Review: “Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe” – Gérard Prunier

Gérard Prunier’s Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe is a masterful study of the causes and consequences of the Rwandan Genocide (1994) and the First and Second Congo Wars (1996-1997, 1998-2003).

The Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994) began when Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda. After the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, Hutu extremists, both inside and outside of the Rwandan regime, massacred in door-to-door violence 500,000 to 1,000,000 people between April and July 1994. The RPF resumed the civil war and overthrew the regime, which fled with hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

The flight of the former Rwandan regime and génocidaires and hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees into Zaire transformed the conflict between a rebel movement and an African regime into an ethnopolitical quagmire that is almost impossible to understand. This is not to deny the ethnic complexities of the Rwandan Civil War. As René Lemarchand writes in Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, the terms Hutu and Tutsi are not mutually exclusive, and an individual can identify as both Hutu and Tutsi. “In Kirundi, the term [Hutu] has two separate meanings: one refers to its cultural or ethnic underpinnings, the other to its social connotations. In the latter sense, Hutu refers to a ‘social subordinate’ in relation to somebody higher up in the pecking order. […] Thus a Tutsi cast in the role of a client vis-à-vis a wealthier patron would be referred to as ‘Hutu,’ even though his cultural identity remained Tutsi. Similarly, a [Tutsi] prince was a Hutu in relation to the [Tutsi] king, and a high-ranking Tutsi was a Hutu in relation to a [Tutsi] prince.” (pp. 9-10). This ambiguity regarding the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” made it impossible to accurately distinguish a person’s ethnic identity during the Rwandan or Burundian genocides. Often a victim was massacred with a machete or bludgeoned to death by their neighbour for no other reason than to steal the victim’s belongings or house. “Other genocides have been committed by strangers killing other strangers, and their violence was often engulfed in the wider violence of large international wars or revolutions,” Prunier writes. In Rwanda, the genocide “was a hill-by-hill and a home-by-home thing. And it is this neighborly quality, this grisly homespun flavor, that contaminated the world of the survivors after the killing had stopped.” The Rwandan Genocide “was so intertwined with everyday life that it could be used at every turn to secure an economic advantage, to settle an old grudge or to cover one’s tracks. Many people were killed by former Interahamwe simply because they might give evidence against them. Other people quickly found out that having survived the genocide could be a profitable business. They created ‘accusation cooperatives,’ which would sell their denunciations of real or supposed Interahamwe activities to those who could use such testimonies for economic or political benefit.” Tutsis survivors “were caught in nightmarish world between their Hutu neighbors, some of whom had been their saviors and some who had tried to murder them, and strange returnees from abroad who often accused them of compromising with the killers in order to save their lives. As for Hutu survivors, they were looked on as génocidaires by the returnee Tutsi and as traitors by the sympathizers of the old regime. Nobody was automatically innocent, and suspicion was everywhere.” (pp. 1-3).

When the former Rwandan regime, the génocidaires, and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Zaire, this created additional ethnic, social, economic, and political factors to the already complex Rwandan conflict.

Before the Rwandan Genocide, the corrupt Mobuto regime in Zaire was already on its last legs. The end of the Cold War transformed Mobuto from an anti-communist freedom fighter into an anachronistic African dictator in the eyes of the West. Mobuto’s support for, tolerance of, or simple incapacity to deal with foreign rebel movements active in Zaire — including UNITA fighting the MPLA regime in Angola; the génocidaires and former Rwandan regime fighting Kagame’s Rwandan regime; and various Ugandan rebels supported by Sudan and fighting the new Ugandan regime of Yoweri Museveni; the CNDD–FDD fighting against the Burundian regime — alienated many of the West’s new African allies. Many of these states, in turn, supported anti-Mobuto rebels in Zaire. Adding to this social, economic, ethnic, and political quagmire, the massive influx of foreigners — including the heavily armed forces of a former African regime — into the impoverished and ethnically volatile Zaire, especially its Kivu region, added further pressure on the land and environment the populace depended on for its subsistence. This created conflicts between the multitude of different peoples in the eastern Congo: the autochthonous peoples in the Kivus and Ituri, the Tutsi in South Kivu (Banyamulenge), the Hutu and Tutsi in North Kivu (Banyarwanda), the Rwandan and Burundi refugees that arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, the recent Rwandan and Burundian refugees, and the génocidaires and former Rwandan regime, which continued the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus within the refugee camps in eastern Zaire.

“Does the reader at this point want to throw in the towel and give up on the ethnopolitical complexities of the region? I would not blame him,” writes Prunier (p. 201). YES — at least that’s what I thought.

In 1994, although for entirely different reasons, multiple African countries invaded or deployed troops in Zaire, including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, and Eritrea, and supported Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s rebel movement to overthrow Mobuto. After Kabila toppled Mobuto in 1997, he turned against his African masters, and multiple African countries again invaded Zaire, newly renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to Prunier, there were four layers of this second conflict (pp. 201-202):

  1. The Core Conflict. This involved the Rwandan RPF regime, with Ugandan support, trying to overthrow Kabila.
  2. The Second Layer. This involved several powerful African neighbours, including Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, who were not involved and did not care about the Hutu-Tutsi conflict but wanted Kabila to remain in power for their own reasons.
  3. The Third Layer. This involved countries such as Libya, Sudan, and Chad that got involved for reasons related to each other (ex. Chadian-Libyan conflict, the Chadian-Sudanese conflict) and their relations with other states involved in the Congo.  
  4. The Fourth Layer. This involved countries such as Burundi and the Central African Republic that were geographically close to the Congo and that were entangled with other countries active in the Congo

Added to this were the economic interests of the belligerents. Rwanda and Uganda were trying to wage war on the cheap, which involved the self-financing of troops and allied militias in the Congo. At the same time, Zimbabwean mining companies wanted to block South African mining interests in mineral-rich Katanga. Thus, Rwandan and Ugandan troops, while nominally fighting for the same objective — the overthrow of Kabila — engaged in brutal street fighting with each other in the Congo’s third-largest city, Kisangani, to control the airport and the diamond trade in August 1999, May 2000, and June 2000. What began as a “rational” war, Prunier writes, thus degenerated into “myriad ‘privatized,’ socially and economically motivated subconflicts.” (p. 225).

Prunier is a brilliant scholar of Africa and an excellent writer. His ‘tell-like-it-is’ manner of writing is both comical and to the point and makes understanding African complexities easier. After reading this book, I cannot honestly say that I understand Africa’s so-called World War, the deadliest conflict since WWII, with 5.8 million deaths. Still, Prunier’s analysis helped shed much-needed light on the conflict, one that I was not adequately acquainted with before.

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