I’m not sure how much can be said about Jason Stearns’ new book on the Congo wars, “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa,” that hasn’t already been said by far more prestigious reviewers than me.
But as someone who has read the bulk of what’s been published in the last 15 years on the conflict, I can unequivocally say that this is the most accessible introduction out there to the country’s multilayered local conflict, civil war and international wars.
If you want to understand the Democratic Republic of the Congo wars, you need to read this book.
Stearns writes not as an academic (though he is currently studying for a doctorate in political science), but rather as a journalist and storyteller.
The story he tells is framed around real individuals who symbolize the various facets of the conflict – a Rwandan Hutu refugee, a Banyamulenge recruit to the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, and a former Rally for Congolese Democracy politician.
By weaving together their experiences and perspectives, Stearns manages to present an incredibly complex series of conflicts as a readable, compelling narrative.
It is in capturing the conflict’s complexity that Stearns provides a great service to the reader. Longtime readers of my columns know my frustration with oversimplified narratives that reduce the Congo conflict to rape and minerals.
Stearns resists the temptation to simplify anything, instead trusting that his readers, with guidance, can absorb complexity.
He doesn’t get around to discussing minerals until chapter 19, in part because they had very little to do with the start of the wars.
Stearns’ central claim is that the Congolese wars – like wars everywhere – are at their heart political. He shows time and again how calculations – Rwanda’s decision to invade, Kabila’s decision to expel Rwanda and Uganda – are the result of political processes and rational decision making.
This provides an important counterweight to so many reductionist journalistic and advocacy accounts of the DRC situation (that almost always include references to the “heart of darkness”) that chalk up violence there to ancient hatreds, wars about greed for minerals or total chaos.
“All of these stories [about atrocities] are true,” Stearns writes. “These advocacy efforts have also, however, had unintended effects. They reinforce the impression that the Congo is filled with wanton savages, crazed by power and greed. This view, by focusing on the utter horror of the violence, distracts from the politics that gave rise to the conflict and from the reasons behind the bloodshed. If all we see is black men raping and killing in the most outlandish ways imaginable, we might find it hard to believe that there is any logic to this conflict.”
“If we want to change the political dynamics in the country,” Stearns says, “we have above all to understand the conflict on its own terms.”
Taking the Congo and its wars on its own terms is difficult.
I think this is the heart of the disconnect – it’s a lot easier to fit the conflict into patterns of understanding that make sense in Western terms than it is to deconstruct layer after layer of politics.
But as we’ve watched effort after effort after effort at peace-building fail, it’s more and more clear that the DRC has to be taken on its own terms with a clear recognition that incentives and politics matter.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.