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.