Dissecting Congo’s Modern Holocaust

Against the Current, No. 142, September/October 2009

Nnenna Okeke

Africa’s World War:
Congo, the Rwandan Genocide,
and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe
By Gerard Prunier
Oxford University Press, 2008, 576 pages, $27.95.

A PRIMARY AIM of Gerard Prunier’s work is to detangle and lay bare the complexities of interests, alliances and deep-seeded antagonisms that have made the Congo crisis so brutal. He does this well, without simplifying the narrative for easy comprehension.

As Prunier highlights toward the end of the book, westerners (his primary audience) are generally conditioned to see political conflict in terms of “good” vs “evil.” In conflicts of such magnitude, we draw parallels to a familiar past and demand to know who the “Nazis” and “Jews” are. Prunier, who is director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa and author of an earlier work on the Rwandan genocide, The Rwanda Crisis, does not cater to this sentiment. The situation is not that simple, nor has it ever been.

It is obvious that African conflicts rarely get the popular intellectual time and treatment that other regional conflicts might receive. This has hindered the western comprehension of what exactly happens when Africans decide to go to battle against one another. Surely, we can look also at the poor media coverage and inadequate — often nonexistent — western political involvement in these conflicts as additional reasons.

In the absence of hard analysis and discernable political involvement, many resort to filling these intellectual holes with moral explanations about the evils of human nature — explanations which have the subtle stink of covert racism and consequently uphold perceptions of a morally bankrupt Africa. The Congolese conflict, which occurred between 1997 and 2003 (with continued fighting into today), had largely fallen victim to such an intellectual void.

Enter Gerard Prunier with Africa’s World War, a historical and analytical account of the crisis, from its most immediate origins in the events following the Rwanda Genocide to its aftermath characterized by continued uncontrollable violence in Eastern Congo. Much as he did in The Rwanda Crisis, Prunier breaks open the ethnic, political, economic and humanitarian complexities of the Congolese crisis.

Of a conflict that has since claimed more lives than any other since World War II, and that is rivaled by only few others in its level of brutality and uncontrollability, Prunier makes an attempt at rational explanation. To the question, how this could happen after all we have learned from other conflicts of great magnitude, he offers a robust answer — pointing us to the very combustible situation that can occur when we mix the instability of a region grappling for meaning in the aftermath of a brutal genocide with the indifference and incompetence of the international community.

In so doing Prunier encourages the re-evaluation of what such a conflict can mean for the future of modern Africa in the post-cold war order, the reassessment of power relations between Africa and the western world, and the potential for an African Imperialism.

From Genocide to Congo War

As the Congo War is a direct extension of the Rwanda Genocide, Africa’s World War is a followup to The Rwanda Crisis. Prunier’s perspective has shifted, however, with the realism gained with the passage of time and unfolding events. The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), characterized in the earlier book as a movement deserving of support for bringing an end to the 1994 Genocide, in this work is re-examined and exposed.

As RPF leader Paul Kagame and ally Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni were the main catalysts for the events that spiraled into the continent-wide war, Prunier delves into the motivations for their actions.

In the few months following the genocide, it looked like the healing process between the Hutu and Tutsi would get off to a less rocky political and social start than one would expect. This was short-circuited, however, by an immense killing campaign spearheaded by the RPF and targeted against Hutu refugees along the Congo-Rwandese border.

While this was done in the name of warding off the threat posed by the militarization of the camps by former Hutu genocidaires, Prunier explains it instead as an attempt of the RPF at political control of the Hutu population through terror.

The post-genocide environment definitely fostered such unchecked killings. For one, the international community, in seeming continuation of the pattern seen during the genocide, had presented itself as inept at responding to such crisis. Futhermore, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), set in place to try the genocidaires, had brought little promise that the culprits of the massacre would meet justice. By April 1995, ICTR had about 400 names of suspected genocidaires on the books and had yet to enforce search warrants.

This incompetence and implied indifference of the international community, Prunier states, buttressed two perceptions that would underpin much of the actions of the RPF throughout the conflict: “We are alone and we have to rely purely on ourselves,” and “These foreigners are so weak and incoherent that they are unlikely to react no matter what we do.” Both feelings turned out to be accurate.

At this point, the RPF and its supporters stood as the only significant agents of order, however horrific their methods, to a region grappling for meaning and closure in the face of 800,000 slain. Prunier writes, “If we stand back, we see a group of victorious military men who forcibly brought an apparent ‘solution’ to a monstrous crisis (the genocide) in the face of Western incompetence and vacillation. Subsequent Western guilt turned their might into right regardless of what they were actually doing.” This sense of mission and invincibility would carry them into the official first phase of the crisis — a full on attack of Zaire in 1996.

The RPF’s justifications for doing so were two fold, Prunier explains. First, this attack was presented as the only way to once and for all wipe out the threat posed by the Hutu genocidaires who had been long aided by notorious Zairian dictator and kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko.

The second reason made the invasion more palatable — both internationally and regionally. By adjoining to their initial purpose the Africa-wide mission of removing Mobutu from power, the RPF brought on board several African nations and became a part of the Alliances des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation (AFDL), an alliance formed to spearhead the toppling of Mobutu.

For Africa, the fall of Mobutu signified, as Prunier puts it, “the wiping out of a fundamental blot of shame on the whole continent, the revenge on a feeling of permanent humiliation that had lasted for over thirty years.” Mobutu represented “all that Africa felt was wrong in its relationship with the rest of the world: humiliation, toadying to the “imperialists,” corruption, vulgarity, and violence coupled with powerlessness.”

In 1996, the time had come for African leaders to put an end to Mobutu’s reign for good, and they found strength in one another. Thus, as Prunier states, “the Alliance had been the hollow point of an Africa-wide bullet” right to the heart of the Mobutu regime. And framing the invasion as part of a more noble cause was something the west could very well get behind — and it did.

By this time, Kagame and the RPF had fine-tuned their manipulation of western guilt, a theme Prunier highlights through much of the book. In the name of genocide prevention, and perhaps even righting the wrongs it had made decades before when they put Mobutu in power as part of its cold war period anti-communist vision for Africa, U.S. backing came in the form of training of the Rwanda Patriotic Army, logistical support, and humanitarian aid.

The Spiraling War

Prunier highlights the ambiguities generated by the double-pronged and seemingly unrelated justifications behind the RPF’s role in the invasion. When the numbers of Hutu refugees slain as a direct result of the attack continued to rise, questions began to rise as to whether these civilians were the RPF’s primary target, and not simply the Hutu responsible for the genocide. Was this an attempt at a second genocide? For the RPF, was the invasion first and foremost about revenge against the Hutu (the genocidaires and the entire ethnic group) and less about the removal of Mobutu?

By the time these concerns could be adequately addressed, the conflict took a new turn. In 1997, with the removal of Mobutu came the ascent of Laurent Desire Kabila, a cold war era revolutionary and former political foe of his predecessor, who had been used by Rwanda as a front for their invasion — a stand-in to make a foreign invasion appear to be a domestic uprising.

By 1998, this once pliant proxy had started to oppose the orders of his supporters in Rwanda and Uganda, and eventually ordered all RPF and Ugandan troops out of the Congo. Most startled by this blow to the established relationship between the new Congo and its Ugandan and Rwandese friends were the Banyamulenge of Eastern Congo, an ethnic group with close ties to the RPF and the backbone of their fighting force.

Seeing their security now in question with Kabila’s sudden hostility towards the RPF, Rwanda launched an offensive against Kinshasa that nearly toppled his nascent regime had it not been for Angola’s intervention. Herein begins the beginning of the conflict’s explosion into a continent-wide ordeal, which at its height, had the direct involvement of eight African countries and innumerable other armed groups.

A shining aspect of Prunier’s work is the meticulous manner in which he handles the complex patterns of alliance of all forces involved. He brings a sense of clarity and order to the violent mess that was the post-Mobutu attack on Kinshasa — a pandora’s box that the RPF and their allies were unable to anticipate opening. He states:

“(W)hat the rough Rwandese men of war did not realize was that Zaire/Congo was at the heart of a soft continent. It was the epitome of a world rendered fragile by thirty years of postcolonial neglect and exploitation….From Burundi to Sudan and from Angola to Brazzaville, many different forms of conflict pathologies had developed around the rim of the Congo basin, ready to blend in…The space into which these increasingly brutal military ‘solutions’ were playing themselves out was (and remains) so vitally connected to the rest of the continent.”

When these conflicts did finally blend in, they did so in such an unpredictable and complex manner. Unlike the attack against Mobutu, this phase of the conflict was not simply about support or lack thereof for the incumbent in Kinshasa. Instead, the reasons for entry into the conflict were as numerous as the groups that entered. They ranged from the more obvious participation of Uganda and Rwanda, who primarily wanted to overthrow the defiant marionette they had placed in power, to that of other key power players including Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, who cared little for the Hutu-Tutsi antagonisms and primarily about their varying strategic, economic and political concerns for wanting to keep Kabila in power.

Then there were Libya, Sudan and Chad whose reasons for involvement had nothing to do with the conflict itself and everything to do with their relations to one another. And lastly there were peripheral players, including Burundi and Central African Republic, who were involved for the sole reasons of geographic proximity and their relations with those more directly involved. Soon after many of these countries and the different rebel groups they housed took sides, many alignments fell apart and were rearranged for a myriad of different reasons.

Allies Uganda and Rwanda began to feud, and Kabila was eventually killed, possibly with the help of his “allies” in Angola. Indeed, what was happening, as Prunier puts it, was “the disintegration of a ‘rational’ war into myriad ‘privatized,’ socially and economically motivated subconflicts.” As for western political involvement in the tumultuous mess, there was none. The complexities of the situation left both the Americans and the French, supporters of the rebellion, with no “tactical map” as Prunier puts it, from which to proceed. Indeed, “Africa’s radar screen was blurred,” he states, “and the foreigners had turned theirs off.”

Eventually the foreign armies would retreat, leaving their stand-in rebel groups. With the death of Laurent Kabila came the ascent of his son Joseph Kabila, and this seems to have changed the international outlook of the conflict. Unlike his fiercely anti-imperialist father, Kabila II decided to “treat the international community as his power base.” Friendly relations with the United States aided in the development of the Lusaka accord, and the amount of time it took for countries to abide by its withdrawal provisions was proportional to their dependence on foreign aid.

For Rwanda, Prunier explains, the deep-seated reasons for involvement in the conflict meant that they were not as easily deterred by international pressure. The RPF had several far-reaching reasons to continue fighting, ranging from real and imagined security concerns to economic interests to sustaining an oversized army.

It was not until December 12, 2002 that all formal fighting came to a close. What continues in the eastern regions of the Congo, while it continues to add to the staggering death toll since 1997, cannot be directly attributed to any formal armies — only rebel militias and warlords.

Death or Rebirth of Africa?

What makes Africa’s World War so urgent is that it boldly attempts to fill the intellectual void that has plagued much of the perceptions, understandings and analyses surrounding the conflict. In this work one will find no moral tirades about the evils of human nature, characterizing the war as just one of the several historical occurrences of African immorality gone mad.

As Prunier urges, this conflict is deserving of a particular close analysis, not simply to challenge the subtle racism of moral explanations, or because of its uniqueness in both number of casualties or breath of geographic involvement, but perhaps most importantly, because of its significance for modern African —  and world — history and the continent’s future.

“What is going to come of all this?” he asks, “Is Africa falling apart, or is it going through the pangs of some kind of rebirth?” He finds truth in both possibilities:

“The Rwandese genocide is an example of an atrociously violent leap into some form of modernity. The lack of previous economic and social modernization was not its cause, but it created the conditions of its feasibility. And the “Congolese” conflict that it spawned belonged to the same domain. In a totally different context, differential modernity is at work. The warlords, the peasants, the dashing instant neocapitalists, the refugees, the kadogos, the traders, the NGO employees, the satellite phone providers are all part of an enormous transformation whose historical consequences are still unknown.”

While he dares to see something other than the doom and gloom that might be naturally anticipated after such a horrific war, Prunier warns against assigning a value judgment to its aftermath. “Change,” he says, “does not automatically mean either progress or decay because history is not teleological. But change is irreversible, and Africa is morphing: out of the old clichés and into an unknown future shape.”

While he suggests we must wait to grasp the entire picture of what the conflict means for Africa and its future, he does make some definitive assertions as to how it has transformed Africa’s relation to the Western world. For one, the conflict, he states,

“…has, in many ways, been the last gasp of the dying order of the cold war. Communism was no longer part of the cognitive map, and democracy, up to then an empty word on the continent, had begun a life of its own since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along with the removal of the apartheid regime in South Africa, it had created a new readiness to challenge the injustices of the past, real or imagined, but along fault lines the international white establishment was unfamiliar with, especially because democracy in Africa meant taking everything back to the drawing board: regimes, tribes, nations, borders, economic networks, the states themselves…Without communism and away from colonialism, African problems would have to be taken seriously, for themselves and in themselves.”

Implied in such an assessment is not simply a suggestion for a new lens via which to view African troubles — and might I add, successes. It is also a call to recognize and acknowledge the clout of African protagonists. For too long Africa, often times rightfully so, has existed in historical accounts as a place that things have “happened to.” It was “discovered,” then it was “colonized” and “exploited for its resources,” and then it was a mere playground on which the United States and Soviets enacted their mutual antagonism.

Such logic, while largely grounded in truth, cannot encapsulate all African transformative events — not any more. Although the underlying problems leading to the war have roots in years of colonial and post-colonial neglect and decay, its key players were African men with clear motivations. Kagame, Museveni, their allies and antagonists, as well as the warlords that ran with the chance to wreak havoc, are to blame for fueling the catastrophe.

While Prunier clearly acknowledges the fault of western countries in that they did not act politically and militarily, and instead chose to keep flinging value-free humanitarian aid at the problem knowing this would do nothing to curb the conflict itself, this is where the blame of the international community ends. He silences “neo-leninist” conspiracy theories, suggesting U.S. support of the RPF’s invasion as largely motivated by mining interests, as pure bunk. The main actors were no one’s puppets.

“This is always the problem of conspiracy theories applied to Africa,” he asserts. “They purport to denounce the evil visited upon Africans by ill-meaning foreigners and they end up with Africans looking like perfect dolts, manipulated here, pushed there, used for this, deceived into that.”

On Prunier’s account, the only ones manipulated, pushed, used, and deceived were the millions of civilians killed, maimed, displaced, and terrorized by the years of unabated conflict.

He continues this line on African agency when he hints at the possibility that the invasion of Congo by Rwanda and its allies was indeed a historically unique phenomenon, that which he calls African Imperialism.

While there have been numerous cross-border attacks between African populations before, there has never been such a full-on invasion of one country by another, with the former holding the clear goal of controlling the epicenter of the latter’s domain. The imperialistic actions of Rwanda and its allies came complete with characteristic looting of Congo’s natural resources, including diamonds, gold, timber and coltan.

In the end there are no “Nazis” and “Jews” here — rather, a conflict that must be interpreted on its own terms. And in this vein, Prunier stays clear of accommodating the “the feel-good factor” readers might expect from such an analysis — that “factor common to diplomacy, to humanitarianism, to the need to impose a legal order upon chaos, and to ‘the struggle for the moral high ground.’” Reflecting on his role as a scholar, he acknowledges that “we wish for things that are good to hear. We wish to restore our surroundings to some kind of predictability.”

Prunier responsibly avoids that pull to indulge these “wishes.” There is no room for such selfish fantasy, he implies, when parts of the Congo continue to boil in violent conflict.

ATC 142, September-October 2009