By Sonia Uwimana
Before I go further, there will be readers primed to fire off tweets and comments and blog posts accusing me of being a hateful troll who besmirches the reputation of a great and decent man. I will be accused of “personal attacks”; of being a Kigalibot, mindlessly delivering pro-Rwanda, anti-Congo propaganda. I will be blamed for the deaths of six, nine, eleven, 20 million people. Congolese fans of Stearns will undoubtedly, as they always do, bombard this website with abusive comments, often including specific threats of physical violence if I ever set foot across the border into the DRC (which I occasionally do, unnoticed by design). To these people, I say the following: go away. My criticisms are directed against the personal brand Jason Stearns has meticulously crafted as an iconic voice of reason in the Great Lakes. It is impossible to do this without addressing the person himself, and I make no apologies for doing so.
Jason K Stearns*, as I have often pointed out, once wrote a half decent book about the Congo entitled Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. While I am increasingly convinced, based on his comparatively poorly written blog posts, that a ghost-writer was heavily involved in its drafting, the book was nevertheless quite informative and somewhat sane in its analysis of the region. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t without flaws, but it wasn’t that bad when you consider the drivel that usually passes as ‘expert opinion’ on the Eastern DRC in particular (including Stearns’ own blog).
Readers of mine will know that I dubbed Stearns “St Jason of Goma” and that I did so for two reasons:
There is a small clique of other wannabe experts in the Great Lakes (often identifiable by the word ‘africa’ somewhere in their Twitter handles) who treat Stearns with an eerie sort of reverence.
Stearns feeds this mythic aura of omniscience through a grandiloquent prose style that screams:
“Children, quieten down. Cease thy squabbling. I, Jason Stearns, am ready to speak now”.
His opinions take on the air of proclamations issued from on high. (There is also something deeply condescending and racially troubling about this).
After a big 2012 during which St Jason played a central role in the Great Lakes crisis, sometimes directly but more often through his proxy Steve Hege, he went missing for several months earlier this year. (Days and nights in the wilderness, perhaps? A brief ascension?) Anyhow, his silence was confounding to the cultists who depend on his ‘wisdom’ for their own opinions. My view about this period of absence is this: St Jason knew he had overplayed his hand in the blame-Rwanda propaganda assault of 2012, and his proximity to the toxic Hege had further threatened his ‘voice of God’ credentials. A break from the spotlight seemed timely and shrewd.
Stearns is back with a vengeance, and his latest mission is twofold: resuscitate the Blame Rwanda narrative, and torpedo the Kampala peace talks sponsored by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). In both respects, his position is indistinguishable from DRC’s motor-mouth Information Tsar, Lambert Mende.
Stearns has hated the regional process from the outset, and has never once acknowledged the straightforward reality that, without the Kampala talks, M23 would not have withdrawn from Goma; there would be no Foreign Intervention Brigade; and Bukavu and other cities would have certainly fallen too. The Kivus would be in the grip of outright civil war. Is this what Stearns wants? Sidelining regional actors who have made an effective cease-fire possible, and playing the Blame Rwanda game, is not just an intellectual posture; it has real world implications. If regional parties and the UN had discarded the Kampala talks which Stearns has decried as useless from day one, many more people would have died. There would have been more tragedies like Rumangabo and Katale. Again, I ask: is that what Jason Stearns would have preferred?
More recently — last week in fact — St Jason couldn’t wait to proclaim the earth-shattering significance of the US decision to withhold $500,000 in military aid from Rwanda:
It can probably be interpreted as the first official indication in months––the UN Group of Experts report in July suggested that Rwandan support had declined––that members of the international community feel that Rwandan support to the M23 continues.
This one sentence is straight from centrefold of the Stearns hymnbook.
He implies possession of secret or special knowledge: this is only an “official indication” of what he and his sources (which he rather vaguely characterizes as ‘the international community’) have known for some time.
He excludes vital information if it undermines his case. Glaring case in point: the same day of the US decision on military aid, the EU (who had previously suspended aid) announced the disbursement of USD$54 million Rwanda, at least as significant an “official indication” of“international community” sentiment, only in a direction that contradicts Stearns’ preferred narrative*.
This propensity to exclude inconvenient facts is at sharp odds with Stearns’ self-image as an “honest broker”. The selective and cynical deployment of facts at the expense of less helpful ones is the hallmark of a lobbyist or activist, not an analyst or academic who deserves to have his or her word taken seriously. And yet St Jason is guilty of this time and time again. Here’s but a sampling:
Not a word on the FARDC bombardment of civilians in Rumangabo and Katale that resulted in the tragic death of harmless civilians including small children.
Silence in response to DRC Foreign Minister’s chilling “genetic signature” speech at the UN.
Nothing in reaction to the description of Congolese Tutsi as “rats” by FARDC spokesman, Olivier Hamuli. This is disheartening from someone who has been in the region long-enough to appreciate the meaning and impact of this words in our context.
Barely a mention of the Minova rapes and the FARDC’s botched response.
Like Mende, Hamuli and their Human Rights Watch backers, the narrative Stearns is desperate to push is one that vilifies Rwanda as the “aggressor”, focuses overwhelmingly on M23 while ignoring the FDLR and myriad other groups that terrorise the region, and draws as much attention as possible away from Congo’s own multifarious shortcomings. (Stearns is laughably sanguine about FARDC’s stuttering efforts at security sector reform, perhaps the one of a handful of people who takes them seriously).
It is no accident that Stearns’ re-emergence as a talking head on the Great Lakes coincides with the breakdown of the Blame Rwanda consensus most clearly signalled by the UN’s Peace, Security and Cooperation framework and the growing importance of the Kampala talks. Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-Moon’s point person in the region, along with former Senator Russ Feingold who acts as the US Special Envoy, have no time for tired old Group of Experts theories pioneered by Stearns and taken to its illogical conclusion by acolyte-in-chief Hege. Robinson and Feingold understand the road to peace runs through Kampala, and that the selective and delusional use of military force against of M23 by the newly weaponized MONUSCO is a bridge to nowhere. Stearns understands this, too, which is exactly why he has been talking down Kampala. So does MONUSCO and the ecosystem of NGOs and consultants it supports. It is precisely because the PSC and the ICGLR talks offer a plausible long term solution to conflict in the Kivus – and because it demands unheard of levels of accountability from Kinshasa and MONUSCO – that it represents such an existential threat to the misery industry that has for so long profited from the region.
*A defender of Stearns and one time AFP correspondent in the region, Steve Terrill — ahem, @steveinafrica — suggested to me on Twitter that Stearns may not have known about the EU decision. This may or may not be true, but my response to Mr. Terrill was that Stearns does not issue his proclamations in engraved marble. He writes a blog and blogs are designed to be updated with vital and relevant new information, and the EU disbursement was nothing if not vital and relevant new information. A week later, and Stearns has still made no mention of it.
Posted by Tom Ndahiro from here