- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Last year, Madeleine Albright gave the Congo's war a dramatic frame, dubbing it Africa's "world war."

Drama can serve useful purpose in diplomacy, and Mrs. Albright's analogy certainly addressed the war's potential historic consequence for central and southern Africa.

Her analogy also helped the American public appreciate the war's geographic scale and focus attention on the desperate circumstances of its victims. Check the map. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, the former Zaire) as it appears within the squiggly purple line my old atlas uses to mark political boundaries is roughly the size of Western Europe, minus Scandinavia. Though not global, the Congo's combat theater certainly exceeds that of the Western Front.

It's quite a chunk of terrain, a complex map containing hundreds of tribes drawn from dozens of ethnic groups. With around 200 "local languages" (linguists argue over the exact figure), the DRC government promotes French and Lingala as common tongues. Wire services, however, report that the DRC's new president, 29-year-old Gen. Joseph Kabila, isn't competent in either.

But the purple ink circumscribing the Congo is terribly misleading. The DRC is more of a notional than national state. Frankly, the DRC is an "atlas nation" meaning its only truly consolidated existence is as artwork by Rand-McNally. Occasionally, a political "superstructure" vaguely similar to a government emerges in Kinshasa to appeal for international aid, to sell monopoly concessions to mining interests and to buy more weapons.

The Congolese didn't have a chance to get their own act together. The purple lines around the Congo have a particularly ugly history. Belgium's super-colonialist King Leopold drew them, his "Free State's" mercenary bayonets imposed them. Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" only hints at the extent of the resulting genocide. Today, Leopold's ink strokes continue to artificially divide.

Political boundaries that split ethnic groups, language families and religious sects have led to bloodbaths in every corner of the globe. The Italians and Germans have had their own bouts of irredentism. India and Pakistan clash over Kashmir. Christian Moluccans chafe inside the boundaries of an Indonesia dominated by Javanese Muslims. Beijing says no national political boundary separates mainland China from Taiwan. Certain Taiwanese disagree.

Africa, however, is the planet's current chronic case, where artificial boundaries magnify resentments and intensify bloodletting.

Granted, analogies always fracture. But world war? Not really. The Congo's multiple regional and local conflicts are a brutally complex web of ethnic, economic, political, criminal and often personal armed struggles.

History may ultimately see the Congo's collapse as another post-Cold War "war of devolution," a vast African version of Yugoslavia's violent fragmentation, with echoes in the U.S.S.R., Indonesia and even Colombia.

While the U.S.S.R. largely devolved into "pre-Soviet" states, new boundaries appeared. De facto boundaries have emerged in Bosnia and Kosovo, though these lines have yet to show up on published maps. Oddly, it is in Colombia that rebel enclaves are becoming more formally defined. The cartographers have recognized the results of guerrilla and cartel guns.

Where "new borders" are most sharply defined in the Congo, they are hotly contested Katanga being one example. But spheres of influence have clearly emerged.

In early January, the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) issued a statement that said it was selling mining "monopolies" in areas it controls. A united Congo was always a fiction, even under Mobutu Sese Seko's PR-savvy dictatorship. Yugoslavia was something of a fiction, as well. There are now several "Congos," which, if not nascent states, are at least mineral-producing satraps for local tribes, guerrilla militias and army units.

Belgium's bitter colonial legacy, the demographic complexity, international economic stakes in the region's minerals and the frustratingly discrete, local sources of conflict have stymied diplomatic efforts to stop or limit the carnage.

Drawing new boundaries in Africa has been anathema. As bad as the borders were, most African leaders concluded the process of coming up with new ones might unleash even more violence. Sticking with the old borders boxed in the more terrifying and deadlier possibilities.

But the Rwandan genocide and the Congo's collapse demonstrate that the deadlier "what-ifs" are already among us. New borders are emerging as facts on the ground, and only the myopic fail to see them. The question creative diplomats must answer is how to acknowledge the facts and structure new boundaries, spilling ink instead of blood.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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