Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

The above title is a recent book (Stearns, 2011) describing the Congo War which began in 1996.  Jason Stearns, the author, lived in Congo for ten years working with a humanitarian organization and with the United Nations, investigating crimes against humanity.  His book is thorough, thought-provoking, well researched, engaging, informative, shocking, sad, and a testimony to the resilience of the Congolese people.  The book adeptly divides the Congo War into three epochs:  the toppling of the Mobutu regime in May 1997, a second period of fighting between President Laurent Kabila with Rwanda and Uganda, and lastly the fighting which continues to this day in the eastern region of Kivu.

Stearns rightly portrays the Congo War as the result of a complex web of factors.  He begins by demonstrating how the “Hutu refugee problem” in Eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide led to the first invasion in 1996.  This invasion was led by the aging rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who was appointed and backed by both Rwanda and Uganda.  He conveys this conflict as a regional conflict in which a new generation of African leaders (e.g. Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni) sought not only to bring security along the Rwandan border, but also to topple the African dinosaur leader Mobutu Sese Seko.  Thus, the war that started in Zaire (Congo) in 1996 was not first and foremost a civil war - it was a regional conflict.  The corrosion or “dry rot” from within of the Mobutu regime, coupled with the advent of new regional power brokers, serve as distinctive factors of this first epoch.  The second epoch pitted the new President Laurent Kabila of Congo against Rwanda and Uganda, those who had placed him into power.  This epoch lasted from August 1998 until 2002, and involved nine African countries.  This middle epoch was marked by Kabila’s desperate efforts to stay in power coupled with the self-enrichment of countries fighting on the mineral-rich soils of Congo.  The last epoch is marked by the leadership of Joseph Kabila who was given power after his father Laurent was assassinated in January 2001.  Joseph, a surprisingly decisive leader,  brought an end to the fighting by calling for a peace accord in South Africa in 2002, whereby the country would be unified once again.  Sadly however, fighting continues to this day in the embattled eastern region of Congo.  Incredible loss of life marks all three epochs.  Some estimate that the Congo War has claimed more than five million lives, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped.  

Stearns encourages readers to seek to understand the political situation in Congo; he addresses some of the root causes of the lack of responsible politics.  Stearns writes, “The Congo has been the victim of four hundred years of political disintegration.”  He describes Congo formerly as a land of magnificent kingdoms including the Kongo kingdom, but then exploited for centuries by foreigners.  In relation to the colonial period, he deftly articulates how the Belgium administration was not accountable to the Congolese people, and thereby brutally suppressed any civil unions and political parties who could advocate on behalf of the people.  Stearns delineates a tragic legacy left by colonial rule and centuries of exploitation, whereby power in Congo is currently grabbed by the strong, and how a dearth of civic groups leaves the Congolese people feeling helpless and exploited by self-serving leaders who stuff their pockets with public funds.  He paints a picture of a country where anyone can be “bought for a price,” as he describes a centrifuge of Congolese politics laden with corruption and fraud.  He describes a President, Joseph Kabila, who probably couldn’t change the system if he tried, in that powerful mafia-type groups in the administration would unseat him for undermining their power base.  Thus, he characterizes Kabila as one who seeks to centralize his power and promote his own security and business networks, rather than promoting neutral and efficient state institutions and the rule of law.   The story of political power from Mobutu to Kabila has been one of staying in power versus creating a healthy, accountable state.  Congo’s political system rewards ruthless behavior and marginalizes honest leaders. It prioritizes loyalty over competence, power and wealth over character. The biggest fear of those in power is internal collapse and betrayal from within. 

Stearns touches on the issue of development and encourages a thoughtful response from his readers.  He contends that since the government is largely  “buoyed” by foreign support along with revenues from minerals and precious metals, the government doesn’t feel the need to promote development and serve its citizens.  He makes the head-scratching-comment that “all development is deeply political.”  What he means is that by financing most public services (schools, hospitals, etc.), donors take pressure off the Congolese government to help its own citizens by creating healthy institutions.  Hence he challenges donors to figure out how to responsibly insert themselves.

Stearns encourages his readers to find ways to help the people of Congo.  He calls such action “an act of joint humanity.”   Because of the centuries of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of rubber, copper, and diamonds, which benefited western companies and helped build Belgian cities, we owe it to the Congolese.  We should do what we can to help the Congolese benefit from their riches, and we should find ways to encourage more responsible and legitimate leaders to rise to the top.  He encourages the reader to understand Congo and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then help to provide an environment conducive to stability and development. 

The resilience of the Congolese people inspires Jason Stearns.  He contends that ultimately the fate of Congo rests in the hands of the people.  For anyone interested in learning about Congo and about modern Africa, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is must reading.  There are other significant elements which I have not mentioned, most notably the “disappearance” of tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees in Congo.  Stearns brings to light what most of the world chooses to forget…  

1 comment:

steve rice said...

Great synopsis Bob... I look forward to reading the book.