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Rethinking exclusion, ethnicity and conflict in Central Africa.

The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa

Rene Lemarchand

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 327 pages.

Over the course of the past two decades, the Great Lakes Region of central Africa--encompassing the micro-states of Rwanda and Burundi, as well as the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the southwestern corner of Uganda--has seen some of the world's most devastating civil and interstate wars. The toll of these conflicts is not only in the millions of civilian casualties and unprecedented numbers of refugees produced, but also in self-perpetuating cycles of violence and instability that continue to plague these countries' domestic politics and cross-border relations.

The scale of the situation defies simple explanation. The sheer number of combatant groups in the eastern Congo alone is enough to stump even the most practiced analyst. The ethnic geography of the region is similarly daunting. The history behind each conflict can be enough to occupy a scholar for a lifetime. It is thus no small task to analyze the causes and consequences of conflict in this troubled region. Yet that is exactly what Rene Lemarchand, scholar of central African politics, accomplishes in The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa.

Dynamics of Violence offers no grand analysis and no ultimate solution. In fact, refuting the utility of such definitive analyses stands out as one of the core themes of this volume. The very structure of the text--a collection of stand-alone essays on Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC--questions the value of applying a single macroanalysis to such a diverse set of questions and localities that this region presents. Nonetheless, Dynamics of Violence forcefully justifies the necessity of a holistic cross-border approach to conflict analysis in this region that grasps the volatile politics of these countries as a product of inextricably interwoven and jointly evolving identities, histories and political forces.

Such a comparative analysis, Lemarchand claims, is fundamental to understanding the dynamic and inter-connected rationales driving the region's many conflicts. In discussing the "reciprocal impact" of genocide and mass violence in Rwanda and Burundi, for example, he illustrates the historical linkages between the 1959 revolution in Rwanda and the 1972 mass slaughter of Hutu civilians in Burundi by a Tutsi-dominated army, and articulates the connections between the latter event and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Through a detailed case study analysis of these and other events, Lemarchand narrates a convincing tale of the cross-border evolution of ethnicized politics. In this story, fear crosses borders as easily as refugees; political exclusion emerges as the thread around which histories of violence are constructed and enacted.

The relationship between political exclusion, refugee flows and the evolution of ethnicity is in fact the "central pattern" in Lemarchand's etiology of conflict. Lemarchand observes: "[E]thnic polarization paves the way for political exclusion, exclusion eventually leading to insurrection, insurrection to repression, and repression to massive flows of refugees ... which in turn become the vectors of further instability."

By insisting on incorporating multiple, interacting layers of causality in studying the origins of civil war, Lemarchand directly confronts theories that emphasize the analytical preeminence of a single variable. Speaking directly to Paul Collier's "greed over grievance" thesis, Lemarchand acknowledges that, yes, "greed" and economic opportunism may well help sustain a process of violence once begun, but argues that this variable fails to explain the initial origins of the conflicts discussed in this text. An exclusive focus on opportunism ignores the dual processes of economic and political exclusion that are critical to explaining these causal origins. Lemarchand contends that this element of exclusion is inextricably linked to any assessment of "financial viability" that a wartime opportunist might make, as well as to the social grievances and other socio-economic indicators that Collier so cursorily dismisses.

Instead of merely re-casting the analytical equation of conflict causation, Lemarchand engages critically with the question of ethnicity. He argues that the trope of ethnicity embodies a rationality whose logic any scholar must first understand before attempting to decipher its effects. Explaining the logic of ethnicity as it operates in each case is an important part of this book's contribution. Lemarchand challenges scholars to consider the role of political manipulation that characterizes not only the violence-mobilizing efforts of genocidaires but also captures the reconciliation-seeking objectives of such post-conflict heroes as Rwanda's Paul Kagame.

No treatment of conflict is complete without an attempt at theorizing possible solutions. Dynamics of Violence, however, demonstrates the near-impossibility of such theorizing in this particular region. Lemarchand is repeatedly stymied in his efforts to bring each narrative to a conclusion that does not merely predict the circular reproduction of conflict ad infinitum. He presents, for example, an exhaustive list of measures necessary to counter the fractious tendencies of Burundian politics. Yet how to craft a coherent state-building strategy remains elusive. The myriad difficulties of post-conflict recovery--from outstanding security issues to acute governance deficits--all require a functioning state for their effective resolution. At the same time, however, these difficulties prevent the very process of state-building that is central to that resolution. Similar stumbling blocks appear in Lemarchand's analysis of the DRCs struggle toward peace and stability. This emerges clearly in his discussion of the seemingly unreasolvable security dilemma that frames Rwanda's foreign policy in eastern Congo, and in his musings on the politically controlled process of memory-making that inhibits Rwanda's prospects for sustainable reconciliation. As for assessing the prospects for sustainable peace-building in this region, it remains unclear whether there is a way out of this circular labyrinth of conflict and fractured peace processes.
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Title Annotation:'The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa'
Author:Webley, Radha
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
Words:919
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