By David Rieff
There is a bitter old joke that asks the question, “Why is Hiroshima so much more remembered than Nagasaki,” to which the reply goes, “Nagasaki had a lousy press agent.” It may not be funny, but, as the history of war over the last half-century demonstrates all too vividly, it is still all too relevant. Why do we care about some wars and not about others? For example, 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?
Some would say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a special case, and that opposing Israel’s policies is also a way of opposing American hegemony and thus is bound to have perennial global appeal. But even if this is so, it does not explain the gap in the attention paid to wars in which United States involvement is not crucial. Why does Darfur arouse such passion in decent people all over the world, but the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC (the country until a decade or so ago known as Zaire), which has taken the lives of far more people—4 million between 1996 and 2001, according to some informed estimates—for the most part remains what relief workers brutally but not inaccurately call an “orphan conflict”?
Africa’s World War
By Gerard Prunier
Oxford University Press, 576 pages
This is one of the morally and historically crucial questions that French writer Gerard Prunier, whose career has ranged from journalism to far more direct engagement in many of the African crises that have concerned him over the past three decades, seeks to answer in a magisterial new book on the bloodbath in the DRC, “Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe.” As he remarks pointedly—and this as someone passionately committed to an outside intervention in Darfur—“during 2005, 1,600 articles were published on the Darfur crisis; only 300 were published on the DRC … even though the Congo situation killed over three times as many people as Darfur.”
Prunier first became known to general readers in the English-speaking world (though he is one of the few French writers whose prose style in English is absolutely on a par with the way he writes in his native tongue) for what seemed at the time the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide” was both a history and an impassioned indictment of French complicity in the mass slaughter of the Rwandan Tutsis. Later, Prunier would reconsider his stance. In “Africa’s World War,” he writes ruefully and unsparingly of the pitfalls of political sympathy and of the ways in which writers’ biographies shape their opinions: “Getting to know the Tutsi exiles [from Rwanda] in Uganda in 1986-1989 was my ‘formative experience,’ later reinforced by visiting the RPF [the Tutsi exile army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front] in Byumba in June 1992.”
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. For if siding with the RPF earned him the plaudits of the great and the good in the English-speaking world and in much of Europe as well, his turn against the government of former RPF commander Paul Kagame in Kigali and the myriad human rights violations it committed after overthrowing the genocidal Hutu Power regime has won him only slanderous claims that he has somehow morphed into an apologist for the genocide.
Prunier himself is painfully aware of this, writing despairingly of a simultaneous “lack of interest at the [Western] government level, and the short attention span of the general public” with regard to African crises. Where the crises in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC are concerned, Prunier observes, the effect was to reduce a situation of major conflict and appalling human suffering “to a comic book atmosphere in which absolute horror alternates with periods of complete disinterest from the non-specialists.” And he is withering about the way in which the Western default position rarely strays from stereotyped categories about Africa. Thus, he observes, “the desperate African struggle for survival is bowdlerized beyond recognition, and at times the participant-observer has the feeling of being caught between a Shakespearian tragedy and a hiccupping computer.”
The explicit goal of “Africa’s World War” is both to set the record straight—or at the very least, as Prunier puts it, to state “the problem correctly”—on the Congolese conflict of the late 1990s and its partial origins in the Rwandan genocide, and to ask a more general question about contemporary Africa: whether that war which engulfed one-third of the African continent marked a watershed in what Prunier himself views as both a moment of general crisis and of epochal transformation in the aftermath of the Cold War, the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, or, instead, was, however terrible, a problem specific to Congolese history that was only to be expected when the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko finally came to its inglorious end.
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”).
Africa’s World War
By Gerard Prunier
Oxford University Press, 576 pages
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.”