing the beleaguered Kabila, on the basis that they were backing the legitimate government of the DRC. Angola and Namibia joined in, too. It was called Operation Sovereign Legitimacy (OSLEG). But the campaign did not have the favour of the rest of the SADC region.
Indeed, most SADC countries, apart from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia stayed away. However, Mugabe still claimed that armed intervention in the DRC had been approved by SADC. In his memoirs, Sir Ketumile Masire, former President of Botswana disagrees. He says a meeting of foreign ministers had been hastily convened in Harare by Zimbabwe’s foreign minister but participants, who in some cases were ambassadors, had said they would consult their leaders. But Zimbabwe went ahead anyway and announced that SADC had backed the military intervention. This did not go down well with some leaders.
The most notable dissenter was Nelson Mandela, who was the President of South Africa at the time. He publicly rejected the decision. Botswana also publicly rejected the so-called decision. Masire explains that this as one of the incidents that demonstrated the tense relationship between Mugabe and Mandela. It was an interesting period because South Africa had only recently intervened in Lesotho as well.
In the end, Zimbabwe became a key actor in the DRC war, which caused serious problems back home. The war was costly – in human and financial terms. In November 1999, the BBC quoted a report in the Financial Gazette, a Zimbabwean weekly, stating that equipment worth $200 million had been lost during the war http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/536454.stm
The British Financial Times had also reported a leaked Zimbabwe Government internal memo showing that $166 million had been spent on the war over a 6-month period between January and June 1999, an average of $25 million per month. These costs were not in the budgeted and seriously drained the fiscus.
The Zimbabwe Government was aware of this, as the pressures became evident in the entire economy. Opposition grew and the war was often cited among the Government’s failings. The costs and the lack of transparency only exacerbated the intensity of the opposition.
In November 1997, Government had paid out enormous amounts in compensation awards to veterans of the liberation war. At $Z50,000 each, and outside the budget, the payments were huge burden on an already struggling economy. The heavy crash of the Zimbabwe dollar, on 14th November 1997, when it lost 71,5% of its value against the US dollar, is said to have been triggered partly by these huge pay-outs. Subsequently, the stock market also crashed as investors sought to cushion their losses on the Zim dollar.
The DRC war was clearly beyond Zimbabwe’s means. In his opposition to the war, Mandela had warned that the costs of war would cripple intervening countries, and in the case of Zimbabwe, he was right. Zimbabwe has never quite recovered from that military misadventure.
Some reports suggested that the DRC Government would underwrite the costs of the war and that the Zimbabwean army had been given gold and diamond mining concessions to recoup costs. Zimbabwe’s Defence Minister at the time, Moven Mahachi, was quoted as saying, “Instead of our army in the DRC burdening the treasury for more resources, which are not available, it embarks on viable projects for the sake of generating the necessary revenue”. It was reported that a company called Osleg had been established to operate together with Comiex, another private company owned by the DRC army.
Nevertheless, not much seems to have materialised, with reports suggesting that the deals had worked only to the personal benefit of senior Government and military officials. Indeed, despite Zimbabwe’s investment in the DRC war, and massive losses in human and financial figures, it was countries like South Africa, which had stayed away from the war, that have actually benefitted from the DRC.
A bank in which the ruling party, Zanu PF has shares, FBC opened some branches in Congo and Air Zimbabwe, the national airline, operated a few flights to Lubumbashi, but not much else went Zimbabwe’s way. It was a costly and unpopular expedition that brought little back to the country.
When Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, Zimbabwe was again on hand to assist. Kabila was flown to Harare for ‘treatment’ although it is said he had already died. Zimbabwe played a crucial role in the succession process, helping Kabila’s son, Joseph to take leadership. Like his father before him, he had to rely heavily on the support and protection of Zimbabwean troops to stabilise his rule in the notoriously volatile central African country.
Mugabe the Godfather
Hence it is that Mugabe has been a godfather figure in the DRC during the combined reigns of the two Kabilas – the rotund Laurent, and his son, Joseph. Both owe him a huge debt of gratitude, but one of them is no longer around to pay his dues. The surviving one, Joseph, however, seems to have become comfortable in the intervening years, during which time Mugabe has, ironically, faced severe challenges in his own backyard. While he has weathered the political storm, some of which was generated by his war adventure in the DRC, the economy has never recovered.
It is against that context that Mugabe’s words at the latest visit to Zimbabwe by Joseph Kabila carry a weight that is less ordinary.
“My brother here paid us a visit. He has been away from us for a long time …” said Mugabe, noting that the DRC President had not been to see his godfather in a very long time. Kabila himself repeated the same, saying he was happy to be “home”. “I came back home after quite some time,” he said. Zimbabwe is indeed home to Kabila – it is home to the man who underwrote his rise to and hold on power. But Mugabe might not have been too impressed by the fact the godson had stayed away from home for too long. Had he forgotten? Had he become too comfortable?
So what brought Kabila “home”? What prompted the godson to come back “home”, having stayed away for so long? The official line is that Kabila is the first Vice Chairperson of the African Union, and that he had come in that capacity to discuss with his boss, the African Union Chair. That may be true. But Mugabe has been AU Chair for nearly a year now and if true, then it has taken his Vice Chair very long to come and confer with his boss. What does not escape notice though is that Kabila is facing a rather sticky patch in the DRC.
Kabila’s Third Term Bid
There is a wave of “Third-Termism” that is currently growing across the African continent. Writing in the journal, Foreign Affairs, Anneke van woudenberg and Ida Sawyer have called it a new fashion of “constitutional coups”, where unlike the old military coups, the leader cunningly manipulates the legal architecture, to allow him to run beyond the constitutionally-mandated two terms. “African leaders who are unwilling to abide by term limits, or unfavorable election results, prefer to simply change the laws and constitutions that stand in their way”, they statehttp://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/03/africas-softer-gentler-coups-detat/
Joseph Kabila is reported to be among these leaders, who include Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, the eastern neighbour. Indeed, it might be that Kagame’s decision to stay on as leader of Rwanda, a rival in recent years, might be used as justification to stay longer. Museveni, another rival from the DRC War, has also been given the green light to run again in Uganda. Pierre Nkurunzinza of Burundi, another neighbour, has already taken a controversial third term, though his country remains mired in serious trouble and instability. Across the Congo River, the 71-year old Denis Sassou Nguesso, in charge of the Republic of Congo for 31 years, has also recently received the pass to run again for a third term.
Thus, it seems all around the DRC, key leaders are staying in power. It is likely that Kabila will want to stay on, with justifications on stability and the security of the nation. He is only 44, young enough, and probably, still with the energy and ambition to continue. Whatever he discussed with Mugabe, it is unlikely that they would have skirted around this issue. As First Vice President of the African Union, Kabila has a position of responsibility and there is a chance he might take over as Chairperson during the final year of his term. How would he handle any attempt to go for a third term while he is AU Chair? It would be awkward.
Resistance and Instability
But his bid to stay on is facing resistance back home. It will not be as plain-sailing as it has been for Kagame, Museveni and Sassou Nguesso. And given the notorious volatility of the DRC, it could blow up and become very messy. That is probably where Mugabe, the Godfather, comes in. He has been there before. But does he have the capacity to assist young Kabila? Zimbabwe’s economy was weak when Mugabe intervened in 1998; it is worse now. But Mugabe did mention that the DRC had massive resources.
“We talked about the economy as well and you know they are very rich in resources but like ours, they are underground. They have diamonds, cooper gold and they have what we don’t have, oil. They possess them,” said Mugabe.
Might the veteran be eyeing one last opportunity in the DRC? If the young leader came to plead for assistance in case of trouble, will Zimbabwean troops be sacrificed again? Time, as ever the magician, will tell.