"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the congo's complexity

I'm not sure how much can be said about Jason Stearns' new book on the Congo wars, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, that hasn't already been said by far more prestigious reviewers than me (see those from The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post). But as someone who has read the bulk of what's been published on the conflict over the course of the last fifteen years, I can unequivocally say that this is the most accessible introduction to the country's multi-layered local conflict, civil war, and international wars out there. In short, if you want to understand the DRC wars, you need to read this book.

Stearns writes not as an academic (though he is currently studying for a PhD in political science), but rather as a journalist and storyteller. The story he tells is framed around real individuals who symbolize the various facets of the conflict - a Rwandan Hutu refugee, a Banyamulenge recruit to the AFDL, a former RCD politician. By weaving together their experiences and perspectives, Stearns manages to present an incredibly complex series of conflicts into a readable, compelling narrative.

It is in capturing the conflict's complexity that Stearns provides a great service to the reader. Longtime readers of this blog know my frustration with oversimplified narratives that reduce the Congo conflict to rape and minerals. Stearns resists the temptation to simplify anything, instead trusting that his readers, with guidance, can absorb complexity. (He doesn't get around to discussing minerals until chapter 19, in part because they had very little to do with the start of the wars.)

Stearns' central claim is that the Congolese wars - like wars everywhere - are at their heart political. He shows time and time again how calculations - Rwanda's decision to invade, Kabila's decision to expel Rwanda and Uganda - are the result of political processes and rational decision making. This provides an important counterweight to so many reductionist journalistic and advocacy accounts of the DRC situation (that almost always include references to the "heart of darkness") that chalk up violence there to ancient hatreds, wars about greed for minerals, and/or total chaos. As Stearns puts it:
All of these stories [about atrocities] are true.... These advocacy efforts have also, however, had unintended effects. They reinforce the impression that the Congo is filled with wanton savages, crazed by power and greed. This view, by focusing on the utter horror of the violence, distracts from the politics that gave rise to the conflict and from the reasons behind the bloodshed. If all we see is black men raping and killing in the most outlandish ways imaginable, we might find it hard to believe that there is any logic to this conflict. ...If we want to change the political dynamics in the country, we have above all to understand the conflict on its own terms.
Taking the Congo and its wars on its own terms is difficult. I think this is the heart of the disconnect - it's a lot easier to fit the conflict into patterns of understanding that make sense in Western terms than it is to deconstruct layer after layer of politics. But as we've watched effort after effort after effort at peace building fail, it's more and more clear that the DRC has to be taken on its own terms, with a clear recognition that incentives and politics matter.


Blogger linda said...

Thanks so much for the recommendation and great explanation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 11:39:00 PM

Blogger Bronwyn said...

Wow, this looks great! The Congo is one of those places that seems so dense to me - I've read King Leopold's Ghost and that's about it - and I'd relish learning more. Thanks!


Wednesday, April 27, 2011 3:22:00 AM

Anonymous Jason said...

Thanks for the review, I know almost nothing about the DRC but am now planning to learn more, starting by reading this book.

Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:48:00 PM


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