Responding to a critique of my book

African Arguments, which is hosted by the Royal African Society and the Social Science Research Council, posted my following response to a review of my book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. This was a good opportunity to ruminate a bit on reactions to the book in general, five months after its publication. I also encourage you to read the review by Harry Verhoeven here.


It is rare that I get the opportunity to argue the nuances of the Congo war in broad public fora. Knowledge about the Congolese conflict is limited outside of a small circle of academics and policy-makers; depictions in the mainstream press are often simplistic blame games, pointing fingers alternately at Rwanda, conflict minerals or – usually by default – to the grinding chaos and savagery that, so they imply, the Congo is cursed with.

Given the limited nature of the debate, I am glad to have an opportunity to respond to Verhoeven’s fair and useful criticism of my book. I hope this will also clarify my thoughts on some aspects of the conflict.

Most critically, Verhoeven faults me for not engaging more with the important theories of the Congo conflict. I take him to be pointing to a lack of a causal argument in my book. What is my overarching theory? What was the role of land, ethnicity, natural resources and western powers in fueling the conflict?

I have two responses to this criticism. First, my book’s main objective is to tackle “Congo reductionism” – the tendency to reduce the conflict to a kabuki theatre of savage warlords, greedy businessmen and innocent victims. In this sense, I spend most of the book complicating, and not streamlining, any causal argument. Typically, attempts to point to the one main cause of the conflict have ended up providing simplistic solutions to complex problems. That was the case, for example, with the fixation on the ex-FAR and Interahamwe to the detriment of other motives that Rwanda and its allies had for intervening in the Congo. More recently, advocates’ focus on sexual violence and conflict minerals has ignored the complex sources of Congo’s problems at their peril. Even the notion that local conflicts over land and authority are the main reason for violence today – an argument that has gained some traction recently – neglects the knotted politics surrounding armed group formation in the Kivus and Ituri.

Above all, we need to take the Congolese on their own terms and engage with the ragged complexity of the conflict. Most of my book spins the stories of these Congolese actors, trying to decipher their motives, trying to bring their humanity – if not necessarily their decency – home to the reader. I don’t think foreigners will ever be able to work constructively with any of the leaders in the region until we can understand their interests and attitudes. This goes for the most burning challenges: revenue transparency, security sector reform and transitional justice.

Given this emphasis on actors, their stories and the complexity of the conflict, I can understand how one might find my book lacking in leitmotifs and theory. But I would suggest that my book has different ambitions than the excellent volumes by Filip Reyntjens and Gerard Prunier mentioned by Verhoeven. I do not pretend to provide a succinct theory of the Congo war; that would go against the grain of my narrative.

Nonetheless, I do address, albeit briefly, many of the issues that the review finds lacking. Like both Reyntjens and Prunier, I locate the origins of the Congo war at the nexus of local, national and regional developments. This confluence – the decay of the Zairian state, local struggles over land and power, and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – is, as the review states, well-known and not controversial.

 What is more contentious is foreign involvement during the war. Here I differ from Reyntjens and Prunier, if only slightly. After many dozen interviews with Congolese and Rwandan protagonists of the wars, I found little evidence for American military involvement in support of any parties during the wars. The AFDL rebellion (1996-1997) – which has often been rumored to have received US military support – had enough firepower coming from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Angola and a handful of other Africa countries. Nor could I find much support in my interviews for an international corporate conspiracy in support of any of the wars, although many foreign companies did make considerable profits during the war, and US policy has been sadly short-sighted on many occasions. Overall, however, the greatest sins of western countries have been ones of omission and ignorance, not of direct exploitation. We simply have not cared enough about a crisis that is too complex to fit into a sound-bite. This has led at times to one-dimensional policy-making and the search for simple heroes and villains when the roles are much more complex than that.

As for Rwanda, I leave little room for doubt about its complicity in widespread human rights abuses in the Congo, not all of which have seen the light of justice. However, Rwanda’s motives have been complex and have shifted over time. Security predominated during the initial phases of both 1996 and 1998 invasions, as rebels launched attacks into Rwanda from the Kivu provinces. Financial considerations took on an ever more important role after 1999, as individuals and the ruling party in Kigali took advantage of business opportunities in the eastern Congo. Finally, a political calculus crept into Rwandan thinking: a weak, chaotic Congo was expedient to justify internal repression and to prevent a strong, dangerous neighbour from emerging.

This complex mix of motives in its relations with its neighbour have been refracted through a fiercely hubristic and militaristic prism, which led to their clumsy dealings with Laurent Kabila in 1996 and their attempts to quickly topple him in 1998. Which of these motives, however, has predominated at which point in time, is difficult to discern.
Finally, perhaps a word about probably the most important causal factor that sticks out in my account: the profound weakness of Congolese political institutions. All these other factors, from land conflicts to mining, have become salient precisely because no state has emerged as an arbiter of these resources and disputes. The corruption of the state – and the corrosion of most forms of political organization over centuries of slavery, rubber trade and colonialism – has allowed criminal networks to flourish and small disputes to escalate. This state of affairs has undermined the state’s ability to enforce contracts and guarantee private assets – a commitment problem that political scientists like Verhoeven have focused on.

Closely linked to this institutional fragility is a crisis in moral leadership, which I hope resounds clearly in the book. With few viable social or political institutions, collective action becomes difficult. Those who do take a stand for their ideological beliefs are chopped down or simply kicked to the sidelines.

State fragility and a moral crisis of leadership are not easily packaged into media reports, and solutions for these challenges are difficult to find, in the Congo and elsewhere. But these are probably the main obstacles the country will have to overcome over next decades.

As for Verhoeven’s criticism that I left out important parts of the war  – I can only plead mea culpa. There is only so much one can do in a book, especially one that aims at bringing the Congoelse conflict to a broader audience. Perhaps a second volume will be necessary.