How Millions Have Been Dying in the Congo

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Marcus Bleasdale/VII
A poster of President Joseph Kabila on a campaign car two days before the run-off election that returned him to office, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 27, 2006

The brassy title of Jason Stearns’s book, more like that of an old rock album than a history, comes from a speech by Laurent Kabila. President of the Congo from 1997 until his murder in 2001, Kabila had replaced the interminable tyranny of Mobutu Sese Seko with his own much shorter and more erratic tyranny. He said: “Who has not been Mobutist in this country? Three-quarters of this country became part of it! We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.”

The remark is like Kabila himself: ambiguous, weirdly alluring, useless. It seems to accept that everyone with ambition will naturally be drawn into the dance around the autocrat, and yet (“We saw you all…”) to threaten those dancers with retribution. Who are “we”? The one quarter of the Congolese who did not become “part of it”? And does that mean that the nondancing minority has the right to rule the capering majority? It leaves you wondering if you have to be a monster in order to be glorious.

Jason Stearns himself does not believe in the glory of monsters. Neither does he accept a “Heart of Darkness” view of the Congo as a zone of hopeless, endemic monstrosity. This is a country he knows well (if it is possible to know well a place so enormous and so roadless). Stearns led the 2008 UN mission to study violence there, and worked on conflict and human rights in the Congo with a series of agencies and charities.

He does not swallow the rhetoric about a “failed state.” For him, the appalling events in the belt of Africa between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes are about remediable human failure: jerrybuilt social and political structures that collapse at the first tremor, lack of trained elites, the alternate meddling and indifference of the outside world, and—above all, for Stearns—the weakness of nation-state authority. “Failed state”? If independent Congo/Zaire had ever possessed a state coherent enough to fail, matters might have been less disastrous.

His book has been put together out of many dozens of interviews, sustained research, and Stearns’s personal experiences. He mentions that in the Congo a politician requires un bon carnet d’adresses—a high-value contact book. His own, judging by the access he has acquired, must be a very valuable carnet indeed.

This is not the story of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, in which 800,000 people—almost all civilians—were massacred by their ethnic rivals in the space of a hundred days. That great atrocity is now relatively well known. Instead, this book tells of the war that broke out in the same region two years later, and that was in many ways its consequence.

The conflict that became international in October 1996,…



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