Category Archives: Zimbabwe

Trench Warfare in Southeastern Congo, 2000

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4739-4774 (pp. 273-274):

It was just north of Pweto, in the small village of Mutoto Moya, that, amid the long elephant grass of the savannah, one of the war’s most important battles took place. Located in the middle of gently rolling plains, the village stood at the gateway to Lubumbashi, the capital of the mineral-rich province, just four days away by foot along good roads.

Around 3,000 Rwandan and Burundian troops had been held at a stalemate for months by twice as many Zimbabwean and Hutu soldiers. The two forces stared at each other across 8 miles of twin trenches, separated by a one-mile stretch of empty land.

Mutoto Moya was one of the only instances of trench warfare in the Congo. Both sides had dug man-high trenches that meandered for miles. Inside the muddy walls, one could find kitchens, card games, makeshift bars, and cots laid out for soldiers to sleep. This was one of the few instances when Africa’s Great War resembled its European counterpart eighty years earlier.

For the Rwandan and Burundian soldiers, many of whom had grown up in cooler climates, the conditions were poor. It was hot and humid, and huge, foot-long earthworms and dung beetles shared the space with the soldiers. When it rained, the soldiers could find themselves standing knee-deep in muddy rainwater for hours, developing sores as their skin chafed inside their rubber galoshes.

Many came down with malaria and a strange skin rash they thought was caused by the local water supply. Termites from the towering mounds nearby ate into the wooden ammunition boxes, and jiggers lay eggs under soldiers’ skin. Luckily for the Rwandan staff officers, every couple of months they could go for much-needed R&R on a nearby colonial ranch, where there were dairy cows, electricity, and a good supply of beer.

It was telling that the most important front of the Congo war was being fought almost entirely by foreign troops on both sides. “The Rwandans didn’t trust the RCD with such an important task,” remembered Colonel Maurice Gateretse, the commander of regular Burundian army troops. “They had behaved so badly that we radioed back to their headquarters, saying they should be removed. They would use up a whole clip in thirty minutes and come and ask for more. These guys were more interested in pillaging the villages than fighting.”

A cease-fire negotiated between the two sides held until October 2000, when Laurent Kabila unilaterally launched his offensive. In an effort to prevail by sheer numbers, the Congolese cobbled together a force of over 10,000 soldiers, including many Rwandan and Burundian Hutu soldiers. With the support of armored cars and Hawker fighter aircraft from the Zimbabwean army, the Congolese forces overran the enemy trenches and pushed their rivals back to Pepa, a ranching town in the hills some thirty miles away. There, Laurent Kabila’s troops took control of the strategic heights overlooking the town. Zimbabwean bombers pursued and bombed the retreating troops, forcing them to hide during the day and march at night.

Back in Kigali, President Kagame was furious. He radioed his commander on the ground, an officer nicknamed Commander Zero Zero, who was known for his brutality and his love of cane alcohol. Kagame told him that if he failed to retake Pepa, “don’t even try to come back to Rwanda.” The Burundian commander, Colonel Gateretse, received a similar warning from his commander back home, who told him he would have to walk back to Burundi—three hundred seventy miles through the bush—if he lost.

In order to retake Pepa, they would have to scale a hill with almost no cover and with thick buttresses prickling with heavy machine guns and mortars at the top. “It was like those movies I saw of the Americans at Iwo Jima,” the Burundian commander commented. “We would have to hide behind every hummock and bush we could find.” They received reinforcements over the lake from Burundi: An additional 6,000 Rwandan and Burundian troops arrived on barges for the onslaught.

They launched their challenge early in the morning. Thousands of young soldiers clambered up the steep slopes toward the fortifications above. There was little brush for cover; this was cattle country, and all the trees had been chopped down for pasture. “It was a massacre,” Colonel Gateretse remembered. Kabila’s army “sat at the top with their heavy machine guns and just mowed the kids down. You would hear the mortars thunder, the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns and screams as our boys fell.” One by one, the walkie-talkies of their officers trying to scale the hill went dead.

The Rwandan light infantry eventually outflanked Kabila’s forces, attacking from behind, slaughtering many and routing the rest, who were ambushed again and again all the way down to a little fishing village on the Luvua River, where they had to abandon and destroy most of their remaining tanks and military vehicles as they retreated into Zambia.

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Filed under Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, war, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Congo War Realignments, 1998

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 3298-3323:

With a mutiny festering in the slums of Kinshasa, and rebels advancing rapidly from the west, Kabila knew that he would not be able to hold out without the support of the region. A regional summit of the South African Development Community was quickly called, and Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Angola, and Zimbabwe glowered at each other across a table without coming to a conclusion.

It was a decisive moment in the war. In 1996, almost the whole region had jumped on the bandwagon against Mobutu, while world powers looked the other way. It had been a continental war, inspired by security interests but also by ideology. In 1998, the odds were stacked differently. The region split down the middle, with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi on one side and Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Zimbabwe on the other.

This time, the motives for deployed troops were less noble. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, for example, was of the same generation as Laurent Kabila and had provided arms and money for the first war effort; Kabila still owed him somewhere between $40 and $200 million dollars for this first engagement. More importantly, his own besieged government was fraying at the edges after eighteen years in power. A mixture of corruption, poor economic management, and the expropriation of 1,500 white farms had prompted food riots, a fiscal crisis, and international opprobrium. As expensive as the military adventure in the Congo was, it also offered many much-needed business opportunities for Mugabe’s inner cabal. Shortly after toppling Mobutu, his state ammunition factory obtained a $500,000 contract from Kabila’s government, a Zimbabwean businessman extended a loan for $45 million, and businessmen close to Mugabe began negotiating potentially lucrative transport, food, and mining deals with the Congolese. When Rwanda attempted anew to overthrow the regime in Kinshasa, this time without rallying a regional alliance around them, Mugabe saw his investments in jeopardy.

Angola’s interests were much more related to its twenty-three-year-old civil war with UNITA. For decades, the rebels had maintained rear bases in Kinshasa, where Savimbi had frequently met with Mobutu and CIA operatives and had sold tens of millions of dollars of diamonds. In May 1998, Jonas Savimbi’s rebels had scuppered a peace process that they saw as increasingly biased toward the government. They launched attacks throughout northern Angola, close to the border with the Congo. In addition, another Angolan rebel movement, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), appeared to be making inroads in Cabinda, a tiny Angolan enclave just north of the Kitona airbase, where around 60 percent of Angola’s oil is drilled, providing it with about half of all national revenues. According to French government officials, FLEC had been in touch with the Rwandan government before the Kitona airlift.

The diplomatic tug-of-war continued for several days, with South African president Nelson Mandela attempting to mediate between the two sides to prevent a continent-wide war breaking out. His attempt earned him the scorn of Mugabe, who told him to shut up if he didn’t want to help defend the Congo. Kabila’s office was equally blunt, suggesting that “age had taken its toll” on the venerable African leader.

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Africa’s New Leaders vs. Mobutu, 1996

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 993-1030:

By mid-1996, Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame [of Rwanda] 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.”

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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Filed under Congo, democracy, economics, Eritrea, Ethiopia, nationalism, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, war, Zimbabwe

Foreign Surgeons at the Birth of Zimbabwe, 1974-79

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 321-326:

The coup in Lisbon in April 1974 changed the fortunes of Rhodesia irrevocably. The end of Portuguese rule in Mozambique not only deprived Rhodesia of a long-standing ally and brought to power there a left-wing nationalist movement; it meant that Rhodesia’s entire eastern border, some 760 miles long, was potentially vulnerable to infiltration by Zanu guerrillas operating freely from bases in Mozambique. Moreover, Frelimo‘s accession to power in Mozambique emboldened Rhodesian nationalists to believe that in Rhodesia too guerrilla warfare would succeed in overthrowing white rule.

The South Africans were quick to recognise, in the aftermath of the Lisbon coup, that an entirely new strategy was needed. Hitherto, they had looked on Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia as a valuable buffer separating them from contact with black Africa, a cordon sanitaire which it was in their own interests to strengthen. But with the withdrawal of the Portuguese from Angola and Mozambique, Rhodesia was no longer important as a front-line defence, for the winds of change had finally reached South Africa’s own frontier. The South African prime minister, John Vorster, calculated that in the long run Smith’s position, without an open-ended South African military and financial commitment, was untenable. White rule in Rhodesia was ultimately doomed. In this new assessment, Smith, with his long history of intransigence, was no longer a useful partner but a potential liability. His stubborn resistance to change only served to magnify the dangers of communist involvement in southern Africa. An unstable white government in Rhodesia was less preferable than a stable black government, heavily dependent on South African goodwill.

With this objective in mind, Vorster set out to force Smith to come to terms with the Rhodesian nationalists. He was obliged to act circumspectly for fear of antagonising his own electorate and provoking an outcry in Rhodesia. Fortuitously, he found an ally in Zambia’s President Kaunda, who had become increasingly concerned about the disruption caused in Zambia by the Rhodesian imbroglio and about the dangers of a widening guerrilla war there. In conjunction with other African leaders, Vorster and Kaunda conspired to impose on Smith and the nationalists their own plan for a Rhodesian settlement. As a preliminary step, Smith was required, much against his better judgement, to release nationalist detainees, including Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe….

Under pressure from South Africa, Smith went through the motions of attempting a negotiated settlement but, like Mugabe, saw no need to compromise. A conference in August 1975, held under the auspices of Vorster and Kaunda in railway carriages parked on the Victoria Falls bridge on the border between Rhodesia and Zambia, broke up in disarray after the first day….

In early 1976 the guerrilla war entered anew and more perilous phase. From bases in Mozambique, hundreds of Zanu guerrillas infiltrated into eastern Rhodesia, attacking white homesteads, robbing stores, planting landmines and subverting the local population. When Nkomo’s talks with Smith broke down, Zapu guerrillas joined the war, opening a new front in western Rhodesia, along the borders with Zambia and Botswana. Main roads and railways came under attack. White farmers bore the brunt, living daily with the risks of ambush, barricaded at night in fortified homes. A growing number of whites, rather than face military service, emigrated.

Though Rhodesia’s army commanders still expressed confidence in their ability to defeat the guerrilla menace, in many parts of the world it seemed that Smith was embarked upon an increasingly risky venture to sustain white rule which endangered the stability of the whole region. Among those whose attention was drawn to the Rhodesian war was Henry Kissinger. In the wake of the Angolan debacle, Kissinger was particularly alert to the dangers of how nationalist guerrilla wars could widen the circle of conflict, drawing in neighbouring countries and providing the Soviet bloc with opportunities for intervention. He found Vorster similarly worried and impatient with Smith’s intransigence. In tandem, they agreed on a plan to force Smith to accept majority rule. To make Smith amenable to the idea, Vorster cut back oil shipments and supplies of arms and ammunition, withdrew helicopter pilots and technicians from Rhodesia and delayed its import and export traffic through South Africa. Kissinger was left to present the terms of surrender.

At a meeting in Pretoria in September 1976, Kissinger handed Smith a typed list of five points that he said must be used as the basis for a Rhodesian settlement. Smith took the document and slowly read aloud the first point: ‘Rhodesia agrees to black majority rule within two years.’ He looked around the room and said: ‘you want me to sign my own suicide note.’…

When Smith finally left the stage as prime minister on the last day of white rule on 31 May 1979, his legacy was a state unrecognised by the international community, subjected to trade boycotts, ravaged by civil war that had cost at least 20,000 lives and facing a perilous future.

As the war intensified, Britain launched one last initiative to find a solution, calling for negotiations at a conference to be held in London. Muzorewa and Nkomo readily agreed to attend, but Mugabe saw no need. His guerrilla army was planning to embark on a new phase of urban warfare. ‘We felt we needed yet another thrust, and in the urban areas, in order to bring the fight home to where the whites had their citadels’, he recalled. The longer the war lasted, the greater were the prospects for achieving his revolutionary objectives.

Only under extreme pressure from Zambia ‘s Kenneth Kaunda and Mozambique’s Samora Machel did he eventually agree to attend. Both Zambia and Mozambique had suffered heavily as a result of Rhodesian raids on guerrilla bases and supply lines they harboured. Neither could afford to sustain the war any longer. Machel was blunt in his warnings: if Mugabe refused to go to London and explore negotiations, then Mozambique would withdraw its support….

Mugabe arrived in London in September 1979, a cold, austere figure who rarely smiled and seemed bent on achieving revolution, whatever the cost. While in exile he had repeatedly insisted on the need for a one-party Marxist state, threatened that Ian Smith and his ‘criminal gang’ would be tried and shot, and warned that white exploiters would not be allowed to keep an acre of land. His main hope was that the conference would break down.

Against all odds, however, the conference stumbled towards agreement. At the final hurdle, when Mugabe balked at accepting the ceasefire arrangements and made plans to fly to New York to denounce the whole proceedings at the United Nations, he was given a direct warning by an envoy from Machel that unless he signed the agreement, he could no longer count on using Mozambique as abase for operations; in other words, as far as Mozambique was concerned, the war was over. Mugabe was resentful about the outcome of the conference: ‘As I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all. I felt we had been cheated to some extent, that we had agreed to a deal which would to some extent rob us of [the] victory we had hoped we would achieve in the field.’…

Returning to Rhodesia in January 1980, nearly five years after his escape into exile, Mugabe was given a hero’s welcome by one of the largest crowds ever seen in Rhodesia. Banners portraying rockets, grenades, land mines and guns greeted him, and many youths wore T-shirts displaying the Kalashnikov rifle, the election symbol that Zanu wanted but the British had disallowed. But Mugabe himself was unexpectedly conciliatory. In Mozambique, shortly before Mugabe’s return to Salisbury, Samora Machel, still struggling to overcome the massive disruption caused by the exodus of whites at independence in 1975, had intervened to warn Zanu against fighting the election on a revolutionary platform. ‘Don’t play make-believe Marxist games when you get home,’ he said. ‘You will face ruin if you force the whites into precipitate flight.’ Consequently, Mugabe’s manifesto was stripped of all reference to Marxism and revolution.

Black Star Journal has an update on the latest reactions of African leaders to what Mugabe hath wrought.

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