Three New Books on the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In This Review

Battleground Africa: Cold War in the Congo, 1960-1965
By Lise Namikas
Stanford University Press, 2012
288 pp. $60.00
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Civil Wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1960-2010
By Emizet F. Kisangani
Lynne Rienner, 2013
254 pp. $58.50
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Congo
By Thomas Turner
Polity, 2013
240 pp. $22.95
Purchase

Africa boosters, who argue that the region has finally turned a corner and sits on the cusp of a major economic breakthrough, rarely mention the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose population remains poorer than it was at independence, in 1960. Yet this massive country in the continent’s center covers nearly as much territory as western Europe and neighbors nine other African states, so it is hard to believe that the continent’s economic prospects are not at least in part tied to those of Congo. These three new books offer keen insights into the political and civil strife that have wracked Congo for decades and that the country seems far from resolving.

Namikas offers a fine history of the Cold War politics of Congo during the early 1960s, informed by access to recently declassified archival material in Moscow and Washington. She focuses on the diplomatic tug of war over Congo that took place among Belgium, the Soviet Union, the UN, and the United States as the newly independent country drifted from crisis to crisis. Namikas explains that for Western diplomats, who knew so little about the dynamics of ethnic political competition within Congo, the ideological competition between the West and communism represented the only framework through which they could understand -- or, more often, misunderstand -- the country. By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union had backed off, recognizing that it had too little at stake in central Africa to justify provoking a dangerous confrontation with the United States. The Soviet retreat allowed the United States and its allies to help President Mobutu Sese Seko solidify his rule over the country, which he renamed Zaire. For the next several decades, Mobutu proceeded to run the country into the ground with the full support of the Western powers.

Kisangani’s book is also primarily historical, analyzing half a dozen episodes of conflict in different parts of Congo going back to the 1960s. For Kisangani, the country’s instability stems from the failure of the central state to accommodate the aspirations of regional elites in the provinces, who respond by provoking ethnic disputes as a way of getting attention from the central authorities. External actors then insert themselves into the ethnoregional revolts and manipulate them in order to advance their own interests. The book ends with a not entirely satisfying call for the decentralization of state power, which Kisangani sees as the only way to overcome the difficulty of integrating all the regions of this vast and highly diverse nation with little infrastructure and a central state never far from collapse.

Turner’s book is less systematic in its coverage of the conflict but wisely focuses on just several themes that explain the persistence of instability. Much more than Kisangani, Turner emphasizes the role of external actors and is extremely critical of the cynical manipulations of neighboring countries, such as Rwanda, and the incoherence of Western governments’ policies on Congo during the last two decades, especially that of the United States. The most notable example of the inefficacy of Western-led interventions is MONUSCO (the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the UN’s largest-ever peacekeeping force, which, since its establishment in 1999, has failed to contribute much to the cause of lasting peace in the country. Turner’s analysis suggests that even if Kisangani is right to advocate political decentralization at the domestic level, political stability will also require a broader regional framework involving several neighboring governments.