FROM GENOCIDE TO CONTINENTAL WAR
By William Wallis
Financial Times (London)
December 13, 2008
[Review of From Genocide to Continental War: The 'Congolese' Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa by Gérard Prunier (Hurst, 2008) -- £30, 544 pages.]
If Gérard Prunier did not exist already, there would be an urgent need for him to be created. The maverick French historian is a genuine rarity, someone who has criss-crossed Africa for 37 years, who can deliver a historical sweep but masters the details. He has battled at times alone to clear the foggy lens through which the continent is viewed, notably in The Rwanda Crisis, his unrivalled account of the 1994 genocide.
From Genocide to Continental War is his sequel on the wars in Congo. Until now the literature on this, one of the most momentous yet least understood upheavals in contemporary Africa, has been sparse.
A smattering of academic studies wraps up the traumatic, post-Cold War collapse of the Congolese state in dense thickets of French prose. English language readers seeking to understand a conflict that has indirectly caused an estimated 4m deaths since 1998 face a different dilemma. Most accounts take a discursive journey up the Congo River or follow in the wake of some 19th-century explorer.
What Everest is to mountaineers, Congo is to a small number of war correspondents and travel writers -- a place to test extremes of physical and psychological endurance or cast an unflinching look into the darkness that persists inside the hearts of men. In the hackneyed lexicon of literature on Congo, it seems almost compulsory to allude to Joseph Conrad’s fictional account of a Congo river journey in Heart of Darkness.
Valuable and successful as these travelogues might be, they filter Congolese reality through the anguish, trepidation, and bravado of the writer. The genre may also be symptomatic of a continuing tendency in Europe and the U.S. to see Western engagement in African crises, whether by journalists, aid workers, or governments, as essentially noble and heroic, a myth that Prunier is brutally effective at dispelling.
The story of Mobutu Sese Seko, the late dictator, was sufficiently grotesque to capture the Western imagination and that of some publishers. With ample assistance from his Western backers, he extravagantly misruled one of Africa’s best endowed and largest territories for 32 years. But his overthrow and subsequent death in 1997 unleashed the deluge he once famously predicted -- and of course hastened.
The subsequent proliferation of rebel militias, invading foreign armies, wars within wars, and the often cack-handed international response did not lend itself to an obvious storyline -- a reflection of the messy circumstances of many African countries that emerged following the Cold War.
In From Genocide to Continental War, Prunier foregoes the easy linearity of another river journey and heads straight for this swampy terrain. This is an epic account of the repercussions of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the events that in its aftermath sucked at least seven countries, led by Rwanda, into neighboring Congo’s wars. It stands alone in capturing the breadth of involvement, multiple causes, and terrible consequences of “Africa’s first world war.”
The book, though by a Frenchman, is written in fluent and elegant English. And for both regional state actors and Western governments, it will make uncomfortable reading.
It takes us back to the months after the genocide. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels, mostly of the Tutsi minority, were led by Paul Kagame. They had driven out the Hutu soldiers and militias responsible for the slaughter, alongside more than 2m carefully herded refugees and were consolidating their grip on the tiny mountain state on Congo’s eastern border.
Prunier’s knowledge of the RPF goes back to the creation of the guerrilla movement by Rwandan exiles. His original account of their military victory following the genocide was broadly sympathetic. As such his efforts here to uncover the extent of the massacres the RPF subsequently committed will be damaging to the Kigali regime.
Using new evidence, he paints a picture of something more sinister and systematic than revenge for the genocide, in which killing became an instrument of control. The genocide had “contaminated the world of the survivors” and by the time Rwanda attacked the armed Hutu camps on its Congo border in September 1996, forcing some refugees back home and slaughtering others, it had contaminated the region as a whole.
Washington and London were wracked by guilt. At the same time they wanted to believe that Kagame and other reformed Marxist leaders who conspired together to oust the cancer of Mobutu’s regime were a new breed capable of delivering an “African renaissance.”
Kagame manipulated this combination of guilt and aspiration with great skill, Prunier argues, to obscure the nastier aspects of his own regime and to swing the West behind his regional goals. “Any discussion of Rwandese violence in the Congo was immediately countered by reminders of the horrors of the genocide (and of the fact that the West had done nothing about it),” he writes.
But he neither minimizes nor exaggerates Rwanda’s role in the subsequent disintegration of Congo into warring fiefdoms, battling for control of vast mineral resources beneath the soil.
He examines in detail the motives of all the main actors who ended up on the battlefield, from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Angola to more minor “interlopers” from Namibia, and Burundi to Libya and Sudan. He considers the vortex that Congo sucked these players into, and the South African diplomacy that helped eventually draw them out.
Nitpickers -- particularly those who have experienced episodes of Congo’s recent history firsthand -- will find omissions and weaknesses. Polemicists, of whom Prunier notes there are plenty among reporters, activists, academics, and diplomats involved with the Great Lakes region, will be duly aggravated by the chilling detail brought to bear in challenging some treasured theories.
As conflict reignites in its ravaged east, the basic premise of successful engagement with Congo must be a clearer understanding of how it got where it is -- as such, this unique and hugely ambitious book may turn out to be one of the most important to emerge on Africa for a long time.
--William Wallis is the FT’s Africa editor.
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