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Africa's First World War

August 4, 2002

Remembering How Africa's First World War Began


THE leaders of Congo and Rwanda signed a peace agreement last week, four years after war broke out in Central Africa and drew in half a dozen other nations in what was sometimes called the continent's first world war. Only the combatants will decide whether this pact ends up in the wastebasket with the war's other failed truces or becomes a milestone in Africa's history, like the war.

The war put a sudden, brutal end to a short-lived period of great optimism about Africa. By 1998, democracy had spread to several corners of the continent. Misrule's personification, Mobutu Sese Seko, had fallen in Congo. Rwanda was in rebirth after the 1994 genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and some Hutus. Western leaders talked of an African Renaissance, and the idea's most eloquent spokesman, President Bill Clinton, spoke of a new generation of African leaders.

But the seeds had already been sown for more tragedy; the Rwanda genocide had left large numbers of refugees in the new conflict zone in Congo. They had been caught in the rebellion that ousted Mobutu, and in 1998, fighting resumed when Rwanda and Uganda invaded in order to oust Congo's new leader, Laurent D. Kabila. Soon other African lands joined the fighting, and the war ushered in a period of deep pessimism about Africa.

In Congo, Africans acted as brutally as Belgium's colonialists had and as cynically as the Americans who had propped up Mobutu during the cold war. The Rwandans said they were in Congo to hunt the Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide; they became more interested in plundering Congo's resources, and started fighting their allies, the Ugandans. In the crossfire, many Congolese died. Meanwhile, Congo rearmed the Hutu militias responsible for the genocide.

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