The U.S. power play in Africa

December 12, 2008

James Moy asks some important questions in his recent letter about the current war in the Kivu regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ("What is the U.S. doing in Congo?").

The involvement of the United States government appears paradoxical: Why has it has been sustaining both sides of the conflict? On the one hand, the U.S. helps bankroll and lead the United Nations' MONUC soldiers acting in support of DRC president Joseph Kabila, while at the same time the U.S. provides military training and funding to the opposing Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed militias, which include Laurent Nkunda. As Moy questions, "Wouldn't it be easier to exploit the mineral resources and Congolese labor if the U.S. tried to end the conflict by decisively supporting one side or the other?"

This question can only be answered by looking at how broader U.S. interests in the area actually led to the current civil war in the first place.

U.S. mining investments are scattered across neighboring Rwanda, while Uganda is a regional military and political hub for the U.S., situated between mining areas, and the oil-rich territories in the western Sudan and the Horn of Africa. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide and civil war, the U.S. backed the new Tutsi-led regime in neighboring Rwanda, to undermine longstanding French political and economic influence in the region. (The French had backed the previous Hutu-led regime in Rwanda.)

This is why the U.S. supported Rwandan forces when they invaded Eastern Congo and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees--some armed, but most not--in the name of protecting Tutsi survivors. Forging Rwandan allegiance, political and corporate, was far more important to the U.S. than the lives ordinary Hutus.

For a brief moment at the end of the 1990s, all U.S. interests appeared be lining up. In 1997, the US, Rwanda and Uganda joined forces to overthrown Joseph Mobutu, a dictator who had headed the DRC (then, Zaire) for over 30 years. Mobutu's brutal rule had, in fact, been initiated and maintained by the U.S. government for decades, but by the 1990s, his regime had become something of a liability for the U.S.

The new president, Laurent Kabila, (the father of current president Joseph Kabila), was installed with U.S., Rwandan and Ugandan backing, but decided to no longer cater to the wishes of his neighboring allies after just a year. This threatened to cut short Uganda and Rwanda's pillaging of resources in the east and they responded by attempting to overthrow Kabila.

Today, Laurent Nkunda and his Rwandan backers still use the rhetoric of "protecting Tutsis" to justify their battle against the DRC troops and mayi-mayi militias. Certainly, Tutsis have legitimate grievances, and Hutu fighters who took part in the Tutsi genocide remain protected in the eastern Congo, (some organized under the Forces Démocratiques de Liberation du Rwanda, or FDLR). But Nkunda's rhetoric, as in the previous invasions backed by Rwanda and Uganda, actually obscures their true aim: gaining control of mining areas.

In attempts to have its cake and eat it too, the U.S. has now unleashed a maelstrom that it cannot easily control. Continued support for Uganda and Rwanda are crucial to its military and economic positioning on the continent, but it cannot simply break ties with new DRC president Joseph Kabila. Formally, mining contracts are still obtained through the DRC administration, and with China having just settled a multi-million dollar contract with Kabila, to challenge his democratically elected administration outright would risk confrontation with China and countries like Angola and Zimbabwe, who support Kabila militarily.

Even if the U.S. could intervene decisively to guarantee a more stable environment in the Kivu regions, instability since 1994 has actually been the means by which many foreign profiteers have been able to move into the region. In a recent interview, Ernest Wamba Dia Wamba states that since the fall of Joseph Mobuto in 1997 "many neighboring countries would rather prefer having a weak Congo around, especially if they can even benefit from that weakness by engaging also in the looting of resources in the Congo."

Because these neighboring countries have deals with U.S. corporations, the wealth from such extraction has often ended up in the hands of the U.S. ruling class. Greater stability may certainly allow foreign corporations to increase investment and exploitation, but in the meantime, they continue to support bloodshed as a means to continued profiteering.

Lastly, Moy asks about the form of U.S. weapons trade to virtually all of the countries involved in the fighting. U.S. arms and military training have reached the various parties involved in the fighting both through private sales and direct government-to-government agreements. I would recommend reading a 2000 report from the Arms Trade Resource Center, entitled "Deadly Legacy: U.S. Arms to Africa and the Congo War."

Important background on U.S. government and corporate connections to the conflict are also available in Keith Harmon Snow's "Behind the Numbers: Untold Suffering in the Congo."
Matt Swagler, New York City

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