The smaller of the two Congos typically gets little attention, perhaps because it lacks the scale and drama of its bigger neighbor to the east. Given its substantial oil resources, complex ethnic makeup, and fascinating, if tragic, recent history, this is unfortunate, and Clark's excellent analysis deserves to be read as a useful introduction to the country. The central purpose of his book is to reach an understanding of why Congo's democratic experiment in the early 1990s ended with the return to power of the military strongman Denis Sassou-Nguesso following a particularly nasty civil war. Clark does a good job of disentangling the country's complicated ethnic divisions and shifting ethnic alliances. He dismisses structural explanations for the failure of democracy; for instance, he points out that the country scores well on human development indicators such as literacy, in part because Brazzaville was the capital of France's central African empire and in part because of high levels of urbanization. Instead, he blames the mediocrity and rapaciousness of the country's political class and the zero-sum games of a national politics driven by the desire to gain personal control over the country's oil wealth.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.