The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2005)

Meredith’s big book (770 pages) does what it says on the tin and tells the history of every African country from the run-up to independence, i.e. starting in the mid-1950s, to the time of writing, i.e. about 2004, covering half a century of tumultuous history. It’s a vast subject but Meredith’s book is an easy and pleasurable read. He writes a wonderfully clear, expressive prose which effortlessly conveys a huge amount of information and profiles countries, leaders and events with deceptive ease.

The narrative is chock-a-block with facts and dates, central figures and key events, but a handful of general principles emerge all too clearly.

Imperialism’s mistakenly long-term view

The colonial powers thought they were in it for the very long haul. As the Second World War ended, most thought the colonies they ruled wouldn’t be ready for independence for centuries, certainly not till the end of the twentieth century. This, in retrospect, was never viable. The idea that generations of natives would be happy to live out their entire lives as second class citizens, die, and hand on to their children who would themselves be content to live as second class citizens and so on indefinitely shows a poor grasp pf human nature.

Instead, as we know, the generation who came to maturity after the war insisted on independence now, in their own lifetimes.

Lack of provision

The fact that the colonial powers didn’t expect to hand over independence for a very long time goes some way to explaining why they made so little provision for education, political inclusion and other aspects of statehood. They didn’t think they needed to; they thought they had decades and decades to slowly, incrementally introduce the elements of a modern state, not least an extensive cohort of properly trained professional administrators, engineers, lawyers and so on.

Rush to independence

But instead of resigning themselves to waiting for decades or centuries, and inspired by the independence of India, Pakistan, Burma in 1948, native political leaders began lobbying hard for independence as soon as possible.

Independence became a shibboleth, an indicator of ideological purity, so that rival parties in colonial countries fell over themselves to demand it soon, sooner, soonest. You can see this at work in Congo where the conference called to discuss independence found itself being bounced into bringing the date ever forward, until it was set at barely 4 months after the conference ended (the first part of the conference ended in February 1960 and set the date of independence for June 30, 1960).

The mad scramble for independence, regardless of whether any of the conditions of statehood were actually in place, explains a lot of what came after.

A tiny educated elite

Thus when independence came, the educated and political class which clamoured for it was still small, a tiny elite (‘no more than about 3 per cent of the population’, p.169). This was to have important consequences. In fact it’s staggering to read Meredith explain just how ill-prepared African countries were to manage themselves. Most African societies were predominantly illiterate and innumerate. In all of black Africa, in the late 1950s as independence dawned, the entire population of 200 million produced 8,000 secondary school graduates. No more than 3% of children of secondary school age actually attended a school. Few new states had more than 200 students at university. In the former French colonies there were no universities at all. Hence the pitiful statistics about the handful of graduates available in countries like Congo or Angola at independence.

Utopian dreams of ‘independence’

Another fundamental fact was that no-one involved really understood what ‘independence’ meant or involved: what it actually took to run a) a functioning state b) a functioning economy.

The prophet of African independence, Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah, is quoted as stating that, once independence was granted, everything would flow from that i.e. freedom and prosperity for all; that once they had overthrown the colonial economy, they would create for themselves:

a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction (quoted on page 144)

You can tell from the phrasing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Independence became identified, in every country, with everyone’s hopes and dreams, no matter how utopian. In David van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo, he describes how Congolese peasants and street people were led to believe that, at independence, they would all be given a big house like the Europeans lived in, with a free car and a rich white woman as a wife.

African socialism

Africa gained independence during the height of the Cold War. Many African leaders, such as Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere, sought to distance themselves from both the capitalist West and the Soviet East, and hoped Africa could carve a middle way, a new way, an African way, but most were also swayed by the utopian rhetoric of socialism. As capitalism was associated with the (often brutal) rule of exploitative imperialists, it was no surprise that, given a choice, leaders rejected ‘capitalism’ for ‘socialism’ but socialism with African characteristics, African socialism. They thought rapid industrialisation of the kind carried out by Stalin in backward Russia, and just about to be carried out by Mao in backward China, would also provide a ‘great leap forward’ for backward Africa. Nkrumah declared:

‘Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.’ (quoted page 145)

Meredith quotes several leaders and thinkers who thought that ‘socialism’ was more in line with African traditions, in which there had been communal ownership of land, decisions were taken by consensus, in which members of tribes or kingdoms worked together, without an exploiting class severed from the mass of the population. In old Africa there hadn’t been the flagrant inequalities associated with white western capitalism, everyone was more equal.

You can see how the revival of African traditions, the rejection of white western capitalism, the promotion of new ways of doing things, the hope for a revolution in living standards, and socialist rhetoric about equality and wealth for all, were combined into a heady brew of nationalist and socialist slogans, posters, banners, speeches, books, announcements. In the mid-1960s African leaders and their liberal western supporters were brimful of optimism.

Economic reality

There were, unfortunately, quite a few problems with this millenarian vision, but the obvious one was economic: The majority of the population of most of Africa barely scraped a living by subsistence agriculture. In times of drought or conflict they starved, as their forefathers had. In fact Meredith gives a sober and bleak assessment of the economic state of Africa at independence in 1960:

Africa was the poorest, least developed region on earth. Its climate was harsh and unpredictable. Drought was a constant risk, bringing with it famine. Rainfall in half the continent was inadequate. African soil in many regions was thin, poor in nutrients, producing very poor yields. By far the majority of the population, over 80%, was engaged in subsistence farming, without access to even basic education or health care. Severe disease was common and the blight of tsetse fly, which spread sleeping sickness among animals as well as humans, prevented animals being reared or used as beasts of burden on a huge area exceeding 10 million square kilometers. Poverty and disease ensured death rates for children in Africa, in 1960, were the highest in the world and general life expectancy, at 39 years, was the lowest in the world.

The white colonists in all the colonies lived the life of Reilly only because they enjoyed the profit derived from the labour of huge numbers of African workers in plantations, fields and so on, slaving away to produce coffee, tea, rubber, groundnuts and other cash crops, which were gathered, processed, shipped abroad by companies set up and run by Europeans and on whose profits the Europeans lived their fabulous lifestyle, complete with big houses, swimming pools, chauffeur-driven cars, servants and maids and cooks.

That kind of lifestyle, by definition, was only available to a small minority who could benefit from the labour of a huge majority. When independence came, nothing changed in the economic realities of these countries. Instead two things happened:

1. White flight

The Europeans fled, taking their technical and administrative expertise with them. In the two examples I’ve been studying, Congo and Angola, the Belgians and the Portuguese fled in their entirety, leaving the mechanisms of the state but, much more importantly, the management of the economy, to people who had no idea how to do it. Hence, instead of a shangri-la of riches for all, newly independent countries more often than not, found themselves plunged into economic anarchy.

2. Failure of the post-independence elite to live up their promises

The small political/educated elite (a product of the imperialists’ failure to invest in education) found the task of ‘redistributing wealth’ in the socialist sense of the word completely beyond them. a) They found the task of keeping the economic and business models inherited from the Europeans very challenging and, even if they could, b) discovered that the kind of wealth the whites had enjoyed derived from the fact that they were a tiny minority exploiting the labour of an impoverished majority ie there could never be wealth for all.

It was very tempting, then, for the new leaders to abandon any thoughts of redistributing wealth and, instead, fight to keep it for themselves.

Arbitrary nature of African ‘countries’

The whole problem was exacerbated by one of the best known facts about Africa, which is that all the colonies had been arbitrarily carved out on abstract maps which completely cut across the sociological realities on the ground, ignoring the existence of traditional kingdoms or tribal or ethnic groupings.

Very often the imperialists, in their profound ignorance of peoples who lived in the ‘states’ they were creating, either:

  1. broke up homogeneous groupings into separate countries (such as the Bakongo who found themselves carved up between the French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). ‘In all the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups’ p.1)
  2. or forced together antagonistic groups, such as the rival kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro forced to coexist in Uganda or the profoundly different cultures, ethnic groups and religions of north and south Sudan forced into a very uneasy co-existence (p.2).

Secessions and civil wars

This simple fact explains the tendency for almost all the African colonies to experience civil wars, often long running and deeply destructive wars. Some of the wars resulted from two or more parties competing for power in a given state, such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. Others took the form of secessionist movements where entire provinces and ethnic/tribal groups sought independence from a state they felt little or no attachment to, as in the attempt at secession of Biafra in Nigeria, and of Katanga in Congo.

The tendency of these made-up countries with their irrational borders bristling with rival groups to collapse into various types of secession, civil war and anarchy, quickly brought to the fore the only group which could hope to hold the state together, the army.

Inevitable failure of the first generation of independent leaders

So being handed often ridiculously unviable countries almost guaranteed that the idealistic, utopian, often socialist leaders who came to power in the first wave of independence in the early 1960s, would be confronted by a) the collapse of the economy b) the intensification of poverty leading to unrest c) fragmentation, secession and civil war, and so d) would be replaced by military strongmen who a) reimposed order through bloody repression, and b) grasping that the limited amount of wealth generated by their ailing economies would never be enough to lift their countrymen out of poverty c) quickly made the cynical but realistic decision to keep as much of the country’s wealth as possible for themselves and d) for their clients and supporters.

Net effect – military coups, strong men and kleptocracy

In a throwaway sentence, Meredith makes what I think is a major insight, possibly the central point:

The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. (p.156)

There very quickly emerged a dichotomy between the soaring rhetoric of African socialism and African nationalism and African unity on the one hand, and the sordid reality of strong men clambering to power via coups and revolutions, who saw the state not as a vehicle for governing in the best interests of the nation, but as a mechanism to steal as much wealth as they could for themselves, their clients, their hangers on, their clan and their tribe.

Hence unstable countries, characterised by recurring civil wars or civil strife, and recurrent military coups, almost always leading to the rule of Strong Men, Big Men, dictators of one sort or another, who quickly became kleptocrats i.e. stole from the state, creamed off international aid, lived lives of stunning luxury, while abandoning their people to lives of grinding poverty, often falling victim to the random violence of corrupt, generally unpaid, soldiers and police.

All the high-sounding rhetoric about African socialism gave way to a deeper African tradition, that of the chieftain, the king, the emperor, one-man ruler of a one-man state, who encouraged outsize personality cults, playing up the leader’s visionary, even magical, powers.

In practice it turned out that overwhelmingly illiterate populations put their faith not in sophisticated political theories or complex constitutional mechanisms, but in the Great Leader, the Helmsman: the Great Son of Africa, the Scourge of Imperialism, the Doctor of Revolutionary Science, as Sékou Touré, the autocratic ruler of Guinea, called himself (p.64), or the Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication of Redeemer which is how Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah lkiked his state-controlled media to refer to him – just two among the impressive cast of megalomaniacs, tyrants and dictators with which Africa has kept the rest of the world entertained for the past 60 years.

‘System? What system?’ retorted president Bourguiba, when asked about Tunisia’s political system. ‘I am the system!’ (p.169)

Summary

In some countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, you can throw in vicious ethnic hatred and genocide; in some others, long wars eventually led to independence for seceding states (South Sudan, Eritrea). But the core narrative outlined above applies to most African countries since independence, explains their  troubled histories, and underpins the situation many find themselves in today. As Meredith comments, the odd, almost eerie, thing is how consistently almost all the African colonies followed the same pattern:

Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origin as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. (p.14)


Credit

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith was published by The Free Press in 2005. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1994) – 1

This is an outstanding book, bubbling over with ideas and insights on a subject which is as relevant today as when it was written back in the early 90s. It’s actually the book of a BBC TV series. In 1993 Ignatieff and his five-man TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, recently reunified Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to see at first hand what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union.

The text he’s produced is the extreme opposite of the two books of journalism about the Rwandan genocide which I’ve just reviewed, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998) and Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995).

What irritated me about those books was that the authors had travelled widely and had unparalleled access to loads of eye witnesses and key officials and yet were incapable of coming up with a single useful idea about what they had seen. The best Gourevitch could manage was repeated references to the Bible story of Cain and Abel and the best Keane could come up with at the very end of his book was the pathetic injunction ‘that we do not forget’ (p.191).

This is because they are journalists, paid to get to the trouble zone, report what they see, what people say, and leave it that. The lack of intellectual content worth the name explains why I find books by even very good journalists like John Simpson or Robert Fisk disappointingly empty of ideas.

By contrast, Ignatieff is a trained historian and political scientist, who has held a dazzling array of positions at academic institutions around the world, including a PhD from Harvard and senior research fellowship at Cambridge, before his writing and teaching became more involved with political theory, international law and human rights.

The result is that this book, although essentially a collection of travelogues and interviews just like Gourevitch and Keane’s, overflows with brilliant, invaluable insights into the origins and nature of the chaotic new nationalism and ethnic conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the imperial duopoly which had run the world from 1945 to 1990 (otherwise known as the Cold War).

Right at the start of the book, Ignatieff takes all he’s learned on his journeys and boils it down into a set of principles and insights which are laid out in his ten-page introduction. I think these ten pages are among the most intelligent things I’ve ever read on any subject. Here’s a summary.

Blood and Belonging

As it passes beyond a UN-held checkpoint in Pakrac between Serb- and Croat-held territory in the former Yugoslavia, the crew’s van is stopped by drunk Serbian paramilitaries who insist they are spies because they saw them talking to Croatians, and are about to hijack the van and drive it off who knows where, maybe to shoot them all, when one of the UN soldiers intervenes, persuades the drunk Serbs out of the van, and lets them drive on their way.

This was the moment in my journeys in search of the new nationalism when I began to understand what the new world order actually looks like: paramilitaries, drunk on plum brandy and ethnic paranoia, trading shots with each other across a wasteland; a checkpoint between them, placed there by something loftily called ‘the international community’, but actually manned by just two anxious adolescents… (p.2)

When the Berlin Wall came down Ignatieff, like other cosmopolitan liberals of his type, thought it heralded a new era of freedom and justice. This is because (as I keep banging on) Ignatieff and his class do not realise what a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population they represent – highly privileged, affluent, super-well-educated, international liberals gaily flying around a world mostly inhabited by resentful peasantries crushed by poverty and trapped in failing states.

He says the Cold War was really an extension of the era of European imperialism but in which the world was ruled not by half a dozen European nations but by America or Russia. Cold War terror i.e. the fear of nuclear armageddon, produced peace and stability, of a sort. The fall of the Berlin wall signalled the end of this final phase of Western imperialism. But it wasn’t followed by a blossoming of civic nationalism of the sort Ignatieff and his fellow liberals hoped for (‘with blithe lightness of mind’), for the very simple reason that most people are not sensitive liberal playwrights like Vaclav Havel.

What has succeeded the last age of empire is a new age of violence. The key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war; the key architects of that order are warlords; and the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism. (p.2)

Three levels of nationalism

As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s people are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation states or as nation states of their own.

As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation which provides them with their primary form of belonging.

As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. (p.3)

In the contexts Ignatieff is looking at, nationalism is about violence.

Nationalism is centrally concerned to define the conditions under which force or violence is justified in a people’s defence, when their right of self-determination is threatened or denied. Self-determination here may mean either democratic self-rule or the exercise of cultural autonomy, depending on whether the national group in question believes it can achieve its goals within the framework of an existing state or seeks a state of its own. (p.3)

Civic nationalism versus ethnic nationalism

Nationalisms talk a lot about ‘the people’ and sometimes invoke ideas of ‘democracy’ but this is deceptive, since ‘the people’ often turns out not to include a lot of the people who live in a particular area, in fact the exact opposite, it turns out that ‘the people’ refers to a restricted and highly defined set. To clarify this, Ignatieff defines another two types of nationalism.

Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic because it vests sovereignty in all of the people. (p.4)

Ignatieff says this concept of civic nationalism was pioneered in Great Britain which by the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a nation state united by a civic and not an ethnic definition of belonging i.e. shared attachment to certain institutions: the Crown, Parliament, the rule of law.

Admittedly this was a civic model restricted to white, (straight) male landowners. The history of nations characterised by this kind of civic nationalism, such as the UK and USA, can be seen as one in which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those excluded groups fought for full civic inclusion.

As a result of their struggle, most Western states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity. (p.4)

The other type of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. This is typified by Germany. When Napoleon occupied the German principalities in 1806 he unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour. German poets and politicians argued that it was not the state which created a people – since they did not then possess one unified state – but the people, the ethnic group, the Volk, which forms the state. Instead of the cold logic of the Napoleonic code with its abstract insistence on ‘rights’, German writers across the board insisted a nation was made out of feeling, a feel for and love for the people’s language, religion, customs and traditions.

This German tradition of ethnic nationalism was to go on and reach its acme in the hysterical nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis. But Ignatieff points out that it was this form of ethnic or cultural nationalism – not the civic nationalism of Britain or France – which inspired intellectuals in all the countries of Eastern Europe which, in the nineteenth century, were controlled by foreign empires (Poles and Ruthenians and Baltic peoples by the Russian Empire; Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire; Croats by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Sociological realism

Which of these two types of nationalism, civic or ethnic, is a more realistic reflection of actual societies? Which has more sociological realism?

Of these two types of nationalism, the civic has a greater claim to sociological realism. Most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of many claims on an individual’s loyalty. According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.

Ethnic nationalism claims, by contrast, that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals which define the national community. This psychology of belonging may have greater depth than civic nationalism’s but the sociology which accompanies it is a good deal less realistic. The fact that, for example two Serbs share Serbian ethnic identity may unite them against Croats, but it will do nothing to stop them fighting each other over jobs, spouses, scarce resources and so on. Common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian than democratic. (p.5)

You can see why civic nationalism is harder to create than ethnic nationalism because it depends on two things: strong, functioning, well-established and long-lasting institutions, and an educated population. The UK has both, having had universal primary school education for 150 years, and a complex web of long-running institutions like the monarchy, Houses of Parliament, an independent judiciary, local governments, courts, police forces and so on. It has taken a long time and successive generations of hard-working, selfless public servants, politicians, activists and reformers to achieve the current state of British civic nationalism, and nobody agrees it’s perfect. In fact everybody has an opinion about where it is still far from perfect and what needs to be reformed. But all this exists within a broad framework of civic nationalism, namely everyone agrees that all British citizens are equal and entitled to equal rights.

1. Ethnic nationalism is easier

Compared with the complexity of mature civic societies such as Britain, America or France, you can see how ethnic nationalism is simpler: a certain ethnic group seizes power and defines itself and its members and rests its power precisely by who it excludes: everyone not part of the ruling ethnic group who quickly find themselves being attacked as traitors, then rounded up and imprisoned.

Leaving all morality to one side, you can see why government by ethnic nationalism is always going to be quicker to define, set up and manage, especially in states which have little if any experience of the complex web of power centres, rules and traditions which make up civic nationalism.

On this reading it should come as no surprise to anyone that ethnic nationalism, being the quicker, easier option, should be the one opted for by rulers who suddenly find themselves liberated from the rule of imperial masters and with big complicated countries to run.

Roughly speaking, this explains what happened:

  • in the early 1960s in Africa, when the newly liberated post-colonial nations found they had to be ruled somehow and in the absence of the deep-rooted institutions and traditions required by civic nationalism, reverted to authoritarian rule often based around the ruler’s ethnic group, which led to numerous wars of independence fought by ethnic groups who wanted their own nations, for example Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, and the long-running war of independence in Eritrea
  • in the early 1990s in eastern Europe, where the new rulers of the 15 or so nations freed from Soviet hegemony discovered that the quickest way to establish and consolidate power was with forms of nationalism which invoked the supremacy of their people, their Volk, by shared allegiance to language and religion instead of to the more abstract institutions of civic nationalism, a creed which led to actual civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
  • in the early 2010s, when a raft of Arab countries threw off their long-standing dictators but found that, instead of automatically transitioning to civic nationalism as so many day-dreaming liberals hope, promptly plunged into chaotic civil wars based on ethnic or religious allegiance, most notably in Libya and Syria

The tendency to authoritarianism and extremism of government by and on behalf of ethnic majorities explains the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In countries based on ethnic nationalism, the most extreme nationalists have a nasty habit of floating to the top and then, in situations of stress – such as the invasion and war in Rwanda or the famine in Sudan – they resort to the most extreme form of ethnic nationalism imaginable, which is the sustained attempt to exterminate everyone who doesn’t belong to the ruling ethnic group.

2. Ethnic nationalism fills a political vacuum

When the Soviet empire and its satellite regimes collapsed, the nation state structures of the region also collapsed, leaving hundreds of ethnic groups at the mercy of one another. Since none of these groups had the slightest experience of conciliating their disagreements by democratic discussion, violence or force became their arbiter. (p.6)

So ethnic nationalism flourishes where there is no tradition of democratic discussion and no experience of the (admittedly often complex and sometimes borderline corrupt) bargaining involved in democratic politics.

3. Negative reason for ethnic nationalism – avoidance of fear

The sense of belonging to an ethnic group within a nation based on ethnic nationalism has many aspects, positive and negative. The most obvious negative one, is the escape from fear. In a society falling to pieces, you are afraid of everyone. This fear is considerably lessened if you know you can at least trust everyone of your own ethnic group. In this respect, ethnic politics are an improvement on a state of total anarchy, where you can’t trust anyone.

In the fear and panic which swept the ruins of the communist states people began to ask: so who will protect me? Faced with a situation of political and economic chaos, people wanted to know who to trust, and who to call their own. Ethnic nationalism provided an answer which was intuitively obvious: only trust those of your own blood. (p.6)

Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost a protection against violence. Where you belong is where you are safe; and where you are safe is where you belong. (p.6)

This was the very important conclusion which came out of the many books I’ve read about the Weimar Republic and the chaotic social and economic situation of so much of continental Europe between the wars. The scared human animal prefers security to freedom. Given a choice between the politician who promises a crackdown on lawlessness, a return to order and stability, with the temporary curtailment of some human rights, and the politician who insists on the primacy of human rights but can’t promise anything about the economy, jobs and violence on the streets, people will always vote for the former. This explains why in the economic and political mayhem between the wars, almost every European nation ended up being ruled by authoritarian or out and out fascist governments.

4. Positive reasons for ethnic nationalism – belonging

That’s the negative aspect, escape from fear of anarchy. But there are also numerous positive aspects of ethnic nationalism which Ignatieff encapsulates as the sense of belonging.

At Oxford Ignatieff studied under Isiah Berlin (wow) and quotes him here to the effect that to be among your own people is to be confident that you will be understood, without having to explain. It is to feel at home among people who share the same language, catchphrases, jokes and references, love the same music, can quote the same national epic and so on.

‘They understand me as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me a sense of being someone in the world.” (quoted page 7)

This explains why the issue of language is so central to disputes in ethnic nationalism over the centuries. If the ‘official’ language, the language of street signs and government forms, is not the language you speak, then quite clearly you are not at home. Hence the issue of which language street signs are in can end up being a matter of life or death.

It also explains why so many of the ethnic nationalists Ignatieff meets are so sentimental. In Croatia, Ukraine and Belfast he met members of violent paramilitaries who showed a consistent tendency to get maudlin drunk, burst into tears or burst into rousing renditions of their national anthem or rebel songs. Sentimental kitsch is the characteristic art form of ethnic nationalists. (He nowhere mentions it, but the idea of a self-pitying, over-armed, drunk sentimentalism reminded me of a certain type of nostalgia for the Confederacy in the American South.)

5. Irresponsibility

There’s another positive aspect of the kind of ethnic nationalism he describes, which is its irresponsibility. Time and again in his journeys he talks to militiamen, paramilitaries and their political leaders, and finds them all saying the same thing: it’s not our fault. This avoiding of responsibility takes at least three forms: 1. it’s all the other side’s fault. 2. we’re the victims. 3. it’s all history’s fault.

Their fault

Again and again, drunk, self-pitying militiamen explain it was the other side who started it, we’re the victims in all this, we only took up arms to protect ourselves, to fight back. Ignatieff doesn’t mention the Rwanda genocide because it hadn’t taken place when he made his tour, but this is exactly the excuse made by every Hutu nationalist interviewed by Philip Gourevitch or Fergal Keane: ‘The Tutsis started it, the Tutsis used to lord it over us, the Tutsis invaded our country: so that’s why we have to exterminate every Tutsi we can find, even the grandparents and the little babies. Why can’t you understand?’

We’re only protecting ourselves

Same view given to Ignatieff about why the Serbs had to bomb Sarajevo, in a siege which went on long after he’d left, in fact from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. Lasting 1,425 days, this made the siege of Sarajevo the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting three times as long as the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Talk to any Serb commander and they would patiently explain that they had to surround and bombard the city for 4 years in order to protect themselves.

History is to blame

All the militias knew far too much history. From the UDA and IRA in Belfast to the Serb and Croat militias, all these people know far too much about their country’s histories and the histories they know prove they are right. This disproves two great liberal nostrums which I’ve always queried:

  1. Those who ignore their own history are condemned to repeat it. Rubbish. It’s almost always the opposite, it’s the Serbs nursing their grievances going back to the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 or, if you like, going all the way back to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, it’s the Croats nursing their grievance against wartime Chetniks; or the IRA celebrating their long tradition of martyrs or the UDA nursing endless grievance at the way they’re betrayed by the London government. For all these groups their history is a history of grievances and carefully tending it and memorising it traps them in the prison-house of their nationalist narratives and condemns them to repeat the same conflicts over and over. (It is in this spirit that James Joyce made his famous declaration, leaving Ireland to its endless squabbles in order to make a new life abroad, that ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ Ethnic nationalists relive and re-enact the nightmare day after day but can never exorcise it.)
  2. History will prove us right. Rubbish. History is as contested as contemporary politics i.e. historians will argue about the significance and legacy of this or that event till the cows come home and very often are swayed by simple professional motivation i.e. the need to come up with a new angle, ‘shed new light’ and so on. The notion that there will eventually emerge one unanimous version of history is a fantasy.

But back to the main theme, blaming history is a way of avoiding taking responsibility yourself. Hence the drunken mumbling of some militia Ignatieff interviews that ‘history is to blame’. This is cognate with the white liberal guilt over empire which drives Gourevitch and Keane to lay blame for the Rwandan genocide on the Belgian authorities for introducing ethnic identity cards in the 1930s and thus hardening the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. This is where the objective study of history topples over into the crowd-pleasing activity of naming and blaming, of which there is no end.

6. Ethnic nationalism as career path = warlordism

Intellectual categorisation of ethnic nationalism risks overlooking another really obvious factor in the rise of ethnic nationalism, which is that it offers a career path to supreme power for men the world had otherwise overlooked and, especially, for latent psychopaths:

Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification.

The anarchy of a collapsing state presents terror to most civilians but career opportunities for those brave and amoral enough to seize them. Hence warlordism, a version of the mafia. Local strong men emerge who dominate their area, who rule through fear and intimidation and violence but, if you are of the right ethnic group and follow the rules, they also bring peace and certainty. Which is why Ignatieff is taken on a tour of his fiefdom by one such local strongman and is impressed at the way his open-top car is greeted by cheering crowds, women offering their babies to be kissed, local businessmen giving him gifts.

Some people might find this easiest to understand this as a kind of mafia rule, but it reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and its depiction of a Dark Age Europe made up of a patchwork of very localised regions ruled over by thousands and thousands of warrior kings who ruled by dint of winning battles and distributing loot to their soldiers. It’s this kind of historical perspective i.e. the unchanging link between Europe 500 AD and 2000 AD, which makes me think human nature, and the kind of social structures it creates, over and over again, in all times and places, doesn’t change very much.

Ethnic nationalism within civic states

Obviously, you can have ethnically chauvinist movements within civic nationalist societies, and this would include the movement for Catalan independence in Spain and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, who themselves spawn their opposites, Spanish nationalists within Catalonia, and the special case of the Unionists within Northern Ireland.

Cosmopolitanism and privilege

Finally, Ignatieff addresses the issue of his own perspective and makes the one cardinal point that I have made hundreds of times in this blog which is that cosmopolitan intellectuals have proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong again about the world they live in.

He devotes a fairly long passage to explaining why. He and his ilk of jet-setting intellectuals thought the rest of the world was like them, an associate professorship at Harvard, a research fellowship at Cambridge, a year-long teaching placement in Paris. Winners of life’s game flying round the world on expense accounts, eating out at fine restaurants, knowledgeable about wine and poetry. He and his friends thought the world was set to become ever-more cosmopolitan, ever-more multicultural, ever-more relaxed about race and ethnicity.

But Michael was the son of a Canadian diplomat, who moved his family around the world to different postings, so young Michael grew up naturally cosmopolitan, speaking numerous languages. He was sent to a top private school in Canada where he acquired the elite education and psychological confidence to feel right at home discussing definitions of liberty with Isaiah Berlin. Just like BBC correspondent and superstar Fergal Keane attended the leading boys private school in Ireland, works for the impeccably liberal BBC, and found himself at a complete loss to explain the Rwandan genocide.

Neither of them can comprehend the anger of being an outsider, the all-consuming rage caused by being a member of the poor, the exploited, the repressed, the ignored, the downtrodden, the humiliated, the shat-upon, the mocked and the ridiculed, told they are losers and deserve to be losers for the whole of their lives…

And how – when society starts to fall apart, when there’s an economic collapse, when an invading army turns everything upside down – then it’s your turn to get your revenge, to get your own back, to show them all you aren’t a slave and lackey to be ignored and humiliated but a man, a real man, a strong man, who can click his fingers and have whole villages exterminated, who can hold the life or death of prisoners in the palm of his hand, who distributes the pickings from the looted houses among his followers, likewise the kidnapped women and keeps the best for himself.

Neither Fergal nor Michael have a clue what that must feel like and so simply can’t comprehend what motivates so many of the ordinary soldiers, militiamen and paramilitaries they meet to carry out the murders, gang-rapes, tortures and massacres which their books describe.

But the big difference is Michael is aware of it. Not just aware, but places his own self-awareness of his privilege and ignorance within a dazzling intellectual, political and historical framework which does an enormous amount to clarify, define and help us understand the broader sociological and political causes of the new world disorder.

He acknowledges that the ‘privilege’ he has enjoyed is the reverse side of the coin of the plight of most people in the world. During the Cold War most of the world was divided up into American or Soviet spheres of influence, and these paymasters acted to restrain, up to a point, the behaviour of their clients in countries around the world. But when the Cold War ended, this support and this restraint disappeared from scores and scores of countries where fear of the Cold War master had kept an uneasy peace.

As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won ‘the right to self determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations in Africa. (p.9)

So, with the imperial police withdrawn from large parts of the world, ethnic rivalries and enmities which had been kept bottled up for generations, could burst out anew: Yugoslavia. Rwanda. The new chaos only appears inexplicable to Ignatieff and most of his readers because they don’t grasp the fundamental geopolitical realities and, more importantly, are limited in their understanding, by their sociological situation.

Globalism in a post-imperial age only permits a post-nationalist consciousness for those cosmopolitans who are lucky enough to live in the wealthy West. It has brought only chaos and violence for the many small peoples too weak to establish defensible states of their own. (p.9)

And:

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted. (p.9)

And:

A cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation states to provide security and civility for their citizens. (p.9)

Thus when Keane gets into a tricky confrontation with border police, he can play his BBC and British government card. When Gourevitch gets into a tight spot, he can point out he’s an American and his government probably supplies arms to whatever ramshackle militia he’s dealing with. Or both can buy their way out of trouble with dollars, which the BBC or the New Yorker can provide by the suitcase full in order to rescue them. Both dip their toes in the chaos of failed states confident that they always can, if push comes to shove, buy their way out and get on the next plane home.

Neither of them seem to appreciate what it means to be someone who grows up in a society where there is no escape and where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only law and which has been drummed into you since childhood.

Ignatieff makes the dynamite point that many of the most senseless killings and brutal murders can be understood if you grasp the idea that they are fighting and murdering in order to bring a full, final and complete peace to their countries so that they can enjoy the same sense of security and safety which Gourevitch, Keane and Ignatieff have taken for granted all their lives.

Summary

It is Ignatieff’s mighty achievement to not only have created a conceptual framework which makes sense of the panorama of post-Cold War anarchy, extracting core principles and ideas which shed light on every aspect of the new nationalism; and not only to deliver high quality intellectual insights about all the conflicts this book goes on to investigate; but also to deliver an unblinking, candid and winning analysis of his own privileged position, which makes him such a fantastic guide to the new world disorder of the 1990s.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


The new world disorder

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the countries of eastern Europe and central Asia were freed from Soviet tyranny, many Western politicians and commentators optimistically thought this marked the end of history and the dawning of a golden era of peace and democracy. Well, as any fool could have told them, they were wrong, very wrong.

Instead, relieved of the threat of socialist parties and movements (which found themselves suddenly deprived of moral, political and sometimes financial support by the Soviets) a new more virulent form of neo-liberal capitalism triumphed around the world. Workers and even middle classes in the developed world found their living standards steadily declining, and entire third world countries found themselves being exploited even more effectively by an international capitalist system evermore focused on supporting the lifestyles of westerners and a new class of international global super-rich.

Lacking political maturity (i.e. established democratic systems with a track record of the peaceful transition of power from one elected administration to another; the multifarious aspects of civil society such as a free press, charities) many newly liberated nations, afflicted with economic stress, political instability and unresolved nationalist-ethnic-border issues, not surprisingly, experienced major problems.

The specific causes were different in each case but instead of an outbreak of peace, love and understanding, the 1990s saw the Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, to name just the highlights.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 added a whole new layer of misunderstanding and confusion to an already chaotic world, leading directly to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent destabilisation of the entire region. And was followed by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which, once again, naive liberal commentators welcomed as an outbreak of democracy and equality but almost immediately led to chaos, civil war and the rise of regional warlords, in Syria and Libya to take the two most notable examples.

New world disorder reviews

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (2010) – 2

One reason van Reybrouck describes his history of the modern Congo as ‘epic’ is because so much happens that it becomes quite bewildering. Possibly you can break it down into two main parts:

Part one – pre-independence

Pre-history

The slow spread of Bantu tribes from central west Africa about 1,000 BC. The slow arrival of limited agriculture but without the pack animals or variety of farmed animals found in Eurasia resulting in subsistence farming. The permanent toll of fierce diseases carried by the tsetse fly killing humans and animals. The rise of the relatively small kingdom of Kongo around the mouth of the Congo River from the 14th to 19th centuries. It was this kingdom that the first Portuguese explorers encountered around 1500 and whose name came to be applied to the river and then the larger region.

European exploration 1850 to 1885

The tentative probing of David Livingstone into the region from the east, followed by the path-breaking expedition of Henry Morton Stanley which mapped virtually the entire length of the vast river. Followed by Stanley being commissioned by King Leopold of Belgium to open up the river by building a road, railway and importing steamships. And the rivalry with the French, represented by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who wanted the territory directly north of the river, which ended up becoming the neighbouring state of Republic of Congo.

King Leopold’s Free State 1885 to 1908

At the Berlin Conference King Leopold of Belgium managed to persuade Bismarck and the French to assign him the huge area of Congo as his own personal fiefdom. I’ve documented the abuses and atrocities carried out by the King Leopold’s Force Publique which terrorised the entire native population in order to extract the maximum ivory and then rubber in reviews of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999) and a review of the first part of this book. Eventually, Leopold was forced by public, political and international opinion to hand the Congo over to the Belgian state to run.

Colonial period 1908 to 1960

The long colonial period is interesting for what it says about European exploitation of its colonies in general, namely the continuation of the harvesting of raw materials by European companies, but the slow movement towards creating an educated native middle class, called the évolués, particularly after the Second World War (page 215 onwards).

Ironically, the creation of a very small educated class (numbering maybe 12,000 by 1954) went hand in hand with post-war affluence for the Belgian settlers. Between the wars it had still been a country for rough, tough male pioneers. After the war, new technological developments (in medicine and air conditioning) meant many more wives were brought over, affluent suburbs were created, gated communities with big houses, big lawns, big swimming pools, big chauffeur-driven cars. At just the moment that young educated Congolese began writing articles and books about their colonial status, a new kind of colour bar arose, whereby they were forbidden from entering whites only bars or swimming pools. Which created bitter resentment from the évolués who complained that they’d done everything the colonialists wanted, copied their clothes and manners but were still treated like second class citizens in their own country.

The rush to independence 1955 to 1960

Van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s rush to independence is riveting (but then every section of this brilliant book is riveting). A number of themes come over very clearly:

Spirit of the age: between 1945 and 1949 the Phillipines, India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Indonesia won independence from their colonial masters. The wave of new thinking culminated in the 1955 Bandung Conference of free and wanting-to-be-free colonies in Indonesia. It was the same year that Belgian journalist Jef van Bilsen wrote an article demanding to know the precise steps which the Belgian government was going to put in place over the following decades for independence. In 1956 Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia gained independence.

Calls for independence were galvanised by riots, the most serious occurring on 4 January 1959, in which a mob murdered whites and trashed white property (p.248). The threat of mass violence heralded the end of trouble-free European superiority.

The Belgians, galvanised by van Bilsen’s article, agreed to independence in principle, eventually, but were thinking in timescales of 20 or 30 or 50 years; they were outflanked by new native political leaders who demanded it NOW.

As a result the authorities organised the first free democratic elections in the country’s history for 1957. The sudden arrival of the notion of independence, and the election, led to the creation of ad hoc political parties and the sudden emergence of spokesmen and leaders.

Almost immediately it became clear that these leaders came from and spoke for particular regions and ethnic groups; tribalism wasn’t a later addition, van Reybrouck shows how the politicisation of ethnic groups was intimately linked with the creation of political parties right from the start (p.252).

Thus the Alliance of Bakongo (ABAKO) headed by Joseph Kasavubu, which had established itself as the leading opponent of colonial rule was largely made up of people from the Bakongo ethnic group and openly denigrated the Lingala-speaking Bangala. The Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA) represented Kivu and Conakat. La Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) represented the mineral-rich province of Kitanga and was led by Moïse Tshombe. Bolikango spoke up for the Bangala, Jason Sendwe spoke up for the Baluba from Katanga, Justin Bomboko for the Mongo people and so on (p.252).

Another central figure who emerged was Patrice Lumumba, a former beer salesman and journalist who led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) which aimed to rise above tribal and regional affiliations and represent the entire country.

These parties began a kind of race to the bottom by outdoing each other in their demands for independence NOW. Anyone who didn’t want it within five years could be portrayed as a colonialist stooge; then 2 years; then one year; then 6 months. The Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which was held from January to May 1960 to thrash out the handover, which included half Belgian colonialists and half new Congolese leaders, found itself railroaded into agreeing the date of independence for June 30, 1960, less than 2 months after it ended (pages 256 to 259).

Van Reybrouck speaks to contemporary Congolese and some players in the political manoeuvres who lament, to a man, the mad rush to independence, realising in retrospect that the country was in no way ready for it, and blaming much of their troubles on what the Belgian King Baudouin had warned about in his radio broadcast of January 13, 1959, as ‘thoughtless haste’.

The result was that the country was completely unprepared, at every possible level: political, administrative, financial, managerial, technological, educational, industrial, agricultural.

On the day of its independence, the country had sixteen university graduates. And although there were hundreds of well-trained nurses and policy advisers, the Force Publique did not have a single black officer. There was not one native physician, not one engineer, not one lawyer, agronomist, or economist. (p.266)

One last theme is that in the short months leading up to independence the European big businesses who dominated every aspect of the Belgian economy, particularly the lucrative mining industry, made a series of deals with the fledgling local politicians (p.263).

Lastly, van Reybrouck details the pathetically utopian hopes of many common Congolese and even the educated leaders. At every level of society they thought that simply by getting rid of the oppressing white man would herald a brave new world of freedom and wealth and equality. Van Reybrouck tells stories of the less educated Congolese who sincerely believed that on day one of independence they would all be given a big European mansion, some of the Congolese hoping it would come with a lovely European wife thrown in, not to mention the big European car. Peasants buried boxes of stones in the belief that, at independence, they would magically change into gold. Many believed the dead would rise from the grave (p.27.

To put it mildly, all these hopes were to be bitterly dashed.

Part two – post independence 1960 to 2021

The period since independence takes up two-thirds of van Reybrouck’s book and is immensely complicated.

During the colonial period we had only had to deal with a handful of names, let alone the relative simplicity of the Leopold or Stanley eras. Now there is a blizzard of names of Congolese politicians and cultural figures and the acronyms of numerous political parties. Just as an example, the parties which attended the round table included the Association Générale des Baluba du Katanga (BALUBAKAT), the Association des Ressortisants du Haut-Congo (ASSORECO), the Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA), the Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT),  the Federation Generale du Congo (FGC), the Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji (MNC-K), the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (MNC-L) led by Patrice Lumumba, the Parti National du Progrès (PNP), the Parti du Peuple (PP), the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA). In the coming decades there were to be many, many more where they came from.

Initial chaos June 1960 to January 1961

In May 1960 elections were held to create the government which would usher in independence. Kasavubu was elected president and the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing Patrice Lumumba Prime Minister.

The electoral map of Congo in 1960, therefore, was largely identical to the ethnographic maps drawn up by the scientists half a century before…The three strongest figures to come out of the elections were Kasavubu, Lumumba, and Tshombe. Kasavubu held sway over the western part of the country, Lumumba over the northwest and center, and Tshombe over the far south. That corresponded with the major cities: Léopoldville, Stanleyville, and Elisabethville. The smaller parties divided among themselves the countryside that lay between. (p.264)

The really striking thing about Congo’s independence is how it started to go wrong within days.

Congo’s First Republic was an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Both politically and militarily, the country was plunged into total, inextricable chaos…The period between 1960 and 1965 is known today as the First Republic, but at the time it seemed more like the Last Judgment. The country fell apart, was confronted with a civil war, ethnic pogroms, two coups d’état, three uprisings, and six government leaders (Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Ileo, Justin Bomboko, Cyrille Adoula, Moïse Tshombe, and Évariste Kimba), two—or perhaps even three—of whom were murdered: Lumumba, shot dead in 1961; Kimba, hanged in 1966; Tshombe, found dead in his cell in Algeria in 1969.

On 4 July, 4 days after the independence celebrations, troops in Leopoldville mutinied for higher pay and promotions. The mutiny spread to nearby Thysville where the troops went on a rampage across the town, murdering whites and gang-raping white women (p.287). Within weeks an estimated 30,000 Belgians fled the country, catching whatever flights they could, abandoning their houses, cars and other property, fearful for their lives. on 10 July units of the Belgian army were flown in to secure key assets in the mineral region of Katanga.

It was chaos within a week and, in one sense, the madness has never stopped since. As van Reybrouck puts it, within 1 week Congo lost its army, within 1 month it lost almost everyone who knew how to run everything, from commercial companies to the electricity and water systems.

The abrupt transition from a monolithic, colonial administration to a democratic, multiparty system had included no intermediate steps, which was precisely why it resulted in a fiasco. (p.342)

From the actual date of independence to the murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The events leading to Lumumba’s murder have, as van Reybrouck points out, something Shakespearian in scale and horrible inevitability.

The Katangan secession 1961 to 1963

On 11 July, Moise Tshombe leader of the local Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), who had missed out on a senior position in the new independent administration, declared the Republic of Katanga a breakaway state, independent from the rest of Congo (p.294).

Initially supported by Belgian and the big mining corporations who thought Tshombe would protect their interests, ongoing internecine fighting within the province led to invasion by United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) forces, who Kusavubu and Lumumba called on for help the very next day after the declaration, and after a lot of bloodshed Katanga Province was reintegrated into Congo in January 1963.

Normally these kinds of interventions are viewed in isolation but van Reybrouck makes the good point that the Soviet Union was flying in supplies to the central government, America considered invoking NATO forces to reinforce Katanga. In other words, the situation could have become the flashpoint for superpower confrontation, possibly the cause of a nuclear war. Seen in that context it was a very real achievement of the UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskold in defusing confrontation and making the issue a peacekeeping one.

Kasai secedes August 1960

In August 1960 Albert Kalonji had himself crowned king of the province of Kisai. Kalonji was standing up for ‘his’ people, the Baluba, many of whom had migrated to Katanga for work and were heartily despised there. Back in Kisai, the Baluba faced off against the Lulua. There was violence, massacres, gang rapes, the usual behaviour (p.302).

Mobutu’s first coup September 1960

Lumumba was a rebel. He had given outspoken speeches criticising the colonial Belgians, within weeks of trouble kicking off he had appealed to the Soviet Union for help. The Americans came to think of him as a dangerous commie, but van Reybrouck shows that his behaviour was, in fact, erratic and difficult.

On 5 September 1960 President Kasavubu declared that he was dismissing Prime Minister Lumumba. An hour later Lumumba went on the radio and announced he was dismissing President Kasavubu. It was chaos (p.303). Into the fray stepped Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who was to emerge as the central figure of Congo’s modern history. On September 14, 1960, he carried out his first coup d’état, with the approval and support of the CIA.

The murder of Patrice Lumumba January 1961

All the forces aligned against Lumumba. He came to be seen as an agent of instability and potential commie stooge. US President Eisenhower authorised the CIA to assassinate him. Lumumba asked for UN protection and a troop of blue helmets surrounded his house protecting him. Nonetheless he realised he had to flee back to his tribal heartland and on 27 November, as a tropical rainstorm drew away his besiegers, he was smuggled into a chauffeur-driven car and driven east. However, he loitered too much at towns on the way to press the flesh and was captured by his enemies. On 1 December Mobutu’s troops captured him. He was taken to a barracks prison, tied up, thrown into a cell. He received various visitors. Van Reybrouck gives a detailed account of his last days. On 17 January 1961 he was bundled into a car with his two closest associates and driven into the countryside where, in the presence of Belgian officers, of rival Congolese politicians, President Tshombe, the ministers Munongo and Kibwe, and a few of their colleagues, a mix of Belgian officers and Congolese soldiers executed him and buried his body in a well (p.308).

Lumumba had been in power for less than two and a half months. News of his murder flashed round the world and he became a martyr for independence and anti-colonial movements everywhere. In modern accounts we can see he was a human being with plenty of human failings. But no-one deserves to die like that. And in political terms it was a failure because the anarchy continued. The country was falling apart into seceding provinces with local rulers who promptly set about massacring their ethnic enemies.

Mobutu’s second coup November 1965

The chaos continued. In elections held in March 1965, Prime Minister Moise Tshombe’s Congolese National Convention won a large majority but President Kasavubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him and government ground to a halt.

Into this impasse stepped Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who carried out his second and more lasting coup on 24 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier. He was to rule Congo for the next 32 years.

Mobutu good guy 1965 to 1975

Mobutu banned all political parties and activities and declared himself leader of one, unified, national political party the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, or MPR. But in the context of Congo this was not a totally bad idea. Arguably, for the first ten years of his rule he was a good thing.

The first decade of Mobutu’s thirty-year reign was a time of hope, expectations, and revival. “Mobutu was electric,” the writer Vincent Lombume told me once. And not only because he brought in television and built hydroelectric power stations, but also because he himself delivered a moral jolt to a nation in disrepair. The period 1965–75 is remembered as the golden decade of an independent Congo (p.335).

One by one he neutralised his enemies. President Kasvubu retired to his native village, never to take part in politics again. Moise Tshombi was abducted and ended up dying in a prison cell in Algeria in 1969 (p.338).

Mobutu used white mercenaries to quell the various secessionist movements and from 1968 onwards was able to concentrate on improving Congo’s infrastructure and living conditions. He instituted a secret police, which was allowed to use torture. He promulgated a new constitution centring the nation on himself. Uprisings or protests were likely to be massacred. On the other hand, for the majority of the population, he brought peace and stability. He tried to stamp out tribalism: entrants in the Miss Congo contest had to come from all regions and ethnicities; the national football team had to include players from all groups.

After the total debacle of the First Republic, he put Congo back on the map. He won respect and gave the country new élan. Had the Americans landed on the moon? He invited the crew of Apollo 11, making Congo the only African country to welcome the moon travelers. Were the Europeans organising a Miss Europe contest? He convinced the organisers to hold the finals in Kinshasa, and to give them a native twist. The winner, including in the category ‘African Costume,’ was a ravishing blonde from Finland. Were Congolese women still seen as the most beautiful on the continent? He backed Maître Taureau in organizing the first national Miss Congo contest…In short, Mobutu made good on the promises that independence had awakened but been unable to keep. (

Recours a l’authenticité

Aided by political strategist Dominique Sakombi, Mobutu embarked on a policy they called the Recours a l’authenticité (p.351). In 1966 he renamed Congo’s cities, replacing their European names with African ones: Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the entire country the Republic of Zaire.

Mobutu disapproved of Christianity as a European imposition. Churches were shut down and Christmas was banned, while he encouraged the uniquely Congolese variant of Kimbanguism (p.355).

Every citizen was ordered to replace their European names with African ones. Priests were threatened with five years’ imprisonment if they were caught baptising a Zairian child with a European name. Western clothes were banned: men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume, or ‘down with the suit’), women had to lock away their 60s mini-skirts and wear the traditional pagne (p.352).

In 1972 Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.’). And he started wearing what became his trademark look: a tall man carrying a walking stick while wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses and a leopard-skin toque.

Mobutu bad guy 1975 to 1990

But modern states rely on economic and financial realities. In 1967 Mobutu nationalised the huge mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and the state began to benefit, for the first time, from the huge mineral resources it owned (p.345). Van Reybrouck makes the striking point that the global market for the many raw materials Congo could supply (copper, tin) was sky high because of the Vietnam War. As with the two world wars, war was good for Congo, or at least the people who mulcted the profits.

As the 1970s progressed it became more and more obvious that this meant Mobutu and his cronies. Examples slowly increased of the multiple ways he, his family and associates milked money from the state at every level. They set an example which ended up permeating Congo with corruption at every level. New words were invented to describe it. Clientelism. Kleptocracy.

In 1973 he announced a policy of Zairianisation, namely the expropriation of all small and medium sized businesses from non-African owners e.g. Greeks, Portuguese, Pakistanis. They were handed to cronies who didn’t have a clue how to run them and so this sector of the economy, also, collapsed (p.357). Unemployment rose. Everyone had to moonlight with second or third jobs. People began selling their belongings on the street.

The end of the Vietnam war in 1974 heralded a collapse in copper prices and the oil crisis also hit the country. Inflation soared. Food rotted in the fields for lack of infrastructure. The country became a basket case. His rule became more repressive. More arrests, secret police, clever new innovations in torture (p.386). Opponents disappeared. In 1970 and 1977 he was re-elected president with 98% of the vote; there were no other candidates.

He built classic vanity projects: a huge hydroelectric dam, the Inga Dam on the Congo, a vast steel foundry at Maluku. During the commissioning and building Mobutu and his cronies siphoned off huge sums. But after the European contractors had pocketed the last payments they walked away and the projects, lacking a workforce educated enough to run or maintain them, and lacking the infrastructure to move electricity or steel products around, lapsed into crumbling white elephants.

Van Reybrouck describes it as the rise of a state bourgeoisie, a new middle class which owed nothing to entrepreneurism, initiative or innovation, but was entirely based on family or tribal connections to the boss. As the general population displayed more poverty, as the official economy lagged and declined, Mobutu was able to ask the IMF or foreign governments for aid and loans which he then liberally dispensed to his extended ‘tribe’ of cronies and supporters. It was a kind of pyramid scheme. Between 1977 and 1979 alone Mobutu is calculated to have creamed off $200 million of state funds (p.375).

Meanwhile inflation soared to an annual rate of 60%. Most people struggled to feed themselves. Repeated reissuings of the currency did nothing to address the underlying failure of the economy. And yet Mobutu continued to be supported by the West: by France, as the largest Francophone nation in Africa, by America as a huge territorial bulwark against the prolonged communist insurgency in neighbouring Angola and an actual communist government in neighbouring Republic of Congo.

All the time he used the loans from the IMF and international banks to buy multiple properties in Belgium, the South of France, Switzerland, and the huge city-sized complex he built for himself at Gbadolite (p.380). In genuine monster mode, he had a big sexual appetite: he slept with the wives of his cabinet ministers, partly for fun, partly to humiliate them; wherever he travelled in the country he was offered the prettiest virgins to deflower (p.385). It was part of the cult of the supreme tribal chieftain and everyone else in the hierarchy followed his example. Schools became ‘sexual fishponds’ where local governors and administrators picked the prettiest girls (p.389).

Congo’s roads decayed and reverted back to tracks in the jungle. Soldiers sold their equipment. The air force sold off bits of planes as spare parts. The armed forces became a joke. The economy collapsed. Congo’s 15 million people tried to make a living any way they could amid the rubble.

Mobutu clings on 1990 to 1997

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. As it happened within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall Mobutu crushed some student protests with unnecessary violence which was reported around the world. This was the last straw for his western supporters. Suddenly Mobutu was no longer seen as a bulwark against communism (such as the communist forces in neighbouring Angola and French Congo) and no longer as welcome as he had been in the White House of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. In 1990 he was forced to appoint a transitional government with a promise of elections to come. There was an explosion of political parties and a newly freed press went mad.

In August 1991 the Sovereign National Conference opened but was immediately swamped in the kind of tribal and ethnic and political rivalries which had bedevilled the first republic. Things weren’t helped when soldiers in Ndjili mutinied then went on the rampage through the town, sparking universal looting.

In January 1992 Mobutu closed the conference and went on to cannily appoint then sack a series of Prime Ministers, playing individuals and parties off against each other. On 16 February a March of Hope was held through Kinshasa which was met by soldiers and ended in a bloodbath (p.403). The conference refused to shut down and issued messages of defiance at Mobutu the dictator. A decade or more of fear was coming to an end. Mobutu agreed to step back and accept a more ceremonial role. A genuine Prime Minister was elected.

But the country was still a basket, with a destroyed infrastructure incapable of distributing its rich agricultural produce, entirely reliant on its mineral exports most of whose profit was raked off by the kleptocracy. In 1994 inflation reached 9,769%.

In January 1993 soldiers who hadn’t been paid for months mutinied again and went on the rampage in every city and town where they were stationed. The Ndjili rampage became known as the First Plundering. This one was called the Second Plundering.

The Rwanda genocide 1994

Rwanda was mapped and defined by German colonisers. It contained three tribes, the Hutus who made up 85% of the population, the Tutsis 14% and the Twa 1%. The Tutsis had traditionally been the better educated elite of the country, a tribal division crystallised by the Belgians who assumed responsibility for Rwanda from the Germans after World War One (p.413).

In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed. An estimated 20,000 were killed and 1.5 million civilians displaced (p.414). Bad blood and a fragile peace.

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down, killing everyone on board. Both were Hutus and Hutu extremists immediately claimed the downing was an assassination preliminary to an uprising of Tutsis. They sent out instructions via press and radio to a bewildered nation of Hutus to kill the Tutsis before it was too late. Lists of government opponents were handed out to militias who went and killed them, along with all of their families, chief among them the youth wing of the governing party, the the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter. Machetes were cheaper and more available than guns (p.414).

In the space of just 100 days around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. The UN had forces in Rwanda but its troops were not given orders to stop the killing. America was well aware of events but it was only 6 months since the ‘black hawk down’ events in Somalia in October 1993, when a mission to intervene and capture a Somali warlord went disastrously wrong and led to 19 American soldiers being killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. There was no appetite to put more American soldiers in harm’s way (p.417).

The French, predictably enough, were on the side of the genocidal government at least in part, van Reybrouck says, because the Tutsi rebels were based in the former British colony Uganda. It was these Tutsis in exile, the well-organised RPF, backed by Uganda’s army, which, in response to the genocide, did indeed invade Rwanda and fight their way to the capital, Kigali, which they seized on 4 July 1994.

The French forces helped the Hutu government which had organised the genocide, and hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus to escape into neighbouring Congo, where huge refugee camps were established. Up to 2 million Hutus fled the conquering RPF. Some of the RPF followed them into Congo looking for the genocidaires, fighting spilled over in all directions.

The Rwandan invasion and the first Congo War, the fall of Mobutu

Van Reybrouck prepares us for all this with a detailed examination of the numerous tribal antagonisms which existed all over the eastern Congo, with low level massacres carried out by one side or another on an annual basis. He describes the rise of the Mai-Mai, Bantu nationalists, fierce Zairian patriots, who enforced a strict code of conduct and were merciless to all perceived outsiders, immigrants and refugees.

Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire before Congolese independence in 1960 were known as Banyamulenge, meaning ‘from Mulenge’ and had the right to citizenship under Zairian law. Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire following independence were known as Banyarwanda. The RPF in Kigali knew that most of the organisers of the genocide had escaped to the refugee camps in Congo where they were planning a counter-attack, and knew they had to strike first. In 1996 Mobutu signed an order expelling Tutsis from eastern Congo and this was the trigger for a general uprising.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defense Paul Kagame organised various Tutsis and anti-Hutu groups into a force designed to overthrow Mobutu in order to end his support for the Hutu.

Knowing their project would look like the invasion of a sovereign state Kagame and Museveni looked for a Congo citizen to front it and settled on the convenient figure of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, long term guerrilla leader and opponent of Mobutu. The army they assembled was named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

The first step in the plan, and the key objective of the RPF government in Rwanda, was to eliminate the Hutu refugee camps where extremist elements were plotting to overthrow the Tutsi government.  This resulted in ‘massive carnage’ (p.423). Hutu refugees who had fled the initial attacks were gathered into further refugee camps, sometimes with the help of aid organisations, who were then banned from the area and ‘the ethnic cleansing could continue with impunity’. Ammunition is expensive, so the favoured weapons were machetes and hammers. The old, the sick, women and children and babies. No-one was spared.

As many as between 300,000 Hutu refugees were massacred by the AFDL and the Rwandan Defence Forces. In other words about a quarter as many Hutus massacred, as Tutsis in the original genocide. The more you read on, the more Congo ceases to sound like a country and more like a vast open air abattoir.

The Rwanda-Uganda-rebel Congo forces undertook the 2,000 mile trek all the way to Kinshasa, killing all the Hutus they could find along the way and massacring villages which held out. The gruelling trek lasted seven months and the invading forces were supported by the West, especially Bill Clinton’s America, which wanted to visibly sever links with the cynical old support for Mobutu, and also bought into Paul Kagame’s narrative of the Tutsis as victims of a terrible genocide (p.426).

Van Reybrouck includes a very useful map.

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On 16 May 1997 peace talks chaired by South Africa Nelson Mandela failed and Mobutu fled into exile. Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory the next day. On 23 May 1997, Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mobutu went into exile in Rabat, Morocco, where he died on 7 September 1997 of prostate cancer. On the day he fled, Kabila became the new president of Congo. The campaign to overthrow Mobutu became known as the First Congo War 24 October 1996 to 16 May 1997.

Rule of Laurent Kabila 1997 to 2001

We had in fact met Kabila back in the 1960s when he lurked in the forest of eastern Congo ineffectually organising rebellion and secession. When Katanga had seceded under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe, Kabila organised the Baluba people in an anti-secessionist rebellion in Manono and established a new province, North Katanga, in September 1962. In other words he had been a political player as long as Mobutu. But he lacked real commitment. When his rebellion fizzled out, he took to smuggling gold and timber on Lake Tanganyika, then ran a bar and brothel in Tanzania. Now Kabila brought the same half-assed approach to being president and soon alienated most of his backers. Che Guevara of all people had been sent to the Congo to foment communist revolution and spent months in the east Congo rainforest with Kabila and his men, and we have his diary entries which record that Kabila was certainly charismatic and a natural leader but lacked commitment to the cause.

Second Rwandan invasion and Second Congo War

Congolese rivals and political commentators came to resent the swaggering presence of Rwandan and Uganda soldiers in the capital. To avert a coup, Kabila expelled all Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian military units from the Congo on 26 July 1998.

Now the whole reason Rwanda and Uganda had supported Kabila was to have a biddable puppet in charge in Kinshasa. When the worm turned they launched a second invasion, but this time commandeered commercial jetliners to carry troops to an airport not far from Kinshasa.

The Second Congo War began in August 1998, little more than a year after the First Congo War (p.439). It lasted till July 2003, when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo took power. But violence continues in many parts of the country, particularly in the east, to this day.

Ultimately, nine African countries and around twenty-five armed groups became involved in the war. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused 5.4 million deaths, principally through disease and starvation. Another 2 million were displaced by the conflict.

Van Reybrouck divides it into 4 phases:

  1. The invasion August 1998
  2. The stalemate September 1998 to July 1999
  3. The dissension August 1999 to July 2000
  4. The anarchy July 2000 to December 2002

In the middle of it, on 16 January 2001, Kabila was shot and killed by a bodyguard, former child soldier Rashidi Mizele, at the presidential palace in Kinshasa. Typically, van Reybrouck speaks to an eye witness, an aide to the president, who was in the office next door when he heard the fatal shots and goes some way to explaining the disillusion and then enmity of the many child soldiers or kadogos who had made up a significant percentage of the AFDL forces (p.419)

Thoughts

It is a bombardment of facts, countless figures large and small, and a blizzard of complex alliances and conflicts. It made me realise that one reason authors write about the Victorian era of exploration is that it was soooooo much simpler: you had half a dozen named European heroes, a handful of named Congolese porters or slave traders, and all the other humans were faceless extras. Whereas from the 1950s onwards you are dealing with a ‘real’ country, with ever-increasing numbers of politicians,  political parties, ethnic groups, provinces, rebellions, wars and massacres to try and understand.

Also, it’s really easy to assign blame if you stick to the colonial period. White man bad exploiter, black man helpless victim. Simple enough to put on a t-shirt. By contrast, the modern period, beginning with the run-up to independence, is bewilderingly complicated, and although the woke can persist with the overall conclusion that the West and white people are still the wicked exploiters, the reality is far more complicated. You can blame Mobutu’s long rule on his western political and commercial backers but he was, in the end, an African man ruling an African nation and free to choose his methods and policies: and the ones he chose were rule by violence and fear, and the deployment of corruption and larceny on an epic scale. He was, in fact, applying traditional tribal chieftain tactics (something he consciously promoted) but to a country the size of western Europe.

And when the Rwandans invaded and triggered the first Congo War, the situation doesn’t only become complex and messy but the wish to assign praise and blame is nullified. In my opinion these are just people peopling, human beings doing what they have done throughout history, fight, kill, conquer, enslave, rape and loot.

The job of any government is to create enough security and rule of law so that countries or regions don’t collapse back into the barbarism which is always lurking in the human psyche. In this respect the modern history of the Congo is a kind of showcase example of the complete failure to achieve that security and peace. Shorn of the thousand and one details specific to the Congo, van Reybrouck’s epic account shows, at a more abstract level, just how difficult the precious state of peace and security is to achieve, and how easily it can be overthrown with cataclysmic results.

Credit

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.


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Congolese soldiers in the world wars

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck is a wonderland of a book. The accounts he gives of the involvement of Congolese soldiers in the two world wars are so remarkable and so little known that it’s worth recording them in a standalone blog post.

In his characteristic style, van Reybrouck interweaves traditional, factual history with first-hand, eye-witness memories by veterans or the families of veterans, which add colour and human scale to such huge abstract events.

First World War (pages 129 to 139)

Congo as a buffer state

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Belgium itself was conceived as a sort of buffer state between the powers, between France and Prussia. In a similar way, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, King Leopold  persuaded the powers that his seizure of this huge chunk of Africa would serve as a sort of buffer between territory controlled by the old rivals Britain and France in west Africa and the territory claimed in east Africa by the new kid on the block, Germany.

The final agreement of colonial borders in Africa meant that Congo shared a 430-mile-long border with German East Africa. Given that the Germans owned Cameroon to the north-west of Congo, it made sense for them to ponder seizing a corridor through the Belgian colony in order to link German East and West Africa. In fact, just before war broke out, the German foreign office actually approached the British with the suggestion of dividing Congo between them, which the British wisely rejected.

Germany attacks

After war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the colonial authorities expected Congo to remain neutral, which it did for all of 11 days, until Germany attacked. A steamship crossed Lake Tanganyika from the German side and shelled the Congo port of Mokolubu, sinking some canoes, then German soldiers landed and cut the telephone wire. A week later the Germans attacked the lakeside port of Lukuga, too.

Main battle zones

Because of the lack of roads and infrastructure, the First World War in Africa wasn’t fought along huge fronts, as in Europe, but was a matter of seizing strategic points and roads. Congolese forces ended up fighting on three fronts, Cameroon, Rhodesia and East Africa.

1. In 1914 a handful of Belgian officers and 600 Congolese troops were sent to help the British in the battle for Cameroon where German resistance to British, French and Belgian colonial units finally ended in March 1916.

2. By mid-1915 South African troops had secured the surrender of German South-West Africa but German forces threatened Rhodesia and so the Belgian government in exile (in Le Havre) ordered seven Belgian and 283 Congolese soldiers to help the British defend it.

Battle of the lakes

3. But the most intense Congo-German engagement was in the East. Here the border between Congo and German East Africa had only been finalised as late as 1910. In 1915 German forces led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck made repeated attempts to move into Kivu district (to the west of Lake Kivu, which formed part of the border between Belgian and German territory), with a view to pushing on north to seize the Kilo-Moto gold mines of the Ituri rain forest.

The Germans took initial control of lakes Kivu and Tanganyika which they patrolled with armed steamships. In reply the Allies i.e. the British, organised the transport of steamships broken up into parts all the way up the Congo and then across land to the lakes. They also sent four aquaplanes, which undertook a campaign to bomb and sink the German ships.

The Tabora campaign

Meanwhile, a large infantry force of 15,000 soldiers was assembled on the east Congo border under Force Publique commander, General Charles Tombeur. An important fact to remember is that, in the absence of decent roads, almost all the materiel needed for these campaigns had to be carried by porters, just as in Victorian times. It’s estimated that for every soldier who went into battle there were seven porters. In total, throughout the war years, it’s estimated that some 260,000 native porters were recruited or dragooned, out of a total population of less than ten million. This disruption had a negative impact on local economies and food production, but the conditions of the porters weren’t much better, with all experiencing inadequate food, shelter and little drinking water. As usual in every conflict, disease became rife and about one in ten of the porters died on active service, a total of some 26,000, compared to 2,000 soldiers.

As to the campaign itself, in March 1916 General Tombeur led his army across the border into Rwanda and seized the capital, Kigali, on 6 May. They then marched the 370 miles south-east to Tabora, which had been a key staging post for the explorers of the 1870s and 1880s and was now the nexus of German administration. It was the largest engagement of the campaign. Tombeur’s forces joined with another army which had marched from Lake Tanganyika and, after ten days and nights of intense fighting, Tabora fell to the Belgian-Congo forces on 19 September 1916. The Belgian flag was raised in the town centre amid widespread celebrations.

In 1917 Tabora was used as a staging post for a campaign to capture Mahenge, 300 miles to the south, but the battle of Tabora was the one which went down in colonial memory. Tombeur was given a peerage and songs were written about his famous victory.

Interview with Martin Kabuya

Typical of van Reybrouck’s method of humanising history, he tracks down an army veteran, Martin Kabuya, whose grandfather fought in the Tabora campaign and, he claims, provided cover for the soldier who raised the Belgian flag in the  conquered town square (p.135). And then talks to Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served in the TSF or telégraphie sans fils (i.e. wireless) section from 9 August 1914 to 5 October 1918, so for only a weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pages 135 to 137).

Here’s the map van Reybrouck provides. You can see the black arrows indicating movement of Congolese forces through the two small unnamed states of Rwanda and Burundi towards Tabora in what is now called Tanzania but was then German East Africa. On the top left of the map you can see the borders of Cameroon and understand how German strategists, at one point, might have fantasised about annexing northern Congo in order to for a corridor of German colonial territory from Tanzania through north Congo and joining up with Cameroon. One of many colonial pipe dreams.

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The Congolese in Belgium

Not many Congolese soldiers had time to be transported to Belgium before it fell to the Germans’ swift advance in August 1914. Van Reybrouck tells us the stories of two of them, Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, members of the Congolese Volunteer Corps. They were among the tens of thousands deployed to defend the Belgian city of Namur but the Germans swiftly captured it and these two Africans who spent the next four years in various prisoner of war camps. Among transfers between camps, forced labour and various humiliations, they were interviewed by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Committee which recorded Kudjabo singing traditional songs. The recordings survive to this day (p.138).

Van Reybrouck returns to the two POWs on page 178 to describe their chagrin and anger when they were finally repatriated to from Germany to Belgium only to read commentators in the press saying the likes of them should be packed off as soon as possible back to the land of bananas (p.178). They had fought side by side with their Belgian brothers to protect the motherland. Where was the gratitude? It left a legacy of bitterness.

Paul Panda Farnana

We know a lot about Farnana in particular because he played a central role in founding the Union Congolaise in August 1919, an organisation set up to assist ‘the moral and intellectual development of the Congolese race’. The Union called for greater involvement of the natives in the colonial administration and opened branches across Belgium.

In December 1920 Farnana addressed the first National Colonial Congress in Brussels and then took part in the second Pan-African Congress organised by American civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois. In 1929 Farnana returned to Congo and settled in his native village, but died there, unmarried and childless in 1932. He is often considered the first Congolese intellectual, but his was a very isolated voice. It would take another world war and decades of simmering discontent before real change could be affected.

Consequences of the Great War

After Germany’s defeat its African colonies were parcelled out to the allies. England took German East Africa which was renamed Tanganyika (and then Tanzania, on independence in 1961). Belgium was handed the two small states on the eastern borders of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Earlier in the book van Reybrouck described the process whereby colonial administrators defined and helped to create tribal identities. Originally much more fluid and overlapping, these names and categories hardened when the authorities issued identity cards on which every Congolese had to match themselves to a limited list of bureaucratic tribal ‘identities’.

When they took over Rwanda, the Belgian authorities applied the same technique, insisting that the previously fluid and heterogenous Rwandans define themselves as one of three categories, Tutsi, Hutu or Twas (pygmy), an enforced European categorisation which was to bitterly divide the country and lead, ultimately, to the calamitous Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Although the war disrupted societies and led to significant native casualties in the eastern part of the country, the mining regions such as Katanga experienced an economic boom and huge explosion of jobs which increased urbanisation. But after the war there was a sudden drop in demand which led to layoffs, unrest and strikes.

Second World War (pages 182 to 189)

And then it happened all over again, except on a bigger scale, in 1940. In 18 days the German army rolled through Belgium as part of its conquest of France, Belgium was defeated and occupied. While the Belgian government fled to England, King Leopold III was taken prisoner to Germany. For a while there was uncertainty in the colony about which way it would jump – support the victorious Nazis or align with the humiliated government in exile? The decision was taken by the man on the scene, Governor General Pierre Ryckmans who to his great credit decided the Belgian Congo would align with the allies and fight fascism.

Ethiopia

Mussolini had invaded Haile Selassie’s Abyssinia in 1935. In 1940 Churchill sent troops from British Kenya into Ethiopia to neutralise the Italian threat. Starting in February 1941 the Brits were reinforced by the eleventh battalion of the Congo Force Publique. This consisted of 3,000 Congolese soldiers and 2,000 bearers.

They drove across British-controlled Sudan in blistering heat but had to manage the mountainous west of Ethiopia mostly on foot. From scorching heat it started to rain and the troops found themselves mired in mud. The Congolese took the small towns of Asosa and Gambela but faced a stiffer challenge at the fortified garrison town of Saio. After heavy shelling, on 8 June 1941, the town surrendered. Congo forces took nine Italian generals including the commander of all Italian forces in East Africa, 370 Italian officers, 2,574 noncoms and 1,533 native soldiers, along with a huge amount of munitions and equipment.

Van Reybrouck makes the droll point that the expulsion of the Italians (who had only held Ethiopia for 6 years) allowed the return of the emperor Haile Selassie, which gave renewed vigour to the small sect of Rastafarians in faraway Jamaica who had started worshipping the emperor as a deity during the 1930s. Thus Congolese soldiers helped in creating the spiritual side of reggae!

What Tabora had been in World War One, Saio was in World War Two, a resounding victory for African troops. More than that, for the first time in history an African nation had been liberated by African troops (p.185).

Nigeria

Van Reybrouck interviews Congo veterans who fought in the campaign, Louis Ngumbi and André Kitadi. He takes a path through the complicated wartime events in north Africa through the career of Kitadi. Having routed the Italians in the East, the focus switched to West Africa. Kitadi was a radio operator in the Congo army. In autumn 1942 he was shipped up to Nigeria and trained for 6 months in readiness to take Dahomey (modern Benin) from the Vichy French. However during the training period, Dahomey switched to General de Gaulle’s Free French and so the focus now switched to Libya where German forces under Rommel were based and repeatedly threatened to invade Egypt.

Kitadi and the other Congolese soldiers travelled across the desert of Chad (a French colony run by a black governor allied to de Gaulle). Van Reybrouck dovetails Kitadi’s story with that of Martin Kabuya, another radio operator in the Force Publique, who had also been shipped to Nigeria, but now found himself sent by sea right around Africa and up through the Suez Canal.

Egypt

Kitadi spent a year in a camp outside Alexandria. There were lots of Italian prisoners of war, kept in barbed wire POW camps. The Arabs stole everything. Kabuya was stationed at Camp Geneva near the Suez Canal, intercepting enemy Morse code messages. Once he was attacked by a big SS man who he stabbed in the gut with a bayonet and killed.

Palestine

When fighting in Europe ended, both men stayed in the army and were moved to Palestine to help with the new British mandate there (p.188).

The paradox of scale

Paradoxically, although the scale and reach of the Second World War was dramatically larger than the first, the involvement of Congolese was significantly smaller for the simple reason that the army no longer needed bearers and porters – they had trucks and lorries. So the number of Congolese directly involved in the war was nothing like the 260,000 Congolese porters dragooned into service in 1914-18, with the results that casualties were correspondingly much smaller.

The odyssey of Libert Otenga

The strength of van Reybrouck’s approach is demonstrated by the story of Libert Otenga. Otenga joined a mobile medical unit of Belgian doctors and Congolese medics.

The Belgian field hospital became known as the tenth BCCS, the tenth Belgian Congo Casualty Clearing Station. It had two operating tents and a radio tent. In the other tents there were beds for thirty patients and stretchers for two hundred more. During the war, the unit treated seven thousand wounded men and thirty thousand who had fallen ill. Even at the peak of its activities it consisted of only twenty-three Belgians, including seven doctors, and three hundred Congolese. Libert Otenga was one of them.

Van Reybrouck tracks down an ageing Otenga in Kinshasa to hear his story. First the medical unit was sent to Somalia. Then they went with British-Belgian troops to Madagascar, where they tended German prisoners of war. After Madagascar, the unit went by ship to Ceylon, where the medical unit was reorganised, and then on to India, to the Ganges delta in modern Bangladesh, a long way up the river Brahmaputra and then overland to the border with Burma, a British colony which the Japanese had captured in 1942. This was their longest posting, they treated soldiers and civilians, they had an air ambulance at their disposal. As van Reybrouck remarks:

The fact that Congolese paramedics cared for Burmese civilians and British soldiers in the Asian jungle is a completely unknown chapter in colonial history, and one that will soon vanish altogether. (p.189)

The travels of Congolese forces during the Second World War

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Congo and the atom bomb

The uranium in the Big Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium mined in the mineral-rich Katanga province of Congo (p. 190).

Edgar Sengier, then managing director of Union Minière, saw to it that Congo’s uranium reserves did not fall into the wrong hands. Shinkolobwe had the world’s largest confirmed deposit of uranium. When the Nazi threat intensified just before the war, he had had 1,250 metric tons (1,375 U.S. tons) of uranium shipped to New York, then flooded his mines. Only a tiny stock still present in Belgium ever fell into German hands. (p.190)

The Cold War

During the war the Congo had come to America’s attention as an important source of raw materials for war goods. By 1942 the Japanese had captured most of the Far East, so new sources were needed. the Congo turned out to be a vital source of metals like copper, wolfram, tin and zinc, and of vegetable products such as rubber, copal, cotton, quinine, palm oil for soap and, surprisingly, use in the vital steel industry. (p.191)

This was before the scientists of the Manhattan Project discovered how to make an atom bomb at which point uranium became a vital resource of strategic significance. All this explains America’s interest in the Congo in the 15 years after the war, and then its intense involvement in the events surrounding independence and its support of the dictator Mobutu through the entire Cold War period.

Conclusion

One way of seeing these events are as colourful sidelights on the two world wars and then the low level capitalist-communist antagonism which followed and van Reybrouck’s focus on individual experiences helps the reader understand how all our lives are determined and shaped by vast impersonal historic forces.

Another way of looking at it, is to reflect that from the moment it was first mapped and explored by Stanley in the late 1870s, the second largest country in Africa has never been free of interference, control and exploitation by Europe and America.

Credit

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 set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

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