When Comrades Go to War: Post-Liberation Movements, Elite Politics and the Internal Dynamics of Africa’s Great War

Harry Verhoeven, Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

Philip Roessler, Government, College of William & Mary

Research Grant, 2013

Funding by the HFG enabled vital fieldwork in six African countries (Angola, Congo, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), which helped detail the day-by-day, week-by-week chronicle of Africa’s Great War, a conflict that had its roots in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and erupted in two phases (1996 and 1998), claiming the lives of more than four million Africans. These findings were written up in a monograph, Why Comrades Go To War. Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa’s Deadliest Conflict.

We found in our research and argue in the book that Africa’s Great War was not a conflict between old enemies or distant strangers but rather between ideological fellow travelers and revolutionaries who had long waged the same struggle for a new, leftist Africa. Ironically, but not coincidentally, it was this very intimacy that would be the undoing of what initially seemed like a triumph (the ouster of Mobutu, arch-symbol of authoritarianism and decadence in Africa) but quickly turned into a fratricidal nightmare between leftist liberation movements from across the continent.

The initial revolutionary euphoria of liberating Africa's third-biggest country rapidly gave way to distrust between the comrades, now turned ministers and generals.

The seeds of Africa’s Great War were sown in the revolutionary struggle against Mobutu—the way the revolution came together, the way it was organized, and, paradoxically, the very way it succeeded. The overthrow of the ancien regime proved a Pyrrhic victory because the protagonists ignored the philosophy of Julius Nyerere, the godfather of Africa’s liberation movements: they put the gun before the unglamorous but essential task of building the domestic and regional political institutions and organizational structures necessary to consolidate peace after revolution. Thus, the initial revolutionary euphoria of liberating Africa’s third-biggest country rapidly gave way to distrust between the comrades, now turned ministers and generals.

In the absence of robust institutions to settle disputes, divide the spoils of victory, and balance competing visions for the revolution, political disagreements and misperceptions became sources of great tension and later catastrophic physical violence. A mere 15 months after what should have been a “second independence,” the outcome was Africa’s Great War.

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