restricted access The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006 (review)
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Reviewed by
Filip Reyntjens. The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi + 327 pp. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $90.00. Cloth.

It is not easy to write a comprehensive book on the Congo wars that began in late 1996. Over the following decade, nine countries as well as several dozen domestic armed groups have been involved in the conflict, fighting over natural resources and taxes, land and citizenship rights, protection for ethnic communities, and access to local and national power. The complexity is confounding. Fortunately, in 2009 several prominent scholars of the region took on this challenge in book form. Filip Reyntjens's book comes on the heels of a longer tome with similar scope by Gerard Prunier (Africa's World War [Oxford University Press, 2009]), as well as a more thematic [End Page 196] treatise on the dynamics of violence in the region by René Lemarchand (The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009]), and a work focusing on North and South Kivu by Thomas Turner (The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth, and Reality [Zed Press, 2007]).

Confronted with the enormity and complexity of the task, Reyntjens has adopted a parsimonious approach. The book is organized mostly chronologically, from the Rwandan refugee crisis (1994-96) to the aftermath of the Congolese elections in 2006. He confines his account largely to the level of national and regional politics, treating sparingly the intricacies of local politics. Despite his succinct clarity in describing events, however, he spends relatively little time in trying to tease out the overarching causes of the conflict, with several tantalizing paragraphs in the introduction and conclusion pointing at interesting possibilities but without further development. Much of the book is concerned with trying to explain what happened, a task he performs very well. In this process, some major themes are prominent.

First, Reyntjens highlights the regional aspects of the conflict. This is not surprising. Like Prunier and Lemarchand, he came to study the Congo by way of its smaller eastern neighbors, Rwanda and Burundi. Reyntjens spends almost a quarter of the book talking about political developments in these countries and their impact on the Congolese conflict. Rwanda's importance in the conflict is unquestionable, and some of the most interesting parts of the book are those in which Reyntjens applies his knowledge of the Rwandan Patriotic Front's government to developments in the Congo. The subchapter on the radicalization of the RPF in 1994-96 and the chapter on the massacre of Rwandan refugees in the Congo are well-sourced and as good as anything in the public domain, although his summary of estimates of how many refugees died does not sufficiently take into consideration the lack of a good baseline figure for the number of refugees in the camps before the war began.

Much like Prunier, Lemarchand, and Turner, Reyntjens highlights the RPF's destabilizing influence on the region. The last lines of the book warn: "By turning a blind eye to Rwanda's hegemonic claims in eastern Congo, the future stability of the region remains in doubt. Rwanda may once again, in the not too distant future, become the focal point of regional violence" (286). Nonetheless, the RPF remains one of the most impenetrable regimes on the continent. Its involvement in the Congo was motivated by a complex mesh of security, political, and economic concerns that Reyntjens does not sufficiently disentangle. He seems to think that the security-based rationale faded quickly after the beginning of the war, but he does not spend much time elaborating how and why these competing motivations waxed and waned during the war. Is Rwanda's involvement in the Congo a matter of simple greed by RPF leaders, an ideological obsession with getting rid of the remnants of the army and militias they defeated in 1994, or part of a political strategy to maintain a police state at home while extracting much-needed [End Page 197] resources next door? I am sure Reyntjens would argue that the motives are a mixture of all these, but a detailed explanation by a scholar of his caliber could bring much-needed sobriety...