Conclusion: The Congo, On Its Own Terms

Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of “human nature.” Or when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value, little importance and poor quality. It is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest for humankind.


The Congo casts a spell on many visitors. It is difficult to explain why. The author Philip Gourevitch once wrote, “Oh Congo, what a wreck. It hurts to look and listen. It hurts to turn away.”1 The Congolese tragedy certainly has something of a car-wreck attraction to it. Nine governments battled through a country the size of western Europe, walking thousands of miles on foot through jungles and swamps. Over five million people have died, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped.2 If anything should be important, it is the deaths of five million people.

Or is it? The Congo war is actually rarely seen as a problem of joint humanity. Instead, it is either portrayed in western media as an abject mess—a morass of rebel groups fighting over minerals in the ruins of a failed state—or as a war of good versus evil, with the role of villain played alternatively by the Rwandan government, international mining companies, the U.S. government, or Congolese warlords. In the twenty-four-hour news cycle, in which international news is devoted largely to the war on terror and its spin-offs, there is little interest in a deeper understanding of the conflict, little appetite for numbers as unimaginably large as five million. Instead, a few shocking individual images command the headlines. Activist and Vagina Monologues founder Eve Ensler wrote in the Huffington Post that she had heard horrific stories ranging from “women being raped by fifty men in one day to women being forced to eat dead babies,”3 while the New York Times reported how a woman was “kidnapped by bandits in the forest, strapped to a tree and repeatedly gang-raped. The bandits did unspeakable things, she said, like disemboweling a pregnant woman right in front of her.”4

All of these stories are true. The conflict has seen acts of cannibalism, girls as young as five being raped with gun barrels and sticks, and women buried alive. Journalists have a responsibility to report on these atrocities, and people are often jolted awake by such horrors. In addition, millions of dollars have gone to dedicated organizations and health centers in the region that are helping survivors cope and restart their lives.

These advocacy efforts have also, however, had unintended effects. They reinforce the impression that the Congo is filled with wanton savages, crazed by power and greed. This view, by focusing on the utter horror of the violence, distracts from the politics that gave rise to the conflict and from the reasons behind the bloodshed. If all we see is black men raping and killing in the most outlandish ways imaginable, we might find it hard to believe that there is any logic to this conflict. We are returned to Joseph Conrad’s notion that the Congo takes you to the heart of darkness, an inscrutable and unimprovable mess. If we want to change the political dynamics in the country, we have above all to understand the conflict on its own terms. That starts with understanding how political power is managed.


Perhaps the most nagging, persistent problem I have witnessed while researching and writing this book has been the lack of visionary, civic-minded leadership. The constant refrain from Congolese and foreigners alike is: Why do most Congolese political officeholders seem so morally bankrupt? If change can only come from Congolese themselves, how will this be possible?

On one of my trips back to the United States from the Congo, I spent time in a library reading Thomas Hobbes. The English philosopher, a founder of western political thought, was writing in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which devastated much of central Europe and caused the deaths of millions of civilians. That war was the result of a complex mixture of political competition, violent localism, ideology, and greed. Hundreds of different fiefdoms battled against each other, egged on by the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as by competition for power in the Holy Roman Empire. The war was notorious for its marauding bands of mercenary soldiers, who fought for the highest bidder and who laid waste to entire regions searching for bounty. Historians often use the Latin phrase bellum se ipsum alet to describe the phenomenon—the war feeds itself. This is a concept many Congolese commanders would understand.

Writing three years after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Hobbes had good reason to be pessimistic about the state of nature, which he believed to be one of “war of man against man.” Life in this state was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In view of this, it was in the common interest to forfeit individual rights to the state—the Leviathan, in Hobbes’s parlance—in return for protection. This was the first notion of a social contract, which justified a government’s rule and made it responsible to its citizens.

But the Congo does not have a Leviathan, a state that can protect its citizens or even impose a monopoly of violence. In contrast with the Thirty Years’ War, which helped produce the European system of nation-states, it is unlikely that the Congo wars will forge a strong state. As these pages have made clear, the story of the Congo wars is one of state weakness and failure, which has made possible the ceaseless proliferation of insurgent groups, still numbering around twenty-nine in late 2010. These armed groups fight brutal insurgencies and counterinsurgencies that, as the United States discovered in Vietnam and Iraq, are not so much about controlling territory as about controlling civilians, who are brutalized in order to obtain resources and as retaliation for attacks by their rivals.

Congolese state and society have not always been so weak. In the fifteenth century, large kingdoms with sophisticated governance structures began forming in the savannahs in the center and west of the country. The Kongo kingdom, based in the far west along the Atlantic coast, at one point was able to field over 20,000 infantrymen and archers in battle, funded through an elaborate system of taxes, and had diplomatic representatives at the Portuguese, Spanish, and papal courts. The Lunda and Luba kingdoms, based in the center of today’s Congo, in the savannahs along the Angolan border, developed a successful model of government based on sacred kingship and local councils that spread through neighboring regions.

Since then, however, the Congo has been the victim of four hundred years of political disintegration. Starting in the sixteenth century, several million slaves were exported from the Congo by both European and Arab slave traders, sparking devastating wars between rival kingdoms over the lucrative trade as well as huge population shortages in parts of the country. Then, starting in the nineteenth century, Belgian colonial administrators dismembered what remained of most Congolese kingdoms, naming hundreds of new chiefs, severing ties between the rulers and their local councils, expropriating vast tracts of land, and allowing Belgian officials to take over many functions of the customary rulers. They created a colonial state whose purpose was to extract resources and—in its later days—provide basic services to the population, but this state was never intended to be accountable to its citizens. Unions, political parties, and other forms of mobilization were brutally suppressed by colonial authorities until the final days of their rule.

The colonial authorities then handed over government to a Congolese people almost wholly unprepared to manage their vast state. There were a handful of lawyers and university graduates in the country; under Belgian rule, no African could become an enlisted officer in the army, and all important positions in administration were held by white foreigners. At the same time, Belgian business interests and cold war politics led to the external backing of military strongmen and the repression of nationalist mobilization.

This historical legacy weighs heavily on the present. Since independence, the story of political power from Joseph Mobutu to Joseph Kabila has been about staying in power, not about creating a strong, accountable state. This is understandable. In the Congo, everything flows from political office: the best business deals, influence, and status. For those outside of power, there is scant opportunity to prosper. These rulers have treated strong public institutions as threats, eroding the capacity of the army so as to maintain tight control over key units and undermining an independent judiciary and parliament. The biggest fear of Mobutu’s and Kabila’s regimes has not been a foreign invasion—Mobutu was incredulous to the end that a neighboring country could oust him—but internal collapse. They feared even their own bodyguards and ministers would stab them in the back. The Congo of today is in some ways more similar to the sixteenthcentury Italy of Machiavelli—and its court intrigues comparable—than to any modern twenty-first-century state.

A central reason, therefore, for the lack of visionary leadership in the Congo is because its political system rewards ruthless behavior and marginalizes scrupulous leaders. It privileges loyalty over competence, wealth and power over moral character. Well-intentioned (albeit misguided) leaders like Wamba dia Wamba are spun to the outside of this centrifuge, while the more guileful ones stay at the center. Spend some time in the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, where politicians mingle and deals are struck, and you will realize that the welfare of the Congolese people is absent from their conversations, while court intrigues and battles for power are a matter of obsession.

This is not to say there is no ideology in the Congo. It is full of firebrand nationalists who are tired of the humiliation of being “the doormat of Central Africa, on which visiting armies clean their shoes,” as one friend griped. But the political system has failed to channel this ideology into responsible leadership. The only viable means of popular mobilization remains ethnicity, although even that has been gutted of much of its moral content by generations of customary rulers co-opted and repressed by the state. These ethnicity-based organizations, whether political parties or armed groups, mobilize for greater resources for their own narrow community, not for the public good. This in turn fuels corrupt systems of patronage, whereby ethnic leaders embezzle public funds in order to reward their supporters.


In Europe, states were forged through war, trade, and technology. The rulers who could not raise enough taxes to fund large standing armies were ultimately overthrown. War required taxes, which in turn spawned large bureaucracies to gather and administer the revenues.

In the Congo, there has been little pressure on rulers to create strong armies or bureaucracies. For years, Mobutu relied on outside help to put down rebellions, calling on South African mercenaries and Moroccan, Belgian, and French soldiers, whom he could pay in cash or commodities. He had little need to create a strong administration—which could then become a breeding ground for political opposition—as he could get plenty of revenues from the copper mines and foreign donors. Joseph Kabila has largely privatized the economy and has strengthened tax collection, but he is wary about creating a strong rule of law that could tie his hands. Even the violence in the Kivus region, which continues until today, has not prompted major reforms in his army or police; he has preferred to co-opt dissent rather than to promote an impartial, disciplined security service. And instead of business elites demanding greater accountability and less corruption from the government, they are often themselves dependent on patronage from Kinshasa.

No one factor has produced the kleptocratic, venal political elite. Certainly social and educational issues also play a role. But it is clear that political elites react to incentives and that no meaningful reform will result as long as these incentives are skewed against the creation of strong institutions. Buoyed by foreign support and revenues from copper, oil, and diamonds, the government feels little need to serve its citizens and promote sustainable development. Why empower nettlesome parliaments, courts, and auditing bodies if they will just turn around and harass you?

This state of affairs should force foreign donors to think more carefully about contributing billions of dollars to development in the Congo without pondering the long-term repercussions. The donors—mainly the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom—usually insist that this money is politically neutral, that it does not directly benefit the political elite. This is true, as most of the money is for schools, roads, health care, and water projects. But all development is deeply political. By taking over the financing of most public services, donors take pressure off the Congolese government to respond to the needs of its citizens. Ultimately, the rule of law will be created not through a capacity-building project in the ministry of finance but through a power struggle between the government, local elites, and business circles. Donors need to figure out how to most responsibly insert themselves in this dynamic and not just pave roads, build hospitals, and reform fiscal systems.


But why should we help at all? First, because it is not just an act of joint humanity. We owe it to the Congolese. Most obviously because of the centuries of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of rubber, copper, and diamonds, which benefited western companies and helped build Belgian cities. Those past injustices should be reason enough for feeling a moral debt toward the country, but we don’t need to go so far. Most of the foreign companies operating in the Congo today are listed on stock exchanges, are incorporated in Europe or North America, or obtain their financing from banks based in those countries. Many of these companies are engaging in questionable behavior that would be proscribed in their home countries. Big mining companies have signed contracts that provide little revenue to the state and have allegedly provided large kickbacks to government officials. Smaller trading companies buy minerals from the eastern Congo without scrutinizing the origins of their shipments to make sure they are not funding armed groups. So we should do what we can to allow the Congolese to benefit from their riches, not be held back by them.

This is not to say that the war has been fueled by western governments eager to get their hands on Congolese riches. There is little evidence for that. It is certainly true that many companies, Congolese and foreign, have benefited enormously from the conflict. Nevertheless, for the most part it was small, junior outfits that made a fortune—the conflict postponed major industrial mining and investment for over a decade. Similarly, while some western diplomats flourished through their corrupt dealings in the Congo, it would be wrong to flip causality on its head and say that western businesses and diplomats caused the war. For the most part, the mining companies go where profit margins take them, and the embassies in Kinshasa do their mandated job of helping them. The problem has been one of regulatory failure; of mining cowboys allowed to get away with mass fraud, hiding behind shell companies registered in Caribbean islands and working the corrupt stratosphere of Congolese politics; and of western governments not caring about the behavior of their companies once they leave their borders.

Second, we should give Congolese an opportunity to decide on how to deal with their violent past. A key fallacy of international engagement has been the idea that justice is an impediment to peace in the region. Time and time again, diplomats have actively shied away from creating an international court to prosecute those responsible for the many atrocities committed during the war. One of the most disheartening moments in my research, repeated countless times, was hearing survivors explain that they didn’t have anything to help them address their loss—the killers hadn’t been brought to justice, and often they didn’t even know where their loved ones were buried. The Congo is something of an outlier in this sense: Sierra Leone, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia have all had tribunals to deal with the past. Yet in the Congo, where many of the perpetrators are still in power, the victims are left to stew in their frustration.

It is precisely because many former warlords are still in power that diplomats have been wary of launching prosecutions. This has resulted in an army and government replete with criminals who have little deterrent to keep them from resorting to violence again. At the time of this writing, in October 2010, the United Nations released a report summarizing the most egregious war crimes committed in the country between 1993 and 2003 and recommending that a special court be established. This time, donors and the Congolese government must seize the opportunity. This is not to say that we should impose an international tribunal on the Congo; it may not be the best solution. But the Congolese people should be given the chance to know some of the truth of what happened during the war and to hold accountable those responsible. Two hundred and twenty Congolese civil society organizations have written in support of the UN report and have called for a conference to decide on how best to proceed. Such an initiative would be an important signal to the elite, proving that impunity is not the glue of the political system.


In large part, however, our sins have been of omission. We simply do not care enough. Contrary to what some Congolese believe, President Obama does not wake up to a security briefing on the Congo with his morning scone. Generally, we do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of Africa. This sad hypocrisy is easy to see—NATO sent 50,000 troops from some of the best armies to Kosovo in 1999, a country one-fifth the size of South Kivu. In the Congo, the UN peacekeeping mission plateaued at 20,000 troops, mostly from South Asia, ill-equipped and with little will to carry out risky military operations. In exchange, the Congo has received plentiful humanitarian aid—a short-term solution to a big problem.

This apathy has allowed simplistic notions to dominate policy toward the region. This was most evident in dealing with Uganda and Rwanda. Throughout the conflict, donor aid made up for over half of the budget of Rwanda and over a third of that of Uganda. The largest providers were the European Commission, the United Kingdom, and the United States, governments that felt understandably guilty for not having come to Rwanda’s aid during the genocide.

In addition, both Central African countries had impressive records of development and poverty reduction: over a period of ten years, donor aid helped lift 13 percent of Rwandans and 20 percent of Ugandans out of poverty. Compared with other African countries, such as that of the Congo, at least here donors knew that their aid dollars and pounds were being put to good use.

The donors were, however, myopic. They clearly recognized the relatively positive developments taking place within Rwanda’s borders but were generally indifferent toward the conflict next door. When Rwanda reinvaded the Congo in August 1998, Washington and London protested but did not use their mighty diplomatic and financial leverage on Congo’s neighbors. “We did the right thing with Rwanda,” Sue Hogwood, a former UK ambassador to Rwanda, said. “We needed to help them rebuild after the genocide. We engaged and challenged them over human rights abuses, but they also had genuine security concerns.”5

Rwanda did have security concerns. One of Kagame’s political advisors expressed a typical view to me: “When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, you decided to strike back against Afghanistan for harboring the people who carried out the attack. Many innocent civilians died as a result of U.S. military operations. Is that unfortunate? Of course. But how many Americans regret invading Afghanistan? Very few.”6

This point of view does not allow for moral nuances. Once we have established that the génocidaires are in the Congo, any means will justify the ends of getting rid of them, even if those means are not strictly related to getting rid of the génocidaires. Was the destruction of Kisangani necessary to get rid of them? The killing of tens of thousands of civilians? The pillaging of millions of dollars to finance the war effort?

Policymakers in the region have often only had blunt instruments to deal with complex issues. In the case of the Rwandan refugee crisis, for example, it would have been best to send in an international military force to demilitarize the refugee camps and separate the soldiers from the civilians. That would have required hundreds of millions of dollars, and a risky intervention soon after the UN fiasco in Somalia.7

In the absence of such large-scale engagement, dealing with the refugee problem, especially after Rwanda had invaded, was like doing brain surgery with oven mitts. As several hundred thousand refugees fled across Zaire, the U.S. ambassador to Kigali told his bosses in Washington, “The best way we can help is to stop feeding the killers who will then run away to look for other sustenance, leaving their hostages behind. If we do not, we will be trading the children in Tingi-Tingi against the children who will be killed and orphaned in Rwanda [by the killers when they return].”8What he didn’t mention is that the only way to stop feeding the killers was to stop feeding the civilians as well.

We cannot do peacemaking on the cheap, with few diplomats and no resources. It will not only fail but also lead to simplistic policies that can do more harm than good.


The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands—some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges.

This book is an exhortation to raise the bar and try harder to understand this layered complexity. The Congo’s suffering is intensely human; it has experienced trauma on a massive and prolonged scale, and the victims are our neighbors, our trading partners, our political confreres and rivals. They are not alien; they are not evil; they are not beyond our comprehension. The story of the Congo is dense and complicated. It demands that all involved think hard. This means diving into the nuts and bolts of Congolese politics and working to help the more legitimate and responsible leaders rise to the top. This means better, more aggressive, and smarter peacekeeping and conflict resolution; more foreign aid that is conditional on political reforms and not just on fiscal performance; and more responsible corporate investment and trade with the Congo.

We should not despair. If there is one thing I know after having worked on the Congo for a decade, it is the extreme resilience and energy of the Congolese people. As the eccentric singer Koffi Olomide sings, referring to his country, “This is hell’s system here. The fire is raging, and yet we don’t get burned.” With all of their hardships, one would imagine the Congolese to be less vibrant and more cynical. Yet they are not.

There are no easy solutions for the Congo, no silver bullets to produce accountable government and peace. The ultimate fate of the country rests with the Congolese people themselves. Westerners also have a role to play, in part because of our historical debt to the country, in part because it is the right thing to do. This does not mean imposing a foreign vision on the country or simply sending food and money. It means understanding it and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then doing our part in providing an environment conducive to growth and stability.

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