The Great African Wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries killed five million people, and it’s likely that you’ve never heard a word about them.
If you did manage to hear something about the conflicts, it’s near-certain certain that the reports included verbiage better left to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: a piece of land the size of Western Europe minimized to one, giant Hobbesian morass; rebel groups killing, raping and pillaging their way westward for the sake of killing, raping, and pillaging; corrupt politicians, vicious mercenaries, and outsiders all trying to cash in on fabulous, El Dorado-esque bounties.
Based on reporting done by Jason Stearns in his masterful account of these wars, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, all of this is true – but what this simplified narrative conceals with its horrors and its shock value is far more pivotal and interesting. Stearns’s ten years of research and reporting on the Democratic Republic of Congo – including time spent on the ground during the Second War – yields a nuanced, expansive view of the conflict, shining a light on the structures and strictures that allowed horror to fester and metastasize. It is equal parts heartbreaking, enraging, and numbing.
Both wars are dizzying in their scope, complexity, and sheer number of actors. Before diving into the alphabet soup of nine countries and twenty rebel groups that took part, it’s useful to take a step back for context.
(The next few paragraphs are an extremely-simplified overview of the recent history of the conflict – which leaves out a lot. But if you already know about it, and just want a review of the book, scroll down…)
In the early 1990s, Rwanda’s extremist, Hutu-controlled Habyarimana government (the Rwandan Armed Forces, or FAR) was under attack by the moderate Hutu/Tutsi-controlled Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group formed by Rwandan exiles who fought alongside, and backed by, Yoweri Museveni’s Ugandan rebels (the National Resistance Army) in the 1980s. The RPF eventually took Kigali, but only after an estimated 800,000 Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) were slaughtered by FAR, the interahamwe (militia groups full of young people), and villagers coerced into killing. Many in that group – collectively, the genocidaires – fled west, into Zaire. There, they reorganized, and effectively took over the refugee camps in the eastern part of Zaire, while building an insurgency to wrest control of Rwanda back from the RPF – ostensibly with explicit support from the longtime dictator of Zaire, President Mobotu Sese Seku. While building strength, the genocidaires attacked the Tutsi Banyamulenge, of eastern Zaire, a group that had been historically repressed by Mobutu’s regime.
Rwanda – led in everything but title by Vice President and former RPF leader Paul Kagame – was understandably worried about the growing threat of another war with the genocidaires. Counseled by Ugandan President Museveni against an overt attack on Zaire, Kagame helped turn a group of Zairian exiles into a rebellion named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). Kagame was the puppet-master of the AFDL, running the show while controlling the ostensible leader, Laurent Kabila – a one-time failed rebellion leader from the 1960s.
The AFDL went into Zaire with two goals: put down the fledgling genocidaire threat to Rwanda’s peace and prosperity, and take out Mobutu.
Mobuto’s army, the Zairian Armed Forces (FAZ), was weak by design; he knew that a strong army could depose him, but a weak one was relatively harmless. Though joined by the genocidaires and the Angolan rebel group UNITA, they failed to put up much of a fight, and the rebellion took city after city with ease, and marched right into Kinshasha, Zaire’s capital city. Mobotu, already stricken with pancreatic cancer, fled to Morocco, where he soon died.
Now President of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kabila worried that his former allies/puppet-masters were too powerful, and kicked out their forces. This didn’t sit well with the RPF, which re-grouped in the eastern region and, with the Banyamulenge of East DRC, formed the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD); Uganda initially jointly-supported this group. The RCD, under the command of Rwandan RPF leader James Kabarebe, made a daring attempt on Kinshasha, which was foiled at the last minute by the Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean armies, as those governments had mining and political interests under a Kabila regime, and were theoretically committed to jointly defending the DRC (through their involvement in the South African Development Community, or SADC).
Uganda and Rwanda had a falling out during the summer of 2000, and their subsequent internecine “war within a war” in DRC’s third city, Kisangani, caused the deaths of many Congolese. Uganda backed its own rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC); years later, the group’s head, Jean-Pierre Bemba, would be tried by the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. So, the DRC was split into rough thirds: Kabila’s government forces in the southwest, the Rwanda-backed RCD in the east, and the Uganda-backed MLC in the north.
Kabila was assassinated by one of his guards in early 2001, and his son Joseph was picked to succeed him. Deemed more pragmatic than his Mobotu-esque father, Joseph Kabila called for peace, and in late 2002 a peace accord was signed that created a unity government, with MLC’s Bemba (the future war criminal, remember) as Vice President.
After that fragile and short-lived peace agreement, Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi who fought with the RPF, created another rebel group, the CNDP, and continued fighting the government in what is known as the Kivu Conflict. In 2009, Kigali – previously supportive of Nkunda – made a deal with Kabila and the DRC: Rwandan forces would arrest Nkunda if they could enter the DRC to attack the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu Power group.
A peace agreement between the CNDP and Kabila’s government was signed on March 23rd, 2009, which brought CNDP troops into DRC’s national army. If you’ve been following recent events, that date may stand out, as it’s what the current rebel group, M23, is named after. It was founded by Bosco Ntaganda, a former CNDP commander, and current International Criminal Court awaitee. M23 is alive and well, having recently signed a peace agreement with Kabila’s government.
(Back to the book review)
It’s no small feat to take the reader through this litany of acronyms and shifting allegiances coherently, and it’s even more difficult to make it engaging and readable. Stearns accomplishes both.
He does the latter by interviewing everyone: from the pastor of a small village in central DRC, Kasiki, where the RCD massacred many townspeople; to the professorial and erstwhile leader of the RCD, Wamba dia Wamba; to Paul Kagame himself. Personal stories flesh out the narrative, giving it a human touch that sticks with you.
One of the more horrific consequences of the wars (any war, really) is that the vast majority of casualties were incidental – that is to say, innocent: 98% of victims were killed by kwashiorkor (malnourished starvation) and malaria, not by bullets or machetes. About half of the victims were children, 60% of whom died before they were five years old. In Stearns’s interviews, the short-term and long-term tolls of this are evident and wrenching.
It’s a tough book to read, in part because it defies the “good vs. bad” narrative we grow up on. Everyone is a shade of gray – there’s not black or white. The Rwandan Tutsis, victims of one of the worst genocides in the 20th century, come across as self-interested, heavy-handed killers at times; the Congolese rebels led by Laurent Kabila don’t see to be rebelling for anything, just against Mobotu’s regime; the international community is feckless and unable (or unwilling) to fund an appropriate intervention after the Rwandan genocide and during the wars. All gray.
I could go on – this review doesn’t even touch on the mineral wealth, and how vital it may have been to the continuation of the Second Congo War. But you should just read the book instead.
 The Rwandans went so far as to force all of the AFDL leaders in a Kigali guesthouse in the hopes of making them a team
 An interesting anecdote about Kabila: in the 60s, he was counseled and trained by Che Guevarra, who traveled to Zaire to help instill revolutionary fervor. Gueverra left seven months later, after failing; he said that the Conogolese “weren’t ready for the revolution.”