Central Africa’s horrors, without the Orientalism

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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One of the most powerful scenes in Jason K. Stearns’s outstanding new book about the Great War in central Africa takes place in eastern Congo, where the violence was the most horrible. Stearns makes his way to the village of Kasika, the site of a June 2000 massacre of more than 1000 people; no Western journalist had been there for a decade. He has no trouble finding Patrice, a handyman and catechist at the church, and other witnesses to the killings. He lets Patrice and the others speak, with pain and eloquence.

There have already been other excellent books about the terrible war that broke out in 1996, and in which the astounding number of as many as 5 million people have already died. Capable experts like Gerard Prunier, Filip Reyntjens and Rene Lemarchand have made sense of an extraordinarily complex conflict, in which at its peak the armies of 9 different nations and another 20 rebel groups fought, which was complicated even further when former allies fell out and turned their weapons on each other.

But Stearns’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is the first to use lengthy interviews with participants to bring the awful conflict more fully alive. In so doing, he fulfills his aim – to show that the conflict had a logic behind it, however warped, instead of resorting to shopworn Orientalist explanations like ‘the heart of darkness’ or ‘ancient tribal enmities.’

If there is a weakness in this remarkable work, it is that Stearns does not give enough emphasis to the reckless, irresponsible role of the United States and the West at the beginning of the Great War. Nor does he examine how some Western journalists, blinded by black and white thinking, ignored the atrocities committed by one side.

The killers in the Congolese village of Kasika were Rwandans, of Tutsi background – the same people who had been the victims in the 1994 genocide. Their leader, Paul Kagame, had been lionized in the West, by both the Clinton administration and by some journalists, chiefly Philip Gourevitch. So when in 1996 Rwanda launched an invasion of Congo aimed partly at toppling the long-standing dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, the West was certainly encouraging Kagame, and the Rwandan army’s atrocities did not get scrutinized.

Stearns does not turn around and transform the Rwandans into the villains. His great strength is that he calmly shows how many factors had created a flammable region: the collapse of Mobutu’s state (Congo’s national income in 1996 had dropped to half the level only 6 years earlier); the presence of millions of unemployed young men; desperate struggles over land; and vast amounts of weapons (Africans point out, ‘aside from South Africa, we have no arms industry on our continent, but somehow we have plenty of automatic rifles’).

Stearns recognizes that the Kagame regime faced a genuine problem in the middle ‘90s; the refugee camps just across the border in Congo included not just Hutu displaced civilians, but tens of thousands of armed genocidaires, who were already staging raids back into Rwanda and threatening to finish off the surviving Tutsi.

But when Kagame’s army attacked westward, they did not only target the Hutu armed killers. Stearns carefully documents massacres they committed in Kasika and elsewhere, of women and children. Even so, in much of the West, Kagame did not lose his halo; as late as 2009 the New Yorker ran another hagiographic article about him by Gourevitch.

Stearns describes brilliantly how Mobutu’s corrupt army collapsed, and within months Rwanda’s choice to succeed him, Laurent Kabila, had come to power in Kinshasa. But then Kabila and Kagame fell out; other countries like Angola and Zimbabwe marched in, and the war’s second and larger phase exploded.
Only about 2 percent of the 5 million deaths actually happened in combat. Stearns is particularly effective at showing how the various armies – “bands of armed looters” might be a better phrase for most of them – crossed the rainforest landscape, generating millions of refugees, who died mainly from hunger and disease.

Stearns does not hide the horrors; if anything, his witnesses make the killings, tortures and rapes much more alive than mere statistics. But because he has so effectively shown the context, the horrors start to become comprehensible – no big surprise, for instance, to anyone who knows the history of Europe in the 20th century. Stearns also uses the comparison of the 30 Years War in 17th century central Europe; after marauding armies swept back and forth, by one estimate a third of the population of Germany had died.

He points out that the Congo’s mineral wealth paid for – and prolonged – the second phase of the Great War. Neighboring countries plundered Congolese cobalt, diamonds, copper, gold, and coltan (used in cellphones). He even has an interview with Pierre Olivier, a Congolese pilot, who describes ferrying planeloads of minerals eastward, to Kagame’s Rwanda. By 2002, a stalemate on the battlefield prompted a ceasefire, although some fighting continues to this day.

The world continues to steal Congo’s minerals; Stearns reports that big companies signed contracts with Congo’s fragile government in 2004-05 that amounted to a “fire sale of assets” that “went against all principles of best practice in international mining.” He adds, “Big mining companies have signed contracts that provide little revenue to the state and have allegedly provided large kickbacks to government officials.”

Jason Stearns should be proud of himself. He points out that the Great War in Africa has gotten relatively little coverage, even in the better newspapers: “The New York Times, one of the few 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.” Thanks to Stearns’s decade of hard work, our shameful ignorance is now lessened.

6 Responses

  1. Donald
    May 6, 2011, 2:33 pm

    “The New York Times, one of the few 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”

    One of the reasons for this is that in the view of Nicholas Kristof, the killing in Darfur was “genocide” while the killing in the Congo isn’t.


    Kristof is one of the handful of NYT op ed columnists worth reading, but his reasoning here is stupid. Simply because one set of killings fits his definition of “genocide”, this makes it much worse in his mind than another set of killings which were on a much larger scale. So the sheer scale of human suffering doesn’t matter as much as the alleged motives of the killers. This is morally bizarre reasoning.

    Of course, I think there were also political reasons why Darfur got more attention, but in the case of Kristof it appears to be this fixation on a word.

    (It’s off-topic, but this fixation on the word “genocide” also allowed Samantha Power to exclude the mass killings of Indonesians by Suharto in her overrated book on the US and genocide. By defining genocide in a narrow way and also claiming that it is the worst possible crime, it enables one to ignore evils which are arguably just as great or greater than the ones that earn the label.)

  2. tree
    May 6, 2011, 4:20 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up on this book, James. I’ve added it to my list of must-reads. I admit to being woefully uninformed on Africa and appreciate the chance to learn. I’m aware of the tragic number of deaths in the Congo, but not at all certain of causes or solutions. Stearns’ book sounds like an important resource.

    • patm
      May 6, 2011, 5:55 pm

      I second tree’s thanks, James.

      And of course it was avaricious Europeans that began Congo’s troubles:

      “It was around 1482 that Portuguese seamen began stopping at the mouth of the Congo river and that Portugal established diplomatic relations with the Kongo kingdom. This kingdom, which then ruled the coastal region, soon developed a slave trade with the Portugese. From the beginning of the 1500′s to the 1800′s, hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved in the Congo area and sent to North or South America as slaves (Lands and Peoples 271-2).

      In 1878, King Leopold II of Belgium hired Henry M. Stanley (shown below), an English explorer, to open up the vast territory that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stanley, best known for the quote “Dr. Livingston, I presume” traveled the entire length of the Congo river setting up posts and signing treaties with African chiefs. At the same time, Leopold was persuading other European leaders to recognize him as the ruler of the Congo area. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 the country was placed under Leopold’s personal sovereignty and given the name of the Congo Free State (Lands and People 272-4). This name was chosen because Leopold claimed that the country was supposed to be free of discriminatory taxes for all the interested European powers (Davidson 291). Leopold’s rule of the Congo Free State was harsh. His emissaries evicted Muslim traders and secured control of the mineral rich area Katanga in the southeast. The people of the Congo Free State were treated cruelly under the rule of Leopold II and many perished. This harsh rule caused such a international scandal that, in 1908, Leopold was forced to surrender control of the region to Belgium (Lands and People 272).”

  3. Ellen
    May 7, 2011, 8:21 am

    The crimes of Belgian King Leopold and his complicit enablers still remains one of the most under reported crimes against humanity of the late 19th and early 20th century. In fact the expression “Crime against humanity” was first used by a missionaries reporting back on the horrors.

    link to kirkusreviews.com

    “To achieve compliance with rubber-gathering quotas, soldiers in the Force Publique, Leopold’s colonial army, committed mass murder, cut off hands, severed heads, took hostages, and burnt villages. His misrule remained undetected for more than a decade because he won US recognition of his claim to the Congo,…”

    “The role of rubber in the Congo receives extensive attention. To harvest enough rubber, Africans were conscripted into the rubber tapping business and given quotas to fulfill. Failure to meet the quota meant the chicotte was applied. Many lost their arms, their noses, ears and/or legs (p.164-165) or saw their wives detained and children thrown into the forest. It was this scenario that precipitated bitter struggles against Leopold, first by the black American evangelist George Shappard, and later with Edward Dene Morel and Roger Casement….”
    link to web.africa.ufl.edu

    At the dawn of the automobile industry there was much to be earned with rubber products and Leopold and others amassed an enormous fortune. Perhaps the US recognition of his claim was also to support the development of the US automobile industry and was not simply naive.

  4. eljay
    May 7, 2011, 9:27 am

    I’m most of the way through “King Leopold’s Ghost”. Depressing stuff, but worth reading.

    A couple of books also worth reading are:
    - Meredith, Martin: “The Fate of Africa”
    - Orbinski, James: “An Imperfect Offering”

  5. Justice Please
    May 8, 2011, 5:48 pm

    I can only speak for myself, but maybe the main reason why atrocities like these in Central Africa get less response than the whole I/P situation is because with Central Africa, I don’t hear my politicians and media people reminding me all of the time why exactly I have to support one side. I’m half angry because of what the Israeli government does, and half because of how shameless politicians and media try to rationalize it. As far as I can see, no one does that with African crimes. (I mean the rationalizing).

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