A review of The Great African War – Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006 by Filip Reyntjens, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
It is hard to get a handle on this book. It provides a decent chronology of events – of the wars and the politics in the greater Congo region - during the years it covers. Most all of that information was drawn from the public record. The book is replete with footnotes citing this or that news story, UN papers, NGO treatises or subsequent academic studies. Ergo, the overall thrust of the work is - as noted above - a decent history. However, the interpretation of events, especially the impetus behind them and the motivations of the actors involved, be they governments, political parties or individuals is where the analysis begins to come apart.
Author Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens is well qualified to write this history. He lived in and worked on Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian issues for years. Yet his anti-Rwandan bias jumps out. Throughout he portrays the then-and-current Rwanda Patriotic Movement government as a gang of wily calculating evil persons led by the devil incarnate Paul Kagame. Reyntjens’ exuberance in condemning the regime in Kigali tracks the view espoused in other European academic circles. It has a racist tinge to it along the lines that Africans should not be competent enough to make their own decisions and mistakes. Secondly, an underlying revelation comes in a footnote late in the book wherein Reyntjens admits that from 1995 onwards, he was denied permission to enter Rwanda. I suppose that his lack of impartiality in relating what transpired is his way of getting back.
An even more grievous bias (at least from my point of view) is Reyntjens’ strong anti-American conviction. He accuses the U.S. of masterminding the first part of the 1997-98 war, of providing advice, guidance, intelligence, men and materiel to the RPA/ADFL effort. Simply stated that is hogwash. Reyntjens’ buttressing footnotes cite third and fourth hand sources suggesting that America was behind the anti-Mobutu effort. (Perhaps on account of wishful thinking on the part of sources and Reyntjens collectively. They all seem to love conspiracy theories. ) Even though this assertion is made early on in the chronology of war, there is no follow on proof, or even further allegation. Apparently just as vaporously as the American interest was in directing the conflict, it disappeared; never to have been involved in subsequent issues of refugee massacres, repatriations, maneuvering or king making with regard to internal Congolese politics. Nonetheless, Reyntjens sticks to his thesis blaming America (by supporting Kabila)for “durably destabilizing the entire region.” While I might be open to the proposition that the U.S. by reacting or not to individual events as they unfolded sent signals that played a part in the various outcomes – outcomes that were, of course, unknown before they occurred - but I categorically reject the notion that some carefully calculated long term policy conspiracy was afoot. Interestingly, Reyntjens even quotes two distinguished former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs (Messrs. Cohen and Crocker) to the effect that the U.S. would not be capable of such shenanigans, but he goes ahead anyway and asserts it as fact.
I am further personally offended as Reyntjens’ used out of context quotations from my memoir (In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda) to support his thesis, even going to the extent of calling me a “liar” regarding America’s role. How would he know better what the U.S. knew or did? Reyntjens also scoffs at statements made by Assistant Secretary Oakley, USAID administrator Brian Attwood, his deputy Dick McCall and Ambassador for War Crimes David Sheffer. Typical of these sorts of allegations that the U.S. blatantly covered-up misdeeds was one when I attributed the murder of Spanish MSF personnel in Ruhengeri in 1997 to Hutu insurgents. A finding that I have seen no evidence to refute. Reyntjens stated that years later an RPA turncoat (back to Hutu power) said that the RPA did the crime. Also, that version was accepted by a Spanish court in 2008 (a court notorious for seeking to indict RPA personnel for war crimes.) Why not state that a difference of view existed rather than excoriate one conviction?
My animosity aside, let’s get back to the book. Reyntjens imputes a lot of motives to various actors, but does not seem to have any real insight into their internal calculus, especially with regard to the RPM, but also with respect to Kabila himself. Reyntjens repeatedly cited then Vice-President Paul Kagame’s July 1997 interview with the Washington Post as most revealing of motives and intentions (which it was), but other inside scoop is simply missing. Instead the reader is overwhelmed with a narrative buttressed by documents produced by those with an axe to grind - Hutu exiles, human rights groups (such as Amnesty International that among its valid reporting were a series of diatribes actually written by Hutu power advocates) and would- be policy wonks. Reyntjens put his spin on such documents to make his case. For example in one instance, he seized on unattributed sources citing off hand remarks by a Rwandan official to the effect that it had “solved the Zaire problem” as evidence of a policy of hegemony in the region. While there is ample evidence that Rwanda did want to dominate the sub-region in order to protect - and later to enrich – itself, Reyntjens’ use of unqualified footnotes gives the impression that more valid documentation on events actually exists than is the case. In another gratuitous case, he footnoted the “possible” existence of a US plot to assassinate Kablia. What is the agenda here?
I found the most interesting part of the book to be the chapters on Congolese internal politics and conflict in Kivu in the years leading up to the transitional government. This is one of the first detailed accounts of such events, so stands – so far - as a valid chronology.
Again my reservations notwithstanding, this tome has relevance to the history of the Great Lakes region and the long series of conflicts that have troubled it. I would caution readers to note the biases flagged, not to accept Reyntjens as the final word, but to balance their education on this turmoil by seeking out other accounts. Let’s not fall into the trap of history that Napoleon feared when he said that history is a set of lies agreed upon.