Africa's World War by Gerard Prunier is about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the period 1998 to 2003.
The first few pages of the book are a list of all the groups that took part in the conflict. A veritable alphabet soup of acronyms of the groups that took part in the conflict, an indication of the convoluted nature of a conflict that involved the armed forces and proxies of 9 countries, and indirect participation by 5 more. It is estimated that more than 5 million people died, earning it the dubious distinction of the deadliest conflict since WW2. The bulk of the casualties were civilians that were sometimes systematically targeted by all sides, sometimes casually killed as collateral damage and other times just succumbed to the privations that are a consequence of war between relatively equal sides.
The introduction and first 5 chapters are an analysis of the situation in the countries surrounding the battleground of DRC. The chapters discussed Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Sudan Uganda, Zimbabwe and the DRC itself. Given the nature of the conflict, it was necessary that this background be established otherwise the book would have been too confusing.
3 examples of the confusion:
'The RPF was the ruling party of Rwanda from the end of 1994. It is basically a group of Tutsis that were refugees in Uganda due to a conflict in 1959. The RPF's army is called the RPA. It was supported by Uganda to invade Rwanda in 1994. The defeated Rwandan government led by MNRD, and the Rwandan army, FAR fled to eastern DRC and continued the fight from there. While there, they sometimes attacked DRC Tutsis (called Banyamulenge) who then allied with the RPA for self-defense. As the war progressed, there was a falling out between the Ugandans and the Rwandans such that the RPA had a tacit alliance with the FAR. The Banyamulenge meanwhile, started fighting against the RPA (their erstwhile protectors) because the DRC government was now the enemy of Rwanda.
The 2nd example involves the involvement of Angola, which had been in its own civil war since 1975. The 2 main actors in that war were the MPLA and UNITA. MPLA had been supported by the USSR while UNITA had been supported by USA, China, and South Africa. However, while the MPLA was recognized as the ruling party of Angola, it had not been able to defeat UNITA. This led to a situation where Cubans allied with MPLA, were guarding oil fields worked by Chevron to prevent attacks by UNITA which was financed by the USA.
The 3rd example involves Namibia which was portrayed as squeezed between the 2 heavyweights of Angola and South Africa. SWAPO was the ruling party of Namibia which had been supported by apartheid South Africa. For that reason, it supported UNITA (in Angola). When the MPLA gained ascendancy in Angola in 1976, SWAPO switched allegiance to MPLA thus betraying UNITA and South Africa. A betrayal that was repaid in spades when UNITA betrayed them in turn to the apartheid South African secret service.'
The analysis of the situation is so detailed that one gets lost in the woods and my tenuous hold of the web of alliances was only maintained by frequent reference to that initial list of acronyms. However, the detailed analysis does a good job of dissecting the motives of the various countries for getting involved. Only Burundi had purely security concerns, partly because it is the weakest. Sudan had the least defensible reason for getting involved because its motivations were all negative, focused on causing trouble for Uganda.
The actual war itself was properly discussed in only chapter 6. This is apt because while the popular imagination sees war as a mechanized endeavor with tank battles, aerial dogfights and (thanks to Hollywood) masses of infantry stupidly running towards each in a disorganized manner while waving their swords or shooting their guns, this was mostly a primitive tribal war fought in the traditional manner of capturing ground and populations for tactical rather than strategic advantage. So, the war did not produce enough material that makes for good stories. The stories produced are accounts of massacres and rapes of civilians that are monotonous in their horror and horrible in their monotony. Nobody wants to talk about that. An attitude visible in the UN's ineptitude about the whole thing.
Chapters 7 to 10 show how the war did not change the situation of the civilian population. The ethnic tensions were still there at the end of the war. So were the weaknesses of the various states that made them unable to protect their citizens. The chapters also discuss the initial failure of the international diplomatic efforts to stop the war, a failure that was only reversed when a powerful African country, South Africa, took over from France, the US and UK.
Before reading the book, I had accepted its tagline of "world war". Now, I disagree with it. Despite the range of combatants, the scope of the war was too limited. How could it be a world war without Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa? So, while it is a war in Africa, it was too limited to be an African War. I was struck by its similarity to Europe during the Thirty Years War. A similarity that was mentioned by the author. The war was an important regional war, and if the European similarity holds, maybe the war would lead to stability in the region.
Another thing I learnt from the book is that Angola is powerful. I had never seen it mentioned in rankings of military power in Africa. But in the book, it seemed to be the decider in its region. Its role in the conflict reminded me of a quip attributed to Kissinger who said "the Arabs cannot make war with Egypt and cannot make peace without Syria"; in this case, I think war cannot be waged in DRC without Angola nor peace kept without Rwanda. The involvement of Angola also shows the truth of the maxim that "money is the sinews of war". Angola's war was won by the MPLA because it controlled the money from crude oil. Its antagonist, UNITA controlled the money from diamonds. This enabled UNITA to continue the Angolan war up to 1990s while financing its allies in DRC. The money the MPLA & UNITA had enabled them to deploy more sophisticated weapons than the other actors in the conflict.
Finally, reading this made me doubt the conspiracy theories alleging that the conflict was a western ploy to destabilize the country so its resources could be looted. While some parties in the war (Zimbabwe, Uganda and to an extent Rwanda) were in it for profit, war is not conducive for big business like mining, which requires expensive investment in machinery and infrastructure, investment that can only be recouped over a long period. War prevents that, having a silver lining of conserving the resources.
This book is a contender for my best book of the year. My only complaint against it is that it had too many notes. Many of them were informative and could have been integrated into the book without breaking its flow. Thus, flipping to the back to read the notes was quite tiring. The book is well written and informative. It reminded me of Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilization (about the wars in the middle east). So, the book is recommended. It is informative reading and since it is written by a Frenchman about French concerns, shows a view that is new to the Anglocentric one I am familiar with. Leading me to consider looking for books written by Spaniards about Latin America or by Russians about Central Asia.