Absurd Wars?

by Edward B. Rackley

250px-Democratic_Republic_of_the_Congo_(orthographic_projection).svgTo remark on how seamless our online and natural worlds have become is ho-hum these days, but last week as I slurped morning coffee and chatted online with a former Mai Mai rebel (whom I’ll call ‘Dikembe’) in turbulent eastern DR Congo, I found new reason to pause. Exchanging views on our perennial topic—solutions to Congo’s problems—felt as natural as the morning paper, but his statements resisted their usual meaning and tugged at me the rest of day. The part that recycled in my mind went a bit like this:

Dikembe: Things are bad in EDRC, Kabila [the president] can’t manage the situation.
Me: What does he manage? Nothing new there.
D: That’s why we reject him.


D: So how many Congolese have to die before the international community pays attention?
Me: The int'l community is impotent, you’ve seen that countless times. You have a government, ask them. You elected Kabila, why did you choose him? Or are you saying the elections were a fraud?
D: Aha, now you understand me perfectly. We are hearing that even his own security forces are moving against him. Only the international community can save us now.

In a previous episode of Congo’s tumult Dikembe and I worked together disarming combatants and reintegrating them into civilian life. Many were minors, Dikembe’s former subordinates from different local militias. Our program offered vocational training and the tools to start new businesses but few ex-combatants took it seriously. Most went along with the programs to kill time, selling the clothes and tools they received for cash. A lesson for us was that the adrenaline of pillage and the instant authority of the gun had become integral to their identity, defining them long after the firing stopped. Many ex-combatants, especially children, remained fiercely loyal to former commanders, rejecting their families and all forms of authority. Psychologically they were listless and volatile, preferring the bustle and relative anonymity of towns to the monotony and awkward familiarity of village life. Dikembe was no hero, but sage enough not to follow the herd. I watched him adapt to civilian life in wartime, a humbling series of privations, as he resisted the lure of easy money and influence through armed crime and extortion.

We talked politics and turmoil but I sensed that unemployment was also on his mind. Militias were running amok; were any aid programs deploying to rescue child soldiers and abducted girls? This was not crass opportunism; any such program would be lucky to have him. Unfathomable to me however was his plea for foreign intervention. He’d seen countless imported solutions fail, knew well the long history of western carnage in Congo and grasped why western messianism has no place in Africa today. But after almost 20 years of conflict and instability the belief that restoration can only come from without is the last province of hope, and understandably widespread among Congolese.

To me, this blind faith in the international community, so counter-factual it borders on supernatural, is a definite war casualty, formed through years of despair, disappointment and entrapment. It also mirrors the default Afro-pessimist position invented by racist colonialists to justify their mission: Africa is incorrigibly savage. And here was Dikembe, my trusted ancien combattant, savvy survivor and local insider barking out the same self-defeating, angry appeal. A catalogue of all he’d lived through began to form in my mind. As actor and spectator, perpetrator and victim, he’d seen repeated ceasefires and political settlements brokered and broken; highly publicized ICC indictments of war criminals cum generals, some still at large; two very expensive, western-funded national elections; a thirteen-year UN peacekeeping presence offering little security to Congolese in the line of fire; the discovery of enough rare minerals, precious stones, natural gas and standing hydroelectric potential to run the continent and yet his people begged in the dirt for their lives.

Other details from our morning exchange confirmed recent press reports that Dikembe’s mountainous region continued to burn, with scores of women and children butchered or abducted by clashing forces. None of this stirred me nor, ultimately, did Dikembe’s prayer that anonymous strangers descend from the sky and liberate his people like caged animals prepped for slaughter. From my ruminations following our chat a deadening realization surfaced, a different angle on Congo’s routine bleakness with its juggernaut of death in the East. An independent state since 1961 possessing every legal measure and means of enforcement, adequate human capacity and institutional safeguards to cauterize the bleeding, Congo does not have a single government institution fit for purpose. Too often we gape at a crime scene for signs of human carnage, but the real spectacle of Congo’s tragedy is the inhumanity of its well-heeled leaders who take no responsibility for the country’s astounding dysfunction. All that Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad witnessed and documented over a century ago, an era of enslavement with its forced collection of ivory and rubber under King Leopold’s dominion, is practically indistinct from Congo’s feudal rule of resource extraction today.

Rubber wars[Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company militia]

A recent barrage of articles, books and blogs tries to understand how failed or predatory states like Congo arise and persist. Many also ask how international aid efforts, including peacekeeping missions, can be so stunningly ineffective when faced with these Lord of the Flies situations. The case of Congo figures prominently among the works surveyed for this article, due in large part to last month’s widely covered failure to apprehend a war crimes suspect within its own national army, and the wreckage that ensued. Some of these works consider the causes and consequences of state failure over time, such as Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson.

This wave of new analysis furthers our understanding of these problems, whose clever simplifications of the interests driving local failure include Paul Collier’s ‘greed and grievance’ to explain Africa’s stream of post-independence insurgencies and Ken Menkhaus’ ‘from warlords to landlords’ for Somalia’s stateless ecosystem of armed profiteers. Understanding the incentives for states and insurgencies to sustain violence and mismanagement is important, but it is not all. If Mugabe or Gaddafi were simply stuffing their mattresses with money, standing their crumbling countries up again would not be so fraught.

This recent spate of writing focuses instead on the nature and practices of presiding government institutions. “If it looks like chaos,” a colleague once observed in Congo, “you don’t know what you’re looking at.” So while incentives and interests may help us answer the ‘why’ of Nigeria’s social disaster despite its massive oil wealth, we still know little of its ‘how’. How exactly do the ministries, economic actors and public institutions responsible for these crises function? And for those of us who work to solve these problems, the point is not pedestrian: solid diagnosis is not enough for a surgeon to succeed. He also needs precise anatomical knowledge. The murkiness of the world's most corrupt state institutions is forbidding but not impenetrable.

Why Nations Fail gets good mileage out of its distinction between ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ institutions. The former “allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish.” Such institutions arise and abide where “political power rests with a broad coalition or plurality of groups”—witness the vast difference between North and South Korea, or Rwanda and Burundi, countries and cultures once seamlessly united and now still twinned, yet drastically different. By contrast, extractive institutions pursue practices and policies “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset,” or between elites and their masses.

This book alone generated multiple reviews and debate from some notable thinkers. Jared Diamond in the New York Review of Books underscores the importance of the historical duration of centralized government to the success of public institutions. In sub-Saharan Africa, he writes, “one can’t suddenly introduce government institutions and expect people to adopt them and to unlearn their long history of tribal organization.” The ordering of traditional society continues to dominate how many recently independent states are governed, despite the trappings of parliamentary democracy, political parties and national elections. Diamond’s example is Papua New Guinea but most sub-Saharan countries fit this bill.

Colonialism, an era of extractive occupation by a foreign power and concluded with little transition meant that newly independent states simply inherited these same extractive institutions without modifying their coercive function to produce wealth for dictators and elites. Countries dependent on natural resources for their wealth and that inherited extractive institutions from colonial regimes continue to promote bad institutions and wealth disparity, with the predictable consequences of corruption, civil war and low education levels. Diamond weaves in a number of his own arguments familiar to readers of his work (geography, disease, climate), to correct the authors’ emphasis on man-made failings, reminding us of the environmental factors in the relative wealth of nations.

In The Wall Street Journal, William Easterly agrees with the authors that “getting the economics right requires getting the politics right,” and that “bad history persists into bad present outcomes.” This does not mean that the actions of today’s repressive, elite-run states can be blamed on colonialism because their leaders are rational, deliberate people, but it does illuminate the origin and structure of their institutions, often unaltered since colonial times. Easterly focuses on the authors’ thesis that highly centralized, oppressive governments can amass blinding wealth, but without inclusive institutions and a pluralist power base the national experiment fails sooner or later. Contra other aid critics like Dambisa Moyo, a fan of China’s prodigious growth, Easterly and the authors predict China will stagnate for want of innovation and “creative destruction,” following the Soviet trajectory.

So how do the forces of real, lasting change emerge and succeed, and what of international efforts to re-engineer these institutions to serve the collective interest? Is our foreign aid simply enabling corrupt, cynical regimes? Or can Dikembe's faith in the goodwill of strangers be vindicated with the right sequence of carrots and sticks?

Congo masquerade

Pundits have their place in the universe, but for a practitioner like myself the more applicable insights are to be found in country-specific critiques. Ted Trefon's recent book, Congo Masquerade: The political culture of aid inefficiency and reform failure, presents a series of ground-floor descriptions, often through the eyes of Congolese themselves, of how perverse incentives shape political elite's reception of the foreign aid agenda in Congo, and of the failure of aid technocrats to defend themselves against this deliberate and well-choreographed manipulation. The resulting dynamic is entrenched, unchallenged kleptocracy, countless failed public sector investments in Congo by donor nations, and an explosion of foreign funded NGOs who provide basic services in lieu of the government.

A review blurb on the cover cites ‘catastrophic aid inefficiency’ as the primary subject of the book, but Congo's 'extractive institutions' receive their fair share of the blame. Natural resource management (forests, protected flora, fauna, timber and minerals), roads, emergency relief assistance to the millions of displaced persons–each topic reflects Congo's enormous potential, squandered through decades of cynical governance and a society too atomized and suspicious to form a unified voice for change. This work sets Trefon on par with other respected analyses of similarly spectacular aid failures in Somalia (The Road to Hell, Michael Maren), Rwanda (Aiding Violence, Peter Uvin) and Haiti (Travesty in Haiti, Tim Schwartz).

Macro or micro, the various researchers mentioned above underscore the sad exceptionalism of sub-Saharan Africa, where the primary effective force for political change continues to be assassination and armed insurgency. All the international funding and commitment to strengthen independent media, civil society, national ministries, economic regulation, oversight and provision of public services (education, health, water etc), have not altered this pattern of self-sabotage. Also common to the works discussed here is a presumption that the war zones and thug regimes of sub-Saharan Africa over the last twenty years constitute a new paradigm of conflict, absent political causes, where violence targets and terrorizes civilians as rag-tag ethnic armies squabble over resource rich territory across vast lawless spaces. I know of one book that argues against this grain: “Civil war in developing countries,” per the title of Chris Cramer’s 2004 landmark study, “is not a stupid thing.” Scott Strauss' recent article in African Affairs, “Wars do end! Changing patterns of political violence in sub-Saharan Africa,” corrects this received thinking with updated statistics on African conflict. Yet the same pessimism, akin to racism in my mind, pervades popular thinking in rich nations, even finding currency among journalists whose job it is to tell the story of these conflicts.

Civil war stupid thingA recent Guernica article, “The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism,” traces the arc in war journalism from coverage of the ‘sides’ and ‘causes’ in a war to another mode of conflict today that defies traditional categories. It is true that much of the monstrously gratuitous violence inflicted on civilians is incomprehensible, even to long-time observers. Jon Anderson is quoted, asking “how does one understand the Shabaab,” Somalia’s militant Islamic faction, or Al Qaeda’s “medieval violence?” The traditional method of modern wars, including guerrilla movements and liberation struggles, was to win over local populations and establish new political foundations. But even if Shabaab, Al Qaeda or the Lord's Resistance Army are impenetrable to western journalists (Daniel Pearl died trying) and few sympathize with their cause, their war-making is not absurd, pointless, only about slaughter.

New York Times Nairobi correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman won a Pulitzer this year with his stories of civilians coping in Somalia, South Sudan and eastern Congo. Human interest stories garner reader attention through journalistic empathy, but they do not help demystify conflict. Interviewing victims also reveals the personal cost of violence, but rarely accounts for the logic driving it. Reporters like Gettleman are courageously doing what they can, describing what they have access to, which is the civilian realm. But to characterize these same wars as “never ending” and “spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic,” as Gettleman recently did in Foreign Affairs (echoing Robert Kaplan's sensationalist The Coming Anarchy), is lazy and patronizing in the extreme. Gettleman shows that a field perspective doesn't always equate with clearer vision.

How to answer Dikembe's original question — is solidarity a living, credible force in our world? Are silence and inaction a form of complicity with evil? Sixty years ago Karl Jaspers posed the question in Die Schuldfrage following Europe's descent into gratuitous, if scrupulously prepared, murder on an unlimited scale. Hannah Arendt accepted Jaspers’ concept of metaphysical guilt but dismissed solidarity—'comprehending a multitude'—as trespassing into totalitarian terrain. “But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it,” she wrote. “It comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor.” Human rights organizations today would refute this view and anemic and remote–a dilemma fit for an armchair pundit. Victims and perpetrators of war crimes can be tracked and identified; apprehension is elusive given the absence of cooperative local institutions, a problem highlighted in the above discussion.

Perhaps this is the next step in how the ICC, the UN and donor community respond to the recalcitrance of thug leadership. The loss of human lives and potential in the Congos, Haitis and Afghanistans of the world amount to much more than the personal and political failings of national leaders; they are calculated criminal acts. Crimes against humanity of a lesser degree than genocide, yes, but surely the act of trapping entire populations in cages of illiteracy, hunger and constant insecurity for decades, even generations, should be punishable. Material evidence and first hand accounts are in no short supply.


Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Crown Books, 2012

Congo Masquerade, Theodore Trefon, Zed Books, 2011

“Wars do end! Changing patterns of political violence in sub-Saharan Africa,” Scott Straus, African Affairs, the Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol 111, No 443, April 2012

“Dangerous tales: Dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences,” Séverine Autesserre, African Affairs: The Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol 111, No 443, April 2012

“Africa’s endless wars: why the continent’s wars never end,” Jeffrey Gettleman, Foreign Policy 178 (March/April 2010), pp. 73-5

“The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism,” Susie Linfield, Guernica, June 15, 2012

“The Only Way to Help Congo,” Séverine Autesserre, The New York Times, June 22, 2012