Crossposted from: All North America Conference on Congo

A Congolese rebel comes to Washington: An unconvincing and disappointing presentation

by Ed Marek, NCN, September 29, 1998

Jacques Depelchin, the Rapporteur of the Bureau of the Assembly, Rassemblement Congolais pour la Dimocratie, is in Washington and met with the American public today at a session sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS.

Mr. Depelchin is a long-time advocate for democracy and was in exile as an opponent of the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko until 1996. He is currently a research associate at the University of Florida's Center for African Studies in the USA, he has served on the faculties of many of America's leading universities, and obtained both his Master's Degree and Doctorate in History from the prestigious Stanford University in California. He has published several books and articles on political and economic developments in Congo, including one that he co-authored with Dr. Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the chairman of Rassemblement Congolais pour la Dimocratie, the political organization of the rebels in today's DR Congo.

In all candor, I found Dr. Depelchin's presentation at CSIS on this day uninspiring and disappointing. I am trying to arrange to meet with him privately to get into some issues in more depth, but I am unsure whether I can make that happen before he leaves.

Dr. Depelchin seemed unable or unwilling to deal with what I and others in the largely American audience saw as the gut issue: Is this Central African war an effort to combat an invasion by Uganda and Rwanda or is it a bonafide internal and domestic rebellion? If it is a rebellion, is it on the scope of a mutiny or is this a much larger popular rebellion supported by the masses? Those were the questions I put to Dr. Depelchin. After he answered me, he was asked by a graduate student in the audience to describe why we should see his rebellion as a legitimate rebellion. So this question of invasion vs. rebellion and if rebellion is it a legitimate rebellion was very much on the minds of this audience.

The substance of his response to me was that the attendees at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit at Victoria Falls asked the same questions. He said a mission was tasked by the summit to seek out the answer. The last stop on the SADC mission's tour was to meet with the rebels in Goma. Dr. Depelchin said that the minister of foreign affairs from Zimbabwe told the rebels in Goma at that time that the Kabila government had not provided any significant evidence that there was an invasion by either Uganda or Rwanda. He asserted that the SADC mission was unimpressed by the Kabila government's argument that the war in the country was the result of an invasion. However, he said that the Zimbabwean minister of defense would not wait for the report from his own minister of foreign affairs, and decided to intervene militarily and use the invasion argument as the justification.

Dr. Depelchin then set me back a bit by saying that rebellion is not a function of size or popularity, and that many or most rebellions are begun with very small groups of people who are not necessarily well known or popular among the masses. He then asserted what he had asserted earlier in his presentation, which was that the objectives of the ADFL rebellion, with the exception of getting rid of Mobutu, have not been achieved under the Kabila presidency and a rebellion was now needed to bring about the conditions for which the ADFL rebellion was fought. He said it was harder to get rid of Mobutu than to eliminate Mobutuism, and argued that Kabila had simply followed in Mobutu's footsteps. He said it was the obligation of the rebels to pursue the objectives Kabila had failed to achieve, implying very directly that the rebels would do that with or without popular support among the Congolese people.

With regard to the graduate student's question about whether his rebellion is legitimate, Dr. Depelchin reminded his audience that Kabila had not been elected. He said all the Congolese people supported Kabila in the ADFL rebellion only because they wanted Mobutu out and replaced. But Dr. Depelchin then said that Kabila proceeded to turn his back on the people once he took power and any legitimacy that brought him to power was no longer there.

I guess I don't really have any strong disagreements with the thrust of what Dr. Depelchin said, with one exception. He failed to make a strong and convincing argument that he is part of a real, bonafide domestic rebellion that can trace its legitimacy to popularity among the Congolese people. He acknowledged that the people supported the ADFL rebellion because they wanted Mobutu out, but he did not tell us whether and/or why the Congolese people are or are not supporting this rebellion. That he failed to undertake this issue head-on left me questioning whether this rebellion finds any solid roots in the fabric of the Congolese people. My sense is it does not. I have, of course, read all the reports you have read and talked to many Congolese in the Diaspora about this issue, and I know full well what they tell me: this rebellion has no roots in the fabric of Congolese society and is largely not supported by the Congolese people. The failure of Dr. Depelchin to deal with the subject makes me believe that these people are right.

This is a big issue for me. When the ADFL was throwing out Mobutu, I could sleep well at night thinking that Mobutu's eviction was going to uplift the Congolese people. I look at this war now and I am very hard-pressed to find anyone who really and truly stands for the vital national interests of the Congolese people. I see many different people from many different lands fighting on Congolese soil, killing Congolese people, destroying Congolese homes, displacing Congolese people and turning residents of Congolese villages into refugees in another land, but I do not see anyone fighting for the Congolese people. To the extent that I had hoped the rebels were doing that, I was gravely disappointed today. Dr. Depelchin failed to make the case. As a result, I do not sleep well at night because I can find no evidence this "rebellion" will uplift the Congolese people.

In fairness to him, his academic credentials are far better than are mine, and he has far greater experience with these issues than me, so I am not saying he cannot make the case. I am simply saying that on this day he failed to do it, which then raises questions about the legitimacy and authenticity of his rebellion. His arguments regarding whether there was an invasion were equally hollow and, in my view, a bit sophomoric.

What surprised me the most --- although in retrospect it should not have since I have received so many warnings from so many readers on this matter --- was the strong, forceful and repetitive emphasis he placed on allegations of the Kabila government committing genocide or intending to commit genocide. He repeated these accusations over and over to the point where I started wondering for whom he was fighting in his rebellion --- the Tutsis and Banyamulenge, or all the Congolese people. This issue traces right back to the questions about the character and roots of his rebellion and its attendant legitimacy and authenticity.

I understand why Dr. Depelchin belabored the point, I think. He's done considerable research on the subject, I agree with his assessment that the international community failed to prevent the genocide of 1994, and he is likely worried that it will once again fail to stop what he sees as an impending repeat performance of genocide. While I will be an active supporter for the international community to prevent another genocide, militarily if required, I must confess that I found the threat of genocide to be too narrow a rationale for his asserting that he is part of a legitimate rebellion designed to free all the Congolese people and uplift the quality of life and standards of living for all the Congolese people. Most of the people killed in the 1994 genocide were Rwandans, and most of the Tutsis that might be killed in a follow-on genocide attempt are also Rwandans. While I abhor genocide, and while I will urge my own government to intervene militarily if another such genocide attempt is made, I came to this meeting thinking that I was going to hear a Congolese rebel leader stand up for all the Congolese people, trace the roots of his rebellion's legitimacy to popular support among at least most of the Congolese people, and I fear I did not get that today from Dr. Depelchin. Indeed, I did not even get a sense that some of the Congolese people support his rebellion, other than the Banyamulenge.

To the contrary, what Dr. Depelchin served up today were the Rwandan arguments, and that simply underscores and underlines the contention that this war in Central Africa is the result of an invasion by Uganda and Rwanda to protect their national interests vice a domestic rebellion to protect the interests of all or most of the Congolese people. I understand and empathize with Ugandan and Rwandan interests that I think are on the table, but if their interests are what this " rebellion " is all about, then we ought to call a spade a spade and say this is not a domestic rebellion to uplift the Congolese people but rather is an invasion to protect Rwandan and Ugandan interests, and deal with that rather than concentrating on these so-called rebels. It turns out, where I sit, there is a big difference.

An American government official in the audience --- who was expressing his own opinion and not necessarily that of the U.S. government --- followed the questions described above by suggesting that he thought the so-called Congolese rebellion was a " tremendous miscalculation " on the part of the rebels. He said before August 2, there was a relatively small number of Tutsis who were at risk of violence, and now there are many; before August 2 Laurent Kabila really had very few international and regional friends and allies, now he has many; and before August 2, the Rwandan Hutu and Interahamwe were being isolated and were essentially on a track toward defeat, and now they have reemerged as a potent military force receiving extensive outside support. Dr. Depelchin seemed a bit taken back by this question, and really was unable to directly take it on his plate.

So that's all I have to report. I left the meeting very disappointed, disappointed because I had hoped this rebellion was one that was standing tall for the Congolese people, one that had a clear-cut and forceful agenda for reforms that would benefit the Congolese people, one that was well-led by Congolese and well-followed by Congolese. I did not leave this meeting with that sense. Quite to the contrary, I left this meeting with the attitude that the Central Africa war is about a whole host of nations employing the DR Congo landscape as their private battlefield on which they will vigorously pursue their own vital national and personal interests at the expense of the Congolese people.

The Congolese people indeed are the victims in this tragedy rather than the beneficiaries of any progressive and cohesive political movement. Kabila, Mugabe, Dos Santos, Nujoma, Al- Bashir, Deby, Gaddafi, Patasse, Sassou-Nguesso, Museveni, and Kagame look more and more every day like they're in the Congo to set up their own zones of influence, take whatever spoils they can take, build up whatever debts of gratitude they can build up, and the Congolese people will simply continue to suffer with not one of these macho leaders standing up for them. That is really very sad.

I continue to await the day when a vibrant and inspiring Congolese leader will rise up to the occasion and stand up for his or her people. I will be the first to say that I must now go back to the drawing board and recompute what I think about this war.


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