Book review: “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa” by Jason Stearns (2011)

Internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Goma, DRC. Goma has been at the center of nearly two decades of conflict in eastern Congo. By Endre Vestvik, 2007:

Internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Goma, DRC. Goma has been at the center of nearly two decades of conflict in eastern Congo.
By Endre Vestvik, 2007:

“Africa has the shape of a pistol, and Congo is its trigger.

Jason Stearns borrows this prescient utterance from Frantz Fanon, a fiery anti-colonial philosopher of the 1950s and 1960s, to open a chapter of his impressive chronicle Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. Though three years have passed since the book’s release—and a half-century gone since Fanon’s eerie metaphor—2014 offers perhaps as good a time as any for Americans and Europeans to reflect on Africa’s great war as we observe the 100th anniversary of our own.

Stearns is a seasoned analyst of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; his experience and incisive observations are on display in his meticulous retelling of the seven-year conflict that ravaged central Africa from roughly 1996-2003, remnants of which continue to simmer today. Dancing in the Glory is not the sole English-language account of this calamitous period: Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War and Filip Reyntjens’ The Great African War offer a more comprehensive blow-by-blow of the struggle that left as many as 5 million dead. But Stearns’ account is eminently more readable than the alternatives, employing graceful prose and unique nuggets culled from interviews with the countless Congolese and Rwandan politicians, commanders, ex-rebels, and activists that fill his extensive rolodex.

The tragic play of Africa’s Great War unfolds in two dramatic acts, with the Rwandan genocide as its prelude. In Act I, Rwandan and Ugandan forces, riding the coattails of a Congolese Tutsi rebellion they themselves manufactured, drive Mobutu Sese Seko—Zaire’s peculiar and ostentatious dictator—from power. Perennial rebel commander Laurent Kabila, who spent much of the previous three decades languishing and drafting anti-imperialist pamphlets in neighboring Tanzania, is installed as Congo’s new leader.

After a brief 15-month intermission, Act II opens in August 1998 with the Rwandans and Ugandans racing again toward the Congolese capital in Kinshasa, this time to unseat their former proxy. A flurry of Congo’s neighbors—including Angola, Chad, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—come to Kabila’s aid, saving his ineffectual government from imminent collapse; the assailants are forced to retreat. But by the next year, a bevy of new rebellions—backed by Kigali and Kampala—have carved out nearly two-thirds of the country, producing a bloody stalemate in which the Congolese people are the primary victims.

Within each act, a multitude of actors scurry on and off the stage, each motivated by dynamic, competing visions for how the play should end. Stearns likens Congo’s war to layers of an onion: it “contains wars within wars…Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa” (p. 69).

Of course, in many instances, regional and local interests align, as in Rwanda’s attempts to pull together the guise of a “domestic” opposition in Congo in 1996:

“The Rwandans had picked up four strange bedfellows to lead the rebellion. Besides Kabila, there was Deo Bugera, the architect from North Kivu; Andre Kisase Ngandu, a bearded and aging commander who was leading a rebellion in the Ruwenzori Mountains…and Anselme Masasu, a taciturn twenty-some-year-old from Bukavu…In Kigali, the Rwandans embarked on some much-needed bonding exercises with their newly recruited rebel leaders…Thus was born the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). A grandiose name for a group that initially had little political or military significance other than providing a smoke screen for Rwandan and Ugandan involvement.” (pp. 88-89)

Two years later, Rwanda would again host get-to-know-you sessions for a new rebellion, producing what would become the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), led by an aging Marxist professor named Ernest Wamba dia Wamba.

Despite his attempt to peel back layers of the onion, Stearns’ account remains unabashedly Congo-centric. It is strongest when unpacking the motivations and lifestyles of a series of the domestic insurgent leaders, from Kabila to Wamba to Jean-Pierre Bemba (a savvy ex-Mobutist who led the Uganda-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo). His interviews with both the perpetrators and victims of violence in eastern Congo provide a human face to a harrowing war often reduced analytically to nebulous concepts of state weakness and foreign manipulation.

Nonetheless, because the war was undeniably transnational—troops from nine different nations occupied Congo at its peak—Dancing in the Glory would have benefited from a deeper dive into the regional and pan-African context. Excepting Rwanda, the interests and machinations of the major regional players—notably Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe—go relatively unexplained. Stearns’ account fumbles Luanda’s view of Congo after Mobutu, glossing over Angola’s decision to intervene—and to stay—on behalf of Kabila as a question of “better to have the devil you know ruling Kinshasa than a political unknown” (p. 197). And there is virtually no mention of the more marginal, but still important players—namely Burundi, Chad, and Sudan. (Prunier’s Africa’s World War provides a much fuller account of the regional dimensions.)

Countries participating in the Second Congo War (1998-2003) By Don-kun, TUBS [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Countries participating in the Second Congo War (1998-2003)
By Don-kun, TUBS [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The onion’s outermost layer—the role of the international community—also earns scarce attention. Aside from a few anecdotes about the 2002 peace process and foreign companies seeking Congo’s natural resources, Dancing in the Glory does not sufficiently analyze the role of international players. The United Nations, which convened many meetings on Congo and deployed a peacekeeping mission to the country in 2000, is scarcely considered.

Stearns’ narrative ends with a peace deal struck in 2002, after which current President Joseph Kabila (Laurent’s son) tightens his grip on power, but the book’s concluding chapter offers a useful framework for thinking about Congo today. Looking across the DRC’s political landscape in 2014, there remain few protagonists—only deep shades of corruption, rent-seeking, and impunity. Unlike Sierra Leone, Rwanda, East Timor, and the former Yugoslavia, there has been little national effort to facilitate the process of restorative healing. Most of the warlords and former militia leaders who perpetrated atrocities during the conflict have gone unpunished; many even serve in government. Meanwhile, Eastern Congo remains a tinderbox for armed rebellion and equally pitiless counterinsurgency. Channeling Thomas Hobbes, Stearns writes that “the Congo does not have a Leviathan, a state that can protect its citizens or even impose a monopoly of violence.” (p. 329) Until the strength and legitimacy of Kinshasa’s security forces improve, one can surmise that Congo will continue to experience pockets—or entire swathes—of instability.

Nonetheless, there is reason for hope. The international community has succeeded—for now—in capping the spigot of arms and money flowing from Rwanda to armed insurgents in North and South Kivu, and a new UN intervention brigade, backed with a mandate to hunt, has taken the fight to a flurry of insurgent groups operating the region. More generally, in a new preface, Stearns intentionally tries to accentuate the positive:

“The Congo is not just blood and gore. It also has an incandescent, raw energy to it, a dogged hustle that can be seen in street-wide hawkers and besuited ministers alike…Despite its tragic past, and probably in part due to the self-reliance and ingenuity resulting from state decay, it is one of the most alive places I know.” (p. xix)

Dancing in the Glory is primarily aimed at helping an international audience comprehend the particularities of a conflict region neglected due to its enormous complexity. But ultimately, Stearns emphasizes, Congo will have to build greater state capacity, more equitable distribution of wealth, and an inclusive political system “on its own terms.” Despite frequent forays into Congo by international actors, for good and for ill, the fate of the country rests overwhelmingly with the Congolese people.

Stearns’ account frequently compares the situation in Congo to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”—the idea that infamous Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann was simply doing his job, just a cog in a machine that is structurally unhinged. In a political system that is historically corrupt and violent—where power flows to the most ruthless, the most fraudulent—how does one change the political culture and a country’s ethos? Dancing the Glory does not provide perfect answers, but in examining the past, it lays out a framework for thinking about Congo’s future.

Laurent Kabila, the ill-fated leader who eventually came to mimic the excesses for which he castigated his predecessor, aptly captures the essence of Congo’s conundrum in 1997 remarks: “Who has not been Mobutist in this country? Three-quarters of this country became part of it! We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.” (p. 9)

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