Saturday, May 30, 2009

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Castastrope / Gerard Prunier -- Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

Beginning in September 1996, a massive and complex six-year war engulfed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and neighboring countries. At least seven countries were direct combatants and several others were more or less indirectly involved. At its height, the war threatened to involve nearly every African nation. Almost 4 million Africans died in the conflict.

Despite the enormity of the violence, few Americans know much at all about the war. Our ignorance is largely a product of our news media's neglect of Africa in general or its fixation on specific events in Africa. During the war in the DRC, Sudanese Darfur monopolized media attention, though as a humanitarian disaster, Darfur did not equal the war in the Congo basin. For anyone interested in learning about the war, Gerard Prunier's recent book, Africa's World War provides an excellent starting point.

Prunier concentrates his attention on political and military events, giving a detailed account of the state and non-state militias, political parties, and politicians. The story is so complex that the reader would do well to take careful notes along the way just to keep the changing alliances straight. The primary combatants were the Rwandese Patriot Army (RPA) and successive governments in Kinshasa, Zaire (later the DRC). Each side was allied with rebel groups and other local militias in the Congo basin. Other direct state actors included Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. As the conflict expanded, Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya, the Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and South Africa also became more or less involved. At various stages, the United Nations attempted to intervene, bring in troops from outside of Africa.

Prunier aptly describes how the decline and death of Zairean President Mobutu led to a power vacuum in the Congo basin, prompting opportunistic military actions by neighboring countries. The spark which ignited the war were conflicts in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. Following the conquest of Rwanda by the Rwandese Patriotic Front, the new largely Tutsi government in Kigali, Rwanda mounted assaults against the Hutu refugees that it accused of having participated in the genocide and of working to destabilize the Kigali government. These assaults led in September 1996 to the invasion of the Zairean states of North and South Kivu and to a military campaign to depose Mobutu, who was supporting the Hutu refugees.

During the war against Mobutu, nearly every African country supported Rwanda; however, once Rwanda was able to place Laurent-Desire Kabila in power in Kinshasa, alliances broke down. After a period of some confusion, Kabila broke from his Rwandese patrons and sought to drive the RPA out of his newly renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. Angola became Kabila's main supporter along with Zimbabwe and Namibia. The Angolan government's interest in the Congo was largely related to its ongoing war against its own rebel movement, UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. UNITA, having been allied with Mobutu, now became roughly allied with the RPA against Kabila and the Angolan government.

In the north, Uganda had worked in concert with the RPA in the assault against Mobutu and it remained allied with the RPA against Kabila; however, its primary role in the war involved struggles against its own rebel movement the Lord's Resistance Army, which was supported by Kabila and the Sudan. This battle (along with the internal Angolan battles) were played out mostly on Congolese soil.

The third and final stage of the war, began with Kabila's assassination in January of 2001. Kabila's cabinet was largely sympathetic to Angolan interests and might have arranged for an openly pro-Angolan successor, but to avoid dissent, they placed in power Kabila's 29 year old son, Joseph Kabila. Joseph Kabila turned out to be surprisingly politically astute. Without a domestic power base of his own, he cultivated international support, particularly support from outside of Africa. This provided him with just enough security to break from his Angolan cabinet and establish a relatively stable and effective government.

By now, the war's belligerents were becoming exhausted and each gradually accepted peace agreements and over the course of next three years, they withdraw from Congolese soil, though in some cases, particularly Rwanda, they continue to support various Congolese militias. As the war began in the Kivus, it wound down last in the Kivus, but in general, the DRC remains a violent theatre of conflict despite the end of all out war.

Prunier's final chapter, "Groping for Meaning," attempts to provide more than an account of the main political and military events of the war. Along with a summary of U.S. and French involvement in the war, this final chapter underscores the difficulty in understanding African conflicts within a European paradigm of state and national politics. The complexity of the conflict related in the main of the book makes this clear enough. The European state system developed over centuries on a continent with very different economic and social conditions than Africa. Consequently, it provides little to no insight into the actions of the war's belligerents.

To understand the conflict, one must comprehend cross-cutting national, tribal, religious, linguistic, economic, and social identities, all on a continent abused by imperialist exploitation and riven by the cold war. While Prunier recognizes this challenge, his work does little more than expose the difficulty of understanding the war. This does not, however, detract from his excellent political/military account of the war.

Also missing from the account are vivid accounts of the pain and suffering that came to so many combatants and non-combatants in the course of the war. Prunier occasionally mentions deprivation, massacres, rape, and the drafting of child soldiers, but his account is surprisingly antiseptic, which may be a plus for the reader in that any attempt to give a full account of the human suffering may have made the work too painful to read. Nonetheless, a chapter bearing witness to the atrocities of the war from the perspective of its victims would have given the work more than academic value.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent / Andrew Nikiforuk -- Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2008.

While many governments and oil companies are steadfastly denying the imminent peak of world wide oil production, their words are belied by their actions. In Tar Sands, Andrew Nikiforuk describes the headlong rush to develop perhaps the most expensive and dirtiest hydrocarbon reserve on the planet: the tar sands of Alberta. Nikiforuk notes that 60% of all global oil investments are made in the these tar sands and that the consequences for the people of Alberta and the Mackenzie River Watershed are devastating.

To turn the tar sands into oil involves a mining operation that makes Appalachian mountain top removal look non-invasive. The oil (or more precisely, the bitumen) is a tar-like substance that is mixed with soil, sand, and rock. To remove it, the land is carved up and steamed using, huge quantities of water. Left behind are gigantic lakes formed inside levees. These lakes contain poisonous tailings. The size and expense of the operation defies imagination.

Beyond the environmental disaster, Nikiforuk describes that impact that this development has had on the civic epicenter of it all: the boom city of Fort McMurray. Crime, drugs, traffic deaths, inflation, and the erosion of public health are among the social disasters that accompany the development. Nikiforuk observes that Alberta and Canada in general are quickly becoming "petrostates," in which the economy is organized to export oil to the world, in particular, to the United States. Characteristic of petrostates, the government of Alberta is becoming increasingly undemocratic with decisions made without public oversight and in compliance with the wishes of oil company executives.

Tar Sands is a testament to the power of the international demand for cheap energy, and the willingness of people to sacrifice so much to cash in on that demand.  It is also worth noting that if the tar sands are fully exploited, the amount of carbon dioxide that will be released into the atmosphere and oceans will likely push global warming well beyond what is already an extremely dangerous level.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Abraham Lincoln's World: How Riverboats, Railroads, and Republicans Transformed America / Thomas Crump -- London: Continuum, 2009.

Thomas Crump distinguishes himself from the myriad other historians writing about Lincoln in the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth by noting he is probably the only such author who interviewed an eye witness to the Gettysburg Address. At the age of 80, Crump has given us a brief introduction to some of the most important currents of the first half of 19th century America.

Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln's World is uneven. At times Crump tells us the trivial, e.g., each state has two Senators. At other times, he makes quite interesting and insightful observations about the conditions in America during Lincoln's time. True to his subtitle, his treatment of steamships and railroads are quite valuable. He also provides valuable descriptions of the changing demographics of the country and internal migrations. However, his treatment of the better known aspects of the political history of the time is unremarkable. On the other hand, the chapters on the development of Illinois and California are detailed and well worth reading.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter deals with the settlement and rebellion of Texas. Contemporary interpretations of these events tend to vilify the Anglo Texas settlers. Crump treats them more sympathetically by portraying them not as pro-slavery ideologues seeking to expand slave territory, but as people seeking a better life -- not all of them sympathetic to slavery. He does a good job describing the internal chaos in Mexico that made the loss of Texas to Anglo immigration all but inevitable. The only myopia here is his cursory treatment of the Native American population.

Crump also does a good job conveying the boundaries of debate of the time regarding the issue of slavery. Today, many people view the period as a conflict between two actors: Abolitionists and the Slave Power, with a large uncommitted mass between them. Instead, Crump's political landscape is populated mostly by politicians residing between the extremes, struggling with the impossibility of a house divided against itself. This less ideological treatment of the slavery issue doesn't preclude 21st century moral judgements, but it does give real depth and texture to the description of the struggle over slavery.

Sadly, the work is also marred by numerous copy editing errors that sometimes complete reverse the meaning of Crump's statements.