When An African Giant Falls Apart: Review Of ‘Dancing In The Glory Of Monsters: The Collapse Of The Congo And The Great War Of Africa’ By Jason Stearns

On the morning of December 30th 1998, the village of Makabola, 15km south of the Congolese-Burundese bordertown of Uvira, was surrounded by troops of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), a Rwandan backed rebel group. Between 5 and 6am, under the leadership of the notorious commander Shetani (‘Satan’ in Swahili), they cordoned off the village. Thus began a killing spree with machetes, guns and grenades that left at least 800 Congolese citizens dead over the next two days. Several children and women were burned alive and corpses were mutilated in gruesome ways. The massacre was Shetani’s act of revenge for the RCD’s inability to quash the guerrilla resistance of local Mai Mai self-defence groups and Burundese rebels who were active in South Kivu. The cracked skulls of some of Makabola’s victims can still be found today in a local hospital nearby. Nobody has ever been punished for the tragedy that took place in 1998.

The story of Makabola, told to me last year by one of its perpetrators in Butare (Rwanda), is not in Jason Stearns’ Dancing In the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, but it might well have been. Stearns’ book ambitiously sets out to try to explain the forces –rational and not so rational- that have been driving the violent implosion of Africa’s second largest country and resulted in the deaths of millions of Congolese, mostly due to disease and hunger. It aims to go beyond Conrad-like ‘Heart of Darkness’ – explorations of the atrocities and seeks a nuanced, dynamic explanation of Central Africa’s killing fields.

For Stearns, history is important, as are lengthy individual testimonies of key witnesses to the events he analyses: characters like leftist university professor Wamba dia Wamba, who once led the RCD rebels and is now barely able to pay monthly rent for a tiny apartment without electricity in Kinshasa; tin and coltan smuggler Pierre Olivier, the local link between Eastern Congolese rebels and international IT markets; or Didier Mumengi, President Laurent Kabila’s colourful Minister of Information. These personalities do not just feature to add a bit of couleur locale to the narrative; Stearns takes the Congolese themselves seriously in trying to explain the meltdown that followed the spill-over of the conflict between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the genocidal regime of Hutu extremists from Rwanda to Zaire: this triggered two wars (1996-1997 & 1998-2002) that sucked in nine countries and plunged Congo’s GDP below what it had been at independence in 1960.

Undoubtedly the most important quality of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters” is that it brings an account of events that will be familiar to followers of Great Lakes developments, but in a truly captivating way. There are few surprises here for the seasoned observer – though some interviewees tell fascinating new anecdotes, for example about the Ugandan-Rwandan battle for control of Kisangani or the hilarious ‘team-building’ sessions in Kigali of the four founding fathers of the AFDL movement that overthrew long-time dictator Mobutu – but Stearns brings a very complex history to life by balancing Congolese urban legends with historical analysis and discussions of the perceptions of regional leaders and village chiefs alike. As he rightly notes himself, it is almost impossible to establish whether an often narrated story about Laurent Kabila actually happened or not, but in the Congo of the 1990s in particular, establishing the sole, literal truth about an event is perhaps not the most important thing. Kabila might or might not have locked millions of dollars in cash in a small toilet in his office; the deeper message of the story –about the Mzee’s paranoia, about a Congolese obsession with hidden fortunes and about the AFDL’s chaotic style of governance- is what ultimately matters.

Stearns does a particularly good job when highlighting, in a carefully balanced way, the extent of extreme violence committed both by and against Congolese and Rwandan Tutsi since 1990. His book contains several overwhelming passages that describe massacres like that in Makabola. His remembrance, through the eyes of Rwandan civil society worker Béatrice Umutesi, of the Calvary of the Hutu refugees who perished in the tens of thousands is especially powerful. Mostly women, children and men too old to fight alongside the ex-FAR/Interahamwe génocidaires, they were hunted down by Rwandan death squads and Congolese Tutsi fighting for the AFDL in Congo’s jungles in 1996-1997 (‘black ops’ that continued, though Stearns does not write about this, after the fall of Kinshasa in May 1997).

He sketches the lethal tit-for-tat cycle as a product of long standing Banyamulenge marginalisation, the extent of ethnic prejudice against them (even in pre-war Congo), the impact of the Rwandan genocide and a gradually exacerbating culture of violence, where constant transgression of legal norms and moral values leads to worsening excesses that culminated in Congo in infamous tragedies in Kasika, Mbandaka and Gatumba. Stearns’ description of the inability of almost everybody –aid workers, Laurent Kabila, the international community, local Congolese – to understand what was happening in places like Tingi-Tingi, a refugee camp where thousands of sick refugees were butchered with bayonets and knives, is worth re-reading a couple of times.

Inevitably, at the same time, some of the strong points of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters’ also turn out to be some of its weaknesses. The digestible size and journalistic style of his book make it extremely readable, but come at the cost of writing very little about key events or people. Stearns is able to devote only a few lines to Kabila’s rise to power (how he came to dominate the other AFDL founding fathers is a critical story untold), to the complex policies pursued by Angola between 1996 and 2006 in Congo or to Anselme Masasu Nindaga, the charismatic youngster who threatened the Mzee’s political supremacy in 1997 and whose removal precipitated the wider breakdown of the regime that triggered the 1998 war. Though he focuses greatly on Rwanda’s actions, too much of his evidence is dependent on one man, the dissident former head of Kigali’s External Security Organisation, Colonel Patrick Karegeya.

Moreover, only one short chapter is devoted to the critical events between the overthrow of Mobutu and the renewed outbreak of war, a fifteen month period in which Kabila, Ugandan President Museveni and RPF strongman Kagame went from friends (genuinely) – intending to transform Central Africa – to enemies willing to unleash quasi-genocidal violence on each other. Stearns thus dedicates only a few paragraphs to the million dollar question: when and how did Laurent Kabila begin supporting the ex-FAR/Interahamwe, the move that marked the definitive rupture between Kigali and Kinshasa before the Second Congo War?  Many burning questions about the motives and actions of protagonists – including American foreign policy, on which Stearns writes insufficiently – remain unanswered in this otherwise impressive book. He also has almost nothing to say about the role of land and cattle at the local level, despite these being essential factors in the story of chronic violence in Ituri and the Kivu region.

Another weakness is undoubtedly the absence of interaction with theoretical models in the book, or deep academic reflections on the causes and triggers of violence in Congo. Stearns has explicitly set out to keep things readable, choosing not to get bogged down in tricky methodological questions or long theoretical debates. This is a perfectly understandable decision, but he pays a price. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, despite its claims to make sense of the madness and confusion, has less explanatory power than the scholarly masterpieces written by Filip Reyntjens and Gérard Prunier. While Reyntjens and Prunier’s analysis of the Great African War – even if empirically faulty now and then – is solidly anchored in social science, Stearns at times would benefit from a deeper engagement with academic literatures.

For example, his concluding ponderings on Hobbes, the lack of a Congolese Leviathan and the orgy of violence to which the people of Congo were exposed, are weak and unfinished. So, overall, are his reflections on ethnicity which is seen as some kind of residue that does nasty things to people but that remains neither defined, nor linked consistently to other concepts or analytical categories. Finally, his analysis of the nature of the Congolese state remains impressionist, and is not systematic. He says few things that are very wrong, but little that is innovative or that draws on a strong comparative perspective on Congo’s problems.

Overall then, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is a true page-turner about a complex subject. It tells “a damn good story”, to paraphrase The Economist, but does so while successfully challenging some of the more conspiratorial ideas in the public domain. His sections on how natural resources didn’t cause the conflict, but did fuel it, becoming endogenous to the logic of violence in the Great Lakes, are outstanding, as one would expect from an author working for the UN Panel of Experts on Congo. He is careful not to overstate the role of conflict minerals, and rightly so. His empathy for the many victims he meets does not lead to moralising, nor does his engagement with many of the killers lead to cynicism. Stearns has written an important and interesting book that should be widely read, even if it does not fundamentally alter our understanding of Africa’s Great War.

Harry Verhoeven is finishing a DPhil/PhD at the Dept of Politics & International Relations, University of Oxford (St Cross College). He also co-authors a research project on the internal dynamics of Africa’s Great War, examining the rise and fall of the post-Mobutu coalition and associated violence in the 1996-1998 period. He is the Convenor of the Oxford Central Africa Forum (OCAF) and Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).