A Few Questions for Gérard Prunier
Eve Donegan, Sales and Marketing Assistant
Yesterday we posted an essay by Gérard Prunier, the author of Africa’s World War, on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the effect it has had on the people of Central Africa. Below Prunier answers a few questions that we had regarding the current situation in Africa.
OUP: How has the involvement of the world increased or decreased in Africa since the initial conflict?
Gerard Prunier: I don’t think international involvement of a non-commercial nature in Africa has increased or diminished since the 14 nation war. Basically what you see towards Africa is humanitarian goodwill (of a slightly weepy nature) backed up by celebrity photo ops, journalistic disaster reporting (unfortunately justified), “Out of Africa” type of exotic reporting and diplomatic shuttle diplomacy on Darfur and assorted crisis spots. None of this results in very much action. Meanwhile the United States drinks up crude oil from the gulf of Guinea, India and China export cheap trinkets to the continent and in exchange (particularly China) chew up vast amount of natural resources and build cheap roads and sports stadiums. The Africans at first loved it. Non-imperialistic aid, they said. As the Chinese shoddily-built roads already show signs of wear and tear and as their stadiums and presidential palaces (another Beijing specialty) begin to look slightly out of place, they are beginning to have second thoughts.
OUP: How has the 2006 election in Congo affected the country?
Prunier: It has stabilized it internationally and tranquilized it internally. But an election is only an election. Phase Two of the Congolese recovery program has so far failed to get off the ground. Security Sector Reform never started (the Congolese Army is still basically a gaggle of thugs who are more dangerous for their own citizens than for the enemy they are supposed to fight), mining taxation is still touchingly obsolete, enabling foreign mining companies to work in the country for a song and a little developmental dance, the political class mostly talks but does not act very much, foreign donors have forgotten the country as it made less and less noise, the Eastern question is a continuation of the endless Rwandese civil war which has been going on with ups and downs for the last fifty years and the sleeping giant of Africa still basically sleeps.
OUP: What sort of future do you see for Central Africa?
Prunier: Only God knows. It will depend a lot on the capacity of the Congolese government to move from a secularized form of religious incantations to real action. Mobutu is dead but his ghost is still with us. One typical feature of Mobutism was the replacement of action by discourse. Once something had been said (preferably forcefully and with a lot of verbal emphasis) everybody was satisfied and had the impression that a serious action had been undertaken. This allowed everybody to relax with a feeling of accomplishment. In a way the last Congolese election was a typical post-Mobutist phenomenon. A very important and valid point was made. This led to a great feeling of satisfaction and a series of practical compromises and lucrative arrangements. The Congolese elite sat back, relaxed and enjoyed its new-found tranquility. Meanwhile the ordinary population saw very little result of this new blessed state of affairs. Beginning to rejoin reality might be a good idea.
OUP: Why do you think the Rwandan genocide and the following occurrences were typically ignored or belittled in comparison to other world catastrophes?
Prunier: I might beg to disagree on that point. For a catastrophe which had no impact on the international community, contrary to 9/11 for example, there was quite a bit of follow-up. The follow-up was in a way easy because it was painless for the international community. Just a little money (very little when one sees the costs of the war in Iraq or of the present financial crisis) and an embarrassed way of looking the other way when President Kagame rode roughshod over the Eastern Congo. Rwanda became a second little Israel, for the same reasons as the first one. Where were we when the people were getting killed? Since we simply had left the question hanging on the answering service, there was a slight feeling of unease when we saw the heaps of dead bodies. As a way of atoning for our sins, we asked somebody else to pay the price of our neglect. The Arabs made a lot of noise about this. But the Congolese had neither oil nor an aggressive universal religious creed. As a result they are still trying to deal with the consequences of our absent-mindedness.
OUP: As someone who resides in Ethiopia part-time, what is the attitude of the country towards the conflict-filled history of Central Africa?
Prunier: Basically the Ethiopians do not care. They have never felt “African” and the only reason Haile Selassie had been able to create the OAU in 1963 is that his country had been the only one in Africa NOT to be colonized. Ethiopia is IN Africa but not OF Africa. Let us forget skin color. Skin color is irrelevant (and many Abyssinians are very light-skinned if one wants to get into that futile line of argument). But let us consider culture. Abyssinia, the old historical core of Ethiopia (i.e. pre 1890), pre-Menelik) is basically an offshoot of the Byzantine Empire, complete with Christian icons, a Monophysite Church, imperial intrigues and forms of writing, worshipping, cultivating, behaving and warring which have almost nothing to do with Africa. Between 1890 and 1900 Emperor Menelik conquered a slice of “real” Africa as a buffer zone against British and Italian imperial ambitions, that’s all. It did not “Africanize” Ethiopia. The average Ethiopian person is much more preoccupied with what goes on in Europe or the US than with what goes on in Angola, the Congo or Nigeria. The only African countries Ethiopia feels vitally implicated with are those of the Horn, of the “neighborhood” so to speak: Eritrea, Djibouti, the Sudan and Somalia. Perhaps a little bit Kenya and Uganda. Seen from Addis Ababa, Rwanda is as far as the moon.
OUP: How do you think the world’s understanding of Africa has changed since the genocide in Rwanda?
Prunier: I don’t think it has changed at all.
OUP: What other books should we read on this topic?
Prunier: In English there are only three: Jean-Pierre Chretien: The Great Lakes of Africa, Danielle de Lame: “A hill among one thousand” and that old classic by Rene Lemarchand:”Rwanda and Burundi” which was published by Praeger in 1970 but which is now out of print. There is a lot of other stuff but it’s all in French.
OUP: What do you read for fun?
Prunier: Milan Kundera, Tony Judt, David Lodge, Edmund Wilson, Nietzsche, Panait Istrati, Chateaubriand, Samuel Pepys, Nicolas Bouvier, Guy Debord, Valeri Grossman, Montaigne, Elmore Leonard, the Duke of Saint Simon, Karl Marx, Dostoievski, Tintin, Jared Diamond, Max Weber, Lord Chesterfield, Balzac, Andre Malraux, Philip Larkin, Witold Gombrowicz, V.S. Naipaul, Bakunin, Orlando Figes, Guillaume Apollinaire, Czeslaw Milocz, the list is endless, I am a very eclectic reader.