“Is DR Congo’s cycle of agony unbreakable?” asks the BBC in this recent dramatic headline. The reason for the Beeb’s unhappiness: the latest round of fighting in the eastern Congo where a rebel movement backed, most observers believe, by Rwanda has recently humiliated a pathetic mix of feckless, poorly led UN peacekeeping troops and forces from the “Democratic Republic” of the Congo’s shambolic army to occupy the key city of Goma. The M23 rebels are now threatening to take the regional capital and loudly blustering about marching on to Kinshasa, DR Congo’s capital on the other side of the sprawling, chaotic and ill-governed country.
MSM coverage of Africa flips between two mood states. In the upbeat mood, which is the Official Position for most of the time and heartily endorsed by the Development Lobby bureaucrats committed to extracting billions every year to support them in affluence as they allegedly solve Africa’s problems, the press is all happy clappy about Africa’s inevitable ascent. The continent is becoming more important, we have been told almost continuously for the last fifty years, and liberated from colonialism is making new strides, advancing fearlessly in development from year to shining year. Some subset of the 59 or so African states are singled out as exemplifying the new age of African progress — like Mali, which before its latest meltdown was widely praised in the media and the world of development professionals as an example of the new, democratic Africa that was on the cusp of emerging.
But then something happens and the mood flips to despair: Nothing has changed in Africa, nothing can change. It is the heart of darkness, there is no hope. The powerful countries outside Africa aren’t good enough or committed enough and in the absence of outside leadership, the Development Lobby loudly wails, even as it quietly whispers that the Africans themselves are too brutal, cynical and divided to make anything happen. The remedy, of course, is more money: no matter what is happening or not happening in Africa the Development Lobby and its media allies will always know what is needed, and it is always the same thing. But, moans the press in its depressed phase, there will never be enough money because the selfish North doesn’t care enough about Africa. Racists!
In due course this mood will yield to another bracing bout of official optimism and the cycle will continue as it has done since decolonization in the 1960s. Optimism, pessimism, optimism, pessimism. Like much of what goes on in the press, it has very little connection with what is actually taking place on the ground, reflecting elite mood swings more than anything else.
Neither the Africa optimists nor the Africa pessimists are right. The optimists, periodically anointing one regime or group of regimes as the heroes of a new democratic growth surge in Africa are pathetic. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda now being pilloried as the cause of the fighting in the Congo, used to be, pardon the expression, the Great White Hope of the Africa optimists: the non-corrupt, growth oriented, liberal thinking democrat building a new kind of African paradise on the ashes of genocide. Now they’ve flipped him into yet another commodity grubbing, wealth-hungry African strongman.
But if the Africa optimists are clueless, the pessimists are flat wrong. Africa is not unchanging; a dynamic process of development and transition is indeed taking place across the continent. Tens of millions of people are flocking to the cities; population is booming; more people are becoming educated; investment is changing the nature of African economies from the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope. Technologies like cell phones are changing African lives; emigration and remittances are pumping money into economies all over the continent; the triumph of Christianity across sub-Saharan Africa is having progressively deeper cultural and psychological impact; hundreds of millions of people are living in a world their parents and grandparents never knew.
Something is happening, but neither the optimists nor the pessimists get it—less because they don’t understand Africa than because they don’t understand history and modernization very well.
Most people in the west, and especially in the United States, take one of two positions on what modernization means. We are either historical optimists who think that science, technology and culture are moving higher and higher on an ascending trajectory towards a terrestrial utopia, or we are despairing hand wringers who think we are on some kind of down slope toward a final crash. Maybe global warming will kill us all, maybe nukes, maybe clashes of civilization or water wars, but modernization is bringing us closer and closer to inexorable doom.
This is an old pattern for us; going back into the 19th century Americans divided into “post-millennial” Christians who believed that human beings, guided by God, would create a just and prosperous world before Jesus returned at the end of time and “pre-millennial” Christians who believed that humanity’s efforts at progress and prosperity were doomed to fail, and that after an apocalyptic series of wars and disasters, Jesus would return to clean up the mess. Those two views of modern history persist today, even among people who don’t have an explicit religious dimension in their world-view.
Both the optimistic and pessimistic points of view can point to evidence that backs them up in other parts of the world as well as in Africa. The reason is that modernization itself contains both positive and negative elements. As Europe modernized in the 19th and 20th centuries, democracy spread, women got more rights, societies became more fair—and repeated episodes of murderous nationalism killed tens of millions of people and drove tens of millions from their homes in the most destructive wars and radical outbreaks of evil in the written history of mankind.
Those events were connected: modernization promotes nationalism and nationalism often leads both to democracy and mass murder. That was true across Europe; we can see it at work in the Middle East, and ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus in the Great Lakes area in Africa is a major driver of the violence in the eastern Congo today.
Africa is modernizing today, and along with that process some very hopeful signs can often be discerned. But Africa looks set for a rough modernization. Crazy quilt colonial boundaries, ineffective elites, meddling foreign powers, resource curses, religious strife: all the ingredients are in place for a bloody and agonizing process of development and change.
The western media used to put Paul Kagame into a white hat and hail him as a modernizing savior figure as part of the new wave of African development. Now they have him in a black hat as a kind of resource warlord, promoting conflict in the Congo to get access to valuable mineral resources and royalties.
He’s a bit of both but what he is really all about is something more familiar: Paul Kagame is a both an ambitious man and a Tutsi nationalist who is trying to build a secure future for an embattled people in a dangerous part of the world. He needs to develop the economy of Rwanda to reconcile Hutus to his rule and to give the Tutsis the resource base to support an army that can defend them. The Rwanda supported militias in the Congo arose to battle Hutu militias in that region and remain important to Kagame’s strategy for protecting his people and his rule, and for providing the resources he calculates he needs to keep his armed forces both loyal and strong. The “good” parts of Kagame’s policies as seen in the west—an aggressive and clear eyed program to develop Rwanda, reconciliation after genocide, anti-corruption drives—are part of the same overall grand design as the “bad” ones: tight controls over Rwandan political life, arms purchases, support of militias and fellow Tutsi groups in the Congo.
National leaders in tough neighborhoods generally don’t fit well in neat moral categories. They mix serious accomplishments with staggering crimes. They combine a statesmanlike ability to manage a complicated foreign relations portfolio with hard and unwavering action where they think their vital interests are at stake.
The agony in the Congo has a long future ahead of it, we fear. The ethnic conflicts driving it are urgent and real. The failed Congo state and the shambolic UN presence in the region cannot provide enough order and stability for the artificial, colonial boundaries to work and for “Eastern Congo” to emerge as a viable political entity within the DRC. More than five million people are believed to have died in the last round of international fighting in this region in a series of wars some observers compared to Africa’s version of World War One. Europe’s first great war ended in a twenty year truce before an even worse conflict broke out; Africa, convulsed by the same forces that sent Europe spinning into war after war, is vulnerable to the same kind of fate.