Joe Emersberger interviewed Justin Podur regarding his new book about a conflict few understand thanks to, among other things, “Africanist” scholars.
Joe Emersberger: Your book is aimed at understanding the war in the DR Congo that killed an estimated 5 million people since 1998.
Justin Podur: I see it as about a fifteen year event that began in 1990 when the RPF [led by Paul Kagame] invaded Rwanda. That ended, arguably, sometime from 2003 to 2006. It was the same people fighting for the same general reasons. There were breaks, never very long breaks, in the fighting.
JE: Your book spends a lot of time refuting “Africanists” – the supposed experts who are like the Middle East specialists whom Edward Said called “Orientalists”.
Podur: Said didn’t coin that term. That’s what those people called themselves – the tradition started with a group of scholars whom Napoleon brought to Egypt when he invaded. That tradition continued of Western scholars being the ones to explain and interpret the East. In recent decades, scholars from Aime Cesaire and Chinua Achebe to Gayatri Spivak (and of course Edward Said) have argued “No, people from the region can speak for themselves”.
I started studying the Congo Wars as a leftist who was trying to get a handle on what was going on, knowing there is this huge US imperial footprint – and Canada’s (everyone knows about Romeo Dallaire whose role is discussed at length in my book). I did what probably many people do when they try to understand a war: I picked up a series of books by these Africanist scholars.
The first time through I was reading for facts: who did what to who. But the whole time there were other things I was noticing: the way they would talk about one ethnic group relative to another, the way they would physically describe leaders who were pro-US versus those who were not. I realized that to tell this story properly I had to expose the racial and other biases of many people who had written about it so far.
JE: You describe the use of sloppy history combined with racism by many of the Africanists. You also focus heavily on the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and the crushing of his push for democratic reform in the Congo.
Podur: I wanted to talk about that because the Africanists portray Lumumba as a badly or fatally flawed leader. In my first reading of these texts, I assumed these portrayals were accurate. Who isn’t flawed? But when I looked at each of the claims- the alleged flaws, none of them really held up. There is one that he committed genocide against the Baluba [one of the ethnic groups in the province of Katanga] but it was actually his enemy, Moise Tshombe, who did that and the West pinned it on Lumumba. There are a large number of things like that. There is also the speculation that “well if he had lived, he’d have become a dictator”. That’s another Africanist classic. We had to kill somebody because they might do something bad in the future.
But when you understand the context at the time it’s obvious why they killed him. It wasn’t because he was flawed, it was because he was so far ahead of the imperialist time in which he lived. He was trying to bring the Congo’s enormous resources under democratic control. He didn’t slip up and get killed by local enemies. He had a large and very deep following, especially in the Province Orientale, and those people, the Lumumbists, continued to fight for 4 more years. In fact one leader, Pierre Mulele, fought for 8 more years.
The US continually poured more and more resources into making sure the Lumumbists were crushed. They did that for almost a whole decade. It was no accident. It was systematic – one of the major initiatives of US foreign policy at the highest levels. It is all in the cables, the Foreign Relations of the United States, some of which were released in 2014. They had knowledge of Congolese politics to a granular level of detail. They knew the local politicians, their positions on different issues and on one another. US officials whose names you’ll recognize are in these cables: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Harriman…. It really refutes the notion of Africa, or the Congo generally, as some kind of irrelevant backwater. Imperialists don’t do this kind of planning and detailed work for a backwater – I don’t even think there is such a thing as a backwater any more, for imperialists who have the objective of controlling the whole world or more, since Cecil Rhodes (the original Africanist) apparently looked up at the sky and wept that he couldn’t conquer the stars.
JE: And your book discusses the post-Independence dictators who emerged to become important tools of US policy: Kagame, Mobutu, Amin, Obote. You focus on the Congo but to do that you also had to discuss Rwanda and Uganda in depth. Could you go over the kind of death toll these guys inflicted? I am also curious why Idi Amin (who took power with UK support) has come to be the most infamous.
Podur: It’s tough to count deaths but you definitely can for wars. Mobutu for example, there were two wars to overthrow him in the 1970s that were put down. Those were by right wing forces. Those were pretty big and probably tens of thousands were killed. He was in power for 30 years – from 1961 really until 1996. He had a long run. He was known also for the concept of kleptocracy. That comes from Mobutu.
Amin was really bad, responsible for deaths in the hundreds of thousands in counterinsurgencies in north Uganda. I think people might know him the best because he let hijackers land in Uganda in 1976. Israeli commandoes did this rescue and it became a big story because the Israeli commandoes were successful. Maybe crossing the Israelis was one reason why he became so notorious. He also deported the Indian population in Uganda, which generated a lot of suffering and a lot of hatred towards him. Amin was overthrown by Tanzania in 1979.
But then a big civil war started in Uganda between Obote and Museveni. That was called the Ugandan Bush War (1980-86). Museveni won that war. Nobody knows the exact numbers killed as far as I could find, but it could have been half a million that died in that war. Nobody talks about it, but probably comparable numbers to the Rwandan genocide.
JE: That kind of leads us to Kagame. Dictators generally struggle to justify themselves to the world, but this guy actually succeeded in demonizing the majority that he ruled over, basically declaring them all guilty of genocide.
Podur: To me it’s the most successful propaganda operation ever because, like you said, the majority of a country is now seen essentially by the whole world as guilty and worthy of perpetual slavery.
The events of 1994 which I discuss in the book, include the genocidal massacres of Tutsi by Hutu militia but also the [Kagame-led] RPF massacres of Tutsi and Hutu civilians all over Rwanda. The RPF then followed these fleeing Rwandans into the Congo killing hundreds of thousands – mostly Hutus but also other groups of Rwandan and Congolese people. All of these events are generally talked about in the context of the allegedly unique evil of the Hutus. It ends up being used to justify the forever dictatorship of Kagame. It’s an amazing feat.
JE: Ed Herman and David Peterson touched on this in their book the “The Politics of Genocide” Perhaps you can go through some of the estimates regarding the 1994 genocide.
Podur: I try to avoid, and I think actually Herman and Peterson also avoided, the idea that there is some kind of ledger. That’s a big Africanist trope – a big part of what they do with Rwanda, is to tally up the numbers of Hutus killed by Tutsis and Tutsis killed by Hutus and balance out the deaths by ethnicity. They say 800,000 Tutsis were killed, and seem to suggest that if Kagame kills any less than 800,000 Hutus, he’s being magnanimous, merciful. I keep repeating this phrase in the book: the Africanists seem to think “the first 800,000 are free”.
The death estimates are not based on counting bodies or cluster sampling surveys like the Lancet has often published for the DRC, Iraq, etc. It’s based on missing people. This is how many Tutsi were present according to the (adjusted) census. This is the number that showed up in refugee camps. The difference between the two must be the number killed. Herman and Peterson (and others like Davenport and Stam) say that based on that method we don’t know who killed them. They also note that many more Hutus died than Africanists talk about, but that’s expected because they were in the majority. Also because machete wielding militias didn’t know who they were killing. They’d kill anybody who showed up to a roadblock, they would cordon an area and kill everyone inside it. Between 500,000 – 800,000 were killed by these militias, while the RPF was conducting huge massacres in the expanding areas they controlled. There are estimates as high as a million, with about half being Hutu.
JE: You also noted that massacres were incited by Kagame’s looming invasion which then actually took place. In the US, there were hate crimes against Arab and Muslim US citizens in response to the 9/11 bombing. We can imagine the race hatred that would have been incited if Bin Laden had actually been poised to overthrow the US government. But Kagame gets a pass even though his quest for power incited the massacres to begin with. You also talk about the wild claims regarding the number of perpetrators of the massacres. Kagame claimed 3 million perpetrators and outright declared every Hutu adult male a suspect.
Podur: Exactly. There were tens of thousands of perpetrators, probably 30 to 40 thousand. That’s a lot. I think the highest scholarly estimate is of 200,000 perpetrators. Strikes me as high but possible. However the population at the time of the 1990 RPF invasion was close to 7 million (13 million today). The idea is that they were all guilty. And if you think about demographics and age, these are young countries, the majority was not even alive in 1994. But there is an immense effort to keep the idea of collective Hutu guilt alive.
JE: It’s a way to justify dictatorial rule over the majority.
Podur: And to justify RPF murders. While the militias were killing Tutsis, the RPF was also rounding up and massacring tens of thousands of Hutus, calling them to meetings and clubbing them to death. This is well documented by Judi Rever in her book “In Praise of Blood”, also by another journalist Stephen Smith who estimated maybe 40,000 were killed by the RPF in this period and another 150,000 killed within Rwanda by the RPF in the following year. So the Africanists say “yeah whatever, you can’t compare that to 800,000 killed by the Hutus” So 190,000 people are free. Then there was a cholera epidemic in Hutu refugee camps in the Congo that killed tens of thousands. Then Kagame invades the Congo in 1996 to hunt down the remaining Hutus who fled Rwanda and kills 500, 000 to 600,000, maybe more. The demonization of the Hutu population as guilty is there to rationalize this level of mass murder and absolute dictatorship. The Germans widely supported Nazism. In the US, white Americans would hold picnics to watch a lynching. But in both Germany and the US, there are people reading Africanist literature believing there is something uniquely evil about a group of people called Hutus in a country called Rwanda that they would never believe about themselves.
JE: And going back to Lumumba, it serves the purpose of smashing any chance of democratic development, and it facilitates resource plunder.
Podur: A big point I wanted to make is that in 1960 South Africa is an apartheid state. The US is also a kind of apartheid state. They were not going to allow a democratic republic in the Congo – a huge, resource rich, centrally located black democratic republic that could serve a tremendous geopolitical role in liberating the whole continent.
I have a chapter about Che Guevara’s activities in the Congo. Guevara was a bit depressed in the Congo. I actually think he was too pessimistic about what they were able to do there. People forget that he made the calculation to go there. He could have gone anywhere. But in 1964 he decided that that was the strategic place to go, that the most strategic fight in the world against imperialism was being waged by the Lumumbists in eastern Congo. That is where he needed to be. That tells us something.
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Excellent interview. I realize a big expensive book about Africa is not usually a choice for non-specialists, but I have “rented” the book which will remain on my computer/kindle until September 5. It is over 500 pages, so I don’t have much time and will set other projects aside until then as much as possible to read as much of it as I can.
I am a “Latin American specialist” but I have tried to understand as much as possible about Africa, too, an impossible and immense undertaking, I know. But Poder’s book seems essential.
It’s interesting that this interview concludes with reference to Che Guevara’s activities in Africa.
I don’t like hyperbole, but it does seem that our world is in the most challenging time ever and that we are immensely diverse, but still one humanity and to understand our own time and place does mean we need some initial and honest understanding of the world as a whole.
For what it’s worth, from reading the interview and having read Justin Podur for some time at this website, this book seems uniquely important. Plus, and this is where the massive general takes on a personal nature, I know a family who escaped from Rwanda and this is the kind of experience that creates relevance in one’s life that is geographically far from Africa itself.