By Takura Zhangazha.*
I first learnt of the existence of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) via an act of ‘cultural solidarity’ when it was still called Zaire and under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. It was when two of that country’s more popular musicians, ,KandaBongo Man and Kofi Olomide were revolutionizing Zimbabwean music tastes via their genre of music, then referred to as ‘soukous’ in the early to mid-90s.
I was to later encounter and know more about the DRC in the second half of the same decade via reading and seeing stories in the press about Mobutu Sese-Seko initially trying to co-opt the opposition into some sort of national assembly as well as repressively dealing with massive student strikes in Lubumbashi and Kinshasa.
But perhaps for most adult Zimbabweans, the most direct interaction they remember our two countries’ histories to have had, was that of the multi-national DRC war of 1998 in which our national Defence Forces were committed by our then government to fight under the auspices of SADC’s Organ on Politics, Security and Defence. We would remember this particular war because we lost the lives of brave members of our armed forces. It is a war that is also remembered because of disagreements over the nature of intervention in the DRC by SADC member states (particularly Zimbabwe and newly independent South Africa under Mandela) as well as its increasing loss of popularity back here at home. It was also to become a war that would significantly contribute to the exacerbation of the financial and economic crisis that became very apparent in the same year our troops were committed to the DRC.
The motivation for this war is still disputed in some circles and for now it is the official version that when Zimbabwe chaired the then recently established SADC Organ on Politics,Security and Defence Cooperation, it had received a request from the one of the newest members of SADC, the DRC for protection against ‘foreign aggressors’.
The decision, along with two other SADC states Namibia, Angola and a non SADC member state Chad, to assist the beleaguered government of the late DRC President Laurent Kabila, remains one that will forever be viewed in opposite terms by Zimbabweans. Some were and continue to be in support while others were and have continued to be opposed to our role in the Congo. Domestically this war led to the arrests of journalists such as Grace Kwinjeh then working for The Zimbabwe Mirror weekly and it was also to be one of the major public disgruntlement issues that assisted the then mainstream civil society's popular mobilisation processes against government and the role of the President in taking the country to war.
These controversies do not however take away the historical fact that by virtue of that act of seeking to assist the Kabila government retain control of its territory, Zimbabwe cannot ignore its obligation to participate in getting the DRC back to peace and stability. And this is also true for SADC, inclusive of member states who may not have agreed with the Organ on Peace, Security and Defence Cooperation resolution in 1998 or even with the permitting of DRC to become a SADC member.
Where we fast forward to contemporary times, it is almost tragic to think that most parts of the DRC have not known peace since our own intervention. This is most tellingly so for the Eastern parts of the Congo which are coveted by many in the region (both state and non state actors) for their mineral wealth and attendant porous borders. The holding of (disputed) elections, the intervention of even the United Nations, the selective indictment of various war criminals by the International Criminal Court, all seem not to have done the trick in order to bring peace to the DRC. And even where all of these developments must be viewed as ‘work in progress’ the fact that the largest town in Eastern Congo (Goma) has fallen to M23 rebels rumoured to be supported by that region's alleged aggressor states, Uganda and Rwanda while under the direct watch of MONUSC ,must be serious cause for concern for all Africans. Not only because of the potential for a fully blown out war in the region but also because of the internal displacement and tragic loss of life by civilians who have never known peace proper.
It is therefore urgent that we begin to look at the DRC crisis no longer as being just the responsibility of the United Nations or the Great Lakes intergovernmental summit or the latter's appointed 'mediator', President Museveni of Uganda. Neither should the crisis be confined to Western understandings of its full import through borderline 'missionary' arguments and residual colonial discourses about ‘hearts of darkness’, let alone perceptions that all African leaders function in the ‘footsteps of Mr. Kurtz’.
If ever there was a time where Africans must demonstrate that we are not perpetual slaves to conflict (such as the evidently proxy one in the DRC) we should at least insist that our national governments, regional and continental bodies and the UN act much more decisively to get the DRC on a more permanent path to peace and stability. It is an historical obligation and necessity and it begins with a phone call, petition, statement or request to our ministers of foreign affairs to let them know, that Africa expects peace, and in decisive fashion. Particularly for the DRC, and as has been oft said in many an African struggle, 'freedom in our lifetime'.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in personal capacity. takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com