Ghosts of First Congo War still restless in Central Africa, Horn

Saturday October 29 2022
Ituri War in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Militiamen stand guard on September 19, 2020 during a meeting with former warlords from the 1999-2003 Ituri War in the Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO | ALEXIS HUGUET | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

October 24 passed quietly in the Great Lakes and East African regions. It should not have. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front rebels and the Ethiopian federal government were to begin peace talks in South Africa to end their two-year war.

After a brief ceasefire, the fighting between the two sides resumed in August, and in alliance with neighbour Eritrea, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government scored a string of victories in Tigray, retaking various towns. The ferocity of the conflict and the ravages of famine, according to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium, have killed as many as 600,000 people.

Ethiopia and Eritrea were on the same side in another conflict in Central Africa, which became known as the "First Congo War," and which started on October 24, 1996. That should have been marked. In war history books, on that date Rwanda, fed up with deadly cross-border attacks by the Zairean (as DR Congo was called then) army and the forces behind the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi who were holed up in the eastern part of the country, led the rebels who would eventually overthrow dictator Mobutu Sese Seko into the war. They helped Laurent-Désiré Kabila, billed as a revolutionary then, and his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFLC) to seize power in Kinshasa just over six months later on May 16, 1997.

Largest concert

That war, and subsequent ones, drew the largest concert of African nations in a single conflict on the continent. A bosom ally of Rwanda then, Uganda also played a significant role in the war. Burundi then jumped in on Rwanda and Uganda's side.

Zambia and Zimbabwe then threw in their lot behind the anti-Mobutu forces. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), then a rebel movement still fighting for what would eventually be independence for a new South Sudan nation, got in on the action with them.


Eritrea, a close ally of Kigali then, sent a battalion to support the anti-Mobutu coalition. Ethiopia joined the war on their side, as did South Africa. Concerned about the SPLA establishing itself in Congo, the Sudan government in Khartoum backed Mobutu. Mobutu's side also got help from the Central African Republic, and Chad sent troops. Jonas Savimbi's rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola joined Mobutu's side.

30 countries

Angola, then with the second or third mightiest army in Africa, threw its lot with the anti-Mobutu camp, closing the last path Mobutu might have had to survive. Counting the African nations who went in under the radar and non-African actors who lined up on both sides, there were an upwards of 30 countries embroiled in the First Congo War.

Philip Roessler and Harry Verhoeven's 2016 book, Why Comrades Go to War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa's Deadliest Conflict, is probably the best book on the dynamics that drew so many to the Congo conflict and the crisis that refused to release its grip on the country. Even then, it tells perhaps only 25 per cent of the story. The spirits of October 24, 1996 remain restless. The mystery is still crying to be revealed.