Imagine that World War III happened and no one told you.* A war with roughly 4 million dead (and thousands more from indirect causes), armies from five countries rampaging across three nations, the invasion of one of the largest countries on the continent, and the fall of a decades-long dictatorship. Now, imagine that clashes and civilian massacres continue nearly ten years after the war has supposedly ended. And no one notices.
Gerard Prunier's Africa's World War begins in 1994, after the 'end' of the Rwandan genocide. The genocide may have been the tinder, but the conflagration it started is still burning. As the genocide raged, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) began moving into Rwanda from Uganda and overpowering the Hutu military and interahamwe. The RFP was composed mostly of Tutsis and the children of Tutsis who had fled from Rwanda into Uganda but remained a connected diasporic network. And they won. A river of refugees flooded away from the 'returnees' of the RPF, accompanied by many genocidaires, and set up vast refugee camps along the Rwanda-Burundi border.
In the aftermath of the genocide, the returnees killed Tutsi and Hutu alike, even those who had not participated, or had even actively resisted, the genocidaires. The international community, so conveniently absent during the genocide, was now so paralyzed with guilt that it would not react to this new development. Soon, the new powers turned their sites on the refugee camps, and a system of massacres and forced displacements began. At the same time, a coalition of African leaders had set their sites on Zaire, home of the bloated, corrupt, and erratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Rwanda leapt first.
Over the next year, armies fought with each other and tribal militias, as the preexisting tensions between different tribal groups in the areas near the Zairean border erupted. The threat to Mobutu's dictatorship threatened the stability of all of South Africa, and the porous border and ineffective army of unpaid soldiers of Zaire could not stop it. A rule of enemy-of-my-enemy developed, with fractious neighbors Rwanda and Uganda siding with each other against Zaire, even as tensions between their forces grew.
After Mobutu was removed, Laurent-Desire Kabila took his place. Kabila, an erratic, violent, and unpredictable leader left the government of Zaire in ruins, while Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Sudan (with some help from Chadian soldiers, sent by Libya's Gaddafi) fought over the bloated carcass that was Zaire. With the mineral and diamond mines on the line, fighting turned into a campaign of terror. The civilian casualties were staggering, with thousands more displaced and facing death by starvation and disease. Meanwhile, the UN flailed about with useless peace agreements worth less than the paper on which they were printed, and a cohort of regional experts misread the signs and misunderstood the motivations of the leaders involved.
With the assassination of Kabila and the ascension of his son, Joseph, things began to calm down. While overt fighting stopped, clashes between the multitudinous fighting groups and tribal militias continued, as soldiers switched sides and warlords emerged, preying on the already decimated civilian population. The remnants, including the Lord's Resistance Army and the FDLR (Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda) continue to fester in the eastern Congo-Rwanda borderlands.
Prunier doubts that Congo will erupt in civil war again, but warns the reader that the violence in the eastern Great Lakes region continues its slow boil. Although events in 2008 looked promising, the civilian population continues to be terrorized (see, the recent mass rapes on the Congolese border, less than twenty miles from a UN 'peacekeeping' force outpost).
Why did the world ignore it, and when it did act, why was it so ineffectual? Simply put, no Western power is going to commit soldiers to Africa to stop a war that isn't the type of war they're used to, in a land they don't care about, without any resources in the offing, with a dizzying and unintelligible array of tribal and political groups. It seems that once foreign policy got more complicated than communism bad, capitalism good, no one could figure out what was going on, and even if they could, residual guilt from 1996 kept them from acting.
Prunier's book is hard to read, and harder to understand. After all, this is a book with eleven pages of tiny type just to try to explain who the various groups involved are. But it's also meticulously researched and painstakingly written, and extremely important in understanding what is happening there today.
*Perhaps it is because America was so distracted with the death of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996 that it didn't have enough brain cells left over with which to pay attention to another continent. After all, today at the checkout line I saw her now-strangely-anachronistic face staring at me from the cover of a tabloid, fourteen years after the fact.