Daily Archives: 24 May 2011

Scope of the Great War of Africa, 1996–?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 130-146:

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a vast country, the size of western Europe and home to sixty million people. For decades it was known for its rich geology, which includes large reserves of cobalt, copper, and diamonds, and for the extravagance of its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but not for violence or depravity.

Then, in 1996, a conflict began that has thus far cost the lives of over five million people.

The Congolese war must be put among the other great human cataclysms of our time: the World Wars, the Great Leap Forward in China, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. And yet, despite its epic proportions, the war has received little sustained attention from the rest of the world. The mortality figures are so immense that they become absurd, almost meaningless. From the outside, the war seems to possess no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it, no easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece. In Cambodia, there was the despotic Khmer Rouge; in Rwanda one could cast the genocidal Hutu militias as the villains. In the Congo these roles are more difficult to fill. There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences—much to the frustration of the international media. How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective? How do you put a human face on a figure like “four million” when most of the casualties perish unsensationally, as a result of disease, far away from television cameras?

The conflict is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers with extensive foreign coverage, gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.

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Filed under Cambodia, China, Congo, Darfur, disease, publishing, war

Africa’s New Leaders vs. Mobutu, 1996

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 993-1030:

By mid-1996, Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame [of Rwanda] had stitched together an impressive alliance of African governments behind their drive to overthrow Mobutu. The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s dinosaur. Never had so many African countries united militarily behind one cause, leading some to dub the war Africa’s World War. Unlike that war, however, the battle for the Congo would not be carried out in trenches over years, leading to millions of military casualties. Here, the battles were short and the number of soldiers killed in the thousands, figures dwarfed by the number of civilians killed. Unlike World War II, the African allies banded together not against aggressive expansionism, but against the weakness of the enemy.

The leader of this coalition was its youngest, smallest member: Rwanda. It was typical of the RPF, who had played David to Goliath several times before and would do so again later. At the outset, it seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a just war: Kigali was acting as a last resort based on legitimate security concerns.

What seems obvious in hindsight—that Mobutu’s army had been reduced to a mockery of itself, that Mobutu’s hold on power had crumbled—was a vague hypothesis in RPF intelligence briefings at the time. When Kagame told his officers that they would go all the way to Kinshasa, they nodded politely but in private shook their heads. That was a journey of over 1,000 miles, through unknown terrain, similar to walking from New York to Miami through swamps and jungles and across dozens of rivers. They would have to fight against 50,000 of Mobutu’s soldiers as well as perhaps 50,000 ex-FAR and Interahamwe. It seemed impossible. “We never thought we could make it all the way to Kinshasa,” Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan intelligence chief, told me.

It is easy to forget, now that greed and plunder claim the headlines as the main motives for conflict in the region, that its beginnings were steeped in ideology. The Rwandan-backed invasion was perhaps the heyday of the African Renaissance, riding on the groundswell of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, and of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda from dictatorships. It was an alliance motivated in part by the strategic interests of individual governments, but also by a larger spirit of pan-Africanism. Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this sort of mobilization behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisors. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.”

Absent from these talks, however, were the Congolese. Their country was to be liberated for them by foreigners who knew little to nothing of their country. And of course, these foreigners would soon develop other interests than just toppling Mobutu. Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defense looked ever more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many decades.

In 1996, however, the future remained bright.

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Filed under Congo, democracy, economics, Eritrea, Ethiopia, nationalism, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, war, Zimbabwe