Books Sasha Polakow-Suransky reads Gerard Prunier's sprawling new account of the Congo War, which entangled nine African nations in its epic bloodshed - and finds the author himself all too entangled in the conflict.
The vortex of war
Sasha Polakow-Suransky reads Gerard Prunier's sprawling new account of the Congo War, which entangled nine African nations in its epic bloodshed - and finds the author himself all too entangled in the conflict.
Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe Gerard Prunier Oxford University Press Dh102 The story of the Rwandan genocide is now well-known, thanks to the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda and critically-acclaimed books such as Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. The story of what followed the Rwandan genocide has been far less publicised. The devastating war that went on to engulf Rwanda's much larger neighbour, Zaire, and its successor state, the Democratic Republic of Congo, defies simple explanation - and its politics provide nothing close to the morality play of a Hollywood hit. Moreover, the war, which according to most estimates killed millions of people between 1996 and 2003, lingers on in aftershocks that continue to this day.
This vexing conflict is the subject of Gerard Prunier's latest book, Africa's World War - a title that aptly indicates the multinational scope of the entanglements, grievances and combatants involved in the bloodshed. In the wake of the genocide in Rwanda, the Tutsi-dominated government there, led by Paul Kagame, repeatedly warned the international community that the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide were regrouping in UN-administered refugee camps across the border in Eastern Zaire. The first stage of the Congo War broke out in 1996, when Rwanda's army invaded Zaire to attack the Hutu militias in the camps. The Ugandan army and rebels opposed to the Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko joined forces with Kagame's troops and pushed west. They were aided by Angola's formidable battle-hardened army, which sought to eliminate UNITA rebels who enjoyed shelter and support from Mobutu in southern Congo. After capturing Zaire's capital in May 1997, the rebel leader Laurent Kabila became president and changed the country's name to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When Kabila refused to expel the Hutu militias, Rwanda turned on him and, along with Uganda, backed rebels seeking to topple Kabila. But this time, the Rwandans and Ugandans faced a more powerful enemy. Angola, fearing a chaotic vacuum in which UNITA would thrive, threw its weight behind Kabila's government. In addition, Kabila secured the support of Zimbabwe, which hoped to exploit commercial mining opportunities in Congo, and Namibia, which followed Zimbabwe's lead. Minor actors included Burundi, which opposed Kabila; Chad, which briefly intervened on Kabila's side; and Sudan, which skirmished with Ugandan troops in northeastern Congo in retaliation for Uganda's support of anti-Khartoum rebels in southern Sudan.
The fighting was brutal. Disemboweled bodies floated downstream in rivers, rape became a tool of war for soldiers on all sides, and resources were plundered and reinvested by governments and rebel armies alike. In 1999, the six primary belligerents signed a ceasefire in Lusaka, and in 2000 the UN intervened with a small monitoring force. But heavy fighting continued in the east, with Rwandan and Ugandan forces beginning to fight one another as well. In January 2001, a bodyguard assassinated President Kabila, and his son Joseph became president. Finally, after much arm-twisting and cajoling from South Africa, the Congolese rebels signed a peace accord with Joseph Kabila's government in 2002, and Rwandan and Ugandan forces began to withdraw.
Africa's World War is a dense 400-page history of these events. Faced with the bewildering complexity of Congolese politics and history, many writers have sought refuge in familiar tropes, filling their dispatches with lazy references to Conrad and Africa's "heart of darkness". Thankfully Prunier, a seasoned journalist and the author of the acclaimed 1997 book The Rwanda Crisis, steers clear of such tired clichés. But navigating straight into the confusion of African geopolitics comes with its own hazards.
An alphabet soup of abbreviations for political and armed movements fills an 11-page glossary at the beginning of the book; Africa experts and nonspecialist readers alike will be left dizzy by the unending procession of acronyms. The author himself admits as much at the 200-page mark. where he writes: "Does the reader at this point want to throw in the towel and give up on the ethnopolitical complexities of the region? I would not blame you, although I can assure you that I am honestly trying to simplify the picture."
Africa's World War is a book that should have been either three times as long or half its size. Prunier is unable to do justice to the complex history and colourful characters involved in under 400 pages. At the same time, the book is too bogged down with details to hold the reader's attention and give the simplified, condensed overview of the conflict Prunier claims he is striving to provide. His portraits of African leaders are at times deftly drawn and amusing. He writes of the former Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa: "He delighted in being totally unpredictable, shouting in public at Kurt Waldheim that he was 'an imperialist pimp', insisting on calling General de Gaulle 'Daddy' and offering to attack Paris with a paratroopers' regiment and shoot up the French rebel students during the 1968 riots." But the vast majority of characters arrive on the scene with little background or explanation.
That said, as academics, diplomats, journalists and security experts begin to debate the merits and faults of Africa's World War, Prunier's style will be the least of their concerns. Instead, Prunier's antipathy toward Rwandan leader Paul Kagame is likely to take centre stage. Toward the end of the book, Prunier openly discusses the inevitable biases that undergird any journalist's work; he admits his early identification with Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the predominantly Tutsi force that invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990 and defeated and replaced the genocidal Hutu regime in 1994. But Prunier's view of Kagame later turned sour. He chronicles the retaliatory killings committed by Kagame's forces after the Rwandan genocide and accuses the West of turning a blind eye to this violence: "The UN had not been able to stop a genocide; how would it dare interfere with 'the victims' who were now 'restoring order'?" He backhandedly praises Kagame's skillful manipulation of public opinion ("his capacity to fine-tune white guilt as a conductor directs an orchestra put him miles ahead of his lesser associates") and lambastes Kagame's supporters in Washington, whom he accuses of having "passively connived in a genocide and tried to make up for that by turning the RPF into a black Israel", while elevating Kagame to the status of an "African Adenauer who would commit the tropical Nazis to oblivion". To Prunier, the international community's naïve efforts to bring peace to the region amounted to nothing more than a "touching humanitarianism that thinks it can prevent forest fires by banning the sale of matches".
Prunier's scathing attacks on Kagame and his western patrons are undermined, however, by his apparent admission - buried in a footnote - that he was directly involved in raising funds for a new armed group led by Seth Sendashonga, a Hutu RPF minister who fled into exile after clashing with Kagame. "I have in my possession a letter from Seth addressed to me from Nairobi on 4 May 1998," writes Prunier. The letter reads: "With very limited means we carry on our fight...I hope that you keep up with your search for funds and that you can get us some small support. I beg you not to neglect any effort because we are so hard up. It has reached such a point that we have barely enough money to send our mail." The book is in fact dedicated to the memory of Sendashonga, who was murdered in Nairobi in 1998. If Prunier did solicit funds for a rebel movement, such action starkly calls into question the scholarly objectivity of his work. (Prunier has also come under fire from Colonel Thomas Odom, the former US defence attaché in both Zaire (1993-1995) and Rwanda (1995-1997), who disputes his grasp of the historical record and accuses him of distorting facts and spreading conspiracy theories, such as his claim that African-American mercenaries with criminal records were sent to fight in the Eastern Congo.)
Because there is such a dearth of reporting and analysis from this region, Prunier's account - published by the prestigious Oxford University Press - could easily become the basis for conventional wisdom, despite its obvious biases. Most literature on the region deals specifically with the Rwandan genocide. When it comes to Congo, most writers have focused on the colonial and Mobutu eras; Adam Hochschild's masterful King Leopold's Ghost, Ludo de Witte's Lumumba, Neal Ascherson's The King Incorporated, Larry Devlin's Chief of Station, Congo, and Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz do not delve into the complexities of the great war at the dawn of the 21st century. Academic accounts - such as Robert Edgerton's The Troubled Heart of Africa and Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja's The Congo from Leopold to Kabila, John Clark's edited volume The African Stakes of the Congo War and, in French, Colette Braeckman's L'Enjeu Congolais - do not pretend to provide the last word on the subject and are unlikely to receive the broad readership that Prunier's book will.
Already, reviewers from The Financial Times and The Times of London are praising Africa's World War as "remarkable" and "hugely ambitious". Prunier's book will likely be seen as the authoritative text on the Congo war by default, but this would be a mistake. In many places, the Congo war is not yet over; regional subconflicts are still smoldering, and many of the grievances and rivalries that animated the war remain today - especially in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, which border Rwanda. The historical record may well inform the views of policymakers seeking to put out the remaining fires. Due to its shortcomings and its biases, Africa's World War should not be hailed as the definitive work on the subject.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is an editor at Foreign Affairs in New York.