Of War in the Coeur d’Afrique


What if they fought a war and nobody cared? The week of September 11, 2001, Nightline planned to air a five-part series on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaïre. On September 10, an ABC promo summed up the Euro-American non-response to the insurrection, which “has claimed more lives than all the other current wars around the world combined. But outside of Africa, no one seems to have noticed. Three years, two and a half million dead. We thought someone should tell you.” But the next day, four hijacked airplanes once again diverted Western attention from “Africa’s World War.” (The report finally aired in January 2002.)

UCLA professor Robert B. Edgerton is the latest to explore human suffering in the Congo, drawing from a colorful dramatis personae—the king of the Bakongo, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, current president Joseph Kabila, missionaries, mercenaries, explorers, Arab slavers, and diplomats.

The Troubled Heart of Africa is Congo 101, a survey of the past and a prediction of what coming years might hold for the 50 million inhabitants of the largest—and potentially richest—country in Africa. The book fills some historical gaps left by other recent offerings about the coeur d’afrique, such as Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (2000), which relied on the journalist’s experiences during the dying days of Mobutu’s 36 years in power, and Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), which damned the Belgian monarch for sponsoring the genocide of perhaps 10 million Africans in his Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.

The story of the Congo reads as a troubling collage of brutality, cannibalism, greed, racism, and war, punctuated by rare acts of heroism. Sadly, the nation’s future seems equally bleak. Peace negotiations held during the last two years have repeatedly collapsed. While this month’s Inter-Congolese Dialogue in Pretoria has yielded a tentative plan for transitional government, future elections, and respect for the DRC’s territorial integrity, key players have yet to reach consensus. Meanwhile, the fighting threatens to spill across the borders into countries already ravaged by their own internal strife. It has now been four years, and as Edgerton writes, “the fate of Central Africa, if not all of Africa, hangs in the balance.”