The Sunday Mail
IN August 1998, the newly installed government of President Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo came under heavy attack from some rebels from Rwanda and Uganda. Clearly lacking experience, the new government could not stop the tide of the invading forces. It was only a matter of time before President Kabila was ousted from power. As the chairperson of the newly created Sadc Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, President Mugabe could not fold his hands while the invading forces were killing people in the DRC. Just as the invading forces were about to capture Kinshasa, commandos from the Zimbabwe National Army arrived in true-movie style to defend the capital. The Air Force of Zimbabwe later followed to neutralise the invading forces that had encircled the brave commandos.
Speaking to our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni early this year, one of Zambia’s decorated soldiers, Retired Brigadier-General Timothy Kazembe, who has been honoured by the Zambian government with the Order of Grand Commander Distinguished Service First Division, revealed how President Mugabe, by making that timely decision to deploy troops into the DRC, stopped a war that could have plunged Southern Africa into a bloody war.
He saluted the Commander of the Air Force of Zimbabwe, Air Marshal Perrance Shiri, for making one of the moves that saved President Laurent Kabila. Read on . . .
MH: General, you played an important role in resolving the DRC war. Tell us briefly about your involvement in this war?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Firstly, let me make it clear that we are talking about the second DRC war after the invasion into DRC in 1998. The first one which started about 1995, 1996, 1997 was to remove Mobuto (Sese Seko). After Kabila stayed in power for about one year, there was a problem in Congo. Those who had helped Laurent Kabila to get into power, especially from Rwanda, when they returned to Kigali, in no time around August we had problems in Goma.
The commander in Goma, I think Jean Pierre something, he rebelled against Laurent Kabila. The problems erupted like bushfire. The commander was commandeering aircraft from Goma to the western side of Congo. The attacks were fluid on the ground but battalions and units of Congo were assuming it was nothing big.
Planes were taking off from Goma to places like Matadi and so on attacking and advancing to Kinshasa. They started other attacks from the Eastern front also advancing to Kinshasa. They even switched off electricity at Inga Dam.
To some extent, no international organisation including the United Nations commented. Not even the African Union. They were looking at things going on like that. Now at that time, our President in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, was chairman of the Sadc Organ on Politics, I think. So he summoned a meeting in Victoria Falls to bring people together. That was about the eighth day after the breakout of the invasion.
When the presidents met in Victoria Falls, they agreed that they should send a verification team to Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, eastern Congo and Kinshasa. The team was supposed to find out what exactly was happening on the ground. What kind of a war was this? That’s how a plane from Zimbabwe was organised.
I was phoned by my president then, (Frederick) Chiluba, to say General be ready to be on the plane that’s coming from Zimbabwe. The plane is coming to pick you (up) together with your deputy army commander and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
MH: What was your rank at this time?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: At that time I was the Defence Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. The president further informed me that Nambia and Zimbabwe were already on board, while Tanzania and Zambia were supposed to join this team. He said these countries have formed a verification team to go and verify the war in the DRC. This was in August, like I said eight days after the invasion had started.
So in no time I found myself at Lusaka airport. No nothing. No allowances or anything, just me. Everything else followed and found me in Uganda (laughs). We got the briefing right in the plane as we flew to DRC.
We went and picked up our friends in Tanzania and flew to Kampala. President Museveni was not there. He was somewhere in the operation area and we followed him there. We interacted with him. He was deep in the bush.
As we were landing in that area, we could see troops crossing into DRC and because we had seen by ourselves, when we were now interacting, we already knew what was going on. President Museveni was very frank.
MH: He was right in the bush? What did he say?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: He agreed that indeed there were troops from his country crossing into DRC. We then went to President (Paul) Kagame. We interacted with him, asking what was going on.
MH: On this mission who were the officials from Zimbabwe?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: From Zimbabwe we had Perrance Shiri, I think there was also Colonel Mutize and this man who was Minister of Foreign Affairs, uummm, what’s his name? I am forgetting, it’s eehh, this tall minister, eehh, Minister (Stan) Mudenge. Yeah Minister Mudenge. I remember now.
So we spoke to President Kagame and then we went to Goma area. We interacted with all the rebels and we flew to Kinshasa to talk to President Kabila. As the verification team, we found out that this was an invasion and not a rebellion as many people were made to believe.
MH: Who was invading DRC?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Rwanda and Uganda were invading the DRC. It was not just the Congolese who were saying we have rebelled. No. Rwanda and Uganda were heavily involved. This wasn’t just a rebellion. It was an invasion.
MH: After discovering this, what did you do because clearly time wasn’t on your side?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: We started communicating back home.
MH: This verification team, was there a leader of the team or something?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Let me say the leader was Minister Mudenge because the whole initiative came from Zimbabwe in Victoria Falls and we were using an aircraft from Zimbabwe. So he was like the leader.
So like I said, we started communication back home and again in Harare under the initiative of President Mugabe as chairman of that Organ which was still very fragile, things started happening. From Kinshasa we flew straight into Harare and briefed the Ministers of Defence. The ministers agreed to the formation of the Coalition of the Willing comprising Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola. These countries volunteered to go and defend the DRC.
MH: Earlier on you told us of an interesting story where you said by the time you got to Harare, Zimbabwean troops were already ready for battle?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Ohh, yes. Perrance Shiri, my very good friend. He is a very good officer that one. Shiri was way ahead of us in thinking. He had already briefed President Mugabe properly about the situation. By the time we arrived for the meeting in Harare, the Zimbabwean Government had already started putting things into motion. Shiri was already mobilising forces to go and defend the DRC.
He had seen what was going on and he knew there was no much time to waste (laughs). Uummm, please greet that great soldier for me. He is a great man. The way he handled that situation was clear testimony of a soldier who knows his job. The way he showed passion with his work, he is a strategist.
So Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola went into DRC. I think Angola wanted to come by ship and somewhere along the coast they were obstructed by some troops and they eventually went by air. This Coalition of the Willing is the one that destabilised the invading forces that were marching towards Kinshasa and those that had captured Inga Dam. These invading forces were closing in on Kinshasa.
The Zimbabwean forces flew into Kinshasa at the right time and defended Kinshasa. After this they then went to other areas and the invading forces retreated.
MH: You also said the decision to send forces by President Mugabe was very timely. Can you explain what you meant?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Yes, yes, yes, that was very timely. It was not only timely but very correct because the UN was quiet and the AU was quiet. Mute. No one was doing anything about this deteriorating situation. As you know, these organisations like the UN have long procedures to determine whether to intervene in a war or not. This Sadc Organ led by President Mugabe played a big role. It played a very big and crucial role on the region, otherwise the whole of Sadc would be engulfed by war as we speak.
The timing to deploy soldiers into the DRC by President Mugabe was perfect. The soldiers arrived right in time. I can tell you if they had delayed by a few more hours, if not minutes, DRC and Southern Africa would be in chaos up to this day.
Remember Laurent Kabila’s government was still very young and it definitely was going to fall and be taken over. Now these people who were going to take over the DRC were people who had not come together properly. These were people from all over with power-hungry commanders. There was confusion all over and that confusion was going to overspill into the whole region.
Also, in Kabila’s government the situation was still volatile because he was still trying to put the forces together. There were so many dynamics. Remember there were also Mobuto’s forces that had been put somewhere, trying to rehabilitate them. There was going to be uncontrolled fire, but the action taken by these gallant countries was very timely.
MH: But then President Mugabe is heavily criticised for making that decision?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Yes, because we are in a time like this when we can talk about it. There is peace in the region and it’s very easy for some people not to appreciate what he did. At that time, some looked at him as some imperialist with interests in the Congo, to control Congo or whatever. Some people had fears but it was good work. It’s easy for people to criticise now because there is no war. President Mugabe in particular and Zimbabwe in general should be thanked for saving Sadc.
After deploying the soldiers and after defending the DRC, a few days later President Chiluba was chosen to spearhead the peace-making process. I was then elected in Addis Ababa by the AU as chairman of the officials responsible for drafting the ceasefire agreement in the DRC.
MH: Why you?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Someone just suggested my name. I didn’t even know the person. There were my seniors there but someone just suggested my name. There were people with higher ranks than me and someone just said Zambia – Kazembe. Someone seconded and that was it. I became chairman of the officials drafting the ceasefire agreement.
MH: What were your roles?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: My role was to receive instructions from the presidents and ministers; and to be directed how to go about it. The instructions would guide us in drafting the ceasefire agreement. So we started drafting the ceasefire agreement under my chairmanship.
MH: How difficult was it?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: It was very, very difficult because even the countries that had invaded DRC were not trusting each other. The factions in the DRC did not trust each other. There was just too much mistrust.
MH: So how did you go about it?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: We started with the ministers’ meeting. The meeting was very acrimonious. It was bad. We spent over 36 hours or is it 40 hours with no solution. I then said as chairman, I am putting conditions. From now on, the power is in my hands. The power to chair this meeting is in my hands from now on. As we sit, when you stand up, no introduction, no preamble, no background, no what, just make your contribution and sit down. But before I did that, I allowed the acrimony to go on for about two hours.
MH: What exactly were the accusations?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe (laughs): Eeeisshhh! By this time, there were about seven or so countries in the DRC. There was Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, to some extent Tanzania, Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe. The accusations were flying all over the place and I was the chair. But not only that, I share the border with Congo, I share the border with Zimbabwe, and I share the border with Tan- zania.
So I said let me leave these people to feel each other’s weight for about two hours. After this I said, no more of those accusations. This meeting was in August 1998 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Thank God, Zambia had gone with a draft agreement. We had drafted some document as officials from Zambia. When I produced this draft document, the current President of DRC, Joseph Kabila, at that time he was still the commander of the forces there, he looked at it and said “Ahh, this is a good paper. Mr Chair, let’s use this paper to draft the ceasefire agreement.” Zimbabwe, I think it was Chedondo, we started putting in the beef to this draft document and in no time we were done.
MH: So after coming up with this agreement, what happened next?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: The document was sent to the ministers. The ministers approved it. It was taken to the presidents and it was approved with some amendments. After this, another committee of officials responsible for implementing what was in the ceasefire agreement was formed and another committee for the security of the countries involved was formed. Again, I was made the chair of these two commit- tees.
For the committee on security concerns, there were countries like Kenya, Mauritius, Zambia, Tanzania and I can’t remember the others. As for the implementation, all the countries with the belligerents were involved. Through these committees, we started implementing the ceasefire agreement.
The agreement was later taken to the UN and AU and it was approved. After this, the Joint Military Commission was put in place and I was made the interim chairman of the Commission. I later handed it over to some General from Algeria.
After three months he left and I was made interim chairman again until I handed over to another General from Kenya. However, I remained in the JMC as Chief of Staff to assist him until 2003.
MH: As one of the architects of the DRC ceasefire agreement, are you happy with the peace in the DRC?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: Let’s say the relative peace because peace is relative. There could be other incidences happening in the DRC but people are still enjoying some level of peace. I am happy that the DRC has not disintegrated because that war in the DRC, even the UN was trying to mishandle it.
The UN Security Council could have mishandled it. Their solution was let’s divide the DRC into three countries so that they become smaller countries. I totally disagreed with that. I told them their solution could not work because they didn’t know even the boundaries on the ground.
This was the stage when we were trying to disarm everybody there. The AU had a better model which I advised them. I said let’s disarm everybody and that model worked.
MH: Why do you think the UN wanted to divide the DRC into three countries?
Rtd Brig-Gen Kazembe: They didn’t know the area well. They didn’t know the people. They knew nothing. I also know for a fact that at the UN, some solutions are made even before people sit down to discuss.
That system is bad – predetermined solutions. I wasn’t in agreement with that.