Published in the US in 2009 by Oxford University Press, Gerard Prunier’s book is not just another contemporary history of an African conflict. It questions popular thinking, reviews a number of sources, places the conflict in the context of its time, and is engagingly written. Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe stretches its core narrative from the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide to after the 2007 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo .
Dr Prunier starts in a surprising place; “This book is a modest effort at stating the problem correctly and, more or less trying, to understand it.” This sets the tone for the sometimes forceful but always reflective tone of a complicated history. The march of history and how it was disrupted by the end of colonialism, the dawn of the Cold War and the various results of the old age of Empire are usually treated dismissively as excuses, and not part of the causes, of contemporary African conflicts. Prunier lists them as part of the back story behind the 1994 Genocide and the Continental War of August 1998. In their wake are the personalities, national and international crises, and interests that have wrongly been fingered for the lives lost and loss caused in a conflict whose embers still glow today.
The personalities and their motivations are one of the more fascinating aspects of the book. Take, for a start, how three East African leaders reached consensus on Laurent Desire Kabila. According to Prunier, Yoweri Museveni(Uganda) and Paul Kagame(Rwanda) had different personalities in mind for who to lead an alliance of rebel groups they hoped to back to pursue different ends in the “Sick Man of Africa”. Former President Julius Nyerere(Tanzania) proposed Laurent Kabila a man “under practical complete control of the Tanzanian secret services, which considered him harmless and easy to manipulate.”. Kagame, Museveni and Nyerere were all communist sympathizers at the time Mobutu was the darling of the CIA. It is this that causes their co-operation to carry the reek of old scores being settled. Once installed the pet turned out to be a throwback of a bygone era; a “political Rip van Winkle whose conspiratorial political style had been frozen at some point back in the 1960s and who still lived in a world seen strategically as a deadly struggle against imperialism and tactically as a mixture of conspiracies and informal economics.”
After his assassination a group of “‘Nokos’” (godfathers) picked his son to lead their country hoping he could keep “the appearance of power”. When he arrested one of them, Colonel Eddy Kapend, it was so unexpected his opponents went into panic mode. Unlike his father, “Joseph Kabila understood the nature of modern politics: never mind reality, image is all.”
Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Angola, and Zambia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Central African Republic, Congo, South Africa and even Namibia gave reasons to justify or deny their involvement in the Congo conflict. Reasons that were not always popular but good enough to be defensible. In looking at the history and the details of the various players and their motivations, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe makes a much needed case for the complexity of conflicts on the continent beyond the international news narrative and its stereotypes.
Editor’s Note: This book came out in the UK under a different title – From Genocide to Continental War: The “Congolese” Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa.