FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Kruse's Keys: Read "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters" to Learn About the Most Brutal War You've Never Heard Of (DRC)


Horseshoes and Hand Grenade History of DRC:
King Leopold II uses Congo as his own private playground, factory, and torture chamber until the Belgian government wakes up and takes it away from him. They create the Belgian Congo which they run for the next 50 years until Congolese independence in 1960. Rising nationalism combined with the fact that Belgium finally realized they couldn’t administer a country three times the size of Texas. Patrice Lumumba becomes Prime Minister until 1965 when, amidst the Cold War, the US conspires to support Mobutu in a coup to overthrow Soviet sympathizer Lumumba. From 1965 into the 90s, Mobutu Sese Seko rules the country that he renames Zaire. Eventually, in 1996 Laurent Kabila heads up a multi-national, multi-ethnic coalition of forces and takes Kinshasa from a fleeing Mobutu by 1997. Kabila promptly renames the country the DRC. Kabila proves ineffective and a Ugandan-backed rebel movement starts the next year led by warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. Eventually this second war devolves into a struggle between six bordering countries. In 2001 Kabila is assassinated and succeeded by his son Joseph. By 2003 the war ends after much death and destruction. Since then Joseph Kabila has continued to rule through several corrupted election cycles. DRC continues to be a country on edge.

NOTE: In this book we are talking about the Democratic Republic of Congo (if you get them used confused just remember: if a country has “democratic” in its name, it likely is anything but. See a great explanation on the two countries here). The DRC is also referred to as “Congo-Kinshasa” (after it’s capital), and Republic of Congo as “Congo-Brazzaville”.

The Story:
I listened to this lengthy journalistic endeavor by writer Jason Stearns while driving home from work to Annapolis during the month of June. In it Stearns attempts to unravel the most complicated conflict that the world never cared about: the two wars in the Congo as he notes: “generally we do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of africa.” This stands in stark contrast to the conflict in, say Kosovo, by contrast (Ch 23: 21:10).

As Stearns digs deeper and deeper into the wars, however, you are quickly struck by the overwhelming intensity of violence. Eventually it starts to weigh down upon you as you hear tale after graphic tale of rape and murder by every side (and there are many). In particular, the sheer level of sexual violence in incomprehensible as there’s likely no one in the country of 64 million who doesn’t know someone who was raped or assaulted (this Guardian piece notes that 12% of women in the Congo have been raped at least once). The reality of this becomes readily apparent as Stearns cautiously queries a gathered mixed crowd in one village as to whether they know anyone who’s been raped. Their reply: “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36) The women go on to explain that in most cases, the rapists still live in their community.

Ultimately, it is the absence of justice that marks the conflicts in Congo as distinct from those elsewhere in Africa. There have been no truth and reconciliations commissions or gacaca courts to salve the deep wounds of most in the country. When one couples this festering infection with the lack of any effective state institutions, one is left without much hope. As Stearns observes, with no real state or effective governance, people default to ethnic identification which in turn only amplifies instability and further conflict (Ch 16: 44:31). The book does not end on a hopeful note but this was never the author’s mission. Rather Stearns has sought to reveal an incredibly complex issue that will hopefully inspire action and understanding. As the renowned Congolese singer Koffi Olomide notes in one of his songs: “Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually”

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 20182017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

Key Quotes:
  • “Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually” -Congolese singer (and assaulter extraordinaire) Koffi Olomide (Ch 1: 25:36)
  • Laurent Kabila, stereotypical Congolese big man. “Who has not been Mobutists in this country? We saw you all, dancing in the glory of the monster.” (Ch 2: 18:25)
  • “Where elephants fight, the grass is trampled” Common excuse used by those who had committed atrocities in Rwandan genocide. In this case it was used by Rwandan leader Rwarakabije, who is today a Rwandan military leader responsible for much of the murdering. This proverb was a refrain commonly used by many leaders who perpetrated evil. You can read more about him today in this 2009 New Yorker Piece. (Ch 3: 54:09)
  • “Africa has the shape of a pistol and Congo is its trigger.” -Frantz Fanon (Ch 5: 00:16)
  • “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36)
  • “Generally we do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of africa.” As opposed to say Kosovo (Ch 23: 21:10) 
Key Takeaways:
  • Lack of institutions large part of conflict in Congo: Failure to ever build strong institutions = many actors compete for power and resources in this vacuum. There were 40 different Congolese armed groups at height of war with 9 different african states deploying troops in eastern congo. Don’t simplify for the sake of theoretical clarity. (Chapter 1: 12:21)
  • International attention is stymied by the complexity and breadth of the conflict: No easy way to describe the war so despite its staggering statistics, it gets lost in the momentary headlines. There’s no easy villains. “War of the ordinary person” 20 different rebel groups. (Ch 2: 5:24-6:00)
  • The African World War: The War in the Congo was not a civil war but rather it was African leaders against Mobutu in a regional conflict...in effect Africa’s World War. (Ch 5:28:04)
  • Zimbabwe provided money, Eritrea provided boats, ethiopia and tanzania provided military advisors. (Ch 5: 31:13). Most important front of Congo war was being fought by foreign troops on both sides (Ch 20: 19:01)
  • On the efficacy of using child soldiers: Child soldiers were used as vanguard special forces because they lacked the judgment of olders soldiers who knew to fear death and who would only accept a limited amount of risk. (Ch 12: 25:33)
  • How foreign aid impedes progress: Development of rule of law and governance in the Congo is stymied by foreign aid which takes over the reins of tasks and responsibilities which should fall to a functioning government. (Ch 23: 15:44)
  • The unexamined/unrestrained global economy as a driver of instability and violence: Link between Sony Playstation and coltan in the Congo (Ch 20: 41:02)

Key References (for further study)
My review of "A Bend in the River" is here.

























NY Times 2011 Book Review of "Dancing"
WaPo Review of "Dancing"
African Arguments 2011 Review of "Dancing"
Telegraph 2011 Review of "Dancing"
New Republic Review of "Dancing"
Foreign Affairs Capsule Review of "Dancing"
Lonely Planet Founder Review of "Dancing"
The Life After Fifteen years after the genocide in Rwanda, the reconciliation defies expectations (2009)
Inside Africa's "Playstation War" (2008 Wired)
BBC Country Snapshot
A Tale of Two Congos blog
Pulitzer Center Report on "Plight of the Banyamulenge"


  • Failure to ever build strong institutions = many actors compete for power and resources in this vacuum. There were 40 different Congolese armed groups at height of war with 9 different african states deploying troops in eastern congo. Don’t simplify for the sake of theoretical clarity. (Chapter 1: 12:21)
  • Dan Gertler made fortune off illicit sales of mining rights (US targets Israeli businessman Dan Gertler with fresh sanctions) by exploiting his personal relationship with President Kabila (Chapter 1: 18:17)
  • No easy way to describe the war so despite its staggering statistics, it gets lost in the momentary headlines. There’s no easy villains. “War of the ordinary person” 20 different rebel groups. (Ch 2: 5:24-6:00)
  • In the Congo, the power of the state has been eroded over centuries. In 1885 King Leopold claimed the space as the Congo Free State until 1908 when he turned the country over to the Belgian government. (Ch 2: 9:57-11:00)
  • Good history of Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda/Eastern Congo (Ch 3: 25:55)
  • Humanitarian aftermath of Rwandan genocide in effect whitewashed much of the crimes but erasing good and evil and recasting all as vicitims. (Ch 4: 24:07)
  • The War in the Congo was not a civil war but rather it was African leaders against Mobutu in a regional conflict...in effect Africa’s World War. (Ch 5:28:04)
  • Zimbabwe provided money, Eritreat provided boats, ethiopia and tanzania provided military advisors. (Ch 5: 31:13)
  • Role and history of the Banyamulenge, a persecuted minority discussed in depth and a key group in the conflict. You can read more on it here. (Ch 6: 09:19)
  • It’s difficult to convey how the mass killings could have occurred but its equally difficult to convey the generational and societal history of killing on both sides. (Ch 7: 06:21).
  • 1937 Belgians brought in tens of thousands of Rwandan workers into Kivu due to their “reputation” as hard working and later morphed to another 100,000..this was followed by another wave around Rwandan independence number (due to unrest) which ultimately resulted in 335,000 living in the Congo as part of the Goma elite in Massisi (as much as 70% of the population there). (Ch 7: 08:18)
  • Che Guevara eventually gave up in Congo with his disillusionment with Kabila (Ch 8: 10:12)
  • Laurent Kabila accidental leader of AFDL movement (Ch 8: 26:25)
  • AFDL troops took on names of famous bad guys...even today some captured villagers describe AFDL leaders named Rambo or Qadaffi. (Ch 10:40:10)
  • Congolese army problem was how to reform it structurally but how to reform its corrupt leaders (Ch 10: 52: 36).
  • Child soldiers were used as vanguard special forces because they lacked the judgment of olders soldiers who knew to fear death and who would only accept a limited amount of risk. (Ch 12: 25:33)
  • Mwenze Kongolo, a former bail officer from Philly became Kabila’s Minister of Interior. (Ch 14: 26:48)
  • Big obstacle to progress in Congo is the ethnic identification which is exclusive by nature and which is only strong because the state is absent (Ch 16: 44:31)
  • “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36)
  • Since 1998 over 200K women raped in Congo, 39% of the total population! (Ch 19: 40:52)
  • Most important front of Congo war was being fought by foreign troops on both sides (Ch 20: 19:01)
  • War corrupted anything good in Kabila...he became consumed by it (Ch 20: 49:38)
  • Link between Sony Playstation and coltan in the Congo (Ch 20: 41:02)
  • Development of rule of law and governance in the Congo is stymied by foreign aid which takes over the reins of tasks and responsibilities which should fall to a functioning government. (Ch 23: 15:44)
  • Congo is an outlier because they haven’t had tribunals to bring some measure of justice to victims (Ch 23: 19:29)

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