Africa has the shape of a pistol, and Congo is its trigger.



The few visitors to Rwanda in the months after the genocide found a smoldering, destroyed landscape. A third of the country had fled to Tanzania, Zaire, and Burundi, running from the Rwandan Patriotic Front—the Tutsi rebellion led by Paul Kagame—and shepherded on by the army and militia that had carried out the genocide. In Kigali, the capital, the insides of houses had been gutted, spilling clothes, toilet paper, stuffed animals, and trash onto the sidewalks. Not knowing when they would come back, or perhaps out of spite for the advancing rebels, fleeing militiamen and civilians had stripped doors off their hinges, removed glass panes from windows, and unearthed sewage pipes and miles of electric cable. Empty bullet casings littered the streets, which were patrolled by UN cars—the only ones apart from a few RPF pickups and civilian cars still on the roads.

In the countryside, crops rotted in the field for want of workers to harvest them, and thousands of bodies choked the country’s waterways, filling the air with the cloying stench of rotting flesh for months. Red Cross and aid workers trekked the hills on foot, dousing the corpses with lime to prevent disease, pending burial.

The new rulers of the country drearily inspected the shell-pocked government buildings. In the ministry of justice, filing cabinets floated in a soup of sewage and documents. The hallways of Parliament were littered with debris, bricks, and dangling electrical wires. For the meantime, the RPF’s offices were located in the Meridien Hotel, where the plumbing didn’t work and sandbags still lined the lightless reception area and the poolside, and RPF officials, UN workers, and journalists worked side-by-side.

The new government faced bleak days ahead. Not a cent was left in the Central Bank. There were no cars, computers, or telephones left for the new government to use; even the stationery and paper clips were gone. There was no electricity or running water in much of the country; generators in the hospitals were turned on just several hours a day for surgery and emergency operations. An estimated 114,000 children had been orphaned by the genocide and needed looking after; 150,000 houses had been destroyed.

The most striking absence was people. Kigali had turned into a ghost town: 40 percent of the population was dead or in exile. In the capital, the numbers had shrunk from 350,000 to 80,000, and many of those were the RPF and their families or members of the Tutsi diaspora returned after decades in exile.

Amid the rubble, the new rulers tried to craft a sort of normalcy. The RPF named a government with a diverse cabinet. The president and prime minister were both Hutus, and many ministers were from political parties other than the RPF, although the military and Vice President Paul Kagame still wielded the most power. All across the country, teams of civil servants and volunteers set about cleaning up the debris, burying bodies, and rebuilding key installations.

No family was spared by the violence. Over 90 percent of children and youths had witnessed violence and believed they would die; only slightly fewer had experienced a death in their family. A study published in a psychiatric journal estimated that one-fourth of all Rwandans suffered from posttraumatic stress syndrome.1 They called these people ihahamuka, “without lungs” or “breathless with fear.” They would walk through town, catatonic, jumping when a bus honked or someone came up behind them unannounced. Many families adopted orphans of the genocide or took in distraught relatives. Paul Kagame himself took in five children.2

The genocide formed the grim backdrop to the preparations for the RPF’s invasion of the Congo. It was the starting point for everything that followed in Rwanda: politics, culture, the economy—everything. It transfixed society and dominated the government’s vision for the future. More importantly, the empty houses and abandoned villages reminded the country’s leaders that the war was not yet over. On the radio in the west of the country, on the border with Congo, one could hear the government in exile broadcasting from the refugee camps, claiming to be Rwanda’s legitimate government. For the survivors of the genocide, many of whom had lost members of their families, the génocidaires’ presence in the camps was a living insult.


Rwanda’s unquestionable ruler was Paul Kagame. Officially, the thirty-seven-year-old was vice president and minister of defense, but he had led the RPF since the early days of the rebellion and had firm control over the government. A gaunt, bony man with wire-rimmed spectacles and a methodical style of speaking, Kagame left an impression on people. He didn’t smoke, drink, or have much time for expensive clothes or beautiful women. He wasn’t given to flowery speech or elaborate protocol. His wardrobe apparently only contained drab, double-breasted suits that hung loosely from his thin frame, plain polo shirts, and combat fatigues. The only entertainment he apparently indulged in was tennis, which he played at the Sports Club with RPF colleagues and diplomats. Passersby would be alarmed by the soldiers standing guard with machine guns.

Kagame’s obsessions were order and discipline. He personally expropriated his ministers’ vehicles when he thought those public funds could have been used for a better purpose. He exuded ambition, browbeating his ministers when they didn’t live up to his expectations. He complained to a journalist: “In the people here, there is something I cannot reconcile with. It’s people taking their time when they should be moving fast, people tolerating mediocrity when things could be done better. I feel they are not bothered, not feeling the pressure of wanting to be far ahead of where we are. That runs my whole system.”3

This asceticism had been forged in the harsh conditions of exile. Kagame’s first memories were of houses burning on the hills and his panicked mother scrambling into a car as a local mob ran after them. This was in 1961, when anticipation of independence from Belgium had led to pogroms against the Tutsi community, which had been privileged by the colonial government. Around 78,000 Tutsi had fled to Uganda, with another 258,000 going to other neighboring countries.4 Like many RPF leaders, Kagame grew up as a refugee in Uganda, living in a grass-thatched hut while attending school on a scholarship.

“You will always hear me talking about the importance of dignity,” he later commented.

It is really the key to people’s lives, and obviously for me it relates back to the refugee camp, the lining up for food every day, the rationing. When we started primary school, we used to study under a tree. We used to write on our thighs with a piece of dry, hard grass, and the teacher would come over and look at your thigh, and write his mark with another piece of dry grass. You develop some sense of questioning, some sense of justice, saying, “Why do I live like this? Why should anybody live like this?”5

The squalid conditions of the refugee camps and the animosity of their Ugandan neighbors were constant reminders that this was not his real home. His mother was from the royal family in Rwanda—his great-aunt had been the queen—and their stories of royal grandeur and authority were a far cry from the UN handouts they lived on in the camps. When his schoolmates went to play, he preferred to sit with former Tutsi guerrilla fighters and listen to stories about their battle against the Hutu-dominated regime in the 1960s.6

After he finished high school, Kagame ventured across the border to see for himself what his fabled homeland had become. He was harassed for being a Tutsi, but he felt exhilarated by being among his people on his land. He sat in bars, sipping a soft drink and listening to conversations. He spent several afternoons walking by the presidential palace in Kigali, drawn magnetically to the seat of power that was at the root of his exile in Uganda, until security guards got suspicious and told him to scram.

Back in Uganda, fellow refugees told him about a Ugandan rebellion that was being formed in Tanzania to overthrow the dictator Idi Amin, who had discriminated against the refugees for years. Led by Yoweri Museveni, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) recruited heavily among the Tutsi refugees. It seemed perfect for the twenty-two-year-old Kagame, who was itching to rise up out of the squalor of the camps. His stern and disciplined temperament drew him to work in military intelligence, a branch that shaped his outlook on politics. He received training in Tanzania, in Cuba, and, much later, at Fort Leavenworth in the United States.

When the NRM took power in 1986, Kagame’s fierce discipline earned him a position at the head of the military courts, investigating and prosecuting soldiers’ breaches of discipline. Among detractors and supporters alike, he became known as “Pilato,” short for Pontius Pilate, because of the harsh way he dealt with any violation of the military code. Soldiers who stole from civilians or embezzled fuel from military stocks would be locked up; more serious violations could earn a place in front of a firing squad. “He can’t stand venality or indiscipline—it provokes an almost physical reaction of disgust in him,” a Ugandan journalist who knew him during this time, remembered.7

Kagame was soon promoted to become the head of Ugandan military intelligence, a position that provided a perfect vantage point from which to pursue his true ambition: overthrowing the Rwandan government. He plotted together with other Rwandan refugees who had risen to leadership positions in the Ugandan army, positioning stocks of weapons and secretly recruiting other Rwandans to their cause.

In 1990, they attacked.

The guerrilla struggle in Rwanda was marked by self-sacrifice and harsh conditions. In the early years of the rebellion, the RPF was beaten back into the high-altitude bamboo forests of the volcanoes in northwestern Rwanda, where temperatures at night dropped to freezing and there was little food or dry firewood. Kagame enforced draconian discipline, executing soldiers suspected of treason or trying to desert.8 He perfected his hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, harrying the enemy, attacking convoys, but never engaging in large, conventional battles.

People who met Kagame and his RPF colleagues during this time were impressed by the rebels’ dedication. The refugee camps and years in exile had steeled them and made them rely on each other. This ethic was not new to their culture. The precolonial Rwandan kingdom had been forged over centuries of warfare, leading to a central, Tutsi-led royal court with large standing armies. Stories of great Tutsi warriors were embellished and passed down through the generations. The most famous Rwandan dance, intore, was a war dance that the RPF themselves sometimes practiced around the campfire, stamping their feet and mimicking cows’ horns with their arms.

Kagame’s exploits and discipline earned him praise from around the world. General John Shalikashvili, the American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, studied Kagame’s military tactics and praised him as one of the best guerrilla leaders in decades.9 “Kagame is an intellectual figure. I would rate him as a firstrate operational fighter,” a former director of the U.S. Army School for Advanced Military Studies said. “He understands discipline. He understands speed. He understands mobility.”10


After the overthrow of the Habyarimana regime, RPF leaders celebrated victory in Kigali; Ugandan waragi—a strong gin made out of millet—was a favorite. Mixed with Coca Cola, it was dubbed “Kigali Libre” by RPF officers.

Kagame, however, was typically reserved. The war was not yet over, he told his army colleagues. There was merely a truce enforced by an international border with Zaire. A third of the population was still living in camps outside the country, and rebels were regularly caught with grenades and disassembled weapons in the main market in Kigali. Every month brought assassinations of local officials and attacks on army camps.

In the meantime, Rwandan frustrations with international donors stewed. Not only had they failed to intervene during the genocide, but they were now feeding the génocidaires and allowing them to rearm. Despite an arms embargo on the government-in-exile, arms traders flew over $8 million in weapons to the defeated Rwandan army in Goma and Bukavu in the months just after the genocide. Hundreds of new recruits were being trained on soccer pitches next to the refugee camps, often within sight of Zairian soldiers. Despite the hand-wringing and horror at the Rwandan genocide that had finally gripped western capitals, the international community was once again abandoning Rwanda. Kagame fulminated to the press: “I think we have learned a lot about the hypocrisy and double standards on the part of people who claim that they want to make this world a better place.”11

In early 1995, Kagame, usually known for his cool, deliberate style, began to lose his temper. “Whenever we brought up the issue of the refugee camps, he would raise his voice and bang his fist on the table,” a former government advisor recalled.

Kagame was briefed every day by his intelligence services on the situation in Zaire. Rwandan operatives had infiltrated the camps and Mobutu’s army, providing blow-by-blow details about arms shipments, troop movements, and political developments.

In February 1995, Kagame traveled to his home commune of Tambwe, where he told gathered villagers, “I hope with all of my heart that they do attack! Let them try!” Several weeks later, he told journalists in Kigali that his government would pursue any criminals who attacked Rwanda by attacking the country where they were found.12

“We had told Mobutu publicly to move the camps from the border. He refused. We told the UN to move the camps. They refused. So we told them we would find a solution ourselves,” Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said.13


Within a year of the genocide, Kagame began planning military action against the camps. But he knew that he would have to proceed carefully, and he couldn’t go it alone. In a region where international donors supply on average half of government budgets, and where the legacy of French, U.S., and Russian power politics was apparent, blatant violations of sovereignty had to be planned carefully.

Fortunately for Kagame, it wasn’t difficult to find allies. Mobutu had angered enough governments to spawn a broad alliance of African states against him. By 1995, an alphabet soup of rebel movements had taken advantage of Zaire’s weak security services and Mobutu’s willingness to support his neighbors’ enemies, creating a complex web of alliances and proxy movements in the region that could confuse even close observers:




National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)



Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC)




West Nile Bank Liberation Front (WNBLF)



Uganda Muslim Liberation Army (UMLA)



Allied Democratic Movement (ADM)



National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU)




Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD)



National Liberation Forces (FNL)




Ex-Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR)



Interahamwe and other militias


Unfortunately for Mobutu, he had become ideologically outdated. The political leadership of Africa was changing as a new generation of leaders, most of whom had themselves once been rebels, came to power. Between 1986 and 1994, ideologically inspired rebels ousted repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. Coded cables sent to European and American capitals from embassies spoke of a new breed of African leaders, apparently different from the corrupt and brutal dictators who had ruled much of Africa since independence. Although they all had begun their careers as socialists, after coming to power they initially endorsed the principles of free markets and liberal democracy and were enthusiastically greeted by western leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright swooned: “Africa’s best new leaders have brought a new spirit of hope and accomplishment to your countries—and that spirit is sweeping across the continent.... They share an energy, a self-reliance and a determination to shape their own destinies.”14


Kagame’s most obvious ally was Uganda. He had fought side-by-side with President Museveni for seven years, and then had served as his chief of intelligence for another four. The two had attended the same high school in southern Uganda, and Kagame had stayed with Ugandan military officers when he took leave from the front lines during the Rwandan civil war. Many other Rwandan commanders had also been born and raised in Uganda.

More than just personal links were involved, however. By the early 1990s, President Museveni was becoming embroiled in a low-scale proxy war with his neighbor to the north, Sudan. In 1993, Museveni had begun providing military support to Sudanese rebels, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, as part of a regional strategy (endorsed by the United States) to destabilize the Sudanese government. The government in Khartoum reciprocated by funding and arming half a dozen Ugandan rebel groups, as well as the Rwandan ex-FAR. 15 In addition, Museveni, who was celebrating his first decade in power, had been looking around the region for economic opportunities for his government. For years, he had been dreaming about fostering business between northwestern Zaire and Uganda—much of the lucrative timber, diamonds, and palm oil from that region had to pass through Uganda to get onto the international market, and the burgeoning Ugandan manufacturing sector could peddle its soap, mattresses, and plastics to the millions of Zairians living there.

Kagame began to talk to his colleagues and friends about taking action. He traveled frequently to State House in Kampala and to safari lodges in southern Uganda to speak to his former mentor and boss, Museveni. The Ugandan president, more used to the intrigues and pitfalls of international politics than Kagame, warned him not to act brashly. He worried particularly about the French government, which still had ties to the Rwandan government-in-exile and could use its power to undermine their attack. The older man warned Kagame: You need to have the backing of the world powers—the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom—to succeed in dramatically changing the constellation of power in Africa. As both Museveni and Kagame had learned in their own insurgencies, the international community was inherently hostile to foreign invasions but turned a blind eye to domestic rebellions that called themselves liberation struggles.

Go look for Congolese rebels, he told Kagame, who could act as a fig leaf for Rwandan involvement. He introduced him to a veteran Congolese rebel leader based out of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s business capital on the Indian Ocean, whom he had met in the 1980s, a talkative and corpulent man called Laurent Kabila.16


Next on the list was Angola. This former Portuguese colony to the south of Zaire had been fighting an insurgency backed by the United States and South Africa for over two decades: the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi. Since the end of the cold war, U.S. support for Savimbi had disappeared, but he continued his rebellion, sustained by huge diamond mines close to the Zairian border. Mobutu was Savimbi’s main remaining lifeline. He had allowed the Angolan rebels to traffic diamonds through Zaire for many years, skimming handsomely off the deals. When the international community imposed an arms embargo against UNITA in 1993, Mobutu provided fake paperwork to military providers in eastern Europe to allow Savimbi to buy weapons.17 The bearded rebel appeared regularly in Kinshasa, landing his aircraft at the international airport and meeting with Mobutu in full military regalia.

The war with UNITA was understandably an obsession for the Angolan government. In 1996, there were 1.2 million displaced people in the country, amounting to 10 percent of the total population, and the government was spending over half of its budget on the military.18 Jonas Savimbi was making millions of dollars in diamond sales a year, and he had his own impressive, illegal networks for selling gems and purchasing weapons.19 Although both sides had signed a peace deal in 1994, neither side believed it would hold. A previous agreement had resulted in bloody clashes in the capital, Luanda, after Savimbi rejected elections won by his rivals.

In the fall of 1996, Kagame sent his intelligence chief to Luanda to negotiate the government of Angola’s participation in his plans. The response was cautious. The Angolan government couldn’t afford to get bogged down in a protracted war in eastern Congo while it faced Savimbi’s threat at home. “They weren’t sure; they needed a lot of convincing,” a member of the delegation later recalled.20 Angola was heavily dependent on loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; an overt intervention in a foreign country could have jeopardized its international standing.21

Angolan president Dos Santos offered a compromise. They would send the Katangan Tigers and some logistical help. The Tigers—or diabos, the Devils, as they liked to call themselves—were troops from southern Congo who had fought for the secession of Katanga Province in 1960. After their defeat, thousands of these troops had fled into northern Angola, where, over the years, they fought first for the Portuguese colonial government and then, after independence in 1975, for the Angolan government.


By mid-1996, Museveni and Kagame had stitched together an impressive alliance of African governments behind their drive to overthrow Mobutu. The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s dinosaur. Never had so many African countries united militarily behind one cause, leading some to dub the war Africa’s World War. Unlike that war, however, the battle for the Congo would not be carried out in trenches over years, leading to millions of military casualties. Here, the battles were short and the number of soldiers killed in the thousands, figures dwarfed by the number of civilians killed. Unlike World War II, the African allies banded together not against aggressive expansionism, but against the weakness of the enemy.

The leader of this coalition was its youngest, smallest member: Rwanda. It was typical of the RPF, who had played David to Goliath several times before and would do so again later. At the outset, it seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a just war: Kigali was acting as a last resort based on legitimate security concerns.

What seems obvious in hindsight—that Mobutu’s army had been reduced to a mockery of itself, that Mobutu’s hold on power had crumbled—was a vague hypothesis in RPF intelligence briefings at the time. When Kagame told his officers that they would go all the way to Kinshasa, they nodded politely but in private shook their heads. That was a journey of over 1,000 miles, through unknown terrain, similar to walking from New York to Miami through swamps and jungles and across dozens of rivers. They would have to fight against 50,000 of Mobutu’s soldiers as well as perhaps 50,000 ex-FAR and Interahamwe. It seemed impossible. “We never thought we could make it all the way to Kinshasa,” Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan intelligence chief, told me.

It is easy to forget, now that greed and plunder claim the headlines as the main motives for conflict in the region, that its beginnings were steeped in ideology. The Rwandan-backed invasion was perhaps the heyday of the African Renaissance, riding on the groundswell of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, and of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda from dictatorships. It was an alliance motivated in part by the strategic interests of individual governments, but also by a larger spirit of pan-Africanism. Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this sort of mobilization behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisors. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.”22

The optimism of the day was summed up by South Africa leader Thabo Mbeki, who just months before the beginning of the war had made his famous endorsement of pan-Africanism:

I am African.

I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.

The pain of violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan,

Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.

The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent

is a blight that we share....

Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now!

Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!

However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!23

Absent from these talks, however, were the Congolese. Their country was to be liberated for them by foreigners who knew little to nothing of their country. And of course, these foreigners would soon develop other interests than just toppling Mobutu.

Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defense looked ever more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many decades.

In 1996, however, the future remained bright.

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