Testimony of David Smock before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the caucus today. As you know, the U.S. Institute of Peace is an independent federal institution created and funded by Congress to promote research, education, and training on international conflict prevention, management, and resolution. While the focus today is on the Great Lakes Region, I would like to mention that the Institute is involved in a number of other endeavors, and our staff is always available to brief Members on the Institute's work.

The Great Lakes Region in general and Zaire in particular experienced a dramatic turn of events starting in September 1996 following the announcement by a provincial official in Zaire that the longtime Tutsi residents in Zaire, called the Banyamulenge, would be expelled from Zaire. Despite their having migrated to Zaire nearly 200 years ago, the Zaire government denied them Zairian citizenship in the early 1980s. This threat of expulson by the Zaire government was reinforced by Hutu chauvinists in the refugee camps in Zaire who began spreading anti-Tutsi propaganda and in some cases trying to take control of Tutsi-held lands in Eastern Zaire for themselves. Hutu guerrillas managed to drive most Zairian Tutsis out of the Masisi and Rutshuru regions using terrorist tactics.

After Zairian soldiers started attacking Banyamulenga Tutsi in South Kivu Province in September and October, a well armed group of predominantly Tutsi rebels emerged and attacked Zairian army posts and Rwandan refugee camps, first around the towns of Uvira and Bukuvu, and then subsequently in and around the northern camps surrounding Goma. The attacks on these camps broke the tight control on the hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees imposed by the Hutu militias who had kept most of the Hutus from returning to Rwanda.

Once the Hutu militias had been routed and fled from the camps further west into Zaire, most of the Hutu refugees started returning by the hundreds of thousands to their homes in Rwanda, which they had fled in 1994. Other Hutu refugees moved west into Zaire with the Hutu forces, but slowly most of them returned to Rwanda as well. The Zairian army retreated to Kisangani, but the Tutsi rebel group continued to engage and defeat the Hutu militias as they fled west into Zaire.

While these events have the most immediate impact on Rwanda, the longer term implications for Zaire as well as for the rest of Central Africa are very considerable. The Zairian army has been humiliated once again. President Mobutu, convalescing from treatment for prostate cancer in his estate in Nice, is trying to find some quick fix to bolster his troops so that they can regain their credibility and assert some control over eastern Zaire. However, Mobutu's bag of tricks may at last be empty. The purpose of the rebel group is not merely to rout the Hutu militias and precipitate the return of the Hutu refugees back to Rwanda, although that was clearly the first goal and most likely the principal goal of the Rwandan army in supporting the Tutsi rebels. Of first order importance to the Banyamulenge is their wish to protect their property and their right to remain in Zaire.

The principal leader of the rebel group, Laurent Desire Kabila, who is a long-time Zairian revolutionary and not himself a Tutsi but from southern Shaba province, wishes to overthrow the regime of President Mobutu. While that goal seems distant and probably unattainable in the short-term, Kabila and his forces have established a region in eastern Zaire outside the control of Zairian authorities and they clearly intend to maintain that autonomy as well as augmenting the territory under their control. In recent days rebel leaders claim to have captured towns at the northern and southern ends of a 250-front along Zaire's eastern border. This advance includes some penetration of Kisangani, which is a major port city and the site of a major Zairian air base.The southern portion of the territory captured includes a diamond and gold mining center.

In the short term, the takeover in the east has rallied Zairian public opinion against foreign invaders using local proxies. Even the opposition and civil society have supported President Mobutu in his condemnation of Rwanda and the rebels. They have also applauded France for its willingness to intervene on the side of Zaire and decried the United States for its uncritical support of Rwanda.

But this unity may be short-lived. Regardless of whether the rebellion in the east is sustained, it is possible that the prevailing acceptance in Zaire of non-violent opposition may be shattered. This could mean that many other disaffected populations in the country may be willing to use arms that are so easily available. Thus the rebels in the east could catalyze others to spread violence that Zaire has thus far succeeded in avoiding.

The crisis has implications for several other countries in the region as well. Zaire has given invaluable support over many years to the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi in Angola. With the peace process in Angola still unconcluded, Savimbi wishes to maintain this relationship which requires the maintainance of Zairian stability and integrity. Savimbi may also have been supporting the Hutu militias based in Zaire. Thus developments in Zaire have implications for peace in Angola, and Savimbi will want to continue to influence events in Zaire.

The Tutsi dominated rebel forces operating in eastern Zaire have very likely received training and material support from Rwanda. In turn, Zaire considers itself to be at war with Rwanda. The dismanting of Hutu refugee camps and militia bases by the Tutsi rebels also dislogded some of the bases for Burundi Hutu rebels pursuing a civil war in neighborning Burundi. This will inevitably have serious implications for the civil war in Burundi, and it is entirely possible that the Tutsi rebels coordinated their initial attacks on the Hutu refugees and militias both with the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan government and the Tutsi-controlled Burundi regime.

Another international wrinkle is that Zaire is giving sanctuary to a rebel movement trying to bring down the Ugandan government. This movement is in turn supported by the Islamist regime of Sudan in retaliation for Ugandan support for southern Sudanese fighting against the regime in Khartoum. The Ugandan army has in recent days joined the Tutsi rebels in Zaire in attacking both the Ugandan rebels and the Zaire army that defended them. Uganda has also been the principal international supporter of the Tutsi-regime in Rwanda and may have joined Rwanda in sanctioning the initial Tutsi rebel attacks on Hutu camps in Zaire.

The complications and international ramifications of recent events in Zaire are thus far-reaching. And the international response must be regional in scope and wholistic. Moreover, the international response must be closely coordinated among the principal international actors, and based on collaboration and not competition and conflict between the U.S. and the French, as well as the Belgians.


The views expressed in this testimony are those of the author, not the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not take positions on policy issues.

Related Publications

Oil Blockades, Protests and Resignations: The Latest on Libya’s Conflict

Oil Blockades, Protests and Resignations: The Latest on Libya’s Conflict

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

By: Nate Wilson

As global and regional players jockey for influence, international efforts to resolve the conflict remain stymied and ineffective. Meanwhile, Libya’s vast oil reserves—which provided a decent standard of living for many Libyans prior to 2011—have been under blockade, devasting the economy and livelihoods and leading to mounting frustration among Libyans. Further muddying the waters, the prime minister of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, announced he would step down in October and transfer power to a new administration.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

China-Venezuela Relations in the Twenty-First Century: From Overconfidence to Uncertainty

China-Venezuela Relations in the Twenty-First Century: From Overconfidence to Uncertainty

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

By: Matt Ferchen

The outsized ambitions and scale of the China-Venezuela political and financial relationship in the twenty-first century have meant that its failures and disappointments have been correspondingly large. This report explores how the nations came to be involved, how each side has responded to Venezuela’s extended economic and political crisis, and the implications for the future of the bilateral relationship and for China’s aspirations to be a leader and agent of international development.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Prospects for Crisis Management on the China-India Border

Prospects for Crisis Management on the China-India Border

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

By: Patricia M. Kim; Vikram J. Singh

After a deadly skirmish in June and shots fired in September, Sino-Indian tensions have escalated to a level not seen in decades. Both countries’ foreign ministers recently agreed to a five-point framework to manage the situation, showing both sides want tensions to plateau rather than deteriorate further. But the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will not easily go back to a well-managed bilateral irritant—right now, it’s a dangerous flashpoint and likely to stay that way. USIP’s Vikram Singh and Patricia Kim look at the recent discussions, what’s driving the escalation, how the conflict affects the region, and what history can tell us about how it might be resolved.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications