Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck – 3. The Great War of Africa

“General Bosco Ntaganda told us: ‘When you’re a soldier, women are free. Everything is free.’”
(former child soldier talking to David van Reybrouck)

David van Reybrouck’s complete history of Congo includes a chapter devoted to the conflict variously known as ‘the Second Congo War’ or ‘the Great War of Africa’ which is reckoned by commentators to have lasted from 1998 to 2003. I reread this chapter to compare it with the book-length account by Joseph Stearns, which I’ve just read.

Great War of Africa dates

The war began in August 1998, little more than a year after the First Congo War ended, when the joint forces of Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo for a second time, this time not to overthrow the old dictator Mobutu – which they had achieved in the first Congo war (October 1996 to May 1997) – but to overthrow the figurehead they’d replaced him with as president, Laurent Kabila. Kabila had come to power solely on the back of Rwandan and Ugandan army units, but once he was firmly established as new ruler of Congo, he expelled the very military advisers who had helped him win power a year earlier. This wasn’t as ungrateful as it sounds. The Rwandans in particular quickly aroused a lot of popular resentment, particularly among the population of the capital, Kinshasa, who they treated badly.

This new, second war of the Congo lasted till July 2003, a complex peace treaty was signed which allowed for the ‘Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’ to take power. During the war Kabila was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards but the regime in Kinshasa smoothly replaced him with his son, a senior officer in the army who turned out to be a surprisingly effective ruler. Despite the peace treaty, violence continues in many parts of the country, particularly in the Kivu region in the east of the country, to this day.

What made it a ‘great’ war is the way so many neighbouring countries got drawn into it. Ultimately, nine African countries and around thirty local militias became involved in the conflict. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused an estimated 5.4 million deaths, hardly any through actual fighting, a fair number through massacre and murder of unarmed civilians, but the vast majority caused by disease and starvation. Another 2 million people were displaced by the conflict.

David van Reybrouck versus Jason K. Stearns

Basically, although van Reybrouck’s account is almost exactly one tenth the length of Stearns’ book-length account (32 compared to 337 pages) it feels, paradoxically, more factual and comprehensive. If asked which text a beginner should read, I’d recommend the van Reybrouck chapter rather than the Stearns book.

Stearns engages in extended digressions based around in-depth interviews with key players, for example the ageing Marxist professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba who was made the main spokesman of the rebel RCD. He gives profiles of some of the gung-ho entrepreneurs who took part in the Congo government’s firesale of its mining assets which leads into an entire chapter about blood diamonds and so on. By contrast, van Reybrouck manages to include some interviews of his own, but only after he has given a good, clear overview of the conflict.

He divides the war into 4 phases:

1. The invasion August 1998

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In August 1998 Rwanda, backed by Uganda and Burundi, invaded Congo. The cities in the east were taken immediately, and General James Kabarebe led a daring air assault on the military base at Kitona on the Atlantic Ocean west of Kinshasa with the aim of making a lightning strike on the capital. Rwanda-Uganda made the invasion out to be the work of a domestic rebel movement, the Congolese Rally for Democracy or RCD, which they cobbled together for the purpose (hence the appointment of hapless professor Wamba dia Wamba who was way out of his depth, and whose extended interview with Stearns provides an interestingly oblique angle on events).

2. The stalemate September 1998 to July 1999

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The central fact of the war was that, unlike the assault in the first war, the Rwandan invasion failed to overthrow Congo’s leader. In 1997 Mobutu had no friends and was easily overthrown but, for their own reasons, several neighbouring countries wanted Kabila to remain in power and intervened to make sure he did.

At the last minute Zimbabwe and Angola sent contingents of soldiers who halted then threw back the RCD advance. After Zimbabwe and Angola, Namibia joined in as well. Northern allies were found in Sudan, Chad, and Libya, each of which had its own reasons for preventing Kabila’s fall. Sudan offered  help because of its ongoing conflict with Uganda over the latter’s support for rebels in southern Sudan. Libya provided a few planes in order to break out of its international isolation. Chad sent 2,000 soldiers as a gesture of solidarity with Sudan and Libya. In the end, Kabila had a seven-nation army at his disposal. This was enough to blunt and then halt the Rwandan-Ugandan advance.

The front stabilised. In the east of the country, the rebels were engaged by the informal groups: the fanatical Congolese patriots who formed the Mai-mai, which had emerged during the refugee crisis after the Rwandan genocide; and the Rwandan Hutu militias who had also emerged from the same event. Both were now supported by Kinshasa. So now you have ‘official’ armies from Rwanda and Uganda fighting heavily armed and loosely organised militias.

When Chad withdrew from Équateur province in 1998, that part of the country fell into rebel hands but the occupying force was not the RCD but a new rebel army supported exclusively by Uganda: the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC), commanded by Jean-Pierre Bemba, son of the wealthiest businessman of the Mobutu era.

So by about this point the map of the conflict sort of settled into place. To the west and south were Kabila with his Angolan and Zimbabwean allies; up in the northern jungle was Bemba with his Ugandan-supported MLC; and to the east Wamba dia Wamba with his Rwandan-supported RCD, which fought against the Kinshasa-backed Interahamwe and Mai-mai.

In July 1999 the heads of state of the seven nations involved in the war signed the Lusaka Peace Agreement. It contained complex provisions and the details of what was and what was not implemented but the summary is, it didn’t work. The conflict continued.

3. The dissension August 1999 to July 2000

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Having given up on taking Kinshasa, Rwanda and Uganda who, along with local militias, now controlled the eastern half of Congo, turned to looting it. It wasn’t long before the former allies fell out. Ugandan forces had captured Kisingani, centre of the lucrative diamond trade and Rwandas forces now tried to seize it, leading to prolonged urban warfare which devastated the city. Locals remember a series of street battles, nicknamed the ‘one-day war’ (August 1999), the ‘three-day war’ (May 2000) and the ‘six-day war (June 2000), the latter despite the presence in the city of the UN in the shape of the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo (MONUC) to supervise the supposed peace deal.

The rebel movement spit into a pro-Rwandan and a pro-Ugandan schism, the RCD-G (for Goma) and the RCD-K (for Kisangani) led by the egregious Wamba dia Wamba. And then another splinter group, the RCD-N for National. Schisms and splinters.

4. The anarchy aka the looting July 2000 to December 2002

In the north, the rebellion crumbled completely. Pro-Ugandan rebels no longer fought against Kinshasa or pro-Rwandan rebels, but simply among themselves. New, smaller armies arose. In Ituri, in the far north-east, the maze of conflicting militias became ever-more complicated. Each side, each militia, looted whatever it could, murdering and intimidating anyone who stood in their way.

Van Reybrouck gives an explanation of Rwanda and Uganda’s expropriation of Congo’s mineral wealth which is shorter but punchier than Stearns’. Both countries suddenly started exporting gold and diamonds and tin, none of which came from their own territory, all stolen from Congo. In a really ringing sentence he sums up the situation:

The scramble for Africa was now being organised by the Africans themselves.

On an almost daily basis I read references to white European colonists and imperialists looting Africa because those sentiments are used as power plays in contemporary political and cultural discourse. You rarely read the extent to which African rulers, in Congo, Nigeria and countless other countries, have mercilessly pillaged and robbed their own countries and peoples.

Van Reybrouck explains that this final phase, the looting phase, dragged on for so long because it was so profitable for so many people. War became business with guns. Violence was commercialised. Locals made more money in coltan or gold mines than subsistence farming, and all manner of middle men up to the exchequers of Rwanda and Uganda profited. For many dirt-poor Congolese joining a militia and looting food, goods, demanding payoffs, partying, destroying property and raping women was a tempting career. Hence the proliferation of militias and the spread of violence across this huge region.

Non-involved nations, especially South Africa, spent a lot of energy trying to negotiate a peace. In July 2002 the Pretoria Accord was signed which pacified a large part of the area, with Rwanda agreeing to the withdrawal of its estimated 20,000 troops from the DRC in exchange for an international commitment to the disarmament of the Hutu militia Interahamwe and ex-FAR fighters.

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5. The long tail

This isn’t part of van Reybrouck’s schema, but there was obviously a fifth phase, post 2003, whereby the war, or sustained unrest, continues to this day in the extreme eastern part of Congo, in the areas that border directly on Uganda (Ituri) and Rwanda (Kivu). These areas have been subjected to bouts of extreme violence, massive human rights violations and tremendous human suffering.

Stearns interviews the hapless professor Wiamba put in ‘charge’ of the RCD, who is appalled by details of the massacres he tells him about. But in the second part of his chapter, Van Reybrouck is if anything even more insistent on the organised violence and intimidation, especially as practiced by the RCD.

He interviews a lorry driver who took dissidents and journalists and, after a while, anyone someone had a grudge against and had paid the RCD to get rid of, describing how they were rounded up into a draughty warehouse where they were kept till they were strangled to death or tied with ropes and taken in speedboats out into Lake Kivu and chucked over the side. He describes it all as he and van Reybrouck sit in a cafe, sipping beers and looking out over beautiful Lake Kivu where they disposed of hundreds and hundreds of bodies.

He interviews a doctor whose family were wiped out by shelling but who continued to treat the wounded throughout the six-day war in Kisingani. He tells the extraordinary story of Lieutenant Papy Bulaya who ends up lost deep in the jungle with a handful of comrades and forced to submit to the local warlord and ivory hunter.

Listening to Papy was like rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an immersion in a gloomy, dark-green world full of lethargic violence. A world of shady characters as cruel as they were bleak and drunken.

Both Stearns and van Reybrouck complain that ‘the West’ and ‘the media’ and ‘the public’ are repelled by Africa and focus only on the bad news from Africa, associate Africa only with images of savagery and massacre, and so on. Somehow they both miss the obvious fact that their own books partake in this process: do nothing but ram images of African violence and cruelty and pointless war and disease and famine deep into their readers’ imaginations.

Bulaya tells van Reybrouck how one of the RCD spin-offs he was associated with captured Pygmies and ate them:

The Pygmies’ family members were even forced to consume parts of their murdered relatives’ bodies. The hearts of newborn babies were cut out and eaten…Papy sneered, snorted. His sombre words dripped with contempt. “One day I lost track of my friend, my comrade. At first we couldn’t find him. Then we saw him at a bend in the road. Ramses had got hold of him. His head was impaled on a stick. His penis was tied to the stick a little farther down.”

In Ituri district the two major population groups, Hemas and Lendus, revive ancient ethnic hatreds in their struggle over the lucrative local goldmines. Van Reybrouck interviews a Hemas man who underwent the following experience at the hands of a local féticheur or witch doctor:

“He had two eggs. They tied me up, I was scared to death. He rolled the eggs over the ground at my feet. I was told that if the eggs rolled away from me I would be considered innocent. But if they rolled toward me, then I was a Hema and therefore guilty. I was lucky, the eggs rolled away. But Jean, who was with me, was not as fortunate. The eggs rolled the wrong way and they told him to run for it. While he was running away, the Lendu shot arrows at him. He fell. They cut him to pieces with their machetes, right before my eyes. Then they ate him.”

The books I read a few months ago about the Victorian explorers Henry Stanley or the explorers involved in the quest for the source of the Nile repeat the modern, politically correct view that those old white Victorians exaggerated the extent of cannibalism in the Congo in order to justify their ‘civilising’ mission. It’s typical of our mixed-up values that suggesting Congolese were cannibals in the 1870s is an outrageous racist slur and you have to be careful how you repeat it, whereas absolutely no-one is denying that some Congolese were practising cannibalism just a few years ago. Cannibalism and disgusting human butchery.

“It was in 2000. We were at our own home. My husband imported goods from Dubai. The soldiers came in. They were Tutsis. They spoke Rwandan. They sacked everything and wanted to kill my husband. ‘I’ve already given you everything,’ he told them, ‘so why do you want to kill me?’ But they said: ‘We kill big traders with the knife, not with a gun.’ They had machetes. They started hacking at his arm. ‘We have to chop hard,’ they said, ‘the Nande are strong.’ Then they butchered him, like in a slaughterhouse. They took out his intestines and his heart…. I had pick up all the pieces. They held a gun to my head. I wept. All the pieces of my husband’s body. I had to gather them together. They cut me with a knife, that’s how I got this scar. I have another one on my thigh….I wept and they started raping me. There were twelve of them. And then my two daughters in the next room.” (Masika Katsua in interview)

Summary

Jason K. Stearns’ book about the Great War of Africa is very good. But arguably David van Reybrouck’s chapter is better. It is not only more concise but gives a much better overview of the different phases of the conflict, bringing out its internal logic. And it contains interviews with participants and eyewitnesses which are the equal of anything in Stearns, and – in the case of Lieutenant Papy Bulaya’s narrative – surpass it and almost anything else you could ever read in the most improbable adventure yarn or most stomach-churning horror story.


Credits

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns was published in 2011 in the United States by Public Affairs. All references are to the 2012 Public Affairs paperback edition.

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

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