Armed conflict:  Unilateral & bilateral involvement

France | Belgium | Other unilateral and bilateral involvement | What do you think? | Resources

This section looks at unilateral intervention and bilateral involvement in central and eastern Africa. The main external actors have been France and Belgium. Interventions can be seen in context in this timeline, and some of the major operations are described below. You can find more material on this subject by clicking on links on this page or by looking at our Resources – and we would love to hear your thoughts, either in response to the questions at the bottom of this page or on a relevant issue you have identified.

Timeline for unilateral intervention and bilateral involvement in central and eastern Africa



France has generally remained highly active in Africa since decolonisation, and retained two large military bases in the CAR until the late-1990s. Thanks to French advisers in African governments, generous aid packages, and the French army—or as historian Alex Thomson puts it, “people, money, and force”—French influence in Africa remained largely undiminished throughout the Cold War period. In some ways, it actually grew. Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC—former Belgian colonies—joined La Francophonie (similar to the British Commonwealth) in the 1970s, and made bilateral defence agreements with France that provided a legal basis for future French interventions. France’s interests in Africa are essentially resource-based. Charles de Gaulle, French president at the time of decolonisation, saw sub-Saharan Africa’s ‘strategic’ resources—including petrol and uranium—as vital to France’s energy independence, and by extension to its continued status as a world power. Ostensibly to protect its commercial interests and the thousands of French nationals present in Africa, France has frequently intervened militarily on the continent; in central and eastern Africa alone, 14 such interventions have taken place since 1960. Some of the most significant are detailed below.

Operation in Kolwezi, 1978

When anti-government forces captured the mining town of Kolwezi in 1978, they held its 3,000-strong European population as hostages. After a failed counterattack by government forces, 80 Europeans and hundreds of Africans were killed, precipitating a French airborne operation involving 600 Foreign Legionnaires to rescue the remaining Europeans and retake Kolwezi. The town was quickly brought under the control of the French army, and the remaining Europeans were evacuated.

Operation to remove Jean-Bedel Bokassa, 1979

After years of support, France decided in 1979 to end the reign of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Empire, after he became close to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, with whose forces France was effectively at war with in Chad. As Bokassa visited Libya, France launched back-to-back operations in which ex-president David Dacko (who had been overthrown by Bokassa in 1965) was escorted by French secret service agents and special forces to Bangui to announce the end of the Empire, while French regular forces were deployed to ensure its success.

Direct military assistance to Rwanda’s Hutu government, 1990-93

In 1990 the mainly-Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front launched an offensive from bases in Uganda, which quickly advanced to within 90 kilometres (55 miles) of the capital, Kigali.  French troops were initially sent to protect and evacuate French nationals, but the operation progressively grew to include the training, equipping and supervision of the rapidly-growing Hutu government forces, which grew tenfold between 1990 and 1993 as the RPF continued to threaten Kigali.  By March 1993, when the Arusha Accords were signed between the government and the RPF, there were almost 700 French advisers in Rwanda.

Peacekeeping operation in southwest Rwanda, 1994

In June 1994, in the midst of mass killings in Rwanda and after the UN had withdrawn most of its forces, the UN Security Council accepted France’s offer to lead an operation to create a ‘humanitarian zone’ in the south-west of the country.  Some 2,550 French troops were deployed, but the operation was controversial from the start, as France had very recently been providing comprehensive military support to the Hutu government. During the operation, there were “on some occasions direct confrontation” between French and Tutsi forces; questions as to why known Hutu organisers of the mass killings were not detained in the French zone were later asked in the French parliament, and numerous accusations have since been made of ‘complicity’ in the killings.

Operations during army mutinies in the Central African Republic, 1996

The CAR’s army mutinied on three separate occasions in 1996, precipitating three French interventions to guarantee the security of the 4,500 French nationals there. France played a key role in negotiations with the mutineers—including agreeing to pay their salaries and to guarantee their security—but was by then seeking to end its permanent presence in the CAR.

Direct military assistance to the government of the Central African Republic, 2002-

Since 2002 France has provided financial, logistical, technical and administrative support both to CAR government forces and to an ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States) force present in the country.  French forces based semi-permanently based at Bangui number around 200, although number are often reinforced. France has “brought repeatedly to [both government and ECCAS forces] intelligence and logistical support, aerial fire support [and] assistance in planning and conducting operations to regain control of the North-East of the country”, and French jets bombed anti-government forces’ positions in 2006.


The former colonial power in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, Belgium intervened in the DRC in the 1960s and 1970s, and later in Rwanda in 1994. While Belgium has not been as active as France in the region, it has retained military cooperation agreements with all three countries for most of the post-independence period.

Assassination of Patrice Lumumba, 1961

On Congo’s independence in 1960, the provinces of Katanga and South Kasai attempted to break away. The independence of Katanga, where most of Congo’s mineral wealth and the majority of Belgian and Western mining interests were located, was initially supported by Belgium. In 1961 Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, who wanted to prevent the breakaway provinces’ succession, was overthrown by army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu, kidnapped and handed over to Katangan forces, who executed him. Belgium supported these actions, and Belgian officers were present at Lumumba’s execution.

Rescue operations in the Congo, 1964

After Lumumba’s overthrow, anti-Mobutu forces gained control of a large area of northeastern Congo, including Stanleyville (Kisangani), and over 2,000 Europeans in the area effectively became hostages. As Belgian airborne operations to rescue Europeans in Stanleyville and Paulis (Isiro) began in conjunction with advances by white mercenary forces and government troops, anti-Mobutu forces killed over 200 Europeans and more than a thousand African civilians. Stanleyville soon came under Belgian control, however, and the remaining Europeans were evacuated.

Other unilateral and bilateral involvement

British military intervention during the Ugandan army mutiny, 1964

The armies of the newly-independent Tanganyika (Tanzania), Kenya and Uganda mutinied in 1964, protesting poor pay and the continued presence of British officers in key army positions.  During the Uganda mutiny, prime minister Milton Obote requested British intervention, precipitating a landing of 450 British soldiers who quickly put an end to the mutiny.

Israeli hostage rescue operation in Uganda, 1979

In 1976 an airliner with Israeli passengers on board was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and flown to Entebbe airport, near Kampala. Ugandan president Idi Amin made his support for the hijackers known, and made a speech in support of the Palestinian cause. Days later, 100 Israeli commandos landed at the airport and rescued 102 Israeli hostages (those of other nationalities had previously been released) in a 90-minute operation; all of the hijackers, and around 200 Ugandan soldiers, were killed.

US cruise missile strike on Khartoum, Sudan, 1998

After US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by Islamic jihadists in 1998, killing 12 Americans and over 200 local civilians, US warships in the Gulf of Aden fired missiles which destroyed a pharmaceutical factory near Khartoum suspected of producing chemical weapons for Al-Qaeda.

What do you think?

Why did France and Belgium continue to intervene in central Africa after decolonisation?

Colonialism was motivated by industrialising countries’ needs for raw materials and markets for manufactured goods. Have these needs gone away?

Are new industrial powers, such as China and Brazil, likely to begin intervening militarily in Africa?


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