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No, Batman didn’t save the Congo: and other book reviews

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/5/2022 Laura Seay

Every few years, scholars of Congolese politics collectively sigh as yet another news outlet publishes a poorly informed “analysis” of the country and its problems. Whether it’s an argument that government authority is so weak in the Democratic Republic of Congo that the country “does not exist,” a claim that rebels fight for no discernable reason but banditry, or the idea that celebrity engagement can change the region’s trajectory, questionable claims abound.

Fortunately, growing interest in the study of the region has made it possible for scholars to show that these claims are wrong. Far from being an ungoverned space in which armed men wantonly engage in violence and white saviors must parachute in to save the day, the causes, consequences and solutions to the Congo’s crises are complex, but can be understood. Three new books show how.

Peer Schouten neatly dispenses of the idea that spaces are not governed in “Roadblock Politics.” It is a smart, beautifully written explanation of the actual nature of power and control in Congo and the Central African Republic. Having located over 1,000 regional roadblocks controlled by various authority figures, he shows that power is exercised and contested in ways that differ from standard, Eurocentric notions of governance and control.

Rather than a central governing authority controlling the population of a specific territory, Schouten contends that in central Africa, power is exercised along trade routes. Movement, not boundaries, is the means by which chiefs, administrators, soldiers, rebels and countless others maintain control through the collection of fees at formal and informal roadblocks. Whether it’s a truck driver carrying a load of consumer goods from Uganda or a woman walking 5 or 6 miles each way to sell produce at the local market, central Africans must pay fees or hand over a portion of their goods in order to reach their destination.

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This phenomenon makes for a form of control that resists centralization, but is nonetheless predatory. Schouten convincingly explains one of the central paradoxes of regional politics: the government is weak, but its power — and the power of other, non-governmental authorities — is everywhere. It is impossible to move through eastern Congo without encountering roadblocks.

He calls this phenomenon “sovereignty on a shoestring,” encompassing everything from in precolonial trade practices to rebel financing systems to contemporary global supply chain networks. Congo exists, just not in the way outsiders might expect. Observers, Schouten notes, would do well “to consider that other modes of political control are just as meaningful.”

Brilliantly researched, “Roadblock Politics” avoids unnecessary jargon and is accessible to just about anyone, students, policy makers and general readers alike. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In a similar vein, Jason Stearns’ new book, “The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name” tackles the claim that violence in eastern Congo is without motivation or cause. Seeking to explain why the Congolese conflicts seemingly resist resolution — despite the presence of the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping operation and billions of dollars in aid. Stearns delves into the dynamics of conflict in the region, arguing that violence has become a social phenomenon.

How? Stearns contends that four dynamics explain Congo’s persistent violence. First, fragmentation — the phenomenon by which armed groups have proliferated, now numbering about 120 — makes resolving the conflict extremely difficult.

Second is the growth of what Stearns calls a “military bourgeoise,” national army officers who make money off of the conflict but are also responsible for providing for the well-being of all those under their command. These individuals maintain deep ties with the country’s political elites and are entrenched in both patronage networks and the economy in this part of the country.

Finally, the conflict, in Stearns’ view, is “involuted,” that is, those involved in perpetuating violence do so because they want to maintain the status quo. He also views the situation as “symbiotic,” because all parties to the conflict benefit from the situation and have an interest in keeping it going. Thus, “[a]t times, fighting persists because both parties stand more to gain from fighting than peace.” Violence becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

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Stearns knows Congo better than just about any outsider. As with his other work, “The War that Doesn’t Say Its Name” is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the situation — or to work towards its resolution.

Are there ways to resolve these crises and help the people of Congo, who overwhelmingly suffer the effects of ongoing violence and state fragility? Alexandra Budabin and Lisa Ann Richey analyze one set of efforts in their thoughtful, wittily titled “Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development.” (Editorial disclosure: I was interviewed as a subject and am quoted in the book.)

Seizing on the work of actor Ben Affleck and his Eastern Congo Initiative, Budabin and Richey develop a strong critique of what they call “celebrity aid strategic partnerships,” in which stars like Affleck work with foundations, big business and aid workers to draw attention to and raise funds for the cause, in this case, support for Congolese community organizations and coffee and chocolate farmers. In doing so, they speak to the lack of accountability and growth of business-based models that prevails in humanitarian efforts tied up with foundation and corporate funding and celebrity involvement.

The authors argue that this constitutes a fundamental disruption to the way economic development typically evolves — and not necessarily for the better. Even if undertaken out of a genuine desire to help those in need, celebrity interventionism, they contend, both introduces and reinforces a logic that suggests that privatization, not public services, is the solution to development challenges. Disturbingly, this logic also demands that outsiders like Affleck, who literally portrayed a superhero on screen, are necessary to make development happen.

Thoroughly researched and often laugh-out-loud funny, “Batman Saves the Congo” is a critically important look at a growing and under-examined — and frequently absurd — segment of the aid industry. As with Schouten and Stearns’ work, Budabin and Richey’s work is necessary to understand the eastern Congo’s realities. Those considering writing another op-ed on the country should take note.

Read more in this summer’s APSRS:

Nigeria’s harsh police culture grew from colonial abuses

‘Islamic State in Africa’ explores nine militant Islamic groups

Apartheid casts a long shadow across South Africa

Paul Farmer’s last book teaches still more about pandemics

‘Born in Blackness’ is a compelling, unforgettable read

Find all the books in our ninth African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular here.


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