A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 4.

Africa was one of the battlefields in the Cold War. The United States supported—to a degree— the Congolese dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko (aka Joseph Mobutu) while the Cold War went on. It’s not like they had much choice, regardless of what spy novels tell us about the supposed powers of the CIA world-hydra. Once the Cold War ended, all bets were off. In the late 1990s, Mobutu was staggering after 30 years of tyranny and plunder. Rebels waged war against the government from remote sanctuaries in the vast country. All sorts of tribal quarrels were barely held in check. Then, in 1994, the Rwandan genocide on Congo’s eastern border killed 800,000 Tutsis and led to the flight of a million Hutu “genocidaires” and their kin to the Congo. While the Ugandan-backed Tutsis took power in Rwanda, the Hutus took effective control of the refugee camps that were supposedly run by international agencies. Not content to leave bad enough alone, the Hutus transformed these into bases for guerrilla raids into Rwanda. In 1996, the Rwandan Tutsis joined forces with some of the local Congolese rebels (some of them Congolese Tutsis) to wage their own war in Eastern Congo against the Hutus. Massacres of Hutus—not just of soldiers—attended every Tutsi incursion, then and later.

This triggered the final collapse of the Mobutu dictatorship. Supported at first by Rwanda, a former-rebel-turned-schemer-in-exile named Laurent Kabila took over as president. Rather than replacing one strong-man with another, this created a vacuum of power. Civil war broke out with multiple participants. Kabila disappointed the Rwandans just as much as he disappointed many others. In 1998, Rwanda again invaded the Congo. Kabila saved himself from overthrow by drawing in help from neighboring Angola and Zimbabwe. This stalled the Rwandans at the price of expanding the number of interested participants in an already gory war. Then Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his even more ineffectual son. Again civil war broke out. Again, Rwanda intervened.[1] Often these interventions seem to have been driven by the quest to control the mines of eastern Congo: gold, diamonds, uranium, nickel, copper. Over the years, huge amounts of precious minerals have been transferred to Rwanda.[2]

The war continues in fits and starts much as it has done for twenty years now. It has been a particularly brutal war. Small bands of armed men, rather than great armies, do battle far from Western eyes. Massacres of civilians abound, and millions haven driven into hiding in the bush. Starvation and disease are as much killers as are the gun men. By 2009, the best estimates held that 4-5 million people had died. Then things began to calm down. Uganda and Rwanda, long partners in crime, fell out with one another over the division of the spoils. Rwanda sought to patch-up relations with Congo. This brought a period of relative peace to eastern Congo.

You might think that this catastrophe would attract a lot of attention. It hasn’t. There are a couple of excellent histories.[3] There is one novel that focuses narrowly, but effectively, on the corrupt relationship between business and government in what amounts to a profit free-fire zone.[4] Told through the voice of an Anglo-Congolese translator, the story boils down to a plot by a well-connected American businessman to launch a fake coup in eastern Congo so that his mercenaries can scoop up a vast store of precious metals. “The horror. The horror.”

[1] Paul Kagame, the Rwandan “president,” is a much caressed pet of the United States.

[2] This may be one explanation for the apparent modernity of government offices in what is still a poor country.

[3] Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwanda Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford University Press, 2009); Jason K. Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (Public Affairs, 2011).

[4] John le Carre, The Mission Song (Little, Brown and Co., 2006).

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