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Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Balkanization in the Congo?: Language and the perpetuation of ignorance

In David Meyer on July 23, 2012 at 11:20 am

There are several regions of the world that have had trouble shaking historically ingrained Western stereotypes. Chief amongst these has been nearly the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa, usually unabashedly painted as a continent of uniform poverty, state failure, and violence. This image is under constant assault by Africanists and so much ink is spilled in attempts to discredit the Western mind’s most wild imaginings that you would think that eventually some change in perception, however so slight, would take place. Of course, mass media slacktivism campaigns like “Kony 2012” and never-ending barrages of child-sponsoring advertisements just as quickly push the average American back to square one when it comes to perceptions of sub-Saharan Africa more broadly. Though it’s possible to rail against this for pages and pages, something much more curious recently piqued my interest, given the irony of how stereotypes and misconceptions of one region are mobilized to stir up fear and call people to action in another, geographically distant region that has long been, and remains, the victim of similar prejudices and profiling.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is probably the most villainized of all the sub-Saharan African states. Authors can’t stop quoting, somewhat ironically, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or rolling out an endless litany of scary words to cast the country as a vast, Hobbesian hell. Now let’s be fair, the DRC faces a myriad of problems, from weak infrastructure to an undemocratic system of governance, from a sputtering economy to a full blown rebellion in the country’s East, but the sensationalist language that accompanies many reports on the DRC is often overemphasized and does little to build peoples’ understanding of the complex issues that the country faces. Indeed, the average American is most likely content to shrug off the violence in the country’s Eastern provinces or the relative poverty as “just how things are.” Congo watchers and scholars, including the likes of Jason Stearns and Séverine Autesserre, consistently point out the sheer complexity of the conflict in the Kivus, which features on the front page of CNN every once in awhile due to the M23 rebellion, but the majority of analyses seem happy to paint a tragic picture of a country and a conflict that no one can do anything about, because that’s just the way it is. Now, where have we heard something like this before?

Ah, of course, the Yugoslav Wars! Yes indeed, the old “ancient hatreds” argument made popular, somewhat unwittingly, by Robert Kaplan and firmly implanted as the average American’s full conception of the Balkan region. Those people there have been at each other’s throats for time immemorial, the only thing we can do is let them fight it out! Even top diplomatic officials in the H.W. Bush administration pushed this line before the pendulum swung to the opposite side under Clinton, when the new standard talking point was that the war was based around pure elite manipulation. Of course, the truth likely resides somewhere in between these extremes (and between hundreds more factors and influences) but the damage was done and the word “balkanization” reentered the English language to denote fragmentation, conflict, and hatred. I say reentered, of course, because the negative framing of the region has been a part of Western perceptions all the way back through the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and even earlier. Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian scholar, wrote a scathing critique of the origins and use of the idea of the “Balkans” as a bogeyman of the West in her book, Imagining the Balkans, which I recommend to anyone interested in the topic.

Given this shared history of being the victims of crass stereotypes, the irony is almost unbearable when one reads the July 21st statement by the Episcopal National Congress of the Congo (Cenco) calling for peace and a resolution to the crisis in the Eastern DRC. Announcing they will lead a protest march to “denounce the destabilization and balkanization of the country,” the group undercuts a noble goal with a word that is not only a hackneyed cliché, but also a framing device that has historically hamstrung progress and international engagement in a troubled region (link in French). Indeed, the portrayal of the Balkans as a land defined by ethnic conflict is an overly simplistic, plain wrong understanding of the region’s history and does a great disservice to those who have long worked for reconciliation, economic growth, and political liberalization. Many of the Balkan states still face hurdles on these issues, but recalling a false, constructed specter of “Balkanism,” even a whole continent away, only promotes unsophisticated readings of complex issues. And that really is the heart of the matter. The Congolese wouldn’t be terribly impressed by assertions that violence in the Eastern DRC is “all about greed” or “all about nearly century old land disputes” because these understandings are incomplete and often mischaracterize influences, actors, and the reality on the ground.

If the Congolese Episcopal National Congress is serious about promoting a new discourse to refocus attention on a region riven by war, they should try reformulating their own language lest they begin to share in the promotion of stereotyping and misconceptions that many Congolese have long fought to overcome. Unless they don’t mind the perpetuation of the mere utterance of the word “Congo” instantly conjuring up images of violence, poverty, and hopelessness, as it undoubtedly still does today. The people of the Balkan Peninsula have had to work hard to vanquish these same stereotypes over the past 15 years; they certainly don’t deserve the extension of this nasty legacy of Western imperialism, similar tremors of which are still felt in the DRC today. In the same way, this should serve as a clarion call to more nuanced understandings of the crisis in the Eastern DRC, so that policy makers are better able to grasp the varied influences and actors that shape the dynamics of violence and average citizens all around the world can refrain from promulgating stereotypes and misunderstandings of a complex series of conflicts that have caused immense pain and suffering in the center of Africa. I suggest reading through Jason Stearn’s blog post over at Congo Siasa alternately critiquing and praising Séverine Autesserre’s recent op-ed for a brief insight into the complexities at play in the Eastern DRC.

Terms like “balkanization” thus don’t have much explanatory power, rather they obscure complexity and plaster over truth. Let’s eliminate it from our vocabulary as a step towards combating stereotypes and oversimplified understanding. I think that’s something that both citizens of the Balkans and the DRC can get behind.

-David Meyer