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The Congo Nightmare

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jason K. Stearns.. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. PublicAffairs. 380 Pages. $28.99.

For three decades on Zaire’s evening news, the stern features of President Mobutu Sese Seko would emerge from the heavens to inspire his lowly subjects. Resorting to such grandiose imagery only came natural for the founder of Mobutuism, which was designed to replace Christianity as the spiritual foundation of the country. In the words of Interior Minister Engulu Baanga Mpongo, “God has sent a great prophet, our prestigious Guide Mobutu. This prophet is our liberator, our Messiah. Our Church is the mpr. Its chief is Mobutu. We respect him like one respects a Pope. Our gospel is Mobutuism. That is why the crucifixes must be replaced by the image of our Messiah.”  

With guidance like this, Western notions of pluralism and a multiparty system were neither necessary nor desirable, and besides, as Mobutu himself pointed out, they were wholly alien to African custom. “In our African tradition there are never two chiefs . . . That is why we Congolese, in the desire to conform to the traditions of our continent, have resolved to group all the energies of the citizens of our country under the banner of a single national party.” In reality, of course, Mobutu was the embodiment of the third world kleptocrat for whom the state coffers have become the property of himself and his henchmen, to squander as they see fit.

Throughout the Cold War, Mobuto’s regime had been propped up by the U.S., not with any great enthusiasm, but because Africa was a zero-sum game: A loss of a Western ally would automatically mean a gain for the communists. So for the U.S. policymakers, it was a matter of holding their noses, because the alternative, a hostile revolutionary regime, was worse. But when the Cold War ended, U.S. pressures for reform grew, while the fate of Mobutu’s fellow dictator Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania gave the African leader acute cause for anxiety.

The beginning of the end for Mobutu came in 1996, when forces from neighboring Rwanda invaded his country; this invasion, Mobutu’s fall, and the renewed fighting under his successor Laurent Kabila is the topic of Jason Stearns’s impressive and unsettling Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. The conflict to this day has cost an estimated five million dead, four million of whom have died not from fighting itself but from disease and malnutrition resulting from being uprooted.

Yet the suffering has never commanded the headlines like the genocides in neighboring Rwanda or in Darfur, where the Sudanese government has supported Arab militias in their ethnic cleansing efforts against black Africans. Unlike these two tragedies, the fighting in the Congo does not lend itself to neat simplification; it has many causes and many actors, involving nine countries and some twenty different rebel groups: Proxies armed by the main actors have kept splintering into local factions and fiefdoms much along the lines of Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Stearns notes.

Thus Stearns quotes the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s reasons for devoting less attention to the Congo than to the genocide in Darfur, an argument that rests on the ideological motivation of the latter: “Dafur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty . . . I grant that the suffering is greater in the Congo, but our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty.” To the Congolese dead and their families, such distinctions are unlikely to be of much comfort.

In the book, Stearns describes in detail the nightmare of a failed state, a Hobbesian universe of utter lawlessness. As one of his sources tells him, to survive in this kind of environment, “we all have to be a bit corrupt, a bit ruthless. That is the system here. That is just the reality of things. Even you, if you were thrown into this system, you would do the same. Or sink.”

The war devastation he compares to that experienced by Europe back in the Thirty Years’ War. Stearns is usually reticent in his descriptions of the horrors, the effect of which is to make them hit harder when they do appear. Thus in the massacre at Kasika, a village 100 miles west of the Rwandan border, where rival proxies had been at work, survivors tell Stearns how the dead for fun had been “twisted into origami figures,” including a case where the killers had made a slit on each side of the belly of a corpse and buried the victim’s hands in them: “They had made him look like he was wearing a suit.”

The book is based on interviews with ex-ministers, generals, former child soldiers, and victims, and separating fact from fiction is no easy task. Writes Stearns, “Sometimes it seems that by crossing into the Congo one abandons any sort of Archimedean perspective on truth and becomes caught in a web of rumors and allegations.” As he notes, conspiracy theory is the traditional way of the powerless to give meaning to an existence bereft of it.

The 1996 invasion of Zaire was the result of the spillover of the civil war in neighboring Rwanda. Since 1990, the majority Hutu government of President Juvenal Habyarimana had been fighting the Tutsi rebel movement, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. A ceasefire had been broken by the downing of Habyarimana’s plane in Kigali in April of 1994. The massacre of 800,000 Tutsis over a three-month period followed, before the rebels under the leadership of Paul Kagame took control of the country, with Kagame becoming vice president and minister of defense.

In what they regarded as a tactical retreat, 30,000 Hutu soldiers and thousands of militiamen fled into Mobutu’s Zaire. With them fled masses of Hutu civilians who feared for their lives under the new regime. Thus the refugee camps in Zaire held about a million people, civilians plus Hutu genocidaires, with the latter in control. A un proposal to separate the two groups came to nothing. So from here the Hutu commanders set about planning a guerilla offensive, named Operation Insecticide, reflecting their view of the Tutsis as cockroaches to be exterminated.

This represented a threat that the Rwandans could not ignore, and in October 1996, the so-called Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire invaded. Thus, in Stearns’s view, a case can be made for seeing round one in this great African war as one of self-defense, a just war. And not only had Mobutu allowed the Hutu killers in Zaire but, in his desire to be the regional powerbroker, he also managed to upset his other neighbors, the Ugandans and the Angolans, by hosting rebel groups on his soil, with the result that they joined in a coalition against him, making this a regional conflict: “Africa’s World War,” in Stearns’s words, with each side having local proxies.

Being in an advanced state of disintegration, Mobutu’s army was not up to the challenge. Mobuto’s main preoccupation was always staying in power, and his way of governing was classic divide and rule. Having himself coup-ed his way to power, Stearns notes, he kept a watchful eye on the military: He executed some of his most competent officers, bought off others, and established parallel lines of command.

“Sometimes it seems that by crossing into the Congo one abandons any sort of Archimedean perspective on truth and becomes caught in a web of rumors and allegations,” Stearns writes.

His Presidential Guard and Civil Guard got the lion’s share of the money; the rest of his military were left to improvise as Mobutu had urged them to: “You have guns. You don’t need a salary.” And improvise they did. One way was setting up roadblocks. Another was to sell spare parts and weapons to those prepared to pay, including the very forces they were now fighting. The unintended side effect of this cannibalization was to weaken the army to the point of uselessness when it was needed.

When you invade another country, it is a well-established practice to look for some local front man to make the operation look homegrown, which is what the Ugandans advised Kagame to do: The choice was Laurent Kabila, a veteran Congolese rebel leader living in obscurity in Dar es Salaam, from where he ordered the occasional bandit raid back in Zaire. A physically imposing man who painted his toenails black, Kabila had earned a brutal sobriquet as a warlord back in 1964: “the one who cuts cows’ teats.”

The Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who spent seven months in the Congo in 1965 in a futile attempt to foment revolution, assessed Kabila as a man with certain leadership abilities but somewhat lacking in the ideology department. Sick from malnutrition, Che left the country in disgust, as Marxism failed to fire up the rural population: Stearns quotes the first sentence of Che’s diary, “This is the history of a failure.”

Kabila may not have been everyone’s idea of the ideal frontman, but for the present purpose he would do. The invading alliance consisted of Rwandan regulars and Kabila’s local forces, which included child soldiers down to twelve years old, recruited among street children and boy scouts. The advantage of child soldiers, notes Stearns, is that they have little sense of their own mortality, which makes them useful as cannon fodder.

They also have little respect for human life. As part of their mental conditioning, they were forced to watch and take part in executions, and the severed head of a prisoner would be passed around to get them used to the idea.

In the attack on the camps, half a million refugees returned to Rwanda, while 400,000 fled into the jungle. Before them, the invaders drove the Hutu refugees on a 1,000-mile trek through dense rainforest, with people dying in the thousands. In a startling image, Stearns cites a refugee’s description of how swarms of white and blue butterflies would settle on the corpses, feeding off the salt and moisture. According to Sterns, the Congolese greeted Kabila’s troops as liberators, and the death of Hutu refugees was none of their business.

Throughout, Mobutu himself was in poor shape. At the start of the war, he was in Switzerland for a prostate operation. Stearns reports the contradictory rumors circulating in Kinshasa: Some claimed that the treatment had swelled his penis to monstrous proportions, others that he had been castrated. In fact, he left for the cancer treatment too late and had to go back for another operation. Meanwhile, the situation was daily deteriorating. In a futile attempt to tame inflation, a new bank note was issued which became known as “the Prostate,” because it behaved in much the same way as Mobutu’s.

Both the South Africans and the Americans tried to convince Mobutu that it was time to call it quits, but he hesitated. Only when his generals informed him that his safety could no longer be ensured was he finally persuaded to leave the country. In a mocking gesture, a solitary 50 franc note had been left in a drawer in the central bank for the invaders to find.

As the country’s nominal new ruler, Kabila was described by one of his ministers as “a well-read man with some strange ideas. I remember in one cabinet meeting he asked us out of the blue if we thought Sartre would have agreed with some policy we were discussing.” To mark the change, Kabila named the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Politically, Kabila was stuck in 1960s rhetoric. He promised reforms, taunting his countrymen for their meek submission to Mobutu. One such Kabila quote provides the book with its title. “Who has not been Mobutuist in this country? Three quarters of this country became part of it. We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.” However, Kabila’s chosen instruments of reform seemed ill-suited: His minister for regional aid had left Tennessee in a hurry, escaping a $300,000 fine for fraud, which meant he could have no dealings with the Americans, while his justice minister had spent eight months locked up in Belgium for illegally tapping into the power grid.

And it did not take long for Kabila to revert to classic African Big Man behavior and to steal a page from Mobutu’s playbook, relying on the twin tools of coercion and corruption. He also inherited Mobutu’s paranoia. Fearing that his Rwandan backers and the Congolese Tutsis would remove him from power, Kabila fell out with the Rwandans a little over a year later, demanding that the Rwandan troops leave the country. “It is ironic,” notes Stearns “that Kabila, having first come to power on Rwandan bayonets, came to be seen as a bulwark against Tutsi aggression.”

His new course appealed to discontented army officers who resented having the Rwandans and local Tutsis ordering them about; there was general resentment among the inhabitants of Kinshasa of the arrogant manners of the Rwandans, who had accused them of dressing like prostitutes. Kabila’s soldiers were under orders to shoot any Tutsi found with a weapon. In their search for persons with high cheekbones, the going definition of a Tutsi, his troops invaded a U.S. embassy compound, but disappeared again after having helped themselves to petty cash.

Kabila’s chosen instruments of reform seemed ill-suited: His minister for regional aid had left Tennessee in a rush, escaping a $300,000 fine for fraud, which meant he could have no dealings with the Americans.

The Rwandans responded by establishing an airlift to Kitona, strategically located near the Inga Dam, which gave them a stranglehold on the electricity supply to Kinshasa. According to Stearns, they also prepositioned loyal units and weapons in eastern Congo. As the Rwandans were by far the more competent fighters, Kabila was forced to flee. But the momentum shifted when the Zimbabweans and the Angolans intervened, providing thousands of troops equipped with attack helicopters, armored personal carriers, and MiG fighter-bombers. This intervention enabled Kabila to return to the capital, though fighting continued in the provinces.

Safely back in Kinshasa, Kabila nonetheless grew more jittery. Stearns quotes a former minister: “We would go to him with elaborate plans for the economy, but he would say, ‘Two years! I will be dead in two years. Bring me policies that can bring us cash in two weeks.’” Accordingly, Kabila signed over the diamond market to a foreigner for a mere $20 million a year. A former general auditor describes the way the country was administered as “a private trust run by people close to Kabila, but entirely created with state assets.”

In 2001, Kabila’s fears came true: He was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. It is not known who was behind it, Stearns says, but there were plenty of people who had had enough of him. “Kabila is like a man who starts six fires when he has only got one fire extinguisher,” says a Zimbabwean official. As just one example cited, he continued to let the Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi trade diamonds through Lebanese dealers in Kinshasa, and Savimbi guerillas were again present in the Congo, which was the very thing that had made the Angolans support the anti- Mobuto forces in the first war.

The man best placed to take over was Laurent Kabila’s son Joseph, who had been his father’s defense minister. Kabila fils proved himself to be a pragmatist whose main achievement was the peace deal that ended the second war in June 2003. His slogan was “Joseph Kabila, the bearer of eggs. He doesn’t squabble, he doesn’t fight,” thereby managing to put his rivals and their Rwandan and the Ugandan backers on the defensive. A deal was hammered out in South Africa that amounted to a sharing of spoils among the leading players. “Impunity and corruption were to a certain extent holding the fragile peace together,” writes Stearns.

Thus, unlike the situations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where warlords were prevented from standing for public office, the agreement kept some unsavory characters in place. And what Stearns’s sources call the “informalization of government” still goes on, with stuffed envelopes being passed around. To provide quick cash, the government held a fire sale of mining rights. According to a World Bank internal memo, the lack of transparency was complete.

In time-honored fashion, Kabila keeps a strong presidential guard, and the rest of the army weak. He has refrained from mass arrests, Stearns notes, as he prefers to sideline people, but discontent in Kinshasa is growing: “Mobuto used to steal with a fork. At least some crumbs would fall between the cracks and trickle down to the rest of us. But Kabila steals with a spoon. He spoons the plate clean. He does not leave anything for the poor.” Some see him as “a Tutsi Manchurian Candidate.” And there is still an insurgency smoldering in the Western part of the country, amounting to a situation of “neither war nor peace.”

While the first Congo war was motivated by security concerns, the second war was strictly business, Stearns notes. While neither Rwanda nor Uganda have diamonds, Ugandan exports of diamonds grew tenfold during the second war, and Rwandan and the Ugandan forces clashed furiously in the streets of Kisangani in 1999, ending their alliance. He cites the conclusion of a un report to the effect that “Rwanda and Uganda were plundering Eastern Congo for personal enrichment and in order to finance the war.” And so was everyone else.

While in some circles it is a reflex to blame Western firms for all of Africa’s woes, Stearns does not buy this idea. “The notion that the war was fuelled by international mining capital eager to get its hands on Congo’s wealth does not hold water; the war slowed down privatization for a decade.” Getting involved with the rebels was far too risky for large public-owned corporations. Only small pirate outfits made a killing, but they were unable to provide the billions needed for infrastructure and investment.

Stearns is unable to offer much hope for the future: Unlike in Europe, where the Thirty Years’ War made people realize the need for the nation-state, there is little prospect for that happening in the Congo: “Since independence, the story of political power . . . has been about staying in power, not about creating a strong nation-state.” The only way to mobilize popular support is along ethnic lines, he notes, but every group is only pursuing its own narrow interest. And despite the country’s incredible riches, says one of Stearns’s Congolese friends, the all-pervasive corruption ensures “the reverse Midas effect: Anything touched by politics in the Congo turns to [excrement].”

Throughout the book, a tension exists between the author’s wish to avoid reinforcing traditional caricatures and stereotypes of “the corrupt brutal warlord with his savage soldiers raping and looting the country” and the need to tell it like it is out of an obligation to the victims. The latter wins out. The tragedy of the Congo is that the caricature represents reality. This is the land of horrors. And there is no Goethe’s sorcerer to break the spell.