The wars that have wracked the Democratic Republic of Congo since the mid-1990s have unfolded largely out of view of the world’s media, their horrific toll of 3–4 million casualties absent from front pages and tv screens. The relentless slaughter and the sheer complexity of events—involving, at one time or another, the armies of half a dozen states as well as a bewildering array of proxy forces, regional warlords and local militias—have proved formidable obstacles to analysis. The drc’s fate seems emblematic, too, of Africa’s ambiguous transition from postcolonial Cold War battlefield to a new, far less predictable, historical era, which has often seemed to defy intelligibility. Making sense of the Congolese wars and at the same time coming to terms with this wider historical shift is no easy task, but this is the goal of Gérard Prunier’s ambitious new book.

Prunier himself is a complex figure, straddling the worlds of academic analysis and policy-making. Born in 1942 in Neuilly, and educated in Paris and Nanterre in the late 60s, he spent much of the early 70s in East Africa—mainly in Uganda and Tanzania: outside the francophone sphere—before returning to France at the end of the decade to undertake a PhD at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He obtained his doctorate in 1981, with a thesis on the ‘Indian question’ in East Africa—he had witnessed Idi Amin’s expulsion of Uganda’s Asian population. In 1984, he joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he has been based ever since, apart from a stint in 2001–06 running the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. Alongside his academic career, Prunier has regularly frequented policy-making circles. Formerly a member of the International Secretariat of the French Parti Socialiste, advising the ps on East African issues, he worked with the ‘African Unit’ at the Elysée at the turn of the 90s, and was consulted by the 1998 French Parliamentary Inquiry on the country’s role in the Rwandan genocide. More recently, he has given expert testimony on the Congo to the International Criminal Court.

But he is perhaps best known for two contributions he made at the time of the Rwandan genocide. The first was as an advisor to the Ministry of Defence during Operation Turquoise, the French incursion into Rwanda under un auspices in June 1994, with the purported aim of establishing ‘safe zones’ for those displaced by the génocidaires. In reality, it was little more than a cynical public-relations exercise to improve France’s image, dented after its years of fulsome support for the Hutu-dominated Habyarimana regime. Prunier’s role, by his own account, consisted of giving logistical advice and suggesting an entry route less likely to inflame the sensibilities of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front; he also argued against those in the French military calling for an invasion to protect the Hutu Power government from the advancing rpf. As it turned out, the Operation did not stop the killing: French troops were, as one of them put it, ‘cheered along by murderers’, who carried on their work with impunity until the rpf swept them out of the country.

Prunier had stepped away from Operation Turquoise almost as soon as it had started, returning immediately to academic analysis. Within a year he had produced the first account of the genocide, The Rwandan Crisis (1995)—his second notable contribution. Here he took a critical view of French policy, including the Operation in which he had been involved. However, his strictures on Françafrique, the French system of informal suzerainty over its former African colonies, seemed ambivalent coming from someone who had previously been so tightly connected to it. In his subsequent work, he has often adopted a stance contrary to that of the French foreign-policy establishment, and somewhat closer to that of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’; as if to signal this, his two major books since the mid-90s have been written in English. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (2005) provides an overview of the conflict, but also positions Prunier as a proponent of the term ‘genocide’ and a staunch critic of the regime in Khartoum.

His latest book covers a decade of protracted violence in Central Africa, from Rwanda to the end of the political ‘transition’ in the drc in 2006. In nine briskly written chapters, the reader is taken through the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide; the first Congo war of 1996–97, in which Paul Kagame’s Rwandan and Yoweri Museveni’s Ugandan forces overthrew the crumbling Mobutu dictatorship, installing Laurent-Désiré Kabila as president; the 1998 split between Kabila and his former allies, which triggered the second Congo war and the effective partition of the country into zones controlled respectively by the government, Rwanda and Uganda; Kabila’s assassination in 2001 and replacement by his son Joseph Kabila, who with Western backing grew increasingly powerful; and, finally, the unfolding of a precarious process of ‘transition’ after 2003, under the auspices of South African diplomacy, leaving some conflicts in the eastern Kivu and Ituri provinces unsettled to this day.

Prunier contends that the Congolese conflicts have been rendered less visible and amenable to analysis by the polarization created by the Rwandan genocide, in the academic sphere as much as in the wider world. His account purports to avoid this polarization by seeking the middle ground between, on the one hand, narratives that primarily blame the rpf leadership under Kagame for much of what has happened in the Great Lakes region in the last two decades, such as those of René Lemarchand or Filip Reyntjens; and on the other hand, those adopting a more favourable stance towards the rpf, as in the case of Colette Braeckman. In this respect, the book signals a significant adjustment of Prunier’s own position: previously well disposed towards the rpf, he seems to have taken the Congo wars as an opportunity to record second thoughts about Kagame, and to correct his account of particular incidents he ‘got wrong’ in The Rwanda Crisis. This is especially apparent in the opening chapter of From Genocide to Continental War, in which Prunier addresses the scale and nature of killings carried out by the rpf in the wake of the genocide; these were, he argues, neither a ‘second genocide’ nor ‘uncontrolled revenge killings’, but rather the products of ‘a policy of political control through terror’. The rpf emerges here not as the shining exemplar of ‘African renaissance’ once touted by Western policymakers, but a militarized, authoritarian movement seeking to install ‘undivided Tutsi power’. (In this Prunier is in step with the West’s more recent bid to dissociate itself from Kagame.)

The book then turns to the treatment of the Hutu refugees from Rwanda, nearly 2 million of whom fled into the Kivu provinces of what was then known as Zaire—accompanied and supervised by the remnants of the Hutu Power apparatus and the Interahamwe militias. Prunier argues that the ‘humanitarian’—i.e. non-political—treatment of these populations by the ‘international community’ ended up ‘greatly helping the perpetrators of the very crimes it had done nothing to stop’, creating a poisonous mixture of ‘genuine refugee settlements and war machines built for the reconquest of power in Rwanda’. It was this that ignited the already precarious social and political fabric of eastern Zaire.