It was 1998, and President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was getting desperate. He had been in power for only a year, after overthrowing Zaire’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, with the help of Rwanda and Uganda.
But his East African allies had turned against him, and were supporting rebel militias that were closing in on the capital, Kinshasa. He needed help. So he looked to the Southern African regional bloc for assistance. Troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe answered the call and, by August 1998, the Second Congo War had begun.
The conflict lasted for a decade and drew in nine African countries and 25 armed groups. By its end, in 2003, an estimated 350 000 people had been killed in the fighting, and more than five million had died in resulting humanitarian crises.
Nearly two decades later, the country, which was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is on the brink of another war. The Kinshasa government is at an impasse with a rebel group, the March 23 Movement (M23), which seized territories in the east and advanced towards the regional capital, Goma.
The group is allegedly receiving financial and military support from Rwanda, which is also accused of profiting from the region’s reserves of rare metals such as cobalt and coltan. Rwanda denies providing any such support, or dealing in any conflict minerals.
Congolese troops have been powerless to halt the rebel advances. A longstanding United Nations peacekeeping mission, Monusco, is active in the area but has no mandate to go on the offensive. It includes soldiers and police from more than 20 countries, including large contingents from South Africa, Morocco, Tanzania and Malawi.
Now it is DRC President Félix Tshisekedi’s turn to get desperate. He is looking east, to the East African Community, which has promised to intervene militarily if no peaceful solution can be found. Troops from Kenya have started arriving in the country, with more promised from Burundi and Tanzania.
Peace talks are underway in Nairobi, with the presidents of Burundi, the DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in attendance virtually.
M23, which appears to be respecting a ceasefire called for by these leaders but refusing their call to withdraw from held territories, is largely absent from the talks.
If the talks don’t work out, Kenya’s President William Ruto has promised to send nearly 1 000 Kenyan soldiers into action to “enforce peace”.
This will not be as easy as he makes it sound.
Clever Gunyani* was a Zim-babwean soldier in the DRC as part of the intervention force in the late 1990s.
“Kenya has chosen a difficult war,” he said. “The eastern front is a jungle and it rains almost every day. It is damp and wet. Imagine trying to drive an armoured vehicle in the mud — you just can’t. The equipment is useless. Aerial bombardment is impossible even with infrared.”
Gunyani said the harsh conditions mean the battle is as mental as it is physical, and unprepared soldiers are at risk of a breakdown. “We ended up keeping to our lines and declaring a ceasefire. It is useless to waste bullets on invisible targets.”
Davestone Nyoni*, also a Zimbabwean soldier, spent three years in the eastern DRC. He said he would go back if he had to. “God forbid, but if Zimbabwe is attacked today, we will need support from other nations, alliances have always existed. Of course, other interests are at play, like economics, for example. We went to war so that Zimbabweans could trade with the Congolese and vice versa.”
Nyoni warned: “If the force lacks discipline, the soldiers will end up being merchants and couriers of ill-gotten wealth.”
In Zimbabwe’s case, the enormous cost of the military intervention nearly bankrupted the country. To fund the fighting, which cost an estimated $1 million a day, the government began to print money that it did not have — a major contributing factor to the hyperinflation which destroyed the economy in 2008.
But some Zimbabweans were profiting, or profiteering, from the war. As an incentive to intervene, Kabila had dangled mining concessions and profit-sharing deals to Zimbabwe’s politically connected elite.
“It provided all sorts of off-budget income-generation for elements of the ruling party, and also the commercial interests of the military,” said Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s senior consultant for Southern Africa.
This allowed the ruling Zanu-PF to shore up its own power, even amid economic devastation, and contributed to an increasing militarisation of the state.
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa played a key role in overseeing these deals: as minister of justice, he visited the DRC’s Kasaï region to check in on Zimbabwe’s business interests, according to a United Nations report into how the Second Congo War was financed.
The stakes are even higher this time around.
As well as vast reserves of gold and copper, the earth under the DRC contains more than half of the world’s cobalt and coltan, minerals that are vital to almost all renewable energy technologies such as electric cars and batteries. Together these untapped reserves are worth an estimated $24 trillion.
Kenya has made no secret of its economic interests in the country. Nelson Koech, the chair of the Kenyan parliament’s foreign relations committee, put it bluntly in an interview with The East African.
He said: “Through this deployment, Kenya will also secure its vital interests including Kenyan businesses like banks operating in the DRC, numerous Kenyan business people in the country, bilateral trade with the DRC, and use of the Mombasa port by the DRC among others.”
But the economic calculus of war is never quite so simple, and Kenya may not have anticipated all the costs. “War is a very expensive affair. It has ramifications on the economy of any nation which decides or is brave enough to intervene,” said Prolific Mataruse, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
He warned Kenya that military interventions can have unintended consequences, and that these are “hard to budget for”.
Zimbabwe, after all, is still paying the price.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian.