Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Responding to a critique of my book

African Arguments, which is hosted by the Royal African Society and the Social Science Research Council, posted my following response to a review of my book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. This was a good opportunity to ruminate a bit on reactions to the book in general, five months after its publication. I also encourage you to read the review by Harry Verhoeven here.


It is rare that I get the opportunity to argue the nuances of the Congo war in broad public fora. Knowledge about the Congolese conflict is limited outside of a small circle of academics and policy-makers; depictions in the mainstream press are often simplistic blame games, pointing fingers alternately at Rwanda, conflict minerals or - usually by default - to the grinding chaos and savagery that, so they imply, the Congo is cursed with.

Given the limited nature of the debate, I am glad to have an opportunity to respond to Verhoeven’s fair and useful criticism of my book. I hope this will also clarify my thoughts on some aspects of the conflict.

Most critically, Verhoeven faults me for not engaging more with the important theories of the Congo conflict. I take him to be pointing to a lack of a causal argument in my book. What is my overarching theory? What was the role of land, ethnicity, natural resources and western powers in fueling the conflict?

I have two responses to this criticism. First, my book’s main objective is to tackle “Congo reductionism” – the tendency to reduce the conflict to a kabuki theatre of savage warlords, greedy businessmen and innocent victims. In this sense, I spend most of the book complicating, and not streamlining, any causal argument. Typically, attempts to point to the one main cause of the conflict have ended up providing simplistic solutions to complex problems. That was the case, for example, with the fixation on the ex-FAR and Interahamwe to the detriment of other motives that Rwanda and its allies had for intervening in the Congo. More recently, advocates’ focus on sexual violence and conflict minerals has ignored the complex sources of Congo’s problems at their peril. Even the notion that local conflicts over land and authority are the main reason for violence today – an argument that has gained some traction recently – neglects the knotted politics surrounding armed group formation in the Kivus and Ituri.

Above all, we need to take the Congolese on their own terms and engage with the ragged complexity of the conflict. Most of my book spins the stories of these Congolese actors, trying to decipher their motives, trying to bring their humanity – if not necessarily their decency – home to the reader. I don’t think foreigners will ever be able to work constructively with any of the leaders in the region until we can understand their interests and attitudes. This goes for the most burning challenges: revenue transparency, security sector reform and transitional justice.

Given this emphasis on actors, their stories and the complexity of the conflict, I can understand how one might find my book lacking in leitmotifs and theory. But I would suggest that my book has different ambitions than the excellent volumes by Filip Reyntjens and Gerard Prunier mentioned by Verhoeven. I do not pretend to provide a succinct theory of the Congo war; that would go against the grain of my narrative.

Nonetheless, I do address, albeit briefly, many of the issues that the review finds lacking. Like both Reyntjens and Prunier, I locate the origins of the Congo war at the nexus of local, national and regional developments. This confluence – the decay of the Zairian state, local struggles over land and power, and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – is, as the review states, well-known and not controversial.

 What is more contentious is foreign involvement during the war. Here I differ from Reyntjens and Prunier, if only slightly. After many dozen interviews with Congolese and Rwandan protagonists of the wars, I found little evidence for American military involvement in support of any parties during the wars. The AFDL rebellion (1996-1997) – which has often been rumored to have received US military support – had enough firepower coming from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Angola and a handful of other Africa countries. Nor could I find much support in my interviews for an international corporate conspiracy in support of any of the wars, although many foreign companies did make considerable profits during the war, and US policy has been sadly short-sighted on many occasions. Overall, however, the greatest sins of western countries have been ones of omission and ignorance, not of direct exploitation. We simply have not cared enough about a crisis that is too complex to fit into a sound-bite. This has led at times to one-dimensional policy-making and the search for simple heroes and villains when the roles are much more complex than that.

As for Rwanda, I leave little room for doubt about its complicity in widespread human rights abuses in the Congo, not all of which have seen the light of justice. However, Rwanda’s motives have been complex and have shifted over time. Security predominated during the initial phases of both 1996 and 1998 invasions, as rebels launched attacks into Rwanda from the Kivu provinces. Financial considerations took on an ever more important role after 1999, as individuals and the ruling party in Kigali took advantage of business opportunities in the eastern Congo. Finally, a political calculus crept into Rwandan thinking: a weak, chaotic Congo was expedient to justify internal repression and to prevent a strong, dangerous neighbour from emerging.

This complex mix of motives in its relations with its neighbour have been refracted through a fiercely hubristic and militaristic prism, which led to their clumsy dealings with Laurent Kabila in 1996 and their attempts to quickly topple him in 1998. Which of these motives, however, has predominated at which point in time, is difficult to discern.
Finally, perhaps a word about probably the most important causal factor that sticks out in my account: the profound weakness of Congolese political institutions. All these other factors, from land conflicts to mining, have become salient precisely because no state has emerged as an arbiter of these resources and disputes. The corruption of the state – and the corrosion of most forms of political organization over centuries of slavery, rubber trade and colonialism – has allowed criminal networks to flourish and small disputes to escalate. This state of affairs has undermined the state’s ability to enforce contracts and guarantee private assets – a commitment problem that political scientists like Verhoeven have focused on.

Closely linked to this institutional fragility is a crisis in moral leadership, which I hope resounds clearly in the book. With few viable social or political institutions, collective action becomes difficult. Those who do take a stand for their ideological beliefs are chopped down or simply kicked to the sidelines.

State fragility and a moral crisis of leadership are not easily packaged into media reports, and solutions for these challenges are difficult to find, in the Congo and elsewhere. But these are probably the main obstacles the country will have to overcome over next decades.

As for Verhoeven’s criticism that I left out important parts of the war  – I can only plead mea culpa. There is only so much one can do in a book, especially one that aims at bringing the Congoelse conflict to a broader audience. Perhaps a second volume will be necessary.


Anonymous said...

Claiming to provide a response to the "Congolese reductionism" of the popular press and certain NGOs is an easier task than attempting to put the war in a broad context. Thomas Turner in Congo: Conflict, Myth, and Reality and Jean-Pierre Chretien in The Recurring Great Lakes Crisis: Identity, Violence, Power both do a much better of doing that.

A bibliography would have been welcome.

Of course it is a facile trick of reviewers to point out what the author did not write about, but in this case almost completely ignoring Ituri is another kind of reductionism. Until today, popularizers talk about Eastern Congo when referring North and South Kivu. Do these people know that there is an Orientale province in DRC and that Orientale is French for East?
What happened in Ituri has become the ignored war within an war. I am sure we will all agree that much more needs to be written.

Mungwa Pierre

james said...

Dear Jason,

As a Belgian journalist I feel compelled to protest against your description of the mainstream press depicting the Congolese 'problem' as simplistic blame games. Most of my colleagues in the Belgian press covering the Great Lakes area are serious, dedicated and hard working people. Within the limits of our profession (time and space constraints) we try to do our best, without falling in the trap of caricatures. Maybe the most notorious Belgian journalist covering the Great Lakes sometimes falls in the blame game trap, but it is superficial to generalize...
And yes, as you would probably agree, there are some people to blame, whether they are Congolese, Rwandese, Angolese, Chinese or Western.
By the way: I really enjoyed reading your book: it was kind of a journalistic approach of the complexities of the Congolese reality..

SunTura said...

Anonymous said...

I have your book but not yet had time to read it.
If the DRC and its institutions continue to be weak then I can see its citizens in the east becoming more engaged with Rwanda and the countries of the EAC where it may be easier to buy services without corruption. And of course this will be welcome in Kigali for example which has a service economy/regional hub as part of its vision. If so this will be about the region's citizens seeking to make better lives for themselves and their children rather than any empire building by Rwanda (the latter already suggested by the basazi/lunatic fringe of the internet). Progressive weakening of the DRC and its institutions dates back to the early 1960s long before it invited in the genocidaires from Rwanda in 1994 with the consequences we all know about.

Anonymous said...

Not sure this fits here, but in response to your point on no evidence of support for American military involvement, I broadly share your assessment. However, reading the Washington Post Obituaries the other day at the doctor's office, I saw the phrase that "Gen Shalikashvili coordinated american military interventions in Bosnia, Haiti and Zaire in the 1990s." Of course, it's only an obituary, not news journalism, but anyway, I was surprised to see that phrase in the WaPo and got me thinking maybe there might be more out there; and it would probably be beneficial to US policy too (perhaps in the medium-term), to clarify more clearly what support was and was not given.

Anonymous said...

I do not know whether you regard this as "military involvement" but I have always understood that the US provided satelite photos to the anti-Mobutu forces - might be of some use to get an overview that shows where your enemy is etc. Not an expert on this but I assume that the US can access satelite images of just about anywhere to close up scale and could have done so in the 1990s too.

Anonymous said...


More people will come to understand that you are not a DRC's expert as you claim to be, you are indeed a lobbyst working for Kagame,H. kanambe aka J. kabila and tutsi. A liar who sometimes make up own story in favor of his friends, who justify the killing of more than 8 million people and raping of over 1.5 million women and children, who defend a genocidaire as P. kagame, and a killer and an impostor as Hyppolite Kanambe aka Joseph Kabila

Vincent Harris said...

The US government seems to have supported the invasion of the DRC by Rwanda in a way similar to the Dutch government support of George W. Bush's Iraq war, namely "diplomaticly but not militarily".

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