Why comrades go to war: liberation politics and the outbreak of Africa's deadliest conflict

Why comrades go to war: liberation politics and the outbreak of Africa's deadliest conflict Why comrades go to war is the latest in a series of books that attempt to recount the events of the Congo wars since the fall of President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Like most other recent accounts, the book treats the conflict as a monolithic civil war, even though there is no neat dividing line between its external and internal dimension. Unlike many other accounts, however, Philip Roessler and Harry Verhoeven argue that the origins of ‘Africa's Great War lay in the struggle against Mobutu—the way the revolution came together, the way it was organized, and paradoxically the very way it succeeded’ (p. 7). The structure of the small coalition that Laurent-Désiré Kabila led in 1996 with Rwandan and Ugandan backing—the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)—is, according to Roessler and Verhoeven, what ultimately mattered in the outcome of the war. They argue that the AFDL was a pan-African ‘coalition of liberation’ which was organized ‘principally though informal and personalized channels’ (p. 9) and that this caused its downfall. Moreover, they argue that, had this ‘revolution’ been organized differently, the war could have been avoided. Indeed, this book offers what the authors claim is a novel lens through which to understand the First Congo War. They argue that the liberation of Zaire represented the triumph of the revolutionary forces in Central Africa. However, while in both the first and second wars, neighbouring states established a network of local proxy movements in an attempt to put a local stamp on their activities, it is problematic to label the First Congo War a genuine revolution. The bulk of Kabila's fighting forces were foreign (mostly Rwandan), and only one of the four largely obscure Congolese groups which made up the AFDL coalition had any fighting forces—and those only numbered a few hundred. During the second war, on the other hand, the Movement for the Liberation on the Congo (MLC) forces were largely Congolese, trained by Ugandan officers, while the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) forces were integrated within a network of Rwandan troops and commanders. The paradox here is that despite the fact that most of the troops fighting in the first war were foreign, most Congolese initially referred to it as a Congolese rebellion, and most Congolese see the second war as an invasion even though there were more Congolese fighting in this war than there were foreign troops. The AFDL could not have overthrown the Mobutu regime by itself. This was hardly a revolutionary coalition and the AFDL was merely an attempt to put a local face on what was in fact a coalition of neighbouring states. According to one observer, the new leaders who emerged out of violent armed struggle in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda had, by 1996, ‘formed an axis that looked as though it would reshape half the African continent’ (Alex de Waal, ed., Islamism and its enemies in the Horn of Africa, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, p. 183). This network of states, as well as the second Bill Clinton administration, whose new Africa policy was centred on strengthening ties with a handful of African rebel leaders-turned-presidents, was fed up with Mobutu's accommodation of foreign groups opposed to neighbouring governments and took the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War to get rid of him. The wars, thus, simply represented the geopolitical dynamics of the region at the time. Roessler and Verhoeven themselves assert that it is difficult to understand the alliances and choices in the First Congo War without understanding broader regional relationships, but they ascribe to these relationships a revolutionary character which is misplaced. Roessler and Verhoeven's narrative of the Congo wars has its shortcomings. But by providing a different reading of the well-trodden historical documentation, Why comrades go to war is sure to provoke renewed discussion about the motivations of the principal actors in those wars—actors who remain, in one form or another, dominant in the geopolitics of the region to this day. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

Why comrades go to war: liberation politics and the outbreak of Africa's deadliest conflict

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Publisher
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
eISSN
1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iix269
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Why comrades go to war is the latest in a series of books that attempt to recount the events of the Congo wars since the fall of President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Like most other recent accounts, the book treats the conflict as a monolithic civil war, even though there is no neat dividing line between its external and internal dimension. Unlike many other accounts, however, Philip Roessler and Harry Verhoeven argue that the origins of ‘Africa's Great War lay in the struggle against Mobutu—the way the revolution came together, the way it was organized, and paradoxically the very way it succeeded’ (p. 7). The structure of the small coalition that Laurent-Désiré Kabila led in 1996 with Rwandan and Ugandan backing—the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)—is, according to Roessler and Verhoeven, what ultimately mattered in the outcome of the war. They argue that the AFDL was a pan-African ‘coalition of liberation’ which was organized ‘principally though informal and personalized channels’ (p. 9) and that this caused its downfall. Moreover, they argue that, had this ‘revolution’ been organized differently, the war could have been avoided. Indeed, this book offers what the authors claim is a novel lens through which to understand the First Congo War. They argue that the liberation of Zaire represented the triumph of the revolutionary forces in Central Africa. However, while in both the first and second wars, neighbouring states established a network of local proxy movements in an attempt to put a local stamp on their activities, it is problematic to label the First Congo War a genuine revolution. The bulk of Kabila's fighting forces were foreign (mostly Rwandan), and only one of the four largely obscure Congolese groups which made up the AFDL coalition had any fighting forces—and those only numbered a few hundred. During the second war, on the other hand, the Movement for the Liberation on the Congo (MLC) forces were largely Congolese, trained by Ugandan officers, while the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) forces were integrated within a network of Rwandan troops and commanders. The paradox here is that despite the fact that most of the troops fighting in the first war were foreign, most Congolese initially referred to it as a Congolese rebellion, and most Congolese see the second war as an invasion even though there were more Congolese fighting in this war than there were foreign troops. The AFDL could not have overthrown the Mobutu regime by itself. This was hardly a revolutionary coalition and the AFDL was merely an attempt to put a local face on what was in fact a coalition of neighbouring states. According to one observer, the new leaders who emerged out of violent armed struggle in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda had, by 1996, ‘formed an axis that looked as though it would reshape half the African continent’ (Alex de Waal, ed., Islamism and its enemies in the Horn of Africa, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, p. 183). This network of states, as well as the second Bill Clinton administration, whose new Africa policy was centred on strengthening ties with a handful of African rebel leaders-turned-presidents, was fed up with Mobutu's accommodation of foreign groups opposed to neighbouring governments and took the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War to get rid of him. The wars, thus, simply represented the geopolitical dynamics of the region at the time. Roessler and Verhoeven themselves assert that it is difficult to understand the alliances and choices in the First Congo War without understanding broader regional relationships, but they ascribe to these relationships a revolutionary character which is misplaced. Roessler and Verhoeven's narrative of the Congo wars has its shortcomings. But by providing a different reading of the well-trodden historical documentation, Why comrades go to war is sure to provoke renewed discussion about the motivations of the principal actors in those wars—actors who remain, in one form or another, dominant in the geopolitics of the region to this day. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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