August 19, 2012 by soniauwimana
Among the Grinnell alumni I keep in touch with, people have mixed feelings about Jason Stearns’ book on the Congo Wars, Dancing in the Glory Monsters. The main objection among African students was the title itself, which seemed kind of “Heart of Darkness” on steroids. Another complaint can be summed up this “praise” from English novelist John Le Carre: “Jason Stearns is probably better qualified and better able than any man alive to write about Congo.” (Bold my own).
Anyway, I personally quite enjoyed the book. Being Rwandan and knowing more than most of his readers about the subject matter, I found plenty of inaccuracies and faulty nuance, but hey! He’s a muzungu who knows his stuff, certainly more than most. If you compare him to Laura Seay (who thinks RDF foot soldiers speak English to each other) and other self-appointed experts on us Africans, he is streets ahead. Sure, he exhibits a Congo bias, but I spent enough time at College to realize that the absence of one bias or another is a pipe dream.
All that said, I find Stearns very annoying as a blogger — but I don’t think this contradicts my mild admiration for his book. The problem with his Congo Siasa blog is that he hasn’t adapted his style from book author to blogger. An author, by definition, gets to convey information in an authorial voice….you might call it the voice of God. It is his or her job to project command of the subject matter to the reader, and this would obviously be undermined by too many caveats or expressions of doubt or humility. An author speaks with transcendent authority. Someone has gone to the effort to package up his words in book form, print thousands of copies, market it widely and sell it to people for cold hard cash. He earned the right.
Bloggers have no such right. When a blogger writes in this authorial style he or she comes across as — well — arrogant. The blogosphere is a much more egalitarian space. The space between the reader and the blogger is far narrower, and so the blog reader cringes when addressed as a mere consumer of the blogger’s wisdom. This is how Stearns comes across. Whenever I read Congo Siasa, the voice of the guy who does blockbuster movie trailers creeps into my head. In short, it irritates the hell out of me and so I generally avoid it. Oh, and Stearns is also extremely thin-skinned and characterizes all criticism as abuse. He is far from alone in this regard, but I can do without enduring more of it than I need to.
None of this is to deny that Stearns is very influential in the West who generally accept the Le Carre view that he is the world’s greatest living expert on the Congo, including the 68 million people who actually live there. So I guess a lot of people take his pronouncements from the mountaintop very seriously. This is why I was so worried when I read his defense of the Hege revelations.
Leveraging his reputation as the final authority on these matters, he published a post late last week defending his friend and sometime-collaborator Steve Hege against criticism for his previous writings on the FDLR and Rwanda. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They are friends, after all, and it would raise questions about Stearns’ character if he didn’t try and defend Hege. As the song goes, That’s What Friends Are For. But – and this is a humungous but – this does not give Stearns the license to engage in outright dishonesty.
Let me innumerate the ways he does so:
1. Stearns completely ignores the central allegations — namely the characterization of the Rwandan government as “Ugandan Tutsi elite” and FDLR as victims of RPF atrocities and not perpetrators of genocide. He also ignores other writings of Hege, apart from the fact-sheet, including the 2010 paper that argues that Congolese of Rwandan origin have themselves to blame for persecution. Instead, he just issues a blanket exoneration like a lazy priest. It is easy to defend someone against accusations of wrongdoing by completely ignoring the alleged wrongdoing. It is also completely intellectually dishonest.
2. Stearns disingenuously implies that Rwandans are out to arrest Hege for genocide denial when I have not seen a single such threat to that anywhere. In fact, the vast majority of comments on the Hege matter I have read have gone out of their way to say that he is entitled to his views. Instead, the criticism relates to Mr Hege’s position as the coordinator the Group of Experts, not his rights to free speech as a private citizen. This is raising the specter of a big, bad authoritarian African regime designed, either consciously or not, to play into racist stereotypes. Mr Stearns ought to know better.
3. Stearns falsely claims of the Group of Experts that they visited Kigali “for three days in April to talk to the government about the ex-CNDP mutiny and allegations of Rwandan support” but that the government refused to speak with them. This one is just outright false. The letter sent by the Group of Experts prior to this visit MADE NO MENTION WHATSOEVER OF “THE EX-CNDP MUTINY AND ALLEGATIONS OF RWANDAN SUPPORT”. The letter in question comprises part of the official Rwandan response as Annex R, and refers only to issues relating to FDLR financing and general breaches of the arms embargo. No mention of the M23 as Stearns claims. None. He either does not know this — in which case he should stop projecting a level of knowledge he does not possess — or he is lying. I suspect the former, but he should correct the record either way.
4. Stearns concludes his blog by saying the GoE report is indeed flawed, but he has spoken to enough people to know that Rwanda is involved anyway. This supreme arrogance is startling even by Stearns’ lofty standards. “Please trust me, I know everything” appears to be what he is saying. This is 2012, Jason, not 1912.
Now, I am told that Stearns’ Skype name is Lingala or Swahili (I can’t remember which) for“our white guy” so no Rwandan, me included, expects objectivity. But we have come to expect at least the pretense of objectivity from him. With this defense of his buddy Hege, that veneer has well and truly rubbed off.
Twitter Handle: @UwimanaSonia