Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lise Namikas's "Battleground Africa"

Lise Namikas is an adjunct instructor at Louisiana State University and helped to organize the Wilson Center's Congo Crisis Oral History Conference in 2004.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Battleground Africa: Cold War in the Congo, 1960-1965, and reported the following:
Battleground Africa is about the Congo in 1960, set free from formal Belgian control, and still struggling to find real freedom. The book is about the superpower tug-of-war to pull Africa into the Western or communist camps. Even in the ashes of the Cold War, the story is compelling because of the layers of politics that swathed the Congo. The government itself was wracked by division, and virtually every state in the world took a side in the dispute. The interconnectedness comes close to our own day of multiple cross-boundary networks, only to show how hard it is to restore peace to a broken state.

Page 99 is a reflection of these networks in operation. The page details the very precarious position of the only democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, tottering between success and the ultimate failure. In September 1960 he was dismissed by the figure-head president Joseph Kasavubu; but with popular support, Lumumba struggled to resume his duties as prime minister. He doggedly continued to organize his offensive against the renegade province of Katanga, knowing that anyone who re-united the country and acquired control over its fabulous resources could never be dismissed or ignored. Unaware of the impossibilities of what he was doing, pitted for the moment against the twin behemoths of the United States and the United Nations, Lumumba gambled high. He took Soviet aid sent by Nikita Khrushchev through Egypt, where the firebrand Gamal Abdel Nasser chose to side with him. He also tried to match Chinese aid to his cause. Always weak and weak-kneed in Africa, it hardly made a difference, except to those feigning fear of a communist monolith.

Eisenhower was savvy enough to see through a “bloc” of communism, but he was determined to stop communist influence at all costs. His first option, to limit the crisis through the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC), failed by its own breach of neutrality. Page 99 continues: “The president now clearly took the position that the United States would never have a secure place in the Congo so long as Patrice Lumumba was active.” The following chapters tell the story of the ongoing assassination plots developed separately by the CIA, the Belgian security forces and Lumumba’s own Congolese enemies. In their mind Lumumba was the only thing that stood in the way of a western-oriented Congo, that is, at least until he crumpled under the hail of bullets. America and ONUC were ascendant, but found themselves equally frustrated with the multiplicity of divisions in the Congo itself. There were many chances to change the Congo and bring democracy back, but none truly stuck. That is the crux of the story in Battleground Africa. Ever so gradually promises of progress found themselves submerged by those who wearied or wanted nothing more to do with the crisis or, for that matter, the Cold War in Africa. In the end, the Congo was seized by Mobutu Sese Seko who allied with the West, only so he could grab more of its riches for himself.
Learn more about Battleground Africa at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue