African Studies Quarterly

The African Stakes of the Congo War. John F. Clark (Ed.), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 249 pp.

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‘The African Stakes of the Congo War’ is an edited volume based on papers presented at a conference on ‘Conflict and Peace-Making in the Great Lakes Region’ held in the Ugandan capital, Entebbe in July 2000. The chapters have, however, been revised and updated to take recent developments in the Great Lakes conflict into account. Consequently, both the first (1996-1997) as well as the second (1998- ) Congo war are covered.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters written by a mix of highly acclaimed Africanists along with a few junior but promising scholars. The reader is provided with an interesting account of the reasons behind the involvement of African states in what has been termed ‘African World War I’. Former Zaire (or what is today called the Democratic Republic of Congo) has indeed become the battlefield of a continental war. No less than a dozen African countries have at one point or another been military engaged in the war.  An equally impressive number of Congolese and foreign rebel movements and armed factions of various kinds are adding confusion to an already extremely complex situation.

These armed forces and movements are not only combating each other but also targeting civilian populations, plundering the resources of the country and bringing destruction to what is left of the state’s social services. All this is inflicted to such an extent that one has termed the conflict ‘the most deadly war ever documented in Africa or anywhere in the world during the past half-century.’[1] And yet, with very few exceptions, events in the Congo hardly ever make the news. Not only is the conflict fought far from what is considered the centre of the political world, it is perhaps too complex a situation for the media to easily cover.

However, the last argument is no longer valid since the publication of ‘The African Stakes of the Congo War’. The authors have, however, succeeded in making this complex history very accessible by explaining the motives of most African countries in the conflict, be it the major belligerent parties (Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda) or the principal driving forces behind peace initiatives (South Africa) as well as the rebel groups involved. The chapters are well documented and provide a number of keys to understanding and reading the events, which gives the reader plenty of background material.

The analysis of the motives of the various stakeholders is further contextualised in two introductory chapters; one on the current academic debate over order and disorder in postcolonial Africa and the other on the origins of the Congo War. Finally we are presented with three broadly lateral chapters on the proliferation of arms, the economic impact of the war, and the issue of refugees and internally displaced persons.  As such ‘The African Stakes of the Congo War’ forms a coherent whole based on a judicious selection of the warring factions’ motives for intervening in the conflict. Although the aim of the editor is clearly to cover the African stakes in the war, in order to present an over all picture it would have been interesting to broaden the analysis beyond the African stakeholders alone.  Western states that likewise have a stake in the D.R.C. (such as Belgium, France, the UK and the USA), have also manoeuvred to protect their interests in the wider region. Similarly, since it is often argued that the current (low to medium intensity) war in the Congo is dragging on because of the economic motives of the parties involved, it would have been useful to extend the analysis of the economic impact of the war to the corporate world as another stakeholder in the conflict.

This notwithstanding, the book is certain to be of use to a broad spectrum of readers concerned with the analysis of conflict in general, be they academics, diplomats or journalists. But it will be of particular interest to all those eager to learn more about this forgotten war. In light of recent attempts to end the conflict, one may hope that a publication like this will contribute to a more effective peace negotiation process. We must not forget that more than three million people have already died as a result of the war and that the complexity of the situation has for too long hindered its effective resolution.   

Stefaan Smis
Brussels Centre of African Studies
Vrije Universiteit Brussel


[i] International Rescue Committee, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Results from a Nationwide Survey (April 2003).