Spies, perverse incentives, and the Second Congo War

This has almost nothing to do with Europe. It’s about the Second Congo war, back in the 1990s, and I’m posting it here because I think it’s interesting. Since it’s mostly off-topic, it’s below the cut.

So, the Second Congo War. To make a long story short, this happened because the victors of the First Congo War — that is, Congolese rebel commander Laurent Kabila, and his Rwandan backers — fell out among each other. The Rwandans, for their own reasons, had given Kabila a small army and (more importantly) logistical support and intelligence, allowing him to grow rapidly from a bandit leader to a formidable force. Over several months, he and his troops marched methodically across the country, pushing the dictator Mobutu’s crumbling armed forces out of the way almost at will. In May 1997 they took the capital; Mobutu fled, and Kabila became the new leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Just fifteen months later — August 1997 — Kabila turned on the Rwandans and ordered them out of the country. They did not take this well. The result was the Second Congo War. It would last for years, suck in half a dozen neighboring countries, and become by some measurements the deadliest conflict since the Second World War.

But the question remains: why did Kabila turn so quickly against his Rwandan backers?

Part of the reason, of course, is that Kabila was a thug and a brute, and more than a little paranoid. Another reason is that Congolese nationalism was outraged by the obvious presence of foreigners around their new President. Kabila’s new government was shaky enough; being perceived as foreign puppets wasn’t helpful. But even taking that into account, the split between Kabila and the Rwandans happened so fast — and was handled so badly — that it’s still a bit mysterious.

This recent post on the excellent Congo Siasa blog offers an interesting additional explanation:

From the moment [Kabila] arrived in Kinshasa, he began thinking that Rwanda was going to get rid of him, egged on by his own coterie of wizened rebels who had little love for the Rwandans. His secretary, personal bodyguard and many security officers were Rwandans.

On the Rwandan side, they began watching him suspiciously, wondering what he would do. The people to take the first step were probably the Congolese Tutsi who had arrived with Kabila and were almost immediately marginalized. By March 1998 – only ten months after they took power – Moise Nyarugabo and Deo Bugera had (by their admission) begun planning to replace him, although allegedly without Rwandan support. They were mostly just frustrated that they had been marginalized and that Kabila had mismanaged his initial months in power.

The Rwandans probably didn’t really get involved in trying to get rid of Kabila until later, although the facts are murky. Given that the guy – Commander David – who held his pen and pad and stood outside his room at night well into 1998 was a Rwandan, it’s hard to believe that they wanted to get rid of him until much later. But the Congolese insist that the Rwandans mounted several assassination attempts in June and July 1998, just after Laurent Kabila asked them all to leave the country. By then, the Rwandan intelligence was reporting that Kabila had begun recruiting the very ex-FAR soldiers that the AFDL had initially set out to defeat…

But what came first? Kabila’s paranoia and recruitment of the ex-FAR, or Rwandan attempts to get rid of him? Intelligence services from both sides hyped up these possibilities – that was their job. They also had a bunch of over-eager Congolese spies they had hired, who wanted to ingratiate themselves with their higher-ups. Perverse incentives.

That last paragraph really made me sit up. Here’s the thing: when he fled, Mobutu left behind a huge internal security network. The whole country was larded with government spies. It was like East Germany on the equator. There were spies all through the military, spies in every government agency, spies in private businesses and next to foreign investors, spies to spy on spies. It’s been fifteen years since Mobutu fell and Congo is still crawling with them.

Okay, this wasn’t unique to Congo. Half of Europe had much the same problem after 1989. The new, post-Communist governments had to deal with decades-old, well entrenched internal security systems. It wasn’t easy. Many of the problems born of that era are still around today.

But in Europe, the new governments were (1) mostly perceived as legitimate, and (2) were made up of people who were reasonably familiar with the security agencies — if some cases because the new MPs and ministers had themselves had been their targets. In Congo, Kabila was running a rickety new government, installed by force, with little legitimacy beyond everyone being sick of Mobutu. And he and his “wizened rebels” had spent more than thirty years in the bush. So it was difficult for him to understand the system he’d taken over, never mind control it. And it was all too tempting for the spies to start feeding him (and the Rwandans!) “valuable” information whose real purpose was to increase their own value.

— Okay, it’s not quite irrelevant to Europe. I can think of at least two examples where post-Communist spy networks got out of control. One is Albania, where the Sigurimi security service converted itself almost overnight into the Mediterranean’s newest criminal organization. The other is Serbia, where — oddly enough — the spymaster that Milosevic inherited from 1980s Yugoslavia was often trying to work against him. (He didn’t succeed, but it’s interesting that he tried.)

That said, there’s no recent European example of internal security successfully starting a war. Thank goodness.

So, not that relevant to Europe. Just, interesting. No?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Not Europe and tagged , , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

1 thought on “Spies, perverse incentives, and the Second Congo War

  1. How can this not be of relevance to europe when their are british, belgium, french, norwegian, etc, companies that are known to have financed rebels elements in order to keep cheap minerals flowing to the west?

    The Uk, USA, French and Belgium government were well aware of what was happening on the ground as they sponsored the ugandan and rwandan armies through donors and aid. There are so many b.s in your article that I can point out but I don’t have enought time

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