Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Monsters Indeed

Following is a review of a new and useful book about the Congo.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters – The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

by Jason K. Stearns, Public Affairs, NY, 2011

This intriguing book lives up to its odd title. Stearns writes a journalistic history of recent events in the Congo via the mechanism of personal interviews with people who played a role in, or observed, the events that transpired. Given that many such people wanted (or needed) to cover their tracks, the honesty of the revelations is astonishing.

Stearns’ thesis is that to effect any change in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one must first understand the dynamics of the morass.The narrative is not necessarily chronological, but rather follows individuals and their impact. He starts with the spill-over of the Rwandan genocide into the Congo with the influx of Hutu refugees fleeing the takeover by the Rwandan Patriotic Army. This leads into an excellent discussion of the historical presence of Kinyarwanda speaking peoples (both Hutu and Tutsi) in Congo – the 19th century Banyamulenge migrants, the early 20th century importation of agricultural laborers, concomitant spontaneous movements of farmers and pastoralists out of crowded Rwanda and finally the presence of an educated Tutsi elite claiming refuge in Kivu cities.

Having set the stage for ethnic violence both between Hutu and Tutsi, but just as importantly between Rwandans writ large and Congolese ethnic groups, Stearns proceeds to lay out the animosities and machinations that under gird conflict that has encompassed the eastern region for years. Clearly, however, it was the new Tutsi government in Kigali’s effort to eliminate the genocidaire threat and to force the return of a million refugees that inflamed Kivu and sent the DRC into the vortex of war. Stearns studies the war, the massacres, the abuses, and the changing objectives through the eyes of participants – rebel commanders, Zairian/Congolese politicians, ADFL leaders, Rwandan string pullers, as well as victims.

The book then tracks in detail Laurent Kabila’s presidency and his turn away from his Rwandan and Ugandan sponsors, and then the second war. Kabila’s undoing was certainly due in part to his own idiosyncrasies –that are well described by some from his inner circle- but also due to his inheritance from Mobutu of a completely chaotic state and political system. Stearns notes, “This has left a bitter Congolese paradox: a state that is everywhere and oppressive but that is defunct and dysfunctional.”

Indeed Stearns’ insight into the corruption and the inner non-workings of both the Mobutu and Kabila regimes helps explain the mess. Also useful are chapters on the quest – by almost everyone – to profit from the DRC’s mineral resources.

The book moves on then to study more recent contenders, current president Joseph Kabila who succeeded his father and those who contested against him: Jean Pierre Bemba, who has roots in the Mobutu regime and the newer set of RDC rebel leaders in Kivu. Again the reader is provided with solid commentary about how these men operated.

I thought the passages that revealed the character, history and assassination of Laurent Kabila to be especially interesting. Although certainly a troglodyte, it is his legacy that the Congo now wrestles with as efforts continue to restore stability to Kivu. Despite a thorough investigation into the problems, the bottom line question of “Can the Congo emerge from morass?” remains unanswered. The nation has no unselfish visionary leadership. Thus, ethnic animosity and violence continues to plague the east, resources are exploited for personal gain and conniving politicians strive to demean each other in an eternal quest for power.

This is an excellent study of contemporary Congo. Additionally, it is an easy read. Truly, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. The Congo has been stuck doing that for decades.