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Book Reviews

guerres sans frontières en république démocratique du congo

by Olivier Lanotte
Brussels: Coedition GRIP-Editions Complexe.
264 pages, 35.60 Swiss Francs
Reviewed by Major Roy Thomas, ret’d

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“Garder les yeux ouverts sur l’Afrique des Grands Lacs!”, pleads Professor de Wilde d’Estmael of the Catholic University of Louvain in the preface to this book. Indeed, Canadians should! Canadian military observers have been deployed on Operation “Crocodile” since November 1999, and, moreover, Operations “Lance”, “Scotch”, “Passage” and “Assurance” all testify to Canadian military involvement in this region, however meagre. Indeed Canada’s involvement with the peace process in the Congo dates back to the first United Nations (UN) operation between 1960 and 1964.

Perhaps the best known Canadian officer of the past decade, General Roméo Dallaire, has just returned from testifying at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. As the contributors to Guerres sans Frontières are at pains to explain, the Rwanda genocide is a major factor in the tragedy that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire’s book (now a best-seller everywhere in Canada), cites Gérard Prunier’s book on Rwanda. Prunier has written the so-called “postface” to Guerres sans Frontières.

Dallaire points out that the Congo catastrophe is “five times” larger than the Rwandan genocide. In holding this view, he joins d’Estmael, Prunier and Oliver Lanotte, the author of Guerres sans Frontières, in asking readers to take an interest in the Congo on humanitarian grounds.

A lesser-known Canadian author, Madelaine Drohan, in her book on the use of armed forces by international corporations, raises questions about Canadian companies feeding off the Congo misery. Perhaps Canadians should also be taking an interest in the Congo on moral grounds.

Guerres sans Frontières fills a need for information on the Congo, providing situational awareness for anyone responsible for, or interested in, an area where Canadian Forces personnel could be placed in harm’s way. It is not a history of the Congo. It is a book-length analysis of the fighting which has engulfed the Congo for the past decade, starting with the chapter “Origines de la guerre des Grands Lacs”. This is followed by the “La première guerre de Kivu” which covers the period in which Lauren Kabila came to power. The Kabila regime is discussed in “Origines de la nouvelle guerre” while the chapter, “La première guerre continentale africaine”, leads into the three chapters providing a geopolitical analysis of the Congo conflict.

Echoes of a Dallaire lecture to RMC War Studies students in 1998 can be seen in the heading, “Blitzkrieg dans les Grands Lacs”. Indeed, in his book, Dallaire calls Paul Kagame, leader of Rwanda since 1994, a “military genius”. Lanotte suggests that out of the genocide the Kagame regime obtained a “good guy” tag in the eyes of American policy-makers, at least during the Clinton years. He also notes that this “good guy” label did not stop the Kagame forces from carrying out the Kibeho massacre. Guerres sans Frontières contributors allege that Africa and the Great Lakes region, have almost disappeared from post 9/11 United States’ foreign interests.

Canadians who were involved in Operation “Assurance” may be disturbed by the views of these French and Belgian authors. Lanotte describes the refugee camps as “sanctuaries of Hutu Power in Kivu”. Prunier claims that the camps continued “to harbour the ex­genocidaires” while earning UNHCR the local epithet “Union nationale pour les hauts criminels rasssasiés.” One wonders who would have benefited if Operation “Assurance” had, in fact, been launched. While the authors support the idea of intervention, they would argue that the time for action was much earlier than 1996. The admonishment that “humanitarian aid is no panacea” is a theme that permeates this book on war.

Liberal Canadians have ‘lionized’ the new South African leadership, so the chapter dealing with African stakeholders should be of particular interest. South Africa is now a UN troop contributor in the Congo.

Even more relevant to Canadian readers is the chapter that examines the involvement of players from outside Africa. As might be expected of a book written in French, French and Belgian interests feature prominently. Canada, and indeed Britain, are not mentioned in “soutiens anglo-saxons”, which covers American involvement only. The omission of Canadian activities is perhaps a true reflection of the success of former Prime Minister Jean Chétien’s African policies.

More important to Canadian readers is the assessment of the UN’s powerlessness in coping with the 2003 Bunia massacres. Canadian military observers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in accordance with UN practice, are unarmed. If Dallaire, in his book, excuses unilateral French action in response to the Bunia bloodletting, these authors seem to suggest that even Belgium should overcome reservations resulting from the country’s colonial legacy to intervene with force. To make his case, Prunier tells us that the acronym for the UN observer force – MONUC – called up by the Lusaka Accords, has been transformed by “l’humour kivois” to “Monique”.

Dallaire’s concern, often expressed and presumably shared by Canada’s Foreign Minister – that even the less powerful are bypassing the United Nations as an instrument for intervention – is proven to be valid if these authors represent the views of our European allies. Pruner testified as a witness at the Belgian Senate hearings into the Rwanda genocide.

As the contributors remind us, the situation in the Congo and its environs is complex. Moreover, they make clear that the Congo cannot be viewed as though 2003 were 1960. This book is worth the price if only for the thought provoking, albeit short, conclusion. Olivier Lanotte’s final words: “Il ne peut y avoir de bonnes et de mauvaises victimes”, will resonate with Canadian veterans of UNPROFOR.

Military readers will appreciate the precise phrases used to make sense of the complexity. Footnotes and bibliography provide exposure to literature in French, as well as issues not talked about in post 9/11 America. The lack of an index is the only serious drawback, and more maps would have helped.

Any Canadian wishing to survey the situation in the Congo through glasses with a slightly different tint will welcome the chance to read Guerres sans Frontières.

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Major Roy Thomas, ret’d, has served in seven different UN mission areas and is an RMC War Studies graduate.


photo IS2003-2494a by Sergeant Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Canadian Forces Bison armoured vehicles sit in a compound at night at the Canadian International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) camp in Kabul, Afghanistan.