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Fear and loathing in the Congo

Jason Stearns is a brave man. He once worked for the UN’s disarmament programme in eastern Congo, a job which required him to probe the forests around the town of Bukavu, seeking out members of the local Mai Mai militia.

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa Jason K. Stearns

Public Affairs, pp.400, 18.99

Jason Stearns is a brave man. He once worked for the UN’s disarmament programme in eastern Congo, a job which required him to probe the forests around the town of Bukavu, seeking out members of the local Mai Mai militia.

Jason Stearns is a brave man. He once worked for the UN’s disarmament programme in eastern Congo, a job which required him to probe the forests around the town of Bukavu, seeking out members of the local Mai Mai militia. When the UN peacekeepers made contact — and there was always a risk they would run into Rwandan rebels with very different priorities — his job was to persuade twitchy, traumatised child fighters to down their weapons.

Arguably, what he attempts to do in this book is even braver. Confronted with a story as complex as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s, most writers would be tempted to either pitch a tale of personal derring-do or play the atrocity card, the better to win the sympathy vote. God knows that the country formerly known as Zaire suffers no shortage of stomach-churning events.

Refreshingly, Stearns does neither. He is not interested in telling us how he felt interviewing a gang-rape victim, whether he feared for his life walking down Kivu’s ochre tracks or how many times he caught malaria. And while we are not spared many accounts of gruesome bloodletting, there is no gratuitous titillation here.

Rather, by establishing a precise chronology of violence, he seeks to demonstrate cause and effect — the logical links too often omitted from accounts of Congo’s crisis. Stearns’ ambition is to demolish the strange spell the DRC has cast over the world’s imagination since well before Joseph Conrad made a life-changing trip up river. Congo’s horrors are neither random nor unpredictable, he argues, and to keep labelling the place as the Heart of Darkness is lazy, racist and counter- productive.


His story starts in the mid-Nineties, the dying days of Mobutu Sese Seko, most flamboyant of Africa’s Cold War despots. Step by step, Stearns tracks the events that led to the takeover of Laurent Kabila, the falling out between the new Big Man and his Rwandan backers, the second war that followed and the accession of Joseph Kabila, his bland but wily son.

For the uninitiated, this is a scene dangerously littered with alien acronyms and unfamiliar names. What saves the reader every time is the personal narratives: the avuncular Rwandan general who tut-tuts about the ‘mess’ which was Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, the professorial Congolese rebel leader so decent he is utterly ineffectual, the intelligence chief who pulls Kabila’s strings from Kigali with a mixture of despair and exasperation.

Each understandable on its own terms, the individual stories of complacency, incompetence and cynicism eventually culminated in a tragedy in which over five million Congolese died. ‘There is no Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. Instead, it is a war of the ordinary person,’ writes Stearns.

A recurring theme is the terrible cost a nation pays for ethnic demagoguery. Mobutu’s officials were all too happy to whip up public loathing for the Banyamulenge, a Tutsi community with every right to consider itself Congolese. Such xenophobia was foolhardy, given what the Tutsis across the border in Rwanda had just gone through. Terror of annihilation turns decent men into butchers.

Another lesson is the danger of tunnel vision. As Stearns discovers, communities nurse total recall of atrocities perpetrated against their own members, while wiping from collective memory any recognition that the other side, too, suffered terrible abuse. ‘I asked him if he had ever heard of Banyamulenge who had been massacred,’ the author writes of a Congolese preacher whose congregation was wiped out. ‘Banyamulenge? No. Never.’

In his closing pages Stearns, who writes a consistently illuminating blog on DRC, makes some tentative policy recommendations: UN military commitment to match troop levels seen elsewhere in the world —‘We cannot do peacemaking on the cheap’ — a recognition that humanitarian aid is no replacement for political solutions, the establishment of a special court:

Sierra Leone, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia have all had tribunals to deal with the past. Yet in Congo, where many of the perpetrators are still in power, the victims are left to stew in their frustration.

Readers hungry for a simple formula for healing the wound at Africa’s geographical heart will be left frustrated. But DRC has seen more than its fair share of radical Western initiatives, from the Belgian sovereign King Leopold’s original gigantic land grab to the CIA’s decision to back an eager-to-please army colonel called Joseph Desiré Mobutu. This courageous book is a plea for more nuanced understanding and the silencing of the analysis-free ‘the horror, the horror’ exclamation that Congo still routinely wrings from Western lips.

Michela Wrong is the author of In the Footseps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo.

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