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Canada in the Congo

Canadian officials have long done as they pleased in Africa, loudly proclaimed this country’s altruism and only faced push back from hard rightists who bemoan sending troops to the  “Dark Continent” or “dens of hell”.

With many Canadians normally opposed to war supporting anything called “peacekeeping”, unless troops deployed with an African UN mission are caught using the N-word and torturing a teenager to death (the 1993 Somalia mission) they will be portrayed as an expression of this country’s benevolence. So, what should those of us who want Canada to be a force for good in the world think about the Trudeau government’s plan to join a UN stabilization mission in Mali, Congo, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic or South Sudan?

First, we have good reason to be cynical.

On his recent five country African “reconnaissance” tour defence minister Harjit Sajjan included an individual whose standing is intimately tied to a military leader who has destabilized large swaths of the continent. Accompanying Sajjan was General Romeo Dallaire, who backed Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1993/94 and continues to publicly support the “Butcher of the Great Lakes”.

In his 2005 book Le Patron de Dallaire Parle (The Boss of Dallaire Speaks), Jacques-Roger Booh Booh, a former Cameroon foreign minister and overall head of the mid-90s UN mission in Rwanda, claims Dallaire ignored RPF violence, turned a blind eye to the weapons they received from Uganda and possibility shared UN intelligence with the Ugandan sponsored rebels. Dallaire doesn’t deny his admiration for Kagame. In Shake Hands with the Devil, published several years after Kagame unleashed unprecedented terror in the Congo, Dallaire wrote: “My guys and the RPF soldiers had a good time together” at a small cantina. Dallaire then explained: “It had been amazing to see Kagame with his guard down for a couple of hours, to glimpse the passion that drove this extraordinary man.” Dallaire’s interaction with the RPF was not in the spirit of UN guidelines that called on staff to avoid close ties to individuals, organizations, parties or factions of a conflict.

Included on the trip because he symbolizes Canadian benevolence, Dallaire hasn’t moved away from his aggressive backing for Kagame despite the Globe and Mail reporting on Kagame’s internal repression, global assassination program and proxies occupying the mineral rich Eastern Congo. The recently retired Senator has aligned his depiction of the 1994 Rwandan tragedy to fit the RPF’s simplistic, self-serving, portrayal and Dallaire even lent his name to a public attack against the 2014 BBC documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story. In February the former senator met with the Rwandan dictator in Toronto.

Three weeks ago the ruling party in Burundi released a statement criticizing the Canadian general’s role in Rwanda and his inclusion on Sajjan’s trip. Still, I’ve yet to see any mention of Dallaire’s backing of Kagame or the fact his ally in Kigali has significant interest in the UN mission in Eastern Congo.

Another piece of history that should be part of any debate about a UN deployment to the continent is Canada’s link to the UN force in the Congo, which is an outgrowth of the mid-1990s foreign invasion. In 1996 Rwandan forces marched 1,500 km to topple the regime in Kinshasa and then re-invaded after the Congolese government it installed expelled Rwandan troops. This led to an eight-country war between 1998 and 2003, which left millions dead. Since then Rwanda and its proxies have repeatedly invaded the Eastern Congo.

Kigali justified its 1996 intervention into the Congo as an effort to protect the Banyamulenge (Congolese Tutsi) living in Eastern Congo from the Hutus who fled the country when the RPF took power. As many as two million, mostly Hutu, refugees fled the summer 1994 RPF takeover of Rwanda.

The US military increased its assistance to Rwanda in the months leading up to its fall 1996 invasion of Zaire. In The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006 Filip Reyntjens explains: “The United States was aware of the intentions of Kagame to attack the refugee camps and probably assisted him in doing so. In addition, they deliberately lied about the number and fate of the refugees remaining in Zaire, in order to avoid the deployment of an international humanitarian force, which could have saved tens of thousands of human lives, but which was resented by Kigali and AFDL [L’Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo, a Rwandan backed rebel force led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila].”

Ottawa played an important part in this sordid affair. In late 1996, Canada led a short-lived UN force into eastern Zaire, meant to bring food and protection to Hutu refugees. The official story is that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien organized a humanitarian mission into eastern Zaire after his wife saw images of exiled Rwandan refugees on CNN. In fact, Washington proposed that Ottawa, with many French speakers at its disposal, lead the UN mission. The US didn’t want pro- Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko France to gain control of the UN force.

On November 9, 1996, the UN Security Council backed a French resolution to establish a multinational force in Eastern Congo. Four days later, French Defence Minister Charles Millon, urged Washington to stop stalling on the force. ‘‘Intervention is urgent and procrastination by some countries is intolerable,’’ Millon said in a radio interview. ‘‘The United States must not drag its feet any longer.’’

Canada’s mission to the Congo was designed to dissipate French pressure and ensure it didn’t take command of a force that could impede Rwanda’s invasion of the Eastern Congo. “The United States and Canada did not really intend to support an international force,” writes Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens. “Operation Restore Silence” was how Oxfam’s emergencies director Nick Stockton sarcastically described the mission. He says the Anglosphere countries “managed the magical disappearance” of half a million refugees in eastern Zaire. In a bid to justify the non-deployment of the UN force, Canadian Defence Minister Doug Young claimed over 700,000 refugees had returned to Rwanda. A December 8 article in Québec City’s Le Soleil pointed out that this was “the highest estimated number of returnees since the October insurrection in Zaire.”

The RPF dismantled infrastructure and massacred thousands of civilians in the Hutu refugee camps, prompting some 300,000 to flee westward on foot from refugee camp to refugee camp. Dying to Live by Pierre-Claver Ndacyayisenga describes a harrowing personal ordeal of being chased across the Congo by the RPF and its allies.

Ultimately, most of the Canadian-led UN force was not deployed since peacekeepers would have slowed down or prevented Rwanda, Uganda and its allies from triumphing. But, the initial batch of Canadian soldiers deployed to the staging ground in Uganda left much of the equipment they brought along. In Le Canada dans les guerres en Afrique centrale: génocides et pillages des ressources minières du Congo par le Rwanda interposé (Canada in the wars in Central Africa: genocide and looting of the mineral resources of the Congo by Rwanda interposed) Patrick Mbeko suggests the Ugandan Army put the equipment to use in the Congo.

Prior to deploying the Canadian-led multinational force, Commander General Maurice Baril met with officials in Kigali as well as the Director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. Hinting at who was in the driver’s seat, the New York Times reported that Baril “cancelled a meeting with United Nations officials and flew instead to Washington for talks.” In deference to the Rwandan-backed forces, Baril said he would only deploy UN troops with the rebels’ permission. ‘‘Anything that I do I will coordinate with the one who is tactically holding the ground,’’ Baril noted.

Much to Joseph Mobutu’s dismay, Baril met rebel leader Laurent Kabila who was at that time shunned by most of the international community. The meeting took place in a ransacked mansion that had belonged to Zaire’s president and as part of the visit Kabila took Baril on a tour of the area surrounding Goma city. Baril justified the meeting, asserting: “I had to reassure the government of Canada that the situation had changed and we could go home.”

The book Nous étions invincibles, the personal account of Canadian special forces commando Denis Morrisset, provides a harrowing account of the Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) operation to bring Baril to meet Kabila. The convoy came under attack and was only bailed out when US Apache and Blackhawk helicopters retaliated. Some thirty Congolese were killed by a combination of helicopter and JTF2 fire.

Despite the bizarre, unsavory, history outlined above, Canada’s short-lived 1996 UN force to the Congo is little known. The same can largely be said about Dallaire (and Ottawa’s) support for the RPF during the mid-90s UN mission in Rwanda or Canada’s role in the UN force that helped kill Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.

Widespread ignorance of Canada’s chequered UN history in Africa reflects a political culture that gives politicians immense latitude to pursue self-serving policies, present them as altruistic and face few questions. Unless progressives upend this culture the loud expressions of Canadian benevolence are unlikely to align with reality.

More articles by:

Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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