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Sunday Book Review: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters


This is the third of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters made almost everyone’s short list for inclusion as a 2011 Patterson Summer Reading.  Stearns, who blogs at Congo Siasa, has written a relatively concise history of Congo wars of the 1990s and early 2000s.  It is now commonplace to describe these wars as “Africa’s World War I,” although this phrasing does violence to the actual causes, course, and conduct of the war in Congo.  The first war was mostly featured Rwanda and Uganda fighting against Mobutu’s Zaire, with the former getting an assist from Zaire’s neighbors and the latter from Hutu refugees of the RPF’s conquest of Rwanda.  The second war initially pitted Rwanda and Uganda against Laurent Kabila’s successor state, although the anti-Kabila alliance eventually broke down.

Stearns managed to get a fantastic set of interviews with individuals from all aspects of the conflict.  These include conversations with characters who go rather beyond the descriptor “shady”; Stearns talks to people who have both perpetrated and been the victims of brutal massacres.  Stearns is interested is debunking the idea that the brutality of the Congo wars was something dark, mystical, and quasi-mythical, and to put the violence in the understandable political terms.  The obviously horrific (and Stearns includes many horrific details) nature of the fight tends to make Western audiences uninterested in probing the political, economic, and social determinants of the conflict, as well as to ignore the possibility of productive resolutions.  In short, Stearns wants to humanize the conflict, and he begins by talking to human beings.

Stearns account of the development and collapse of the Congolese Army is particularly well done.  He explains that the refusal of the Belgians to allow Congolese to serve as officers or senior non-coms left the post-colonial army entirely bereft of a leadership cadre. Congo lacked the kind of cohesive, experienced rebel group that could have been integrated into the Army, but in the long term this might not have mattered, anyway.  Mobutu had little to no interest in maintaining a strong, cohesive officer corps, as such an institution would have threatened his control of the state apparatus. While Zaire had plenty of well trained, well educated officers (mostly through foreign training programs) but these officers were never able to develop the institutional core necessary for a well-functioning organization.  The fact that Mobutu displayed little interest in the training, upkeep, or even paying of conscripts didn’t help matters.  By the time the war came, Zaire’s army was badly outclassed in terms of training and morale by Rwandan and Ugandan forces. As it became clear to individual officers and soldiers that the chances of success were iffy, the entire institution collapsed.

How did the war become so large? Stearns explains that Mobutu never really feared foreign invasion, and felt free to give sanctuary to whichever foreign insurgent groups suited him at a given time.  This created a fair degree of animosity with many of Congo’s neighbors.  Stearns mostly rejects the idea that foreign intervention was geared toward seizing Congo’s resource wealh, preferring political explanations.  The difficulty that foreign powers faced in maintaining control of Congolese territory, as well as the general reluctance (other than by Uganda and Rwanda) to maintain long-term deployment on Congolese soil, supports this argument.  Foreign intervention in the war was generally designed to accomplish specific political goals, rather than to establish permanent presence.

Uganda and Rwanda were, of course, different.  The Rwandans do not come off well in Stearns account.  While the insistence of the RPF on pursuing Hutu militias is understandable, Stearns makes clear that the Rwandans had little interest in facilitating the development of stability in Congo.  The RPF and its allies conducted many brutal massacres in both wars, often targeted against civilians who had played no role in the 1994 genocide.  The RPF used the memory of the genocide to shield itself from international criticism; the international community had effectively decided that the Tutsis were the “good guys” and that their behavior wouldn’t be overly scrutinized.  This decision had an exceedingly negative impact on the course of events in both Congo wars.

Similarly, the international community comes off poorly.  Stearns is highly critical of the dual decision to maintain Hutu refugee camps in  Zaire, while not separating the Hutu military and political elite from the population.  This decision facilitated the continued control of the old regime, including its ability to launch military attacks into Rwanda.  Mobutu cooperated with the Hutu elite, and eventual Kabila would try to co-opt Hutu soldiers and insurgents into his own national forces.  While it’s true that many Hutu suffered severe reprisals upon returning to Rwanda, Stearns is of the view that the bulk of the Hutu population was ambivalent at best about the refugee camps.  Freed from control of the militias, many returned to Rwanda more or less of their own accord.  Had the international community more carefully considered the consequences of establishing what amounted to insurgent safe havens in Congo (including a captive population upon which to draw on), Rwanda might have been less enthusiastic about pursuing war in Congo.

The Rwandans also took advantage of the norms and rules of domestic and international conflict.  They realized that the international community takes a very grim view of an invasion across established international borders, but that it’s almost indifferent to domestic insurgencies.  The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion quickly became cloaked behind a group of domestic insurgent groups that had long worked against Mobutu; thus the resurrection of the career of Laurent Kabila.  With domestic allies and the memory of 1994, Rwanda could carry out both the first and second wars without overmuch interference from the West.

Stearns military history of the wars is uneven, and will probably leave many unsatisfied.  I suspect that part of his problem has to do with anticipated audience; many readers will want a history of the past twenty years without having much interest in specific engagements.  Also, the two wars don’t lend themselves well to a history of decisive engagements.  Nevertheless, Stearns presents several outstanding set pieces of battles between the various parties. In particular, his account of the Battle of Pepa is wonderful, highlighting the expertise of Rwandan and Burundian forces in infiltration attacks against set Congolese defenses. Stearns also has a very good sense of the determinants of military effectiveness, as demonstrated by the careful attention he pays to the organizational characteristics of the Congolese and Rwandan armed forces.

Stearns story loses a little bit of clarity after the death of Laurent Kabila and the ascension to power of his son. Part of the problem is structure and timing; the old man’s death is followed by a series of unrelated events in other parts of the country, and then by a careful analysis of theories of Kabila’s assassination.   Stearns gives a good account of the strengths and weaknesses of Joseph Kabila, indicating that the current President has demonstrated unlikely skill in maintaining power and making peace, but that he has of yet demonstrated little interest or capability in developing the Congolese state or pursuing serious democratic reform.

Still, it’s hard not to be a bit more optimistic about the future of Congo after reading this book.  Stearns’ purpose was to render the combatants in the conflict human, to portray who they are and what they did in rational, understandable terms.  He mostly succeeds, even as he can’t fully explain the most brutal violence of the war. Resolving the conflict depends on the development of stable institutions and of trust, which is obviously exceedingly difficult.  Having a  sense of who the players are and why they do the things that they do, however, is an improvement on the notion that Congo is simply an irreducible, inexplicable mess.

Alongside the Patterson reading list I’ve been reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, which tells the story of state development across highlands and lowlands in Southeast Asia.  Reading anything while reading anything by James Scott is an intellectually productive exercise.  Scott’s account of the difficulty of exerting state control over changes in elevation explains much about the inability of Zaire to control its northwest borderlands, as well as of the general difficulty of building state institutions across the expansive state territory.  Scott points out that the last fifty years have seen the development of technologies and social structures that allow the modern state to exert control over heretofore impenetrable terrain. These include the airplane, good roads, railroads, and mass media penetration. However, few of these technologies are available to state-builders in Congo.  This makes me skeptical that any Congolese leadership can do much more than manage a broad alliance of ethnic groups and warlords.  Any model for the near future of the Congo would seem to have to take into account the serious difficulties of statebuilding, and might more resemble a quasi-feudal empire than a modern state.

In the next few days I hope to have a longish post on the prospects for South Sudan, which will necessarily include reference to the arguments made by Stearns.  One question that I’m interested in is the development of “best practices” statecraft, or of a set of rules, norms, and procedures that new states and rulers could follow in the process of building and maintaining state capacity.  In the context of Congo, this means asking questions like “What could Lumumba have done? Or Mobutu? Or Kabila?”  We have all kinds of tools for assessing the mistakes that post-colonial rulers committed, and rather fewer tools for thinking about how they might have done better.  Stearns is very good on the former, and I think he opens some useful space on the latter.

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