Moral Bankruptcy

The Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg)

An excerpt from a Continent for the Taking, which ran in the January 4, 2005 edition of the Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg).
“African solutions to African problems,” Washington’s code name for the war, was an exercise in moral bankruptcy arguably more crass and even more complete than the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide.
As it did in 1994, Washington pretended not to know the extent of the murder that was taking place in central Zaire lest it become a hot issue back home, drawing TV cameras and forcing action of some kind.
By the time most of the dust had settled, six years after Zaire was first plunged into war, 3,3 million people had died in the eastern half of the country alone, more than four times as many people as had died in the Rwandan genocide.
Moreover, by some neat trick of misdirection, once Mobutu was gone, the worst of the slaughter and starvation went almost entirely unnoticed abroad.
Clinton administration officials often grew impatient with questions about the human toll associated with the Kabila army’s seemingly effortless advance through the Zairian countryside.
On a visit to Kinshasa, David J. Scheffer, Washington’s ambassador at large for war crimes issues, once angrily dismissed my concerns about the murder of Hutu refugees by Kabila’s Rwandan Tutsi troops. Scheffer was far from alone in this attitude.
Almost across the board, American officials had written off the Hutu as a pariah population, and no one had time for questions about their fate.
The US ambassador to Zaire, Daniel Howard Simpson, ever fond of blustery talk, reduced the Hutu problem to a simple formula. “They are bad guys,” he once told me.

This attitude would persist long after the war, as Washington ran political interference within the United Nations on behalf of Kabila as his new regime stymied all efforts to investigate mass killings that occurred during the AFDL’s triumphant march from one end of the country to the other.
We in the press obligingly failed to cover what was arguably the war’s most important feature, its human toll. We certainly didn’t have the excuse of disinterest from the outside world, since Mobutu’s demise had been on the front pages of newspapers for months.
Some reasoned that it was too dangerous to trek through the war zones in the wake of Kabila’s rebels, and in fairness the terrain was dangerous and unusually inaccessible. It still haunts me to think, however, that something far more insidious lay behind our failure.
Evildoing by the rebels fouled up an all too compelling story line. Mobutu was the villainous dictator, someone the press had loved to hate for years, and now even the American government had stopped propping him up.
By contrast, Kabila had emerged as a jovial, canny foil. He had quickly learned how to keep the press happy with his blunt, boastful statements and colourful appearances before the cameras. He gave us the illusion that we were covering the war by allowing reporters to fly in briefly when a town had been freshly captured – that is, after any sign of atrocities had been carefully cleaned up.
As we turned the war into a black-and-white affair, with Mobutu and his Hutu allies playing the irredeemable bad guys, our most important failure was in suspending disbelief over the flimsy cover story of an uprising in the east by an obscure ethnic group. From start to finish this war had been nothing less than a Tutsi invasion from Rwanda.
The most powerful factor at work behind our self-deception was an entirely natural sympathy for the Tutsi following the horrors of the Rwandan genocide.
From that simple starting point, emotionally overpowering but deeply flawed analogies with Israel and with European Jewry and the Holocaust began to drive Washingston’s policies in Central Africa.
Philip Gourevitch, whose compelling writing on the Rwandan genocide strongly influenced Clinton administration policy toward the region, wrote in the New Yorker:
“Despite Rwanda’s size, General Kagame, who became the country’s President in April, has built its Army into the most formidable fighting force in central Africa, and he has done so without recourse to sophisticated weaponry. Rather, what distinguishes his commanders and soldiers is their ferocious motivation. Having single-handedly brought the genocide to a halt, in 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Army has continued to treat its almost ceaseless battlefield engagements as one long struggle for national survival.”
“(The analogy that’s sometimes made between Rwanda’s aggressive defense policy and that of Israel — another small country with a vivid memory of genocide which has endured persistent threats of annihilation from its neighbours — is inexact but not unfounded.)”
Americans are overly fond of good guy/bad guy dichotomies, especially in Africa, which for many already seems so unknowable and forbidding.
But analogies like these paralyse debate over Central Africa rather than clarify it. Nothing could ever pardon the organisers of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, yet it is no less true a fact that the wild adventurousness of the Tutsi leader Paul Kagame, who mounted a Rwandan insurgency from bases in Uganda in 1990, primed a country that had already long been an ethnic powder keg for a sharp escalation in violence and hatred.
The Tutsi, unlike Europe’s Jews, were a small minority that had enjoyed feudal tyrannies in Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi for centuries. In Burundi they had perpetrated genocide against the Hutu three times in a generation, and in both countries they were committed to winning or retaining power by force of arms.
There were no good guys in Rwanda’s catastrophic modern history, and the same was true for Zaire’s civil war. We in the press were far too slow in seizing upon the recklessness of Rwanda’s invasion, and by the time the true dimensions of the tragedy it had unleashed could be discerned, almost no one cared.
A senior writer for the New York Times, Howard French has reported for the newspaper since 1986 from Central America, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, Korea and now China. In 1997, his coverage of the fall of Mobuto Sese Seko won the Overseas Press Club of Americas award for best newspaper interpretation of foreign affairs. A Continent for the Taking is published by Vintage Books.

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