Africa’s World War

Jerusalem — My book of choice for traveling in Israel this past week has been “Africa’s World War” by French academic Gérard Prunier.

The book’s narrative covers the events that unfolded in the Congo in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Its central argument serves the primarily Francophone notion that what the Rwandans have done to the displaced Hutus in the Congo has been almost the equivalent of what the Tutsis had experienced in Rwanda. Prunier tries to make the case that Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the army that “liberated” Rwanda after the genocide, is not only a brilliant military strategist but also a Machiavellian manipulator of the highest order, whose ambitions in the Congo went way beyond simply protecting Congo’s Tutsi minority.

This is a difficult book to read, but the fault is not so much Prunier’s as it is the underlying complexity of the wars that ravaged the Congo in the post-1994 period. We start off in the waning anarchic days of Marshall Mobutu and quickly devolve into the reign of Laurent Desiré Kabila, the father of the country’s current president, Joseph Kabila. Then comes the entry of Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville and Sudan — with guest appearances by yet others — in a war of attrition, where the desire to plunder Congolese riches equaled geopolitical interests. Prunier suggests that Kagame and the Rwandans view Eastern Congo as a threat but also as a buffer, and most certainly as part of a sphere of influence.

Prunier tells some incredulous tales involving a cast of characters worthy of the best wartime pulp fiction. My favorite involves the alleged appearance of a group of 60 African-Americans who, “according to English-speaking Zairians . . . had been recruited in the Unites States [and] flown to Uganda . . . [T]he way that their passage from the United States had been facilitated by [Congolese] Customs and police suggested undeniably that they were on some kind of unofficial government mission.”

It gets even better. In the footnotes Prunier suggests that these were “second-echelon” operatives used primarily when the U.S. Congress was to be kept in the dark, and that recruits for these operations were “former GIs but with shady records of drugs, theft, or sexual offenses.” Prunier complains that up until 2007, the U.S. government was still trying to convince him “that the whole operation never existed.” One wonders why?

Prunier seems to be following the fashionable French line that Kagame is no hero and that his record of war crimes could match up with anyone’s. The reason for the West’s failure to accept this, according to Prunier, is directly related to the guilt that the United Nations — and especially the U.S. — felt due to their failure to react during the genocide. This guilt, he says, created a fog that allowed the Rwandans and their Congolese proxies to carry out a war of attrition against their enemies and to guarantee their access to Eastern Congo’s natural resource riches.

Nevertheless, for all its flaws, howlers and endless acronyms, “Africa’s World War” is a valuable resource for understanding the planet’s most extensive military action since World War II.