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David Rieff on ‘Africa’s World War’
Posted on Feb 6, 2009
By David Rieff
Prunier’s own view is that it was both. “By 1996,” he writes, “the Zairean core of the [African] continent had become a hologram flickering on the brink of its own destruction.” At the same time, however, Prunier is drawn to the analogy between the war in Congo—which involved not just Congolese and Rwandans but military forces of Angola, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Namibia—and impacted conflicts from Sudan and Congo-Brazzaville all the way to Libya, and the Thirty Years’ War in Europe in the 17th century. Like that conflict more than 300 years earlier, Prunier suggests, the Congolese war took place because of African leaders’ personal [rather than national—the point is a key one for Prunier] “ambitions, prejudices, and security fears.”
On Prunier’s account, there was no one who more exemplified this than the Rwandan leader Paul Kagame. Though he remarks in passing that “Kigali politics are only slightly more transparent than Pyongyang’s,” Prunier makes an emphatic case for Kagame having sought the destabilization of the DRC both out of legitimate fears of the renewal of the genocide by Hutu Power extremists who had taken refuge in large militarized refugee camps in eastern DRC after Kagame’s forces chased them out of Rwanda in the summer of 1994. These security fears were well known at the time, and in fact were cited by the Rwandans themselves and their many supporters in the United States and Western Europe as the moral imperative behind the Rwandan intervention (Prunier points out how Gen. Kagame came to be seen in the West as leader of “the exemplary victims”).
Prunier does not dismiss this. Despite accusations leveled at him from Kigali and from the Kagame regime’s foreign supporters, he is no genocide “negationist.” But what he does do—and the corrective is an essential one if we are ever to understand what the Congolese war was really about—is restore to its rightful importance the fact that Kagame had been one of a number of African leaders—most notably, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere—who had been plotting for some time to orchestrate Mobutu’s overthrow. Prunier is not arguing that the Hutu militias across the border were simply a flag of convenience for Kagame. But in his view, the Tutsi government’s security fears were only part of the rationale even if, as Prunier remarks acidly, Rwanda got its casus belli in 1996 “courtesy of a totally blind Zairian political class.”
“Wars begin where you will but do not end where you please,” Machiavelli instructed the Prince. The Congolese war exemplifies the truth of this adage, and not only for the Rwandans. What Prunier lays out in great detail and with great authority is the extent to which all the belligerents blundered and improvised, while, all the while, it was the Congolese people who paid the price for the ambitions of modern-day princes from a dozen countries. As Prunier puts it, although all wars are terrible, “the Congolese continental conflict was particularly horrible, not only because it caused the deaths of nearly four million human beings but because of the massive suffering it visited on the surviving civilian populations.”
That suffering goes on today, even if the shifting alliances that have marked the Congolese conflict from its inception have led President Kagame to abandon his erstwhile protégé, the Congolese Tutsi militia commander Laurent Nkunda, and instead make common cause with his erstwhile enemy, the central government of the DRC, against both Nkunda and the Hutu Power militiamen still active in the forests of the eastern part of the country.
Prunier is not entirely pessimistic (at least by normally intelligent rather than contemporary American standards). In his view, there is a sound basis for believing that such a violent and general conflict will not soon recur. “The death (and rebirth) of Zaire,” he writes, “is a unique case,” adding that “no other country in Africa, probably not even Nigeria or South Africa, has the potential for creating such a continent wide upheaval.” This is not to say that he minimizes the long-term, continentwide effects of the war, a conflict that he describes as a transforming moment for Africa that marked the continent’s entry into “the modern age.”
This is cold comfort, and no one is more painfully aware of this fact than Prunier himself. He may speak of enormous, inchoate political processes at work across the continent, but he never loses sight of the fact that what he calls the “powerless raw material” is the suffering population of the DRC. One of the most remarkable qualities of this remarkable book is Prunier’s ability to combine cool analysis and scholarly dispassion without losing sight of its horror. He is dismissive of most outside observers and what he calls their “wish for things that are good to hear” even when the subject is a terrible war. For Prunier, the truth is elsewhere, and there is no doubt that he is speaking personally when he writes that “the violence of what has happened in eastern and central Africa has left few of those who looked at it from up close completely intact.”
There can be no finer response from an observer than that, and this moral commitment is what makes “Africa’s World War” much more than simply an authoritative history, as valuable as that would be in and of itself. This is a profound book, and, to use an old-fashioned word, a noble one.
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