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David Rieff on ‘Africa’s World War’

Posted on Feb 6, 2009
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(Page 2)

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”).


book cover


Africa’s World War


By Gerard Prunier


Oxford University Press, 576 pages


Buy the book


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.

David Rieff is the author of numerous books, including “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis,” “At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention” and, most recently, “Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.”

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By Sepharad, February 10, 2009 at 3:23 pm Link to this comment
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Anarcissie - America hasn’t really done much of anything in SubSaharan Africa except JFK’s involvement with Patrice Lamumba, the Peace Corps, sending medical researchers around to look into the more exotic and dangerous viruses, agronomists to try to figure out how to save African agriculture as the Sahara slowly moves south, and industrial tekkies trying to figure out why modest factories and related equipment did not transform the economy in various districts and indeed ended up rusting and useless. These things haven’t been done out of any particular virtue on our part, but probably because most feasible and lucrative resources were already tied up with African governments closely connected to corporations from the old colonial powers. But I think that may be changing, as SubSaharan specialists are being trained and/or sought out by our military.

I’ve never been to Africa, but people who have gone there in other-than-tourist capacities say that tribal identities still dominate most aspects of life, even in urban areas, and to a large extent inhibit collaboration and community-building on more rational bases. (As an Israel-sympathizing though non-religious Jew I’m in no position to denigrate anyone else’s sense of tribe, but can understand both the strengths and lethal weaknesses of life vis a vis tribal consciousness.)

In journalism school there were a couple of Ethiopians I hung out with who introduced me to other Africans from Nigeria, then-Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda, most of whom were studying economy and agriculture but all of whom—except the Ethiopians—also said they were politically connected in whatever the current governments of their countries were. Since then, as conditions changed and governments fell and rose again with a lot of blood-letting, I assumed most of them are probably dead. I’ve thought that frequent government turnovers that go beyond instability to violence are almost inconceivable to us Americans, but then there are other kinds of less visible, less on-the-spot blood-spilling and perhaps we aren’t as different as I think. We’ve had a President assassinated by people never named by the Warren Commission, and elections for President stolen, with the consequence of many American deaths in an unnecessary war.  So maybe we’re not as far removed as I think.   

Have some interesting books on Africa waiting for me when I get home (end of March), in addition to the ones recommended by Ted Swart, which I hope to acquire while I’m still here. It’s been so long since I’ve done any serious reading about Africa that much of what I said above may no longer be true. Am looking forward to reading more on the subject. Rian Malan’s book gave me a great deal of insight into the Zulu empire that was as well as its relations with the Boers, and studying slave stories (those recorded by Joel Chandler Harris as well as Aunt Tita’s Gullah tales from South
Carolina’s Low Country) revealed ways people kept their sense of self and confounded their owners through stories and songs—no mean feat. Tribalism may be primmitive but there’s a great deal we can learn about its belief systems and organization that is both nuanced and relevant.

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By Anarcissie, February 10, 2009 at 6:32 am Link to this comment

‘There are many people in and out of the UN who want to attribute all the ills that afflict Africa—particularly sub-Saharan Africa—to their colonial pasts, which only impedes understanding. As the colonial past recedes further and further into the distance….’

It didn’t recede, it changed its form, when the American ruling class took over the task of keeping the world safe for capitalism from the British Empire.  The preferred American form is to control countries through native representatives, and this was adopted by its satellites.

Africa, like the Balkans and the Middle East, has not had the benefit of the sort of genocidal nation-building which resulted in the large, powerful states of Western Europe and North America, where ethnic and tribal discontents were eliminated or subordinated by force.  This makes Africa (and the Balkans and the Middle East) easier to control and exploit, if sometimes more troublesome.  But perhaps, eventually, African will find some non-genocidal way of getting along politically.  They are not likely to get much help.

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By Ted Swart, February 9, 2009 at 9:51 pm Link to this comment

To Sepharad:
It is kind of you to suggest that I “nail it’  when it comes to explaining why the world gives inadequate attention to the the horrendous violations of human decency which all to often occur in Africa. I am afraid I probably don’t even come close to providing a half decent answer.
My personal family tree goes back to 1652 when the Dutch set up the first refreshment settlement in the Cape on the shipping route to the East Indies. And I have Dutch, French ,English, Flemish, Swiss, Irish, Malay and West African (black African) blood in my veins. A sort of Heinz 57 varieties background. And I can assure you that unraveling the ins and outs of Africa and proving a recipe for getting it back onto a sensible track is a gigantic undertaking about as complicated as sorting out my family tree!   

There is much I could tell about my attempts to undermine apartheid, how I met Mahatma Gandhi’s son and grandson and so and so on. The one thing you can be sure about is that the situaion is far more complex than most people realize. And, as you rightly say, trying to put all the blame for Africa’s ills on colonialism is both inaccurate and dishonest.
You ask if I know of any books that are worth reading and I will recommend two very different books which might help. The first is a book by Martin Meredith called:
“OUR VOTES OUR GUNS” and subtitled “Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe”. 
Meredith was (and is I suppose) a British journalist who,in the early days of Mugabe’s rise to power, regarded him with much admiration.  But, as Meredith puts it the “honeymoon did not last Long”.  I get the feeling that those who have not lived in Africa don’t have much of a clue about the incredible strength and massively negative consequences of tribalism. And most people who use the word “racism” don’t realize that racism is very far from being confined to those of a Caucasian background. I am afraid the Mandela’s of this world are few and far between. Anyway, if you read Meredith’s book you will soon enough see how quickly and how completely Mugabe went off the rails.
The second book I can unreservedly recommend is a delightful little book by Peter Godwin called simply:
It is nothing mor nothing less tha the story of a young white boy growing up in what was then Rhodesia and my whole family loves it.  Godwin has a second book called: “When a Crocodile eats the Sun”—  written more recently—which details the manner in which Mugabe has corrupted the citizens of Zimbabwe and turned all too many of them into thieves and bandits.     

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By Sepharad, February 9, 2009 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment
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There are many people in and out of the UN who want to attribute all the ills that afflict Africa—particularly sub-Saharan Africa—to their colonial pasts, which only impedes understanding. As the colonial past recedes further and further into the distance, it becomes much harder to blame all problems on that factor, and there aren’t nearly enough Westerners who know or care about the pre-colonial societies’ histories, traditions, customs, or the current day’s specific and quickly shifting factors—personalities, security, drought and food supply—unfamiliar to most Westerners (whereas “oil” and “Muslim” quickly grab our attention) that ignite one lethal firestorm after the other in the region. Ted Swart nails it, and I’m going to order Prunier’s book to add to my African sources. (Off this topic, South African Rian Malan wrote a book about his experiences as a Boer descendant waking up to the Zulu history—recall everything about the book except its title and recommend it highly for anyone seeking to understand a small bit of the African past. Also good is The Zanzibar Chest. Ted Swart, can you recommend other books on Africa that would help bring us up to speed, as well as Prunier’s?)

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By Dwight, February 8, 2009 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment
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Geopolitics?  Resources?  See Black Agenda Report for different explanation for disparate coverage of Darfur and DRC.

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By photoshock, February 7, 2009 at 11:33 am Link to this comment

Anarcissie, I happen to know that one of the main proponents of the cause in Darfur, was and is the Roman Catholic Church.
Although the ideal way to settle these conflicts would be through peaceful means, the world community through its inattention to all of the conflict in Africa, has seen to it that war and its ensuing atrocities are common place and at once the norm.
I would imagine that if enough attention was paid to the Congolese conflict that the world would be horrified at the atrocities committed by the rebels and the “good guys.”  There is enough blame to go around in this conflict, yet for all the atrocious acts, no one seems to care one whit, because of the lack of “usable resources,”  meaning oil and metals.
Our eyes must be opened to the humanitarian crises that is Africa, we cannot long remain with our eyes closed to the horrific nature of war carried out on the African continent.  Democracy Now, and Amy Goodman, have played a large part in my education on the conflicts that are occurring on the African continent. Even during the last week, there was a story regarding the healing of women from the brutal rapes that have been occurring under some of the rebels regimes. Yet you will hear nothing about the humanitarian crises in the MSM. I believe that this is so because it involves neither Muslims, nor Americans, only people of African heritage and colour. 
Please spread the word that everyone is valuable and not to be abandoned, either because of the colour of their skin, their heritage or country of origin.
We are ONE! Peace out!

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By Anarcissie, February 7, 2009 at 8:17 am Link to this comment

The United Nations is made up of states.  Why, then, would it ever impugn the sanctity and sovereignty of states which do not offend other states?

Other than when the ruling class of one state or set of states has decided to make aggressive war on another—in which case the targets will often be described in the aggressors’ propaganda as perpetrating human rights abuses, among other evils.

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By cyrena, February 6, 2009 at 11:34 pm Link to this comment

What a superb review! Thanks. This makes the ‘selling point’ for me..

•  “There are many reasons why the public debate over issues like Rwanda tends to be so simultaneously superficial and sentimental. It would certainly be much improved, however, were more journalists willing to re-examine their positions in the way that Prunier has done, at great cost to himself.”

There’s little way for a truly professional journalist to avoid whatever bias happens to inform them. That’s pretty standard. What is required from the professional is an acknowledgment of exactly this, and that means revising ones opinion, even at the ‘great cost’ which isn’t really so great when it means maintaining ones personal and professional integrity.

Anyway, I’ll gotta get this book right away.

As an overall thought about these differences of reactions to genocidal conflicts, (and I HAVE been giving this a lot of thought for the past several years now) I’m connecting it (theorhetically) to a breakdown in the efficiency of the United Nations, who should - (again, theoretically) be preventing and punishing these crimes. My own work (at least so far) points to the political part of the breakdown which has prevented the world body from identifying these conflicts for what they are, instead of blowing it off as a ‘civil disturbance’ where the so-called “State” is sacrosanct, even when it is “The State” wiping out their own people.

If the representatives of the World Community can’t or won’t call things what they are, they can’t use the resources available to address them and prevent the carnage.

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By Ted Swart, February 6, 2009 at 10:25 am Link to this comment

What can I say?  I come from Africa—most recently from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.  When I read the quote:

“why is it possible, virtually at a moment’s notice, to mobilize tens of thousands of people anywhere from Vienna to Melbourne to demonstrate in support of the suffering people of Gaza, but virtually impossible to mobilize even a small fraction of these numbers in support of the suffering people of Zimbabwe?”

the question posed is intensely real for me.

Part of the answer, as far as the Darfur/Congo comparison is concerned, is that in the Darfur conflict one of the protagonists is a radical Arab/Muslim group with oil being part of the story.  These two things combined almost guarantee greater attention to Darfur than to the Congo.

The followiing quote from the review sumes the whole situsition in Africa up very neatly:

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.” 

Mugabe’s “personal ambitions” certainly loom large in the Zimbabwe story and the absence of oil in Zimbabwe and the non-involvement of any Muslims lowers the attention span of the Western world and its media.

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By Anarcissie, February 6, 2009 at 8:42 am Link to this comment

I first heard of Darfur through a large placard on the side of a bus in New York City.  It turned out that there were many of them.  They were well-designed and well-printed, definitely mainstream advertising technology if not tremendously imaginative or arty.  Large advertisements also appeared in the newspapers.  Perhaps something similar was done on television.

People who have done any activism (or advertising) know how expensive such advertising is, and how hard it is for even fairly large activist groups to raise the necessary money.  Campaigns to raise the money to expand campaigning often take months or years, whereas the Darfur campaign seemed to spring out of nowhere.  One or more very large donors must have existed.

The Darfur conflict, while certainly horrifying enough, is not unlike other regional religious and ethnic wars; there were several going on at the time (2003) just as there are now.  There is not much visible difference between them for an outsider.  The origins of the conlict and the primary actors are murky; most of what we know about them comes via Western governments and media which have never proved particularly trustworthy.  Of course, some are larger and some are smaller.  As the present review notes, the ongoing civil wars in the Congo involve more participants and more casualties.  Many are equally savage.  One might wonder why the wealthy donors of the Darfur publicity picked on this particular conflict and not, say, the Congo or Sri Lanka.

Perhaps it is not entirely irrelevant that at the time the Darfur conflict swam into American public consciousness, the American invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan had just begun and were subjects of discussion and activism.  Perhaps it is not entirely irrelevant that the victims of the war in Iraq are mostly Arab and Muslim, which must make some people uncomfortable because Arabs and Muslims are supposed to be the bad people.  In Darfur, the participants are entirely Muslim, but one side, the good people according to the advertising, are non-Arab, and the other side is not only Arab but allied with an Islamic-fundamentalist Arab government, thus providing a proper object for abuse and hatred.  The urge to be against a war, almost as common and natural as the urge to fight a war, could perhaps be deflected from Iraq and Afghanistan to Darfur.  I leave the question of the source of the desire to create such a deflection to the imagination of the reader.

Another point in the Darfur cause’s favor for some, no doubt, was that it seemed to be a worthy case for humanitarian-imperialist intervention, along the lines of Bosnia and Kosovo, when imperialism was getting a lot of bad press. 

I think it would be interesting to know who paid for that advertising, and how they came to do it.

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