The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL or ADFLC) was a coalition of Rwandan, Ugandan, Burundan and selected some Congolese dissidents, disgruntled minority groups and nations that toppled President Mobutu Sese Seko and brought Laurent Kabila to power in the First Congo War (1996-1997). While the group was successful in overthrowing the Mobutu dictatorship, the alliance fell apart after Laurant D. Kabila did not agreed to be dictated by his aliases which was Ugandan and Rwandan backers turned Against him, marking the beginning of the Second Congo War on August 2, 1998.
The alliance is also frequently called by its original French name, Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL).
By the middle of 1996, the situation in eastern Zaire was simmering with tension. Following the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hutus had fled across the border into Zaire where they settled in large refugee camps. Many of those responsible for the genocide, the former Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and interahamwe militia, used the anonymity offered by the camps to reorganize into the rebel Rassemblement pour le Retour et la Démocratie au Rwanda (RDR). The RDR began to use the camps as bases to infiltrate back across the border and conduct an insurgency. Despite protests by the Rwandan government, the Zairean government and international organizations providing humanitarian aid to the camps were unwilling to remove the militants from the refugee population.
At the same time, the position of the Banyamulenge minority, ethnic Tutsis who had lived in Zaire for generations, was growing precarious. They had long been discriminated against for being relative newcomers to the region and having a different language and culture than neighboring tribes, part of Mobutu Sese Seko's strategy of encouraging a low level of internal discord in the country so an alliance would not form against him. The arrival of large numbers of Hutus, many of them militant Hutus who carried out attacks on Banyamulenge targets, had substantially upset what equilibrium existed. The Rwandan government also saw the Banyamulenge, as natural allies and had quietly armed and trained a substantial force in anticipation of what it felt to be an unstable situation.
On 7 October 1996, the vice-governor based in the Kivu town of Bukavu proclaimed that the Banyamulenge were no longer welcome and would have to leave the country. In response, the Banyamulenge began an uprising against the local government this was pretext used by AFDL to start a war in Zaire, which was initially characterized as a tribal war quickly turned into something more. With support from the Rwandan government, the Banyamulenge managed to fend off an attack by the Zairean army. The rising tension between Rwanda and Zaire then led to an exchange of mortar fire over Lake Kivu between the two nations' armed forces. This violence involving the Banyamulenge in September–October 1996 is seen as the beginning of the First Congo War.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a former Marxist rebel who had spent most of the previous decade selling gold in Tanzania, appeared as head of his old rebel group, the Party of the Peoples' Revolution, which had been defunct. In a remarkably short period of time, Kabila found himself head of the new AFDL, which also included the National Council of Resistance for Democracy (CNRD) led by André Kissasse Ngandu, the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MRLZ) led by Anselme Masusu Nindaga, and the Democratic Alliance of the People (ADP), led by Déogratias Bugera, often known as 'Douglas'. On 18 October, a North Kivu Tutsi, Déogratias Bugera, became the first general-secretary of the organization.
There has been much speculation about foreign involvement in facilitating the creation of the ADFL. Most of it swirls around Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, both of whom knew Kabila very well. (Kabila had been introduced to Kagame and Museveni by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania). After an initial period of denial, since 1997 both Rwanda and Uganda have openly acknowledged the role they played in the formation of the AFDL and its military success. Uganda and Rwanda quickly threw the weight of their support behind the AFDL and sent forces across the Zairean border. Burundi, Angola, the rebels of southern Sudan, and the security forces of the province of Katanga, all of which had long standing grievances with the Mobutu government, especially his sponsoring of foreign rebel groups to destabilize neighboring countries, also proved to be important backers of the ADFL.
One of the first actions of the ADFL after it began to capture towns along the Zairean border was the dispersal of the large Hutu refugee camps that were offering safe haven to many RDR militants, an act humanitarian and human rights organizations fiercely criticized. As each camp was destroyed, the refugees fled to the next, creating camps with massive populations. One camp at Mugungu, north of Lake Kivu, reached 500,000 inhabitants, which is completely unmanageable by humanitarian organizations. However, in fierce fighting in mid-November the Zairean government forces and RDR were either destroyed or forced out of the provinces of North and South Kivu. The Hutu refugees then split, about 800,000 fleeing back into Rwanda and several hundred thousand moving west into the Zairean jungles where many died of starvation and exposure to the elements or fell victim to attacks by various armed parties. The Rwandan Defence Forces and the ADFL carried out mass atrocities during the war with as many as 222,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees going missing.
While Kabila, due to his international contacts and ability to speak multiple language, was clearly the AFDL spokesperson, there was some question about who was the ultimate leader. André Kisase Ngandu, an elder insurgent with revolutionary credentials, was the president of the AFDL's military wing, the National Resistance Council (CNRD), and apparently expressed opposition to the massacre of Hutu refugees in Congolese camps. This internal tension between the two men was resolved on 4 January 1997, when Ngandu was assassinated in North Kivu by Rwandan Tutsi soldiers, allegedly at the instigation of Kabila and/or Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kabila thereafter appointed himself president of the CNRD as well as retaining his position as spokesperson and head of the political wing.
Once the Kivus were secured the remainder of the First Congo War consisted for the most part of the ADFL and its allies walking and driving across the country to Kinshasa. The population proved to have a deep antipathy towards President Mobutu Sese Seko after decades of corruption and despotism. Most of the demoralized soldiers in the national army either deserted, or joined the ADFL. Men from villages and towns throughout the country spontaneously joined the ADFL's advance. On 17 May 1997, seven months after the rebellion began and a day after Mobutu fled the country, the ADFL marched into Kinshasa and Kabila declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ADFL then became the new national armed forces.