African Studies Centre, Coventry University

In late May 1997 Laurent-Désiré Kabila, leader of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Kinshasa (AFDL), completed an astonishing march on Kinshasa to assume the presidency of the newly renamed Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet the air of euphoria unleashed by the ousting of the corrupt dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko was infected by persistent rumours that the AFDL’s initial drive in Kivu province in the former eastern Zaire had been marked by large-scale massacres. The veracity of these claims remains unproven. Four months after Kabila’s offer ‘to work with the agencies of the United Nations’,(1) the specialist investigative team were still ‘left hanging around the Inter-Continental Hotel [in Kinshasa] wishing they had brought more novels’.(2) This article will limit itself to the period of conflict in eastern Zaire between the eruption of ethnic violence in late October 1996 and the dispersal of the refugee camps in north Kivu in mid-November (given this temporal restriction the name ‘Zaire’ will be retained). It was during this period that the possibility of an external peacekeeping intervention in the conflict gained greatest currency.

A fascinating juxtaposition of two polar perceptions of justification for military intervention in Kivu province could be found on the letters page of The Times of 5 November 1996. John Snodgrass, a former British ambassador to Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi advocated intervention since, ‘without it, refugees will continue to be hounded, massacres will flare up with sickening frequency, aid workers will keep their wards alive only until the next crisis; and the camps will nurture discontent, at enormous cost, for decades.’(3) Whilst not necessarily disagreeing with the humanitarian sentiment, Professor Christopher Clapham, nonetheless rejected the, ‘sense in the West that we have both the responsibility and the power to rectify the evident wrongs of the world which is understandable but misconceived, and in our attempts to do right we can easily find ourselves compounding the very problems that we are trying to solve. This is just such a case.’(4)

The crisis in Kivu exercised minds in African and Western capitals and within the secretariats of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the UN. The subsequent non-intervention might be held to have synthesised the status of post-Cold War interventionist policy in African intra-state conflict. After an outline of the events preceding the intensification of the conflict in October 1996, the article will consider the security and humanitarian concerns that provoked the calls for intervention. These factors will be placed in the context of the response of the wider international community, both within Africa and beyond, to a proposed intervention in this significant conflict.

Background to the conflict

A search for causes of the conflict in eastern Zaire must look beyond the contemporary history of the Great Lakes region. Whilst it has been marked by a striking ethnic character, the enduring, and bitter, violence in the region was not engendered by any primordial hatred between Hutus and Tutsis. Rhoda Howard, amongst others, debunks a perception within a section of Western media that the current conflict is intrinsically ‘tribal’. The pre-colonial relationship between Hutu and Tutsi was not so much ethnic as hierarchical and clientelistic.(5) After migrating from the north, pastoralist, land-owning, Tutsis adhered to a symbiotic, if sometimes fractious, association with the resident Hutu peasantry. Both shared the same hills and communities. Intermarriage and social mobility created an affinity that blurred superficial ethnic differences towards a common Banyarwanda ethnos, although, in political and social terms, the Tutsi élite always preserved ‘an upper hand’.(6) Yet it was only after the employment of classic ‘divide and rule’ tactics, based on wholly erroneous, indeed mythic, anthropological ‘evidence’,(7) by negligent European colonists, notably francophone Belgians, that Tutsi rule over Hutus became exacerbated and entrenched. In Rwanda, Belgian administrators imposed a strict racist hierarchy, underpinned by identity cards, with the so-called ‘Hamitic’ Tutsis promoted to the exclusion of Hutus. Following the Second World War, a new generation of egalitarian, anti-Walloon, Flemish missionaries reversed the policy, and undermined the status quo, by educating Hutus. Thus, as the era of decolonisation approached there existed, in James Fenton’s words, a minority that had been indoctrinated to believe that, ‘they belonged to a special race’.(8) Conversely the mass of the population, ‘had learned that they were a vanquished people ruled over by Ethiopians…who resented utterly the consequent humiliation and what seemed to them a progressive enslavement’.(9) Tensions at independence spilled into violence. The contiguity, or amalgamation, of the two communities induced fights to the death. Richard Dowden differentiates the strategies, ‘The Tutsi militias kill in a planned way, calculated to create fear and repress the mass Hutus. Killings by Hutus are more spontaneous, a crude attempt to find a “final solution” to the Tutsi problem’.(10) In Burundi Tutsis struck first, assassinating Hutu leaders to bolster authoritarian minority rule. In Rwanda, a Hutu revolt against the Tutsi monarchy resulted in the slaughter of 20,000 Tutsis and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of others. Thus, ‘it had taken two generations of colonialism to turn what had been an antagonism between two peoples who nevertheless lived together intimately and productively into a passionate racial hatred’.(11)

After the 1959 massacre the ambit of the conflict expanded both in terms of the magnitude of violent intent, as well as geographically within the region. Many Tutsis fled abroad. Elements within the diaspora, especially a core based in anglophone Uganda, organised an effective opposition to the government in Kigali. In 1988, Tutsi exiles joined dissident Hutus to form an armed wing, the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR). The sweeping success of this disciplined, battle-hardened army following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda restored effective Tutsi rule in Rwanda and created a massive outflow of refugees into Kivu province in eastern Zaire. Between 1m.(12) and 2m.(13) Hutus settled in hellish camps around Goma and Bukavu to join the swelling numbers of Burundian Hutus that had been fleeing to the camps around Uvira in south Kivu since the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993. The camps in north Kivu had become small cities under the control of genocidaires from the former Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and the ultras of the Interahamwe militia. The bulk of the cowed refugee population had effectively become a decaying human shield behind which the extremists could hide.

The flashpoint for the crisis in late 1996 had a related ethnic component – the victimisation of Banyarwanda in eastern Zaire and the subsequent rebellion of the Banyamulenge. The Banyamulenge (people from the Mulenge Hills) are a distinct entity amongst the many Kinyarwanda-speaking communities that have settled in Kivu over the past 200 years. As in Rwanda and Burundi, these communities are not ethnically homogenous, but a mix of Tutsis, Hutus and Twa. In north Kivu, relations between Banyarwanda of Hutu or Tutsi ancestry were often strained, but not genocidal. Relations between Banyarwanda and the indigenous population (such as the Hundé, Nyanga, Nandé and Tembo) were more fraught, resulting in several vicious conflicts. The present marginalisation of the Banyarwanda started in 1981 when the right to Zairean nationality, granted on a collective basis in the 1970s, was rescinded. Only Banyarwanda who could prove ancestral residence in the area since 1885 were granted citizenship. Banyarwanda were effectively treated as new arrivals and became refugees in a land that had been home, often for centuries. The Banyamulenge, having lived on the slopes of the Mulenge Hills west of Lake Tanganyika since the 18th century, had attempted to secure their position in post-independence Zaire by siding with the then Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu during the Mulele rebellion. However, as restrictions on citizenship were intensified by the influx of Rwandan refugees in 1994, it became apparent that they were under threat from both Hutu refugees around Uvira and local militias supported by Zaire’s Service d’Action et de Renseignement Militaire (SARM) based at the town’s garrison.

For their part, Hutu extremists and Interahamwe in north Kivu, now merged with militias from the Banyarwanda Hutu communities, began ‘cleansing’ Tutsi Banyarwanda from the Masisi Hills, north-west of Goma. The process received the active support of both the Forces Armées Zairoises (FAZ) and the central and provincial government. Kivu politicians called for their constituents to ‘attack and attack the immigrants’ and bluntly told Banyarwanda that their choice lay between ‘expulsion and death’.(14) Ethnic complexities were reduced. Government broadcasts via the Voix du Zaire bore a chilling resemblance to the ‘vampire radio’, Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, responsible for promulgating the Rwandan genocide. On 25 October, in a broadcast from Bukavu, they were unequivocal about Zaire’s position – ‘A tree trunk does not turn itself into a crocodile because it has spent some time in the water. In the same way, a Tutsi will for ever remain a Tutsi, with his or her perfidy, craftiness and dishonesty’.(15)

The response of the Banyamulenge to attacks and attempted expulsion was robust. By August 1996 supportive armed units from Rwanda and Burundi had infiltrated the area around Uvira via Burundi. Many rebel soldiers were conspicuous by their uniforms, especially the distinctive green wellington boots worn by the Armée Patriotique Rwandaise (APR), the army of the FPR. Although, Banyamulenge had fought for the FPR during the Rwandan civil war, the organisation and the discipline of the rebel troops led many analysts, including the Zairean government, to conclude that the APR and Ugandan military advisors, were involved in the counter-offensive. The reaction of the Banyamulenge to the regional deputy governor’s demand, on 8 October 1996, for them to ‘get out of Zaire or agree to be placed in camps’, was summed up by a young rebel soldier – ‘We know where Zaire learned to persecute us. We had problems before, but when the Rwandan Hutus arrived… after that it became clear we were going to have a lot of problems. It got more and more dangerous until the government tried to take our land and they told us we had to leave the country and go and live in Rwanda. But we don’t come from Rwanda and they cannot force us to go because we know how to fight and the army does not.’(16)

From mid-October events moved swiftly. By 22 October all refugee camps around Uvira had been emptied.(17) By 25 October the rebels controlled a strip of land 130km long and 40km wide along the Burundi\Rwanda border. They seized Uvira town and airport. On 28 October Mobutu announced military rule in the region. On 31 October full scale artillery battles across the Rwandan border prompted all 101 UNHCR and NGO relief workers in camps around Goma to evacuate. On 1 November Bukavu fell. On 2 November Goma fell, prompting the flight of 400,000 refugees.

Grounds for intervention?

Security considerations

By the start of November 1996 the central\east African community was faced with an escalating conflict with cross border connotations that was compounding and extending an already grave refugee crisis. Rebel forces had constructed a solid and effective alignment of fighters under the banner of the AFDL. A former Lumumbaist, and veteran of liberation struggles – Laurent Kabila – had emerged as leader of the Alliance. Despite the Rwandan government only admitting to retaliatory operations in Zaire, it was clear that the AFDL enjoyed the support of the region’s most assured armies – from Rwanda and Uganda, plus potential backing from a Burundian army newly revitalised with Tutsi militiamen following the Pierre Buyoya coup. These forces were ranged against a notoriously disorganised and ill-disciplined Zairean army, the rump of the former FAR and the genocidaires of the Interahamwe. As Filip Reyntjens remarked at a conference to discuss the future of Zaire, organised by the US Institute of Peace, ‘this potential for ongoing conflict involves four government armies; a former government army [from Rwanda]; and over 10 rebel movements from five countries. The local actors and their regional and international sponsors who have opened this Pandora’s box bear a heavy responsibility for a situation that might develop beyond control’.(18)

On 5 November a summit of regional leaders convened in Nairobi to consider the deteriorating crisis. In addition to the host, President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, other heads of state attending were: Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and Foreign Minister Ferdinand Oyono of Cameroon representing the Chair of the OAU. Also attending were OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim and mediator of the Burundian peace process, Julius Nyerere. There were two important absentees from the summit. The semi-recognised government of Buyoya in Burundi was subject to international sanctions and, hence, not invited. Mobutu boycotted the summit, refusing to attend whilst foreign troops occupied Zairean territory.

The summit produced a succinct list of conclusions and recommendations. The refugee question was approached more from a security than a humanitarian standpoint. In calling for a ceasefire, the delegates, ‘expressed grave concern at the deteriorating situation in that area and the threat posed to peace and stability in the entire Great Lakes region, border incursions and the threat posed to peace and stability in the entire Great Lakes region.’(19) Whilst reaffirming ‘its commitment to the territorial integrity of Zaire’, the summit went on to stress ‘the inalienable rights of all people within the internationally recognised boundaries’.(20) This has been taken as an explicit reference to the land and citizenship rights of Banyarwanda, in particular the Banyamulenge. Furthermore, ‘the summit called for the intensification of efforts towards voluntary repatriation of refugees to Rwanda. To enable the success of this effort the summit called for the implementation of the long standing decision to separate the intimidators and bona fide refugees’.(21) To facilitate the proposals the summit accepted a need for a ‘neutral force’ to secure safe corridors and temporary sanctuaries to allow the flow of humanitarian supplies and returning refugees. In keeping with current OAU thinking, and regardless of the putative force’s composition, the responsibility for the construction and implementation of a mandate would lie with the UN Security Council, with the OAU and regional organisations adopting only a consultative role.

Beyond diplomatic prerequisites, such as a reaffirmation of Zaire’s territorial integrity and the call for a ceasefire, the summit displayed a distinct slant towards the agenda of Uganda and Rwanda. Early victories achieved by the AFDL opened opportunities for both countries to secure their previously permeable borders. As Africa Confidential commented, ‘the Zairean military is closely linked’ to the estimated 20,000 fighters of the various Hutu militias skirmishing on the Zairean border with Rwanda and Burundi.(22) A Western envoy in Kinshasa pointed out, ‘in the early stages, the Rwandan and Ugandan aims were clear…to send military officers to help the Banyamulenge defend themselves [against Hutu and Zairean extremists] and at the same time rid east Zaire of Hutu extremists and Ugandan rebel movements’.(23) The sincerity of the support expressed by Rwanda and Uganda for the ‘neutral force’ at the summit is moot. However, it is clear that as the progress of the rebellion gathered pace, so objections to the composition of the force became more strident. With the APR (and, in all probability, Ugandan advisors) on the ground in Kivu, the situation was in flux. The best solution for Rwanda and Uganda was for the AFDL to supply a swift military solution prior to (or without the need for) any peacekeeping intervention. The extent to which Rwanda was willing to help expedite that outcome was evident in Rwandan Minister of Defence, Paul Kagame’s barely veiled threat, ‘If Zaire brings war to us , we shall fight Zaire…We are ready to fight even though we seek no war with Zaire’.(24) A senior UN official stated at the time that, ‘Rwanda is defending its own vital interests, but the military initiative it has recently taken amounts to playing with matches near explosives’.(25) Such cataclysmic analysis proved misplaced. The disciplined assault by the AFDL in mid-November that severed the influence of the extremists over the majority of refugees and pushed the remnants of the FAR and Interahamwe into the bush justified Kagame’s gamble.

Humanitarian concerns

With few journalists and aid workers in Kivu, the status and magnitude of the refugee population in the theatre of war was indeterminate. The discrepancy in the estimates of the number of refugees, both in the camps and displaced, fuelled the intervention debate. On 26 November, the US Committee for Refugees provided a review of the range of estimates for changes in refugee demographics between mid-September and mid-November (see Table 1).

Table 1 – Aggregate Refugee Estimates in East Zaire – September and November 1996.

Rwandan refugees in Zaire in Sept 96 900,000-1,100,000
Rwandan refugees repatriated in Nov 96 600,000-500,000
Rwandan refugees remaining in Zaire 300,000-600,000
Burundian refugees in Zaire in Sept 96 140,000-140,000
Burundian refugees who fled Zaire Oct-Nov 96 80,000-40,000
Burundian refugees remaining in Zaire 60,000-100,000
Rwandan & Burundian refugees in Zaire 360,000-700,000
Zaireans internally displaced 150,000-250,000
Uprooted Rwandans, Burundians & Zaireans 510,000-950,000

Source: US Committee for Refugees.

The response of international aid organisations was split, although most, including nearly all francophone NGOs, supported some form of intervention. British NGOs were most cautious. The Save the Children Fund warned that military intervention ‘may well compound the problem’.(26) In sharp contrast, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in keeping with their advocacy of ‘le droit d’ingérence’, demanded a full peace enforcement mission with a robust UN mandate under Chapter VII. For MSF, the force must be able ‘to secure the area, not [merely] defend aid workers’.(27) As if to emphasise the untenable environment in the camps around Goma the UNHCR led a total evacuation of relief workers from the area leaving the refugees, the majority unarmed and defenceless, in the midst of a battle in which they were the target of both sides. On their return, following the fall of Goma, the aid agencies found that much of the 400,000 population of the notorious Mugunga camp had fled to the bush. As Chris McGreal reported, ‘Mugunga is one of a handful of dead cities scattered around Goma. A month ago they flourished with shops, schools, hospitals, and funeral parlours. Between them they were home to a million people, three times as many as Goma’.(28) Disease was rife. Walter Bonifazio of Doctors in Catastrophic Situations considered, ‘the human loss impossible to calculate, it is a bomb, a very big bomb’.(29) MSF estimated that cholera, dysentery and malnutrition were killing 1,000 people a day.(30) There was black irony in Bernard Kouchner’s remark that without intervention, the crisis would demand not ‘Doctors Without Borders’, but ‘Gravediggers Without Borders’.(31)

It is symptomatic of the international community’s commitment to the totem of state sovereignty that the UNHCR felt it appropriate to hire guards for the refugee camps from the discredited FAZ. As the AFDL swept north from Uvira, through the camps, the Zairean guards looted the camps, then vanished. The AFDL military commanders, such as mzee André Ngandu Kassasse, saw refugees as little more than annoying obstacles to the progress of the campaign – ‘these people should not be here, they are in the way of the offensive against Mobutu’.(32) Yet, despite Kabila’s assertion that the AFDL was a new force for good in the region and not interested in mass slaughter, the evidence pointed to the contrary. For many of the rank and file there was clearly an inclination to view all refugees as culpable for the 1994 genocide. As Amnesty International observed, ‘the numerous testimonies of eye-witnesses indicate a reckless disregard for civilian lives on the part of the AFDL…there does not appear to have been any attempt to distinguish between civilians and specific military targets’.(33) The vengeance motive is chillingly evoked by a reported interrogation by the AFDL of a refugee at Bukavu,

‘Are you from Rwanda?’


‘Are you Hutu?’


‘When did you leave Rwanda?’


‘Take off your clothes’.

The refugee was then shot.(34) The AFDL continues to deny massacring Hutus in east Zaire, yet they also continue to prevent unhindered access to areas of reported atrocities.

External intervention?

The francophone dimension

France was by far the most vociferous state calling for military intervention. The Quai d’Orsay claimed the humanitarian high ground. As the crisis progressed in late October and early November, France’s sedulous entreaties for the international community to react became increasingly shrill and insistent. In an interview on 6 November, the French Foreign Minister, Hervé de Charette, sought to impress on the outside world that France had no individual interests in the region, but only a shared responsibility – ‘Nous ne cherchons pas des intérêts nationaux…mais il y a là des gens en difficultés, ils sont un million.’(35) Yet, in the same interview, de Charette reenforced the type of mechanical, inelastic policies that have undermined France’s position in Africa. On being asked about the role of Mobutu in the crisis, the response was immediate – ‘Oui, le président Mobutu est la personnalité la plus forte du Zaire’.(36)

Still more potent, the memories of France’s ‘special relationship’ with the genocidal regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana remain fresh in Kigali. France trained and armed the genocidaires. French legionnaires helped to repulse FPR offensives in 1990 and 1993. Yet, Kigali’s bitterest memories are reserved for France’s last humanitarian intervention in the region, Opération Turquoise, accused by many of helping to spirit the murderers and their ‘blood-stained élite’(37) out of Rwanda. For Sam Kiley, writing in The Times, ‘France was as culpable in the Rwandan genocide of a million people as the nastiest anti-Semites of the Vichy regime were in the Holocaust’.(38) In the light of Kiley’s remarks, the Rwandan reaction that ‘a French presence would complicate matters rather than solve the problems we are facing’,(39) seems a model of restraint.

If the post-colonial interventionist reflex, à la Jacques Foccart, had waned, it had certainly not perished entirely. The continuing presence of Foccart, together with his protege, Fernand Wibaux, within the cellule africaine of Chirac’s Elysée Palace, ensured a strong interventionist lobby committed to rescue the Mobutu regime in time-honoured fashion. A less confrontational stance was advanced by Elysée Secretary-General, Dominique de Villepin – a panoptic intervention (with contributions from the US, Europe and Africa) intended to secure a limited humanitarian operation.(40) Central to the plan was the swift occupation of strategic roads and airstrips in Goma and Bukavu. Clearly this would have put a brake on the rebel advance in the area. Moreover, such an operation begged a vital question. To whom would the peacekeeping force hand back the airstrips when, and if, the humanitarian aims had been accomplished.

The settled French interventionist strategy, as outlined by senior government advisor Gérard Prunier was not designed to allay fears in Kigali. As a member of the Ministry of Defence’s crisis unit during Turquoise, and the author of a critical history of the genocide and intervention,(41) Prunier understood the extent of mistrust engendered by any French-led intervention. However, seemingly, the need or right to intervene superseded the potential for an escalation of the conflict following a French intervention. Prunier advised, ‘a unilateral French operation because we have the military capacity in Africa…we may have to forget about the rest of Europe or the UN because it will take too long’.(42) Moreover, the intervention force was to be charged with securing a corridor to allow refugees to escape – not back to Rwanda, but due west – deeper into Zaire. French helicopters were to be used to ‘lay a trail of food, water and medicine to enable the refugees to escape on foot’.(43) Prunier’s humanitarian motives were beyond reproach. The extent of the suffering amongst the refugees was great, and endures today. However, it was beyond doubt that the strategy would never be acceptable to the AFDL or their allies. In a veiled threat, Rwandan Foreign Minister Anastase Gasana, promised that an intervention of the French type would, ‘se heurterait à l’opposition de la sous-région par tous les moyens, pas seulement politiques’.(44) Any attempt to implement the plan would have been resisted.

If the French planned to replicate Turquoise it was because the original mission had failed to serve French interests in the region. In some respects it had proved to be an embarrassment. No doubt some French generals remembered the events of July 1994, when two members of an élite reconnaissance patrol found themselves prisoners of the FPR. The price of their release was the circumscription of the French security zone. As Laurent Bijard remarked in November 1996, ‘Décidément, les Tutsis du FPR n’étaient pas de simples guérilleros africains…Et cette fois, ces mêmes jeunes soldats sont en position autour de l’aéroport de Goma’.(45)

The ‘Anglo-Saxons’

If France was irredeemably tainted in the eyes of the AFDL and its allies, then there was equally a growing impression in Kinshasa, Paris and amongst exiled Hutus that perceived, ‘the Tutsis as proteges of “Anglo-Saxon” powers (the US, UK and South Africa)’.(46) The first two weeks of the crisis became marked by increasingly sharp exchanges between Paris and Washington that carried the clear implication that there was more to US procrastination than judicious caution. On 6 November, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hervé de Charette called the international community (for which read the US and UK) ‘spineless’. British Minister for Overseas Development, Linda Chalker’s response was equally abrupt – Charette’s outlook was ‘daft’.(47) By 12 November the French Defence Minister was referring to ‘the inadmissible hesitation of certain countries’, whilst adding, for greater precision, ‘that the US must stop dragging its feet’.(48)

Patrick Smith describes one of several rumours circulating amongst African policy-makers at the Elysée Palace. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ plot(49) implied that the unwillingness on the part of the US, Britain and South Africa to join an intervention force was linked to a covert policy to advance the cause of Museveni’s ‘Afro-Saxon’ coalition. For Smith this vastly underrated the discipline and achievement, ‘of Africans not given to taking orders’.(50) Nonetheless, Richard Cornwall of the Africa Institute in South Africa, gave some credence to the notion that the extension of the Museveni model to Zaire (assuming Kabila’s acquiesence and ability to govern) would prove a boon to America’s emerging African policy.(51) If Washington did perceive that to be the case, then America’s delay in accepting a role in the intervention force provided a crucial cushion for the AFDL. Opinion amongst the participants at a broad-based round table discussion of the Zaire crisis, sponsored by the US Institute of Peace and the US Department of State, was divided. Many participants noted ‘a deepening perception of an anglophone-francophone split among African states, engulfing much of the continent in conflict’.(52) Others ‘disagreed strongly with a broad-sweep analysis of a polarity of forces. US and French approaches may occasionally diverge with regard to Western policy toward central Africa, but the goals are common’.(53) For their part, US diplomats at the conference, dismissed accusations of a conspiracy as ‘outlandish, illogical and confounding’.(54)

It is likely that there were more prosaic reasons behind American (and British and South African) reluctance to join a military intervention. Despite Richard Crawford’s analysis, there is strong evidence that Africa sits very low on America’s list of priorities. Crawford Young points out that Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s October 1996 visit to Africa was his first, and came on the verge of a Presidential election.(55) Moreover, the ‘Mogadishu factor’, the high toll of US casualties sustained during Operation Restore Hope, seems destined to retain an influence on American peacekeeping policy for the foreseeable future. Presidential Decision Directive 25, signed in May 1994, severely restricts the conditions for US support (political or military) for UN-sponsored operations. Rightly or wrongly, ‘the lesson most American opinion leaders seemed to have learned from Somalia was “don’t get involved”‘(56) As early as 1993, a Foreign Service Officer of the State Department expressed a belief that civil conflict in Zaire, ‘could easily turn into a Somalia and Rwanda rolled into one’.(57) This consensus was made brutally explicit in C.L.Staten’s report on the geographical and logistical constraints of a military intervention in Zaire, compiled for the Emergency Response and Research Institute – ‘As terrible as it may sound, morality has its price, and the world powers have to decide if they are to pay that price, and intervene in a violent, complex and potentially unresolvable political and ethnic situation’.(58)

In contrast to France’s highly interventionist policy, British armed intervention following the east-of-Suez withdrawal has been highly infrequent and limited.(59) Britain maintains no permanent military presence in Africa. However, despite an intrinsic antipathy to intervention in Africa, the British government’s reaction to the contrasting French and American responses to the calls for intervention was complicated by a need to preserve cordial relations with France in light of the upcoming Anglo-French summit. Conversely, the conventional ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US had diminished following the support that the Conservative Party had offered Bill Clinton’s opponent during the previous presidential election.

South Africa’s marked reluctance to commit ground troops to the mission was signalled in a Draft White Paper on National Defence prepared in June 1995. Whilst, recognising ‘its responsibility to participate in international peace operations’, the paper emphasised that, ‘in the short-term such participation will be regarded with a fair measure of caution since the political and military dynamics of these operations are new to South Africa and the Defence Force’.(60) Moreover, although the South African National Defence force was in the midst of a delicate integration process, many front line units continued to reflect the old order. The apartheid regime had been an historic supplier of mercenaries to bolster the Mobutu dictatorship, and had made covert arms sales to the Habyaramana regime.(61) In compensation, the new government has supplied training and weapons to the APR, although the mercenary link with Mobutu persisted, purportedly through the South African based organisation, Executive Outcomes.(62) Thus, diplomatic obfuscation augured against an immediate troop-contribution role given that, as West Africa intimated, ‘the republic is likely to engage in military exercises only when there are clear political brownie points to score’.(63)

The multilateral factor

Despite strategic manoeuvring in the region and the geopolitical machinations of external powers, the international community managed, by 16 November to have furnished both a Security Council mandate and promises for a 15,000-strong force to implement it.

The key event was the decision by the White House, presumably provoked by mounting international pressure, to sanction the deployment of between 3,000 and 4,000 troops and logisticians in the region, of which 1,000 would be on the ground around Goma. Goals and duration were highly limited. A Senior Pentagon Official outlined the American perspective – ‘one stabilise; two, jump start the flow of aid…we’re going in there with a very clear and limited mission, which is to basically help get the flow of aid going into the area. Once that happens we leave’.(64) On 16 November the Security Council unanimously accepted Resolution 1080. A multinational force under Canadian command was authorised, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to use commensurate force to secure specific humanitarian objectives – the ‘effective provision’ of aid to refugees and the local population, and the ‘voluntary and orderly repatriation’ of the refugees.(65) Potential objections from the US Congress concerning funding and ‘command and control’ were addressed by adopting current UN peacekeeping orthodoxy and placing the mission outside the aegis of the overstretched UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and under the operational command of the respected Canadian General Maurice Baril, with an American deputy. The US would retain control of sub-operational details, ‘tactical orders – move here, move there, carry this weapon, march on this patrol – will all be delivered by Americans’.(66) The choice of Canada to lead the operation, initially designated Operation Phoenix Tusk later called Operation Assurance, recognised both the issue of neutrality as well as supplying a bilingual command. Nonetheless, the apparent dilution of PDD 25 continued to concern the press. One questioner wanted to know, ‘How can this guy [Gen. Baril] be in charge of the whole thing?’ In response the Senior Pentagon Official seemed at pains ‘to point out the Canadians have been strong and loyal allies for a long time’.(67)

Following America’s lead, Britain offered a force at ‘battalion strength’. Echoing the White House, the British Defence Minister, Michael Portillo, emphasised that, ‘the mission would not include disarming the militias or policing the refugee camps’.(68) Typically, the French offered to have troops, prepositioned in Brazzaville, on the ground in Zaire ‘within four or five hours of the vote at the UN’.(69) The French military, cryptically, described their perceived mission as dissuading ‘hostiles’.(70)

A secondary objective of Resolution 1080 was the inclusion of Africans in the peacekeeping effort; if not in the initial multinational force, then as the backbone to an ensuant force of an indeterminate ‘concept, mandate, structure, size and duration’.(71) Troops from Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali and Senegal were offered. However, the fact that the costs of the operation were to ‘be borne by the participating Member States’, plus an, as yet, unestablished ‘voluntary trust fund with the purpose of supporting African participation in the multinational force’,(72) suggests that it was unlikely any of those states could be represented in the short term.

The response of the OAU was concomitant with the Organisation’s current posture on conflict resolution within the framework of the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, instituted in 1993. The principles that underpin the Mechanism merely recognise `the need for [Africa] to take primary ownership of its own problems’,(73) and that `the UN together with Regional and sub-regional Organizations and arrangements should…[frame] new approaches to crisis prevention, management and resolution’.(74) Despite annual meetings of the Mechanism’s Central Organ and the establishment of a Joint OAU/International Peace Academy Task Force, the crucial, and enduring, insufficiency of OAU Charter mandate and funding continues to stymie the operationalisation of the Mechanism. Echoing the position taken by the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government, the Chiefs of Staff of Member States of the Central Organ of the Mechanism emphasised that the prime responsibility of the OAU, as it stands, lies with conflict prevention. Whilst recommending the ‘commissioning of a study with a view to clarifying and making recommendations’ on ‘certain exceptional circumstances’ in which the OAU might deploy troops within the Mechanism, the responsibility for ‘maintenance of international peace and security’ remains with the UN Security Council.(75) Nonetheless, much of the Fourth Extraordinary Session of the Central Organ, held in mid-November 1996, was concerned with the crisis in Kivu. Apart from the formulaic expressions of ‘grave concern’ and appeals for ‘an immediate cessation of hostilities and for restraint’, the most salient conclusions concerned the composition of any intervention force, most particularly the ‘pivotal’ participation of a strong African contingent.(76) Conscious of the resource constraints that would face any potential African troop-contributor, the Central Organ emphasised that ‘financial, logistic and material resources should be provided on a very reliable, dependable and sustainable basis’.(77) As ever, most analysts recognised the severe limitations of the OAU in conflict resolution. Yusuf Bangura, commending a pan-African response, called on neutral regional states – Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya, backed by South Africa – to spearhead an intervention that would minimise the neo-imperialist shades of external intervention.(78)

For its part, the leading role undertaken by Canada did not escape without criticism. Canadian units in UNOSOM in Somalia and UNPROFOR in Bosnia had been accused of serious breaches of discipline, including torture. Thus, Operation Assurance offered an opportunity to regenerate its 40 year tradition of peacekeeping. Moreover, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was facing a general election in 1997. The first Canadian to interpose himself on the ground, as UN special envoy to the region, was Canadian ambassador to the US, and prime ministerial nephew, Raymond Chrétien. Unable to negotiate a ceasefire, in the words of the Toronto Sun’s Robert Fife, ‘it took one phone call from Ambassador Chrétien for Uncle Jean to swing into action’.(79) The impression that the political agenda outweighed the supposed humanitarian intent was underlined by both the ill-preparedness of the Canadian armed forces, and the muddled misinterpretation of the required mandate for the operation. A retired Canadian peacekeeping veteran, Col. Sean Henry, speculated that the army was, ‘thrashing about all over the place trying to dredge up people. It could have been another Somalia’.(80) Moreover, the thrust of the Chrétien government’s apprehension of peacekeeping was constrained by former Canadian experience of traditional Chapter VI interventions, rather than the robust Chapter VII mandate passed by the Security Council. The government, mindful of the extreme danger to its troops, rejected any efforts to disarm the ex-FAR and Interahamwe militias, despite the apparent non-viability of attempting to provide aid and security for the refugees without disarmament as a prerequisite. After the exodus of refugees back to Rwanda, Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, persisted in declaring a role for an intervention force. The response from Rwanda was terse and ironic, ‘We don’t need them. Unless they are edible, they won’t be much good’.(81)

The day before the Security Council vote, and, presumably, a day plus ‘four or five hours’ before French troops arrived on the ground, Michela Wrong reported from an alarming press conference given by Raymond Chrétien as he attempted to make sense of the highly equivocal Resolution 1080 – ‘In a presentation peppered with “I have no answer to that question”, he acknowledged that the UN force would have to have dealings with the rebels, but would show “total respect” for Zairean national sovereignty. It seemed a masterly exercise in self-contradictory UN-speak’.(82) Yet, at the same time as these final ‘arrangements’ were being made, events in Zaire were ensuring that the essential mandate of the force – the voluntary repatriation of the refugees – had already been substantially addressed. A sustained attack by the AFDL on Mugunga camp forced a retreat by the FAR and Interahamwe. On 15 November the World Food Programme (WFP), monitoring events from the Rwandan side of the border, having been refused clearance to cross into Goma or Bukavu, reported 100,000 refugees moving from Mugunga camp to the Petite Barrière border point.(83) By 18 November the WFP had raised their estimate to a total of 500,000 people returning to their Rwandan communities from Mugunga and Kibumba camps with a further exodus of 200,000 refugees from the camps around Katale towards Masisi.(84)


Ironically, the refugee question had been partially ameliorated by a military intervention. Whilst, the de facto military intervention by Rwanda and Uganda in support of the AFDL did not definitively end the refugee crisis, it did effectively extinguish the possibility of a large-scale peace enforcement mission. Despite, UNHCR estimates that 700,000 people remained missing in eastern Zaire, the initial exodus encouraged reflection on behalf of troop contributors. In the US, the chair of the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee wanted to know whether there was ‘still a useful role to be played by a multinational force’.(85) The Canadians downgraded Operation Assurance to an airdrop mission. By 8 December even Paris had admitted that the window for a multilateral intervention had closed and on 14 December the UN shelved the plan to deploy in force.(86)

The repercussions of the non-implementation of Operation Assurance were immense. The AFDL were able to secure a bridgehead in Kivu from which they launched their meteoric campaign in the rest of the country. In the short-term, Kagame (and Museveni) had diluted, or displaced, the insurrectionary threat on their borders. The precipitate exodus of between 500,000 and 700,000 refugees from the desperate camps in north and south Kivu did not eradicate the security threat to the Kigali government, but shifted the problem of ex-FAR and Interahamwe militias to other parts of Zaire and back to Rwanda and Burundi. Conveniently minimising the role of the AFDL, the US, Britain and, more ruefully, Canada sought to wring a measure of self-congratulation out of the refugees’ return. The British Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Nicholas Soames, suggested that, ‘it was possible that [the] decision to mount a multilateral force was instrumental in persuading the Hutu militia to flee and the refugees to return home’.(87) Canada’s Minister of Defence, Douglas Young, commented, ‘our view on it is that we’ve had a remarkable success here. Two weeks ago when we really moved into high gear in trying to marshall some support for humanitarian aid to the folks in Zaire, I don’t think anyone would have dreamt that we would have over 500,000 people back in Rwanda without having had to deploy or fire a shot’.(88) Yet, as Paris was quick to point out, hundreds of thousands of refugees remained missing in Zaire, and continued to suffer, and still continue to suffer, in the bush. In the wake of a disastrous denouement for French African policy, Hervé de Charette, in a spurious attempt to claim the moral high ground, nonetheless conveyed a basic truth about the current reluctance of such states as the US and Britain to intervene in Kivu – ‘c’est parce que ce sont des Africains’.(89)

The diplomatic gloss applied to the justifications and prevarications that surrounded Operation Assurance concealed deeper consequences for future peacekeeping interventions in Africa. The potential for a humanitarian intervention in Kivu provided an opportunity for both the US and the UN to realign their peacekeeping strategies in Africa, three years after Operation Restore Hope. Yet, clearly, misgivings engendered by that experience persisted. The UN confirmed that it had abandoned outgoing Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s tentative aspirations, articulated in An Agenda for Peace, for the organisation to be the prime instigator and actor in peacekeeping interventions. The UN had reverted to its conventional role of diplomatic facilitator and ultimate authority to sanction intervention under Chapter VII. The onus for operational realisation had shifted to relevant regional bodies and willing, viable troop contributors. In Bosnia-Herzegovina the lame UN-sponsored peacekeeping mission, UNPROFOR, had been replaced by a robust Chapter VII force organised by NATO with a substantial US component. The analogous actors in Kivu proved a poor comparison. The OAU, apart from its utter penury, has scant experience in peacekeeping, little institutional capacity to handle an intervention and a specific Charter obligation that proscribes interference in the internal affairs of its member states. The only genuine regional power, South Africa, had indicated that domestic constraints precluded anything other than a marginal role in any intervention.

Thus, in lieu of other realistic options, any peacekeeping mission depended on extra-African intervention. Yet the traditional, indeed ubiquitous, intervenor in the region was irrevocably partisan. For France, Turquoise had become an intervention too far. Regardless of the truth behind French claims that the US was dragging its feet in an effort to win the AFDL time to take Mugunga camp, it was clear that Paris desperately needed an intervention, and yet, for almost the first time , felt incapable of acting unilaterally. Whilst there has been a perceptible shift away from established chasse gardée policies throughout the 1990s, France’s failure to engineer a reprieve for Mobutu stands as a watershed in Franco-African relations. Undoubtedly, the US regards African intervention as uniquely dangerous and seldom in its national interest. Nonetheless, as Mel McNulty argues, ‘the legacy of French military intervention…has similarly discredited foreign (i.e. non-African) military intervention, and undermined the post-Cold War model of ‘forcible humanitarian’ or ‘militaro-humanitarian’ intervention…It may also herald both the demise in Africa of the New International Order (where its presumed benefits were least apparent), and the possible dawning of an age of New Western Humility.’(90)

The crisis in Kivu emphasised the gulf between rhetoric and reality in African conflict resolution discourse and consolidated a non-interventionist policy on the part of external powers and the UN. Is it viable or desirable for African states to follow an interventionist route? Africa has scant material or institutional capacity to construct a force by itself. Yet, African leaders and the OAU have cast a jaundiced eye at US, French and British proposals for a pan-African rapid reaction force to be supported and trained by the West. As Roy May and Gerry Cleaver stress, ‘until the political decisions on organisation are taken, Africa will remain more dependent on others than it needs to be, and the notion of Africans keeping or enforcing the peace on their own continent will remain merely a notion’.(91)


1. Associated Press, 7 June 1997.

2. Economist, 27 September 1997.

3. The Times, 5 November 1996.

4. Ibid., p.21.

5. Rhoda Howard, `Civil conflict in sub-saharan Africa: internally generated causes’, International Journal 11/4 (Winter 1995-96) pp.27-53.

6. Africa Research Bulletin 33/10 (October 1996) p.12421.

7. P. Rigby, African Images: Racism and the End of Anthropology (Oxford: Berg 1996), p.65.

8. James Fenton, ‘A Short History of Anti-Hamitism’, New York Review of Books, 15 February 1996, p.7.

9. Ibid. p.7.

10. Richard Dowden, `The State Has Melted, the Killing Continues’, The World Today, December 1996, p.305.

11. Fenton (note 8) p.8.

12. Financial Times, 31 October 1996.

13. New African, December 1996.

14. Financial Times, 31 October 1996.

15. Africa Confidential 29/22, 1 November 1996, p.1.

16. Guardian, 21 October 1996.

17. Financial Times, 22 October 1996.

18. Peace Watch, February 1997.

19. `Press Statement by the Regional Summit on the Crisis in Eastern Zaire’ provided by Relief Web <> 5 November 1996.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Africa Confidential 37/22, 1 November 1996, p.3.

23. The Times, 24 March 1997.

24. Keesing’s Record of World Events, October 1996, p.41302.

25. Africa Research Bulletin 33/10 (October 1996) p.12422.

26. Financial Times, 8 November 1996.

27. Financial Times, 11 November 1996.

28. Guardian, 27 November 1996.

29. Guardian, 13 November 1996.

30. Ibid., p.13.

31. Libération, 10 November 1996.

32. The Times, 7 November 1996.

33. `Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire’, Amnesty International Report AI Index AFR 62/29/96 (December 1996) p.6.

34. Ibid., p.10.

35. Hervé de Charette, `Entretien du Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, M. Hervé de Charette’, Paris, 6 November 1996, <>.

36. Ibid.

37. Financial Times, 14 November 1996.

38. The Times, 8 November 1996.

39. Pres. Pasteur Bizimungu quoted in, Financial Times,

9 November 1996.

40. Africa Confidential 37/24, 29 November 1996, p.3.

41. Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (London: Hurst 1995), p.189.

42. The Times, 4 November 1996.

43. Ibid., p.13.

44. Libération, 6 November 1996.

45. Laurent Bijard, `Rwanda-Zaire: Une Guerre Entre Bourreaux et Victimes’, Le Nouvel Observateur, 7 November 1996, p.31.

46. Financial Times, 8 November 1996.

47. Financial Times, 8 November 1996.

48. Libération, 13 November 1996.

49. Observer, 18 May 1997.

50. Ibid., p.27.

51. Independent, 5 April 1997.

52. David Smock, ‘USIP Special Report on Zaire: Zaire’s Crisis of War and Governance’ <> 16 January 1997.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Action Alert (Washington Office on Africa),`Support for Peacekeeping at Risk'<gopher://>, February 1995.

57. Quoted in Paul J. Schraeder, United States Foreign Policy Toward Africa: Incrementalism, Crisis and Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1994) p.107.

58. C.L.Staten, ‘Situation Report; Selected Events – Uganda/Zaire/Burundi’, ERRI <> November 1996.

59. Alain Rouvez, A., Disconsolate Empires: French, British and Belgian Military Involvement in Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa (New York: University Press of America, 1994).

60. ‘Draft White Paper on National Defence for the Republic of South Africa’, 21 June 1995, p.15.

61. African Confidential 37/22, 1 November 1996, p.4.

62. Africa Confidential 37/24, 29 November 1996, p.4.

63. West Africa, 28 October 1996, p.1671.

64. Senior Pentagon Official, ‘Defenselink News: Background Briefing: Zaire’ <>, 13 November 1996.

65. S/Res/1080 (1996).

66. Senior Pentagon Official (note 64).

67. Ibid.

68. Hansard, 14 November 1996 pt.5 col.488.

69. Libération, 14 November 1996.

70. Ibid., p.3.

71. S/Res/1080 (1996).

72. S/Res/1080 (1996).

73. See Chris Bakwesegha,`The Role of the Organization of African Unity in Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution in the Context of the Political Evolution of Africa’, African Journal on Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution 1/1 (1997), p.9.

74. Ibid., p.9.

75. ‘IPA Seminar on Peacemaking and Peacekeeping: The Seminar Report’, Addis Ababa, 13-21 December 1996, p.26.

76. ‘Communiqué issued by the fourth extraordinary session of the Central Organ of the OAU Mechanism for the Prevention, Management, and Resolution at the level of ministers’, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance <>, November 1996.

77. Ibid.

78. West Africa, 6 January 1997, p.18.

79. Alberta Report, 9 December 1996.

80. Ibid.

81. Kagame aide Claude Dusaidi quoted in, ibid.

82. Financial Times, 15 November 1996.

83. World Food Programme Situation Report 19, 15 November 1996.

84. World Food Programme Situation Report 22, 18 November 1996.

85. Christopher Smith quoted in ‘Refugees in Eastern Zaire and Rwanda’ <http//> 4 December 1996.

86. Economist Intelligence Unit Country Profile: Zaire, 1st Quarter 1997, p.25.

87. Hansard, 20 November 1996 pt.24 col.979.

88. ‘Defenselink News: Department of Defense News Brief’ <> 25 November 1997.

89. Libération, 26 November 1996.

90. Mel McNulty, ‘”Un bilan très positif”? the legacy of French Military Intervention in Rwanda, 1990-94, Conference on Africa, France and the United States, Centre d’Etude d’Afrique Noire (CEAN), Bordeaux, 22-24 May 1997.

91. Roy May and Gerry Cleaver, ‘African Peacekeeping: Still Dependent?’ International Peacekeeping 4/2 (Summer 1997) p.18.

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