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Warlord Politics | The Nation

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Warlord Politics

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Prunier calculates too: he is careful, at least to begin with, to cloak his outrage in the mordant seen-it-all tone affected by many tropical-lifers. Though he is a native speaker of French, he writes in English with a confident joie de vivre. He's taken pains to demonstrate the volume of his research, appending ninety-nine pages of endnotes, but the book moves with a gossipy briskness, as if Prunier were recounting the story over beers at one of those seedy African bars where journalists mix with diamond dealers and spies. His notes include citations like "Interview with a CIA operative" and "Confidential information from the arms trading milieu."

About the Author

Andrew Rice
Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (...

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He explains the beginning of the war's second phase with a characteristic anecdote. In 1998, Laurent Kabila, the ideologically pliant revolutionary whom Rwanda had installed as a stooge, started to resist his patrons and ordered all RPF troops to leave Congo. An important Rwandan general named James Kabarebe went to visit Kabila and tried to shoot him, Prunier reports, but was thwarted and instead fled back home to organize another invasion. This gripping story is sourced to an anonymous "relative of one of Kabila's bodyguards." It's the sort of secondhand tale that another writer might have saved for the bar, considering that Kabila's bodyguards were hardly reliable. After all, one of them did eventually assassinate him, in 2001.

Rwanda's 1998 lightning offensive reached the outskirts of Kinshasa, and would have toppled Kabila if Angola had not intervened on his behalf. The conflict erupted into a continental war, pitting Rwanda, Uganda and multiple rebel armies against the Congolese government, Angola, Zimbabwe and various less-involved states. Almost as soon as these alignments came together, however, they broke down. The rebels split into a bewildering array of feuding factions; Rwanda and Uganda battled over the contested city of Kisangani; and Kabila was murdered, possibly with Angola's connivance. The war entered its third phase, the confusing scramble for spoils.

Most of the national actors were at least partially motivated by security concerns--Rwanda, Uganda and Angola were dealing with domestic insurgents who had bases in Congo--but their actions quickly made a mockery of official rationales. All the parties set about looting the territories they occupied of gold, diamonds, timber and other natural resources. Rwanda made a profitable trade in coltan, a mineral that is used in cellphone components. Some analysts have suggested that the United States and other Western powers encouraged this round of fighting to get in on the mining action, a theory Prunier dismisses as a "post-Leninist bogey." "Regardless of the opinion one has of President Kagame's leadership it is absolutely necessary to recognize that he is nobody's puppet," Prunier writes. "This is always the problem of conspiracy theories applied to Africa: they purport to denounce the evil visited upon Africans by ill-meaning foreigners and they end up with Africans looking like perfect dolts, manipulated here, pushed there, used for this, deceived into that." Once again, he reserves his most scathing criticism for Rwanda, which distinguished itself, he claims, by making plunder a matter of state policy. While other countries' generals enriched themselves, the Rwandans apparently invested their ill-gotten wealth in their army.

Yet even Prunier is not averse to repeating conspiratorial rumors, some of them first advanced by the very writers he elsewhere dismisses as crackpots, so long as those stories advance his argument that Kagame was the malevolent mastermind of Congo's destruction. So, for instance, Prunier argues at length that the United States, motivated by intense guilt over its inaction during the genocide, naïvely provided the RPF with moral support (certainly true), military advice (probably so), guns and equipment (more doubtful) and armed reinforcements for its invasion, in the form of a band of sixty African-American ex-servicemen who'd been dishonorably discharged and recruited as mercenaries for overseas "black operations." (Ice Cube, call your agent.) In a recent review of Prunier's book published in the Small Wars Journal, Thomas Odom, a former US military attaché in Rwanda, called this account a "piece of literary excrement."

However one might classify it, the account was produced by a pattern of argument that recurs throughout the book: Prunier introduces substantiated charges, proceeds to eye-popping allegations and then barrels off the deep end. His zeal undermines his cause. He spends a great many pages describing reprisal massacres committed against Hutu refugees in Congo during the first phase of the war, events that clearly occurred. Then he adds flimsily sourced embellishing details, like the account of an RPF "killer team" dispatched from the Rwandan capital of Kigali and commanded by James Kabarebe, whose members carried "in their knapsacks small cobbler's hammers which they used to silently and efficiently smash skulls." Finally, he makes some extremely questionable calculations to come up with the estimate that 300,000 refugees were murdered.

A number with that much political weight shouldn't be thrown around carelessly. Indeed, it gives support to the contention that the RPF engaged in "counter-genocide," an allegation voiced by Kagame's enemies for years. Prunier practically lionizes one of these opponents, Seth Sendashonga, a Hutu who served as interior minister in the RPF government until he fell out with Kagame in 1995 and went into exile in Nairobi, where he became one of the RPF's loudest accusers. It appears as if, having mistaken reports of genocide for political slander once before, Prunier wasn't going to let skepticism fool him again.

By the end of Africa's World War, the author's detachment has vanished, and he is fulminating against gullible foreigners who saw the conflict as a "fantasmatic soap opera," with the Hutu génocidaires playing "Darth Vaders" to the RPF's "lightly cavalcading Luke Skywalkers." These simpleminded people believed Paul Kagame was "Moses ushering Africa into that Brave New World" and thought that his entry into Congo would lead to a "virtuous cleaning of the African Augean stables." As I read this wild cavalcade of hyperbolic metaphors, I started to wonder if I'd picked up some lost Nabokov novel, where the urbane narrator, Professor Prunier, gradually reveals himself to be a raving loon.

Then I read the appendix titled "Seth Sendashonga's Murder." In it, Prunier describes how the exile leader was shot dead under mysterious circumstances in Nairobi in 1998. Before the probable assassination, Sendashonga had become "fed up with always playing the good guy," Prunier writes with sympathy, and had formed a rebel force of 600 men and "around forty officers of the ex-FAR"--that is, veterans of the army that organized the 1994 genocide. He was making plans to infiltrate Rwanda. Prunier discloses that an exiled friend of Sendashonga's wrote letters begging him to raise funds for the rebellion, and implies that he did indeed help. Prunier says he also made contact with elements of the government in Uganda, which at the time was starting to grow estranged from Rwanda, and arranged for Sendashonga to meet a general named Salim Saleh.

This is a discrediting admission on two counts. Obviously, Prunier's involvement as a partisan undermines any claim to objectivity, which is a shame because many of his criticisms are valid: Kagame started the war and was more responsible than anyone for assuring that it continued. But the company Prunier was keeping also raises questions about his political judgment. Salim Saleh is the powerful brother of Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's president. According to a UN investigation, he was one of the major profiteers in the Congo war. Elsewhere in the book, Prunier writes that Saleh was in the illicit diamond trade "up to his neck" and describes how the general fomented an ethnic conflict in the eastern region of Ituri for reasons "so cold-bloodedly commercial that few observers dared to believe it." These misdeeds still lay in the future at the time Prunier introduced Saleh to his friend, but even then no one had any illusions about the general's character.

The Congo conflict's long denouement has been dominated by figures like Saleh, small men who wage war as a business proposition, and they likely represent the episode's lasting legacy. A decade ago, the political scientist William Reno predicted that in an era of globalization, failing states would have a tendency to degenerate into fiefdoms that sustain themselves through the extraction and sale of natural resources, a system that "more closely resembles the decentralized subcontracting structure of a successful global firm such as Nike than an inefficient, centrally organized, mammoth firm such as General Motors." Reno called this "warlord politics," a term that nearly perfectly describes what happened in Congo. This was a war that escaped from its masterminds.

Eventually the foreign armies retreated, leaving behind their proxies, who developed minds of their own. Joseph Kabila, thought to be a weakling when he took the place of his murdered father, defied all expectations. "Devoid of any national constituency," Prunier writes of the younger Kabila in one of his many penetrating insights, he "decided to treat the international community as his power base." It was a canny strategy. A peace treaty was signed, and development aid, which Kabila used to strengthen his rule, flowed into the country. He won a legitimizing election in 2006 over another former rebel leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose campaign was hindered by allegations of wartime atrocities. (Among other things, it was said his troops had practiced cannibalism against Pygmies, which would have been considered an electoral disqualifier in any country but Congo. On the campaign trail, Bemba made a memorable denial, claiming, "The Pygmies are alive and well.") Last year Bemba was arrested in Belgium and sent to face judgment before the International Criminal Court on war-related charges. But most of the warlords have been brought into the fold of Kabila's government, having been induced to make their separate peaces by some combination of fatigue, financial concessions and cajoling. By late last year the only serious remaining rebellion was one in the province of North Kivu, led by Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda was a true creation of the war: a member of Congo's tiny Tutsi population, he reputedly served in the RPF before joining the leadership of a North Kivu-based rebel group, which subsequently splintered into many parts. As the last holdout, Nkunda, a fiery part-time evangelist, claimed to be fighting to protect his people from genocide. In reality, his army, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, was little more than a criminal enterprise with interests in a number of lucrative trades, including fuel smuggling. According to the United Nations, until at least last fall--the time of the Kiwanja massacre--Nkunda was receiving material support from the Rwandans. The degree to which they controlled Nkunda is a matter of dispute, however, and at some point he seems to have become a liability. In late January Rwanda and Congo struck a secret deal and launched a joint attack on Nkunda's stronghold. He fled into Rwanda, where he was arrested.

A surviving remnant of Nkunda's army, commanded by a disloyal subordinate--an indicted war criminal--switched to the government side, and all three forces turned to rooting out an estimated 6,500 Hutu militiamen, the last remnants of the génocidaires, from the hills of North Kivu. After thirteen years, the Congo conflict had returned to its original grounds. Whether it ends there, however, will be up to the warlords.

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