Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nick Kristof on the Congo

Nicholas Kristof just spent a week in the eastern Congo and has begun publishing a series of Op-Eds in The New York Times. This first one is here, and is less than illuminating. He talks about the how women raped and children are orphaned. He says that he has come to the Kivus, "where militias rape, mutilate and kill civilians with a savagery that is almost incomprehensible." Unfortunately, Kristof does not do much in his Op-Ed to make it any more comprehensible. Instead, he slips from one stock image to the next, without providing much explanation at all - in fact, that might be antithetical to the piece, as he states: "This is a pointless war — now a dozen years old — driven by warlords, greed for minerals, ethnic tensions and complete impunity." A pointless war. Perhaps. But does it defy reason? Is there any way to explain in simple terms what the war is about? Here are some suggestions to slip into the piece:

  • The Congo war has many causes, but two on the main ones were the collapse of the Congolese state after 32 years of misrule by a western-backed dictator; and the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, which drove a million people across the border into the Congo, where some of the commanders involved in the genocide still terrorize the Congolese population, along with many new non-genocidaire recruits.
  • In 1996, a Rwandan-backed coalition invaded the Congo to topple the this dictator, Mobutu. After Laurent Kabila came to power on the back of this rebellion, he fell out with his Rwandan backers, who then launched a new rebellion. The war lasted until 2003, when all belligerents joined a transitional government. Elections were held in 2006 and Joseph Kabila was elected president. However, his presidency has been marred by corruption, abuse and state weakness. In the East, former Rwandan allies went back to war, driving an insurrection that morphed through various phases and continues until today.
  • This violence is compounded by struggles over local political and economic resources that often take place along ethnic lines. Faced with a weak state, many ethnic-based militias have emerged. The motives of the fighters vary from self-defense to trying to make money to asserting manhood. [It would be very nice if journalists took more to interview perpetrators and not just victims, it helps to dispel the specter of African savagery.]

This is still hopelessly reductive; the point is, a journalist's job is to provide intelligent context and analysis, to illuminate, not stultify. Some say that it is better that Kristof is writing even these simple tidbits - it helps mobilize interest in the West and people like myself are lost in the stratosphere. I am certainly lost in the stratosphere, but I do think there is a way of writing an Op-Ed that better reflects the conflict's dimensions. After all, it's supposed to be an opinion piece. The only opinion I could find here was: "The Congo is messed up. Please help." Imagine writing a similar piece about America's school system or health care. It would never be published in the NYT.

I am not convinced that just making people care more will solve the problem. After all, caring could lead to bad policy. There is ample precedent for this. Or, people could just shake their head when confronted with such "pointless" violence and throw their hands up in the air.

Kristof also could have spoken about policy. There are currently two pieces of important legislation in Congress on helping to regulate the mining sector in the Congo. The US Defense Department is considering how to help reform the Congolese army through AFRICOM. Several organizations are considering how to intervene to help combat sexual violence through initiatives in the justice sector. This is what an opinion piece is supposed to do: influence opinion and policy. Not reinforce stereotypes.

Maybe I spoke to soon - after all, this is his first piece. Maybe he was just prepping us for cogent policy pieces to come. I certainly hope so.

11 comments:

T. Greer said...

To be honest, I cannot remember seeing a cogent piece on the causes of the conflict in involved in it.

Do you know of one? I am thinking of something along the lines of the post I wrote explaining India's Naxalite insurgency. An introduction to the DRC's woes that is short enough to fit in the space of an op-ed's column, simple enough for someone completely unfamiliar with the region to understand, but still filled with enough information to be useful to the concerned reader. The goal would be to create an introduction that would serve as a framework to understand more advance analysis.

I have looked for such a piece for quite awhile, all to no avail. There is plenty of insipid commentary such as Kristof's, which does little but circulate platitudes and stereotypes, and then there is the kind of stuff published on your blog, while excellent, is incredibly intimidating to the uninitiated.

Rachel said...

Based on the majority of Kristof's columns in the past, I would not hold my breath for intelligent commentary forthcoming. I do expect that we will hear plenty more about children with horrid experiences, and get to see photos/videos of said children. Kristof needs a refresher course the ethical treatment of children and disaster survivors.

Eugenia said...

Yes to all of the above. But at least he mentions Rwanda's continued destabilizing role in the Kivus, right?

Emin Pasha said...

Another solid piece--you're more than fair to Kristof, and that fairness makes your points against him particularly telling. You should cross post this piece to his comments section, where it would get a vastly larger readership and encourage people to click on to your site.

It's interesting to me that most people acquainted with the DRC react so negatively to Kristof's work. You object that he over-simplifies the situation to the point of stereotype; WW object that he names the children who were raped, against internationally recognized proscriptions; TiA says that he's wrong to say the crisis is under-reported; and someone in Bukavu objects to the notion that no one but Kristof is paying attention to the crisis: "What self-aggrandizing rubbish" he says.

And there is something off-putting, and preening, about a lot of Kristof's work. (Am I the only one who finds it strange that on the very day this was published, Kristof That's-Why-I'm-Here-in-Kivu was already in Davos?)

Part of what I find off-putting is that the writing is so awful. The girl's eyes are "luminous with fear." The hills of Kivu are "lovely, lush, and threatening," which sounds like the tag line for a Joan Didion rewrite of the Sound of Music. The graphic details of the rape seem gratuitous as well. They're meant to elicit pity, but they come off as lurid and detracting from the dignity of the victim.

Then there's the intellectual laziness. As you show, it's not really all that hard to describe what the fighting is about, but Kristof comes perilously close to resorting to stereotypes; for every reader who responds by writing a check, there are probably a hundred who find their belief in Africa's intractability ratified.

But if the writing doesn't do justice to the subject, that's not, in the end, what my problem is. It's more like a clue to the problem.

The problem--and I'm not sure I've put a finger on it--is that there's a gap between what he insists the Congo requires from the world and what he appears to think it requires of him. If the Congo is the catastrophe he says it is, then we want him to respond in a way that's proportional. A week's visit, followed by a few columns, seems inadequate, and those of us who devote more than episodic attention to the problem are especially primed to object. The Congo is not a drive-by spectacle. It is a tragedy. The facts—including the rampant use of rape—have been known for close to a decade. Kristof, like Hillary Clinton, who visited the region last summer, deserves credit for acknowledging the scope of the problem. But without meaningful action and follow through, these visits risk coming off as well-meaning at best, but at worst as emblematic of the very failures they condemn.

Jason Stearns said...

Some good points. He had another column today that was a bit better, if only because he highlighted the dedication of an American volunteer who has volunteered to raise money for women in the Kivus. Of course he could have complicated it more by talking about the causes of sexual violence, or by highlighting how Congolese women are helping themselves - not all manna comes from white westerners, but Kristof himself points that out - but his audience is obviously the caring, activist community in the United States. So a bit better, but still far from the quality you would expect from an NYT columnist.

Alex Engwete said...

Wow! Fred, the 3 bulleted points encapsulate everything. I particularly like the second point, which is in the line of the consensus in research literature Africa's World War has generated. Though I'd strike out the word "rebellion" from your otherwise brilliant capsule. Both times, it was an invasion--pure and simple. For plunder, like in medieval wars of siege. I forgot the name of the South African researcher who called these invasions large-scale modern "military entrepreneurship" undertaken by Rwanda and Uganda in the Congo... Even this description is civilized!
There are still organizations out there, like Search for Common Ground just this week, which, despite the mounting evidence and notwithstanding the impeccable academic resumes of their staff, continue to rehash Rwanda's narrative on what happened in the Congo at the onset of Africa's World War.
Thank you very much for this insightful commentary!

Alex Engwete said...

OOPS!!! Sorry, Jason, for calling you "Fred."

David said...

Lamentably, I think part of the problem is that we expect quality from New York Times columnists, when it seems like something about that job inexorably pushes otherwise talented thinkers and writers toward mediocrity. Kristof's stuff is no less hackneyed than that of Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd, it's just about a subject that a (very) small group of us know enough about to find especially trite.

Time to start a push for term limits for NYT columnists!

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Glad to have come across your blog. I agree with your conclusion re: the Kristof piece but you also made me think.

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Valeria said...

- The only opinion I could find here was: "The Congo is messed up. Please help." Imagine writing a similar piece about America's school system or health care. It would never be published in the NYT. -

You said it perfectly, I could not agree more.

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