A book review by Amb. Robert Gribbin
Africa’s World War – Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe
By Gérard Prunier, Oxford University Press, NY, 2009
African scholar Prunier’s latest, Africa’s World War, purports to be the definitive study of the conflict arising from the Rwandan genocide that ultimately spread into the Congo twice as open warfare. That conflict still continues today in the Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By and large Prunier got the narrative correct. The war began in 1996 with covert operations by the Rwandan Patriotic Army designed to dismantle the refugee camps and squash the threat of genocidaire insurgency. Then, fighting expanded under the aegis of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL) and its odd leader Laurent Kabila with participation by forces from Uganda, Burundi and Angola that culminated in the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997. New president Kabila then turned on his masters thus igniting a second round of nationwide strife that flowered into a contest pitting Kigali and Kampala, and their rebel proxies, against Kinshasa supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Sudan. Respective control of territory split the nation for years while internal machinations amongst all the players led to divisions and sub-divisions according to various motives and interests. The 1999 Lusaka Peace Agreement paved the way for a return to normalcy – withdrawal of foreign forces, containment of militia, UN peacekeeping operations, internal Congolese dialogue and ultimately elections. All of which, in some fashion or other, occurred during the last ten years. But Congo today still suffers the effects of warfare. Skirmishing with Hutu genocidaire elements continues as does confrontation with various Mai Mai groups. Hundreds of thousands of persons remain displaced while perhaps millions have died, largely not from bullets, but from the collapse of social and economic infrastructure, i.e. medical services, farming, markets, transportation, schools, etc.
Prunier’s detailed recitation of events provides some insight into political personalities and the motives that he imputes to them. His grasp of the situation, however, is muted by the reality that many of his facts are simply wrong. In one section of the book Prunier ruminates about how African leaders successfully hoodwinked western governments and how easy that was given the indifference of such governments to the crisis. Yet he himself seems to accept every comment or observation by Africans (usually cited as confidential sources) as fundamental truth, whereas he discounts on the commentary either on the record or off from westerners as tainted spin.
My major squabble with Prunier’s “facts” has to do with his portrayal of American activities and motives. I was the U.S. ambassador in Kigali from 1996-1999 and can speak authoritatively (and I have in my book In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda). Simply put, Prunier spins out, and thus perpetuates, a series of lies and misrepresentations. He seems drawn to the idea that the United States mounted a large covert military operation (using black misfits recruited by the CIA) to support Rwandan fighting in Congo in 1998 and 1999. Of course, Prunier apparently believes that I was complicit in, if not the author, of such black ops. Even so, he managed to misspell my name in the several citations in his book and footnotes.
Prunier cites as proof: the presence of black English speaking soldiers in Kivu, their base at a former Peace Corps site near Bukavu, two bodies of dead soldiers handed over to American officials in Uganda, and airdrops by USAF C-130s to re-supply rebel AFDL forces in Congo. All of this is pure fabrication. None of it occurred. Prunier also asserts that the small $3 million U.S. de-mining program in Rwanda was simply cover for supplying the RPA with military wherewithal for the war effort, and that dozens of U.S. Air Force flights carried in the goods. Again, fiction! Although a few military flights did land in Rwanda during my three year tenure, their cargoes were high level visitors, humanitarian goods and surplus items – a C5A for example brought lots of recycled computers, office equipment and medical supplies for civilian entities. As for the de-miners, they did what they were supposed to, i.e. de-mine. Similarly, Prunier joined other conclusion-jumpers in assuming that the small joint training exercises (less than a dozen US troops) conducted with Rwandan forces were aimed at preparing for or sustaining conflict in the Congo. To the contrary, that was not the objective and furthermore as soon as the Congo imbroglio began, to demonstrate our dismay we cancelled such activities as well as planning for a quite large package of non-lethal military communication and transportation items.
Among other assertions of American complicity in the Congo war was a statement that my deputy the late Peter Whaley met with Laurent Kabila “thirty or forty times.” Peter was indeed our initial channel for communicating with Kabila, with whom he met only about a dozen times. The purpose of such communication was to restrain the rebel war effort, not to advise on political or strategic tactics as Prunier implies. Prunier’s exaggeration, however, underlies his thesis that the United States, feeling guilty on account of inaction to halt the genocide, afterwards sided blindly with Rwanda both in that government’s internal transgressions, but especially in its invasion of Congo and the ouster of Mobutu, whom, Prunier says, we had finally gotten tired of. (I concede elements of truth regarding sympathy for the new regime in Kigali, as well as the belief that change was needed in the Congo, but orientation should not be confused with actions. We provided no substantive support for Rwanda, AFDL rebels or others engaged in conflict in the Congo. We constantly sought a halt to the fighting and indeed sought accountability for human rights abuses that occurred during the violence. ) In attributing and analyzing nefarious U.S. motives, Prunier offers little evidence other than “confidential sources” to buttress his opinion. On the one hand, he seems to fall unfortunately into the French academic camp that simply assumes that the U.S. is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-managing of events in Africa (for example, he states that Rwanda adhered to the Lusaka withdrawal agreement only because the new Bush administration cold-shouldered President Kagame); while on the other hand, Prunier attributes U.S. policy and missteps to indifference to the fate of the continent. He wants it both ways when it suits his argument.
In light of the grave transgressions of fact with regard to the United States, and those are the issues that I know the accurate side of, I cannot help but wonder how badly skewed Prunier’s other information is. He relates lots of juicy details of meetings, encounters, massacres, troop movements, etc. but are they accurate? One must doubt. In conclusion, this book could and should be an important contribution to the history of the Congo crisis in all its complexities. There is some good stuff in it and an excellent bibliography, but its fatal flaws require that “truth” always be annotated with an asterisk.