There are two lessons here. First, numbers are political: that figure of 5 million Congolese dead is a rallying point and a fundraising tool--for worthy purposes such as refugee relief, but for causes nonetheless. And second, African conflicts are not uniquely brutal, as people in Hanoi or Grozny can attest. "The 'total war' concept invented by Germany during World War I and since then seen to apply to many conflicts worldwide," Prunier notes, "cannot apply in Africa because the means are simply not available."
Armed hostilities in Africa tend to be localized, intimate and haphazard. This is what made the Rwandan genocide such an extraordinary occurrence: not just the scale of its evil but its ruthless efficiency. At the exhortation of an extremist government committed to "Hutu Power," a willing populace butchered an estimated 800,000 people, most of them of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, in the course of just a hundred days. In The Rwanda Crisis, Prunier placed the genocide's organizing forces in a historical and cultural context and showed how Western powers--he was particularly scathing with regard to Belgium and France--missed clear signs of what was coming.
"They knew quite a bit, and they didn't believe it," Prunier reflected in a 1997 interview with the PBS show Frontline. "And I must say that I, as a specialist of the area, didn't believe it either." Ignorance wasn't the problem; expertise was. Prunier had a résumé that should have allowed him to recognize the threat. Yet when details of the planned killing, including leaked lists naming prominent Rwandans to be eliminated, began to circulate around Europe in early 1994, they were given little credence by specialists. "Why?" Prunier asked himself in the Frontline interview:
Because lists like that have been circulating in the Great Lakes for thirty years. Everybody [is] always planning to kill everybody else, and all the extremists on all sides are always trying to convince the whites that they have discovered some great conspiracy and they are going to tell you all about it, when of course it is just a political tool against their enemies. So we just thought this was one more of these things.
Instead, Prunier writes in Africa's World War, the specialists "suddenly found themselves sitting on top of a heap of 800,000 corpses they had not seen coming." The international community had no idea how to respond. In the name of human rights, one agency of the United Nations created a tribunal to try the perpetrators of the genocide, while another, citing the same principles, set up camps across the border in Congo that sheltered and fed Hutu refugees, passing no judgment. If the outsiders were indecisive, however, it appeared that the Africans knew how to respond. In 1996, a rebellion broke out in Congo's far eastern provinces. The guerrillas quickly advanced across the country, chasing the refugee génocidaires and the dispirited army of the dictator Mobutu, who had given sanctuary to the killers because he opposed Rwanda's new Tutsi-led government. It was little secret that the "rebels" were actually proxies for Rwanda, but who could object? The intervention seemed only just, and the overthrow of Mobutu by Laurent Kabila (father of the future president Joseph), in May 1997, was greeted with exhilaration.
The first phase of the war was over, and the region had a pair of new kingpins: Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, and Paul Kagame, the de facto ruler of Rwanda, both of whom had backed Kabila's offensive against Mobutu. The two shared a common history. Kagame, raised in Uganda by exile parents, had fought in the rebel force that had brought Museveni to power and had gone on to take leadership of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-dominated army that conquered his home country in the aftermath of the genocide. In the late 1990s both leaders were hailed by Bill Clinton, among others, as leaders of an African "renaissance." That brief era ended, if it ever really began, with the outbreak of the second phase of Congo hostilities in 1998.
In The Rwanda Crisis, Prunier was reasonably sympathetic toward Kagame, but in Africa's World War he casts Rwanda's president as the villain, apologizing in an endnote for wanting "to believe in the relative innocence of the RPF." His sense of disillusionment matches that of a number of Great Lakes specialists, such as the late Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch, who by the end of her life was banned from entering Rwanda because of her strident criticism of the RPF. The title that Columbia University's Mahmood Mamdani gave his book on Rwanda, When Victims Become Killers, sums up the overall turnabout in the narrative. Prunier makes it clear he's determined to revise previous judgments. Early in his book, he revisits one passage from The Rwanda Crisis, his account of the death of the RPF's first military commander, Fred Rwigyema, contending that the leader--a national hero in Rwanda--was not killed in a friendly fire incident, as he wrote in 1995, but was actually assassinated, probably on Kagame's orders. The truth of this assertion is hard to assess--rumors about Rwigyema's death have circulated for years--but the fact that Prunier states it so boldly, naming no sources, is an indication of where he's headed.
Certainly, Kagame is not an easy man to like. In contrast to Museveni--who has an appealing personality and gets off fairly easily in Prunier's book, despite his army's involvement in some of the bloodiest Congo episodes--Rwanda's president is an aloof, soft-spoken and secretive man. He's not a democrat, and he's not subtle about it: he won more than 90 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, in part because he'd had many prominent political opponents arrested. There is credible evidence that he's supported militias in the Congo led by accused war criminals, and judges in Spain and France, under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, have been investigating allegations--none of them proven--of various RPF misdeeds. Nonetheless, Kagame has continued to enjoy decent relations with the United States, where he's cultivated useful alliances with evangelists like Rick Warren. His professed desire is to turn Rwanda into a prosperous little autocracy like Singapore.
Kagame is not afraid to invoke the legacy of the genocide to silence international criticism, and that has proven to be an effective tactic. While other strongmen--Zim- babwe's Robert Mugabe, for instance--are treated as diplomatic pariahs, Rwanda's president is still accepted in polite company. The inconsistency drives many Africa specialists crazy, and it's obvious that Prunier intends for his book to be a corrective. "The RPF calculated that guilt, ineptitude, and the hope that things would work out would cause the West to literally let them get away with murder," he writes. "The calculation was correct."