2009 05 03
Recently read: A Continent for the Taking

Howard W. French. A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

This is an angry book. On practically every page French has something withering to say about a Western diplomat, or an African leader, or a thug at a checkpoint trying to extort money. They have all contributed in their own way to the lost opportunities and staggering suffering of a continent with extraordinary potential. French, an African American born in Washington, D.C., spent more than two decades in Africa, first as a translator and then as a journalist. He has stories to tell, and a few scores to settle, and in A Continent for the Taking he does both in a compelling way. His book does not range across the whole of Africa, as the title might suggest. Rather, French focuses on a few countries where he has significant experiences to relate, among them Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Perhaps the most gripping and interesting part of the book is French’s account of the fall of Mobutu and the rise of Kabila in the DRC in 1997. French won awards for his reporting on this incident for the New York Times, and he offers more than simply a gripping story about the dissolution and chaos of the end of one regime and the rise of another. He argues that the United States, attempting to make up for turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide three years earlier, again turned a blind eye to Ugandan and Rwandan efforts to use Kabila as a proxy to dominate their much larger neighbour. French claims that in this they were heavily influenced by the strongly pro-Kagame slant of Philip Gourevitch’s We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. (I have occasionally wondered whether subsequent events led Gourevitch to revise his opinion of Kagame; I don’t think I’ve seen anything else on the subject by Gourevitch since I read Regret to Inform). Unfortunately, backing Kabila at the crucial moment meant backing away from the most credible democratic figure in the DRC. Once again, the US’s involvement in the region was cynical and counterproductive. The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion-by-proxy of the DRC marked the beginning of an absolutely catastrophic war that claimed the lives of millions.

This book has a lot to recommend it: close observations of people from all walks of life, reflections on the depiction of African issues in the Western media, trenchant critiques of the foreign policies of outside actors in African affairs. But perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is simply that it made me very curious to learn more about the entire continent: about the ancient culture of Mali; the history of Belgium in the Congo; the Ashante and their struggle with the British, and so much more.

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2004 12 04
Rwandan Troops in the DRC

Posted by in: DRC, Political issues, Rwanda

A helpful F.A.Q. can be found here.

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2004 12 01
Rwanda and the DRC

Posted by in: Political issues, Rwanda

Oh great:

Rwanda signalled yesterday that it was on the verge of invading the Democratic Republic of Congo to hunt Hutu militants, fuelling fears of renewed conflict.

President Paul Kagame told the Rwandan parliament that his troops might already have crossed the border – a deliberately ambiguous reference which kept the region and the United Nations guessing.

Congolese officials and some western diplomats claimed Rwandan forces had been spotted moving into eastern Congo’s remote provinces of North and South Kivu.

That is really terrible news:

If confirmed, the incursion could open a new phase in a brutal war which has claimed 3 million lives and still simmers, despite peace deals and a new interim government taking power in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, last year.

The last time this happened things went rather badly.

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2004 04 06
Power on Rwanda and Sudan

Samantha Power has a piece in the NYT today discussing the situation in Sudan in the light of lessons learned, so we hope, from Rwanda:

The lessons of Rwanda are many. . . A third lesson is that even when the United States decides not to respond militarily, American leadership is indispensable. This is especially true because Europe continues to avoid intervening in violent humanitarian crises. And it remains true despite the Bush administration’s unpopularity abroad. The United States often takes an all-or-nothing approach: if it doesn’t send troops, it tends to foreclose other policy options.

I’m not sure whether American leadership is indispensable. If it is, I rather wish it weren’t so. The U.S. is overburdened, discredited and demoralized right now. If Sudan’s neighbours refuse constructive help, or if their involvement would only make things worse, then Europe has to do something meaningful here. I don’t mean that they should go in guns blazing. But where is a serious diplomatic effort from Europe? Where is the effort to shame Russia and China for the behaviour of their oil companies in Sudan? Where is the sense of responsibility as a global actor?

Look, if Europe really hates American hegemony, they should cut the passive-aggressive nonsense and start doing something worthwhile. Confronting ethnic cleansing would be a nice place to start, I think.

Howls of outrage (2)

2003 09 13

An interesting piece on Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. The piece rightly calls attention to the failure of Western governments to denounce the very flawed vote Rwanda recently held. Western governments are rightly ashamed of their earlier failure to stop the genocide, and I suppose it is understandable that they would be reluctant to decry a rigged vote after that failure. Still, silence about the flawed vote is no solution – in the long run our reluctance to tell the truth doesn’t do anyone any favours.

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2003 08 28
[Canada and Rwanda]

This from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:


Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham welcomed Rwanda’s first pluralist
election since its independence and its first election since the 1994

“Although irregularities were noted prior to the elections, we are pleased
that Rwanda appears to have committed itself to the path of national
reconciliation,” said Minister Graham. “We are all aware of the legacy and
consequences of the tragic genocide perpetrated nine years ago. This
election marks the end of the transition period and is a new step in the
country’s democratization process.”

Canada’s team of observers in Kigali confirmed that the August 25
presidential election went relatively smoothly with no major incidents and
that the electoral process was followed. The high participation rate at the
polls deserves mention, as the observers indicated that over 80 percent of
Rwandans turned out to vote.

This is silly. Is an election only marred by what happens on polling day? The “although” that kicks off the penultimate paragraph is insulting to the reader’s intelligence. You can’t fix serious irregularies in the leadup to an election with a peaceful turnout.

Kagame seems to have passed up the chance to hold a genuinely open election, as and that’s what Canada should say.

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2003 08 22
The Rwandan vote – Concern rises as observers fear Rwandan vote not `credible’

A worrying development. Kagame, Rwanda’s current leader, got really good press in one of the more widely read books on the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch’s “We regret to inform
you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families”. Since the book came out, Kagame has had a very mixed record, doing a great deal in extraordinarily trying circumstances to rebuild the country and at the same time, getting stuck in a horrible and pointless conflict in the DRC. And now this.

I’d be curious to know whether Gourevitch has revised his opinion of Kagame in the meantime.

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2003 05 14
Chaos in Central Africa

What follows is a piece from the U.N. News Service about the chaos currently gripping central Africa. I’m not sure why I’m posting it – perhaps I’m protesting the fact that no one else seems to give a shit. Is there a moral to be drawn from it? Three things come to mind:

a) Much of this chaos is a result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The genocide played a major role in destabalizing the entire region. The roots of the current conflict are complex, of course, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. Still, every time I read about the millions who have perished in the fighting over the last few years, I am reinforced in my belief that never in history did the West have a chance to save more lives with fewer resources than 1994. If the West had acted, it could very probably have taken the edge off the worst. That’s not to say that central Africa would be a nice place now, but chances are it wouldn’t be hell on earth.

b) Pleas for help with the conflict have been issuing from the UN for a few weeks now. As far as I can tell, they’ve been met with nearly complete silence. I suppose I can understand the reluctance to intervene in a complex and perhaps intractable conflict. Still, would it hurt to report the conflict? There’s virtually nothing in the papers about this. Surely the sheer scale of human suffering warrants more mention than it’s now getting.

c) Western companies have profitted from this chaos. Central Africa is rich in resources, and the resources have played an important role in prolonging the conflict. Conflict diamonds are only the start of a long sordid tale of profit from misery. The current outrage, especially prevalent among conservatives, at French companies who did business with the former Iraqi regime would be far more convincing if the same group of outraged critics could bring themselves to condemn the Western companies currently doing business in central Africa.

New York, May 14 2003 5:00PM
As heavy fighting continues to rage in the town of Bunia in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a top United Nations relief official today voiced fear of a looming humanitarian disaster in the area and warned of ethnic tensions that conjured up “shades of Rwanda in 1994.”

The situation on the ground in Bunia continues to be “extremely difficult and volatile,” with intense fighting going on between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in the town itself, as well as around the airport, according to a UN spokesman. The local headquarters of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) is wedged in the area between the two groups.

Carolyn McAskie, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York that the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and the ethnic tensions in Bunia conjured up “shades of Rwanda in 1994,” where men, women and children rose up and attacked their neighbours.

Whole villages in and around Bunia were slaughtering each other – a deeply disturbing aspect of the hostilities that Ms. McAskie feared was “Rwanda-like,” although “nothing could match the scale of Rwanda.” Still, there had been hundreds of casualties “that we know of” in the last few weeks or so, she added, stressing that the humanitarian situation was “extremely dangerous, even desperate; the focus was on very basic life-saving interventions.”

The dire security situation – where a “rather nasty cocktail” of rebel groups and dissatisfaction with local authorities was playing on ethnic hatreds – meant that relief agencies were “down to the minimum in terms of providing the most basic human needs” such as plastic sheeting for shelter and high-protein biscuits.

Ms. McAskie noted there were just eight humanitarian personnel on the ground right now – including a surgeon, nutrition specialist, and water and sanitation expert -doing what they could. Despite the evacuations, she and others, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), were trying to keep a core group in place. Other teams and supplies were on standby, but needed a more secure environment in which to operate. Supplies were being moved up from Goma, but incoming flights tended to be sporadic. The first priority was to find a way to stop the fighting.

Asked how large a force would be needed to suppress the fighting, Ms. McAskie said Ugandan troops had been “keeping a lid on it”. They had anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 troops. “We have 800 personnel now, and estimates of what was needed were some three times that,” she said.

Joining Ms. McAskie at the briefing was Margaret Carey of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. She said that the new troops would have to be able to use force. The Mission was a peacekeeping operation and, therefore, lightly armed. It was basically comprised of guard units. What was needed now was the rapid deployment of well-equipped, well-trained troops, under a mandate that permitted the use of force. In terms of the total numbers needed, she thought the key was enforcement power and capacity.

Meanwhile, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said a shell landed in the UN Mission’s compound, killing one person and wounding 13 others. “I can now confirm the reports on the wires yesterday that one woman was killed yesterday while inside the UN Mission’s Bunia headquarters” he said, adding that a civilian was in fact killed by a stray bullet while she was in the compound, and one mortar shell also landed in the compound.

MONUC has also reported that two UN military observers have been missing since 11:00 a.m. local time Tuesday from Mongbwalu, five kilometres north of Bunia. “All attempts are being made to locate them,” Mr. Eckhard said.

There has also been an increase in the number of internally displaced persons seeking shelter at the Mission’s Bunia headquarters, and a makeshift medical clinic has been organized there to deal with the situation.

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