Even Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's dictator, was once a guerrilla with a plan. After transforming minority white-run Rhodesia into majority black-run Zimbabwe, he turned his country into one of the fastest-growing and most diversified economies south of the Sahara -- for the first decade and a half of his rule. His status as a true war hero, and the aid he lent other African liberation movements in the 1980s, account for many African leaders' reluctance to criticize him today, even as he has led Zimbabwe down a path straight to hell.
These men are living relics of a past that has been essentially obliterated. Put the well-educated Garang and the old Mugabe in a room with today's visionless rebel leaders, and they would have just about nothing in common. What changed in one generation was in part the world itself. The Cold War's end bred state collapse and chaos. Where meddling great powers once found dominoes that needed to be kept from falling, they suddenly saw no national interest at all. (The exceptions, of course, were natural resources, which could be bought just as easily -- and often at a nice discount -- from various armed groups.) Suddenly, all you needed to be powerful was a gun, and as it turned out, there were plenty to go around. AK-47s and cheap ammunition bled out of the collapsed Eastern Bloc and into the farthest corners of Africa. It was the perfect opportunity for the charismatic and morally challenged.
In Congo, there have been dozens of such men since 1996, when rebels rose up against the leopard skin-capped dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, probably the most corrupt man in the history of this most corrupt continent. After Mobutu's state collapsed, no one really rebuilt it. In the anarchy that flourished, rebel leaders carved out fiefdoms ludicrously rich in gold, diamonds, copper, tin, and other minerals. Among them were Laurent Nkunda, Bosco Ntaganda, Thomas Lubanga, a toxic hodgepodge of Mai Mai commanders, Rwandan genocidaires, and the madman leaders of a flamboyantly cruel group called the Rastas.
I met Nkunda in his mountain hideout in late 2008 after slogging hours up a muddy road lined with baby-faced soldiers. The chopstick-thin general waxed eloquent about the oppression of the minority Tutsi people he claimed to represent, but he bristled when I asked him about the warlord-like taxes he was imposing and all the women his soldiers have raped. The questions didn't seem to trouble him too much, though, and he cheered up soon. His farmhouse had plenty of space for guests, so why didn't I spend the night?
Nkunda is not totally wrong about Congo's mess. Ethnic tensions are a real piece of the conflict, together with disputes over land, refugees, and meddling neighbor countries. But what I've come to understand is how quickly legitimate grievances in these failed or failing African states deteriorate into rapacious, profit-oriented bloodshed. Congo today is home to a resource rebellion in which vague anti-government feelings become an excuse to steal public property. Congo's embarrassment of riches belongs to the 70 million Congolese, but in the past 10 to 15 years, that treasure has been hijacked by a couple dozen rebel commanders who use it to buy even more guns and wreak more havoc.
Probably the most disturbing example of an African un-war comes from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), begun as a rebel movement in northern Uganda during the lawless 1980s. Like the gangs in the oil-polluted Niger Delta, the LRA at first had some legitimate grievances -- namely, the poverty and marginalization of the country's ethnic Acholi areas. The movement's leader, Joseph Kony, was a young, wig-wearing, gibberish-speaking, so-called prophet who espoused the Ten Commandments. Soon, he broke every one. He used his supposed magic powers (and drugs) to whip his followers into a frenzy and unleashed them on the very Acholi people he was supposed to be protecting.
The LRA literally carved their way across the region, leaving a trail of hacked-off limbs and sawed-off ears. They don't talk about the Ten Commandments anymore, and some of those left in their wake can barely talk at all. I'll never forget visiting northern Uganda a few years ago and meeting a whole group of women whose lips were sheared off by Kony's maniacs. Their mouths were always open, and you could always see their teeth. When Uganda finally got its act together in the late 1990s and cracked down, Kony and his men simply marched on. Today, their scourge has spread to one of the world's most lawless regions: the borderland where Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic meet.