Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Review: AFRICA'S WORLD WAR (2008)

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by Gerard Prunier

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Africa's World War, Gerard Prunier's fantastic exercise in a sort of double contextualization -- of both the Rwandan genocide and the ensuing trans-continental Congo conflict, involving at least half a dozen countries and yet more non-state militias and organizations -- is essential reading. Prunier analyzes the causes and course of the conflict in significant detail, without losing sight of his non-specialist audience, and all the while going beyond the glib explanations (of the "ancient ethnic hatreds" variety) much loved by the international community when it comes to many conflict situations, especially African ones. Prunier is rightly skeptical of the "New World Order" that emerged in the wake of the Berlin Wall's fall, not to mention the neo-colonial "old" order championed in Africa by the likes of France; at the same time, he eschews the facile (and condescending) anti-imperialism of many on the left, tending to deprive African political actors of agency. But perhaps most notably, Prunier seeks to correct the record when it comes to Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, and the movement he leads (the Rwandan Patriotic Front ("RPF")), presenting a far more complicated and disturbing picture of the RPF's activities in the Great Lakes region than readers of Philip Gourevitch's one man pro-RPF lobby would be familiar with. This isn't simply an academic question for Prunier, as he strives to demonstrate how Rwanda's post-genocide government shrewdly (and cynically) exploited the Clinton Administration's guilt over its inaction in the face of the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Rwanda's (then Hutu-led) regime -- with disastrous consequences for the rest of the region, as Rwanda used the excuse of pursuing the genocidaires in the neighboring Congo (then called Zaire) to invade its gargantuan neighbor, fueling a conflict that has been estimated to have claimed four million lives over the last decade -- the deadliest conflict since World War II (indeed Prunier implicitly suggests the Bush Administration, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, were more clear-sighted with respect to the RPF, Powell reportedly telling Kagame at their first meeting that the carte blanche hitherto given the RPF to remake the region in the name of security for the Tutsi-dominated regime, was history).

Africa's World War is a lot more nuanced than the above has probably made it seem. For instance, Prunier's debunking of the myth of the virtuous RPF does not lead him to ignore the very real security threat that the Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda in the wake of the RPF's 1994 victory over the genocidaire regime, continued to pose to the new government; but he rightly questions the offensive conflation of the Hutu refugees in general with the genocidaires. Nor does he pull any punches when discussing the RPF's own gross violence and its own blatantly discriminatory attitude towards the Hutus. Finally, the international community's combination of moralistic posturing, cretinous imbecility, and hypocrisy comes in for its share of the flak too. This isn't a book with "good guys" (although this reader found himself wishing Prunier had spent more time fleshing out the character of Joseph Kabila, the seemingly callow successor (and son) of Laurent Kabila, whose prior career had been devoid of anything suggesting that he would turn out to be the shrewd and capable customer he has turned out to be in running a country that was in dire straits when his father took it over from the West's erstwhile Cold War ally (and kleptocrat supreme) Mobutu Sese Seko, and no less so when Mobutu's successor died), but one that highlights the shifting complexities of the region's politics. For instance, taking the "international" dimension of the Congolese wars as an example (one among many), the reader quickly learns that it is impossible to engage with the Congolese wars that brought down the Mobutu regime in 1996-97, and then continued to rage for years due to a variety of reasons, local, economic, and international, without engaging with the history of the Congo's neighbors, including (apart from Rwanda), Uganda (where Kagame and the RPF cut their teeth in the 1980s in that country's civil wars), Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, and Angola. The complexity of the situation chronicled in the book can sometimes feel overwhelming, despite the helpful key at the front of the book, and running footnotes might have been more helpful than the appendix; one hopes that future editions spare a thought to this effect for the lay reader.

But no caviling can detract from the fact that Prunier's is the indispensable English-language book for understanding the Great Lakes wars of the last decade, combining empathy and engagement with cynicism regarding the motives of the players that borders on the ruthless. In the final analysis, and despite the book's title, Prunier sees his subject as more analogous to Europe's seventeenth century Thirty Years' War rather than to World War I, both in terms of the conflict's structure (with much of the momentum provided by private/princely interests and greed rather than reasons of state per se, and in terms of its wide-ranging impact. Prunier's thesis is that the conflict has gone a long way toward consigning the "old" African "system" -- a relic of the Cold War and half-hearted de-colonization -- to the dustbin of history, much as the Thirty Years' War paved the way for the Westphalian system that would dominate Europe in subsequent centuries. Especially in the Great Lakes region, the old world, born of imperialism, ethnic conflict, economic pressures, Cold War ripple effects, and the weakness of the nation-state (a weakness, nowhere greater than in the Congo, transforming just about every civil war into a conflict with trans-national ramifications, as everybody's enemy set up shop in the Congo, where the central government was too weak to keep anybody out). As to whether the new beast slouching towards Bethlehem is "better" or "worse" than the dying animal, there are no easy answers -- if the Thirty Years' War is any guide, the jury might remain out for a few centuries yet.

View all my Goodreads reviews.

Not everyone is impressed with Prunier's book, including the U.S. army's Thomas Odom.


Salman said...

Sort of related to this post

Salman said...

"Kagame's Hidden War in the Congo"