How to Write about Congo

Book Review: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. The Collapse of Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns (Public Affairs: 380pp, 2011)

byDancing-in-the-Glory-of-Monsters-Stearns-Jason-9781586489298-1 Edward B. Rackley

How best to make sense of Congo’s enduring crisis, a tale of daunting political complexity and extraordinary cruelty? Many writers have tried, for no other African country captivates the western literary imagination as much as Congo. This fascination long precedes Joseph Conrad, who indelibly described King Leopold’s Congo Free State over a century ago. But faithful subjects do not good art make, and most western writing on Congo is unreadable or, at best, unbearable.

The sheer complexity of Congo’s dramatic history is one contributing factor behind all the dreadful writing. Many an author sacrifices compelling narrative for rigorous scholarship, resulting in a turgid swamp of acronyms for all the armed groups, the Security Council Resolutions and the doomed peace deals. Epic chronicles like Africa’s World War (Gérard Prunier) may be valuable to scholars but are so microscopically detailed as to be opaque to non-specialists.

Adventure writing, the other main genre of Congo literature, is equally abundant and can carry a plot, but the stories glorify the exploits of the author and ignore the Congolese. “Watch me as I commune with gentle pygmies, wrestle crocodiles on the great Congo River, escape beheading by a throng of stoned child soldiers”— setting the bar for unbearable reading. Common to both schools is the absence of Congolese voice; for both, Congo is a neutral, muted stage for the author’s performance (scholarship, “survival”). Faced with such output, one thinks, the trampling of Congo just goes on and on.

Jason Stearns shares this lament. A recognized scholar and field analyst with years of human rights reporting from the country’s most remote zones of conflict , he tackles Congo’s complexity head-on, unpeeling the onion of its myriad wars within wars. But Stearns is after larger game than demystifying Congo’s “inscrutable chaos” for a western audience. By capturing the political rationales and individual motives as voiced by key players themselves, abhorrent though they may be, he personalizes Congo’s tumultuous ups and downs. Taming this wooly complexity with character-driven narrative and firsthand experience, the book is ultimately a challenge to the reigning stereotype of Congo as an inchoate mêlée of raw power devouring the meek and innocent. Recalling the reductive lens that framed colonialism’s “civilizing mission” (humanity over barbarism, reason vs. unreason), it’s not hard to discern an unbroken line between western perceptions of Congo in Conrad’s time and our own elitist, arguably racist, comprehension today.

The result is a visceral, compelling weave of major events in Congo’s recent history recounted by actors whose candor, intimacy and humor color all manner of uncanny situations. Capturing these stories demands a level of trust and degree of access rarely available to foreigners. To his credit, Stearns does not dwell on this feat, huge though it is. We see only a procession of scenes in which prolonged political collapse is punctuated by wholesale slaughter and the bleakest comedy of errors, leaving a Breugelesque afterimage. Many of the actors are cold killers, to be sure, but as one militiaman reminds the author, “Are you absolutely sure you would act differently in my situation?” By this point in the story, the answer is clear.

When there are no protagonists on hand to carry the plot, Stearns fills in with troves of intriguing detail about the formative years and gargantuan egos of, for instance, Jean-Pierre Bemba, former rebel leader turned vice-president under Joseph Kabila and now facing trial in The Hague. There is much fascinating discussion of Kabila père (Laurent Désiré), his failure to impress Che Guevara in the early 1960s and his recruitment by Paul Kagame to front a rag-tag insurgency against Mobutu in 1996. Both fig-leaf and cannon-fodder, Kabila provided cover for the Rwandan infiltration of Eastern Congo to hunt down Hutu militia opposing Kagame’s regime. To the surprise of all, backed by Rwanda’s crack military, Kabila crossed thousands of miles of bush on foot and reached Kinshasa in record time, ousting Mobutu and ending decades of single-party rule in Zaire. The days of heady optimism did not last long, for reasons that led to Congo’s infamous “second war,” concluded with a shaky peace deal in 2003.

Readers will come away with a keener grasp of the various political sub-cultures and ethnic force fields that have shaped the country’s landscape since independence. Here’s an illustrative paragraph on the failed “rebel professor”, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the appointed leader of the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), an eastern rebel group that ruled viciously, with little popular support, in the “second war” against Kabila père:

“Many others with similarly high ideals made the same deal with the devil as Wamba. After all, being a leader takes vision and charisma, but it also requires propitious circumstances. Hadn’t Che Guevara tried and failed, limping away malnourished and dejected? Hadn’t Tshisekedi, who had marched with tens of thousands against Mobutu in 1992, also been reduced to a marginal figure, with only a handful of diehard supporters heeding calls for protest marches? They had failed because the circumstances had not been ripe for them, whereas Wamba and his new comrades now did have the right circumstances: a formidable, time-tested military machine that could undoubtedly take them to the summit of the state. Change and power were being offered on a silver platter.”

To help situate these portraits the author reflects on Congo’s inability to gain altitude since independence, how its leaders can be rational and heartless at the same time, and the failings of international development assistance in country. While these asides do not comprise a dedicated argument, they gradually come into relief and define the thrust of the book. The salutary, if politically correct, attempt to rescue the Congolese from our received ideas and prejudice certainly adds nuance and depth to Congo’s roving, rancorous band of political elites. As a friend once said of Congo’s conflicted East: “If it looks like anarchy, then you don’t understand what you’re seeing.” In other words, for the lazy or elitist mind, it’s natural to dismiss Congo as “inscrutable chaos.” Stearns reveals the patterns and deciphers the logics credibly and coherently. Congo’s leaders are not insane, far from it.

On balance the book’s deep digging yields rich dividends, particularly for those of us working in country. Its only minor flaw is a tendency to deflect responsibility for Congo’s failings away from the Congolese themselves. One example is worth citing; it is also commonly heard in Congo, where the decades of crisis are always someone else’s fault. Stearns is always careful to connect today’s problems to their historical precedents and conditions at independence. But this emphasis on historical causation risks bleeding contemporary history of any agency, and with it individual culpability. Blaming history, or others, robs victims of the power to reverse their fate.

Stearns is doubtless aware of this dilemma, but his account of the security sector is fatalistic, as though its predatory existence were pre-programmed and inevitable. “The roots of the army’s weakness lie in the Belgian colonial state,” he writes. True, Congolese had no direct experience of running any of the country’s military or civilian institutions at the time of independence. Paradoxically, Mobutu’s fear of dissent meant ethnic loyalty trumped an effective army and police, who turned on an already impoverished population to meet their survival needs. “Like the rest of the state apparatus, [the army] was present everywhere, harassing and taxing the population, but effective nowhere.” The current state of affairs is unchanged; are we to blame the men or their non-existent institutions?

Stearns knows the answer, but shies from criticizing the Congolese. Understandable, perhaps, since he has relationships to maintain. But the book’s countless vignettes reveal a culture whose norms dictate a ruthless will-to-power that mocks any formalized, regulatory environment. Given the awful brutality and loss of human potential in Congo, polite silence implies ‘they know not what they do’—tantamount to infantilizing criminal actors ensconced in a cozy bubble of near-total impunity. Who then should denounce this open wound on the face of humanity; who is best placed to demand change? Not outsiders: our history there is too compromised to offer credible change. Next to the shrill wailing of celebrity-driven advocacy to “bring change” to Congo, Stearns’ silence is one of refreshing humility.

By listening to key dramatis personae—perverse and misanthropic in parts, tragicomic and ludicrous in others—Stearns unpacks the multiple, hidden layers of motivation and incentive driving events of the last twenty years. Perhaps more than any Congo book I know, this one succeeds in revealing why “war [has made] more sense than peace.”