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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK

DR Congo's 'internal coup'

Goma, the rebels' stronghold, was attacked

By BBC Correspondent, Chris Simpson

It took seven bombs dropped at random out of a Russian cargo plane to bring Congo's messy civil war back into the news. The bombs fell on Goma, the rebels' scenic stronghold in the far east of the misnamed Democratic Republic, killing around 50 people, injuring another 40.

This was an unexpected development, and the rebel commander, a little defensive about the ease with which the enemy aircraft had hit Goma from the skies, complained bitterly of the deception involved.

This had been a civilian aircraft, not a plane of war, and his troops had declined to shoot it down. They would know better next time.

The rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) has been fighting a nine-month war against President Laurent Kabila.

But over the past fortnight serious problems have emerged in the movement with the RCD deposing its president Ernest Wamba dia Wamba in what he described as an internal coup.


Goma, the morning after the air raid, was quiet and angry. Shops and businesses had closed down for the day, people going instead to a mass funeral service at the Roman Catholic cathedral.

[ image: Laurent Kabila ousted veteran dictator Mobutu Sese Seko]
Laurent Kabila ousted veteran dictator Mobutu Sese Seko
As visitors, driving in from Rwanda, we tried to avoid being too voyeuristic, too crass in our questions.

But Goma has been through so many major and minor international news tragedies over the past few years that people have long got used to polite enquiries about the awfulness which has descended on them. They wanted to talk.

Mourners gathering amidst the rubble and broken furniture spoke bitterly of a war, supposedly fought on their behalf, which they had never requested.

President Kabila might have dropped the bombs, but the rebels' response of wounded outrage was seen as hypocritical and pointless. The RCD was accused of vetoing negotiations and controlling information.

Just what was going on, I was asked. Not for the first time, I found myself offering a clumsy background briefing as an outsider on the little I knew, falling rapidly into vapid conjecture.

The discussions at the bombsite and the unpleasant tour of hospital wards which followed did at least bring Congo's nine-month war sharply back into focus, offering bleak reminders that people did get killed and maimed in a conflict which has seemed at times little more than a giant board game.

There are two sides or 20 sides involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) depending on one's willingness to simplify things. There are open protagonists and those who fight on the quiet. There are militias and conventional armies. There are movements which fought each other before but now collaborate, and vice versa.

Reasons for the fighting

Ask who is fighting for what and you get something like the following: The RCD says it wants a change at the top, accusing Kabila of becoming an even worse dictator than the legendary Mobutu Sese Seseko he replaced two years ago.

Many of Mobutu's former entourage have come under the rebel umbrella, rather clouding the RCD's early idealism. The RCD recently ditched its president, a distinguished academic but diffident leader, the coup-makers saying they wanted a more professional approach.

But the rebellion is effectively run by Rwanda and Uganda. Both cite 'security concerns' as the reason for sending thousands of their troops across the border, arguing that Kabila is sponsoring insurgencies on their own territory.

But for all the talk of 'shared strategic imperatives', the allies now seem to be falling out over the conduct of the war and the renumeration involved, while they have won few friends amongst the population.

Kabila too says he fights in self-defence, that his country has been invaded and the people are behind him. But the unelected president of Congo barely has an army to call his own, hence his dependence on those of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and other African countries who have contracted out their troops to fight off the rebellion.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe says his men are fighting for Africa - it is much more likely that they are fighting for his bank account. As in neighbouring Angola, home to a far more vicious war, it's a safe bet that mineral reserves and mining prospects are key considerations for all parties in the Congolese conflict.

The same was true in the last century, when King Leopold of Belgium carved out a new empire for himself, enticed by Congo's rubber and diamonds.

The wealth is still seeping out through whatever channels are available, and the arms are still flooding in. Along with all the African combatants, there are Russian and Ukrainian pilots on both sides, while mining corporations based in faraway places like Vancouver make their own calculations on who will be worth talking to in two years' time.

Africa's first continental war

The conflict has been described as Africa's first continental war and peace initiatives come from all corners.

[ image: Zambia's President Frederick Chiluba: part of an African solution]
Zambia's President Frederick Chiluba: part of an African solution
One week Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi holds a summit by the Mediterranean, the next, President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia is on a tour of the Great Lakes. The talk is of 'an African solution to an African problem', with all the usual references to brotherhood, statesmanship and the search for common ground. All are in short supply.

This has been a good war for the Congo-pessimists, who have long written off Congo as a blighted treasure-trove in the Heart of Darkness, an image fiercely resented by the Congolese themselves.

In Goma, along with the fatalism and anger, there was the usual joshing and rude good humour, a little toned down, but still there.

To make their point, the rebels organised a protest demonstration against the bombing. People dutifully showed up at the assembly point in town as requested, but they told me they would mourn and march on their own terms this time, and not have anybody speaking in their name.

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