Food for Thought: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Food for Thought is a regular feature profiling books, music, movies, and art with a human rights angle. Below our Executive Director Bill Holston reviews Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns.

“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky-seemed to lead into the heard of an immense darkness.”

So ends Joseph Conrad’s classic, The Heart of Darkness. This theme has characterized much of the writing and thought about the Congo since 1899, when those words were first published.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been ensnared in a civil war; between 1994 and 2003 more than five million people have died as a result of this war. And it’s far from over. In Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns seeks to make some sense of this quite confusing conflict. In his introduction he writes:

“Nevertheless, this book is an attempt to do just that: to explain the social, political, and institutional forces that made it possible for a family man to become a mass murderer. Kamanazi (ed. A thirty year old Tutsi army commander) and all those like him were not predisposed to evil. Some other explanation is called for.”

The book does an able job of setting out the history of the Congo, as it is impossible to understand the present without understanding the past. Congo was not always what it is today, a battlefield of perplexing complicated rebel groups vying for control. In the 15th century, the region hosted huge mighty kingdoms. The  Kongo located in modern day Angola could field an army of 20,000. The Lunda and Luba kingdoms ruled through a network of sacred kingships and local councils. This was of course disrupted by Europeans. In the 16th and 17th centuries British, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Arab slave traders enslaved millions. This social disintegration reached its climax, however, during the Belgian domination of the Congo.

In the 1870’s King Leopold of Belgium began to personally colonize the Congo. Eventually this was called the Congo Free State. But this domination did not start as a colony, but rather the private looting ground of the Belgian King. The Belgian era resulted in two disastrous results. First, this was one of the most brutal colonial rules in history. Millions of Congolese were tortured and exploited in the rubber and ivory trade. However, even more harmful, was the introduction of the bizarre racial theories of the Belgians, which pitted Hutu against Tutsi. This of course reached its ultimate tragedy in the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi.

Eventually, the area became a colony of Belgium, until the country gained independence in 1960. Congo then runs into the bane of most post-colonial countries, Cold War politics. The Congolese elected its first president, Patrice Lumumba. He was considered by western powers to be too friendly to the Soviet Union and was assassinated in a plot that has been thought to have been either planned or at least approved by the United States’ CIA. The country then fell in the hands of Sese Mobutu, who changed the name of the country to Zaire, and ruled with an iron fist until 1997, when he was overthrown by Rwandan backed rebel groups, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila. This was my first exposure to the Congo, as I began representing asylum seekers from this very authoritarian regime.

It is impossible to understand modern day Congo, without understanding Rwanda. Rwanda is a country the size of Massachusetts, known as the Switzerland of Africa because of it beauty. Rwanda also defies easy explanations. One narrative has a Hutu genocide stopped by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front. The truth is much more complex. More than 800,000 Tutusi’s and moderate Hutus died in the aftermath of the death of Rwandan president. Stearns writes:

“We tend to see the history of Rwanda as the history of a struggle between two ethnic groups, the agriculturist Hutu and the cattle herding Tutsi. An honest interrogation of the past, however would require us to throw most of these crude concepts out of the window or at least to deconstruct them. The Rwandan state in its current geographical and political form did not come into existence until the twentieth century after centuries of fighting between competing kingdoms and princely states.”

It is true that the Hutu dominant government was overthrown by Paul Kagame’s mainly Tutsi RPF, but this ignores the atrocities and murders committed by those forces. In the aftermath of that, over one million Rwandans fled to then Zaire to live in Refugee camps. Among those were the Genocidaires who had perpetrated the massacres. This then resulted in the invasion of Zaire by Rwandan and Ugandan backed forces led by Lauren Kabila, who eventually toppled Mobutu and created the modern state of the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the sad bi-products of this was a proxy war in the Congo which inflicted almost incalculable grief. One statistic alone is that:

“Over the last 15 years, the crippling conflict in eastern Congo has cost more than 5 million lives—more than any war since World War II—through violence between rebel groups, the Congolese military and at times sovereign nations like Rwanda, along with disease and poverty. Rape and sexual violence are often used as weapons of war. Based on a national survey, completed with the help of Congo’s government and international organizations, the study found that roughly 1.8 million women aged 15 to 49 reported a history of rape.”

If you are confused, then you understand Congo, because this is where the story  becomes really confusing. The aftermath of the death of Lauren Kabila resulted in an alphabet soup of competing rebel armies that have wreaked utter havoc on this country.

The bitter truth is that Congo has tremendous natural resources: gold, copper, diamonds and rare earth. NONE of these have been utilized for the millions of inhabitants of the country, but rather have been stolen for decades by a long series of kleptocrats, with complicit western governments and private businesses. Stearns attempts the almost impossible task of untangling this complex history for purposes of understanding the present and planning for the future. He concludes with this apt goal:

“There are no easy solutions for the Congo, no silver bullets to produce accountable governments and peace. The ultimate fate of the country rests with the Congolese people, themselves. Westerners also have a role to play, in part because of our historical debt to the country, in part because it is the right thing to do. This does not mean imposing a foreign vision on the country or simply providing food and money. It means understanding it and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then doing our part in providing an environment conducive to growth and stability.”

This book contributes greatly to this venture.

For those interested in the Congo, two additional books are essential reading:

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michela Wrong

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