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Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review- Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga: former dictator of Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo

Book Review
Congo: The Epic History of a People
 by David Van Reybrouck
Ecco Press
Published in English translation March 25th, 2014.

   If you read about world history, whether in newspapers, magazines or books, you will read a lot about failure, because success doesn't move copies.  By that token, the history of the country formerly known as the Belgian Congo, formerly known as Zaire, and currently known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo represents a kind of gold standard of disaster. Any attempt to write a comprehensive history of this region bogs down simply because there is a dearth of any written history about this area.

  Van Reybrouck gets around the lack of written history by actually talking to people who lived it.  He even tracks down a guy who knew the original missionaries who settled at the mouth of the Congo river in the late 19th century. What comes before that point is not exactly shrouded in mystery: there were African run kingdoms in the west, and Arab-African trader states in the east, all of which made their coin through the slave trade. Northern Congo was an extension of greater Egypt, Eastern Congo was within the orbit of the Arab trading colony of Zanizbar, and Swahili was widely spoken in the east as a kind of lingua franca.  Beneath these loosely organized economic entities were an even looser set of ethnic groups.

An ethnic map of the Congo- confusing.

  The initial impetus that pushed Congo to be placed under European control was a mixture of late nineteenth century imperialism, well-meaning attempts to eradicate the slave trade and the febrile imagination of King Leopold of Belgium.  The acknowledged "history" begins with the Berlin Conference of 1885 deciding to turn over an area the size of Western Europe to...King Leopold...not as a colony, but as a personal fiefdom.  When he obtained the Congo, there wasn't even a complete map of the area.  The slave trade in the Congo was real.  Even after it was eradicated in the west, Arab/African groups continued to ship slaves out to the East.

  Due to the vagaries of 19th century European politics, The Congo was turned over to King Leopold PERSONALLY- it wasn't a Belgian colony, rather it was a personal possession of the King of Belgium.  This was a terrible idea on a number of levels, and Van Reybrouck does a succinct job of summarizing why, but basically Leopold wasn't interested in building a state, only economic exploitation and during his period in control he did little to build anything in the way of a colonial state, and simply focused on extracting maximum value from the inhabitants with little regard for their well being.

  The golden period came in the early 20th century when Leopold was forced to turn the Congo over to the Belgian state.  Now the Belgian government was in control, and there were plenty of well-meaning Belgians who understood that colonialism didn't have to be a 100% shit show.  Infrastructure was build, institutions were established, schools, health care.  On the eve of independence the Belgian Congo was a fairly literate, healthy, successful European colony.  Unfortunately for the people of the Congo, independence came quickly, and the subsequent flight of the entire Belgium colonizer class meant that this huge country was left with hardly any professionals- doctors, lawyers, soldiers, politicians, civil servants- almost 100% of those people had been white.

  So while one certainly sympathizes with the reasons to push for a quick break with the colonizing powers(i.e. whatever positive impact they had on the Congo, they were a bunch of racist assholes (for the most part));  it is hard to shake the impression that indepdence was an utter disaster for everyone involved EXCEPT Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, the man who ruled the Congo for the better part of the second half of the 20th century. The Mobutu story is a familiar one- that of the mid 20th century third world strong-man.  In Latin America, they call them "Caudillos."   The main difference between the Latin American varieties and the African is that the Africans tended to have a strong socialist streak, whereas the Latin Americans tended to be right-leaning.

  As it turned, out Mobutu had little personal ideology, being more focused on maintaining a strong grip on power and looting the country, giving rise to the term "klepotracy" to describe a state where theft was the pre-eminent value.  Mobutu managed to stay in power for so long because he was a useful pawn in the Cold War struggles between East and West.  At the dawn of independence, Russia had supported the first prime minster of independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba.  Lumumba is a recognized martyr of the African independence movement, but to his credit Van Reybrouck isn't drinking the kool aid, showing him as an erratic and vainglorious demagogue.

  Van Reybrouck doesn't shy away from the events of the last decade, which have involved the kind of ethnic warfare and horror that almost defy understanding. If you read Congo: The Epic History of a People you will have an understanding, but there are no answers, and the ending essentially abandons that part of the story for a somewhat uplifting close about the efforts of China to step in in place of the West, which has seemingly lost interest.  Hopefully, the information of Congolese teaching themselves Chinese in a matter of months will drown out the story from the woman who was raped on the dismembered corpse of her husband, and whose two daughters were impregnated by the same soldiers who raped her.

  A quote on the back suggests that if you read one book about Congo this year, make it this book.  Of course, for most Americans, it's more like, "If you EVER read one book on the Congo in your entire lifetime, make it this one."  I would agree.

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