Friday, April 20, 2007

Golf in Africa

Following is a piece that I wrote about my golfing experiences in Africa that was published in the April 2007 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

Best and Worst Golf Courses

One valid subjective measure for rating an overseas post is the quality of the golf experience. In that spirit, I offer the following observations.

On becoming the consul in Mombasa, Kenya, I rented a house that backed up to the Nyali Club golf course. It was finally time for me to learn the game and become inculcated into the arcana of golf rules and, especially the formality of a British-origin club. I joined and, depending upon the season, played upon lush green fairways or hard-packed clay over fossilized coral rock. I regularly jumped my back fence for a few practice holes in the early evening. Baby monkeys carted off balls, doum palms ate them and the rough hid puff adders. Most refreshing during competitions was a cold fresh lime drink under the palm trees between nines.

The course in the middle of Kampala was full of ardent players. Thought modest, the prizes - a bicycle, a set of kitchen utensils or a bottle of scotch – were items beyond the reach of many players. Despite the fact that few players were British, an English sense of decorum prevailed. One did not fail to doff his hat upon entering the bar. Most entertaining were rule-committee arguments and rulings conducted in an open fashion over beers on the terrace. Real tension rose once a year in the regional competition organized on tribal lines; we foreigners were allocated any region where more players were needed. In keeping with Uganda’s strife plagued politics, the contest was war by other means. However, it all ended amicably in a huge drunk.

The course in Bangui became one of my favorites. It was not much of a course, with poorly mown fairways and oiled-sand greens, but it had very cold beer. As it happened either Political officer Stacy Kazacos, the only Central African Republic member Martin Yando, or I won every competition for about a year. This infuriated the largely French membership. My triumph was to capture the CAR national championship in 1995. Unfortunately, that was the last year it was played: the golf course succumbed to the ravages of civil strife, and has not reopened.

Kigali has a winding nine-hole course that crosses and recrosses an infernal stream. A challenging course, its fairways are narrow and grass greens unpredictable. The club had a mixed membership of Rwandans (mostly army officers who learned the game in Uganda) and international personnel. I tried to interest now-President Kagame in golf, but he preferred tennis (he rarely lost). Once a year we decorated the club house with left over July 4 bunting and played for the “American Cup.” We cooked hotdogs. I gave away putters, bags, balls to the winners.

Other memorable African courses that I know include Firestone East, located on a vast rubber plantation in Liberia. The main challenge was getting to and from the course, 40 miles from the capital. Players had to run a gauntlet of roadblocks manned by former dictator Charles Taylor’s goons and child soldiers.

The midtown course in Kinshasa is low lying with lots of water hazards. One rarely lost a ball, however, on account of the ever-present “crocodiles” – men who waited patiently by each pond, waded in and retrieved your ball for a small sum. In contrast the course in N’Djamena, Chad, had little vegetation but lots of sand. We carried around a swath of outdoor carpet to hit from into inconsistent oiled browns. Heat was the issue in Chad. It was already 95 degrees when we started at 9 a.m. and often 120 by the finish.

Djibouti’s course resembles Chad’s: sand and rock decorated by remnants of plastic trash bags. Heat and humidity, each about a 100, necessitated a dawn start. I would roust a caddy off his sleeping mat – they slept on the club veranda – and head out. One morning with a tail wind and good bounces, I had a legitimate sub-par round. The golf gods were telling me that even in Djibouti, they smile down on lunatics. A year later, my crowning achievement came on the course in Bujumbura. I aced hole number 12, a 180-yard, uphill par 3…bounce, bounce, in!

So which is the best or the worst? I can’t say. I liked them all. I needed them all! For without a golf course, any post is the pits.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rwanda - President Bizimungu Freed

Lost in the flurry of reports from Rwanda last weekend commemorating the 1994 genocide was the news that President Paul Kagame pardoned former President Pasteur Bizimungu and released him from prison. Bizimungu had served five years of a fifteen year sentence for treason. Bizimungu was reportedly delighted (who would not be?) with the news. He was cautioned by officials to become a law abiding citizen.

Bizimungu’s initial arrest and conviction were contentious. Although there was probably some corruption mud on him, his troubles really arose from political reasons. As a Hutu, President during the early RPF era (1994 to 2000) and untainted by genocide, Bizimungu was apparently deemed to pose a credible threat to continued insider dominance by Kagame and the clique around him. After falling out with the inner leadership and resigning in 2000, Bizimungu announced his intention to contest for the top post in the upcoming election with his own new party on his own platform. However, fearing a possible return to ethnic politics, the Tutsi element was determined to prevail. Accordingly, a number of measures were adopted to make it impossible (as in Bizimungu’s case) or very difficult as regarding the effort by former Prime Minister Twagiramungu or other Hutus to run. Naturally, little of this was couched overtly in ethnic terms, even though the code was known by all.

I judged at the time that President Kagame had little to fear from an electoral challenger. He had the name recognition, the power of the military and the power of incumbency. He was the savior of Rwanda and its true leader. Given the way that Rwandan society works, his election would almost be automatic. Yet, electoral success was assured by arrest of Bizimungu and intimidation of other candidates. The message as (correctly) read by voters was continuation of Kagame’s rule.

Once won, however, the question arose of what to do with Bizimungu? Charges (even partially trumped up ones) could not be dropped as that would fly in the face of Rwanda’s very determined efforts to institute a rule-of-law regime nationwide, especially in dealing with genocidaires (which Bizimungu was not, but resolving his case prematurely would smack of favoritism). Also, failure to move forward on the Bizimungu case would indicate that the charges against him were more political than real. Finally, stubbornly proud Rwanda did not want to be perceived as caving to international pressure to free the former president. Thus, the legal process had to run its course. This involved a trial, conviction, sentencing and appeals. Only when all the legal maneuverings were complete could exercise of the presidential power of commutation be considered.

To his credit, when the time was propitious President Kagame exercised his power and had his former colleague released. I judge the decision to have been overdue, but it certainly was a mark of political maturity. Pasteur Bizimungu poses no political threat to the regime, yet his release does indicate that old animosities must pass on and that all Rwandans can and ought to live together harmoniously. That is good news. Rhetoric and reality should always match.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Kenya - Who killed Robert Ouku?

On the morning of February 16, 1990 the Voice of Kenya radio announced that the mutilated and partially burned body of Robert Ouko, Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, had been found near his home in Koru. The minister had been reported as missing a day earlier.

Ouku’s death ushered in a long series of inquiries, investigations and speculations, but since the trail led into the highest reaches of Kenyan politics, further pursuit of culprits was stonewalled. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

Professors David William Cohen and E.S. Atieno Odhihambo wrote a book entitled The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2004. The authors recount what is known and unknown about the minister’s death.

Risks of Knowledge is a difficult book to describe and an awkward one to read. It is an erudite mélange of scholarship, sensationalist reporting and stilted legalese. The authors have multiple goals that they spell out in the introduction. Foremost is to assess how the investigations into Foreign Minister Ouko’s murder transformed Kenyan society. The authors assert that the knowledge revealed both wittingly and unwittingly, shed light on ambition, corruption and the practice of politics by Kenya’s most powerful people. Among the consequences of the investigations was the exposure of various efforts to cover-up the high level involvement undertaken in order to confuse and keep the public in the dark. The authors stated that this objective failed as the brouhaha surrounding such blatant attempts to obfuscate led to expanded and ultimately successful efforts to reform and to democratize Kenya.

Like the investigations themselves, the book wanders around a bit jumping from the material at hand to ruminations on its meaning and impact. However, the book does provide a solid structure for revisiting the murder. In turn it highlights evidence of “the white car” seen by the housekeeper, the site of the death, the missing note that perhaps named the abductors, Ouko’s whereabouts in the days before the murder, the minister’s state of mind, corruption linked to the molasses factory, Ouko’s falling out with President Moi, theories of family problems, and special branch abuses. At times the book reads like a murder mystery, yet as the authors point out early, there are no conclusions as to who did it? or why? only mounting evidence that permits readers to draw their own conclusions. Nonetheless, the mounting evidence and the authors’ analysis of it provide fascinating insights into Kenyan political society.

I kept waiting for the authors to deliver a promised discussion of how the investigation elevated the status of servants (such persons including housekeeper Selina and herdsman Shikuku provided the bulk of the damning testimony), granting them credibility in a society that tended to ignore the thoughts and observations of the lower classes, but other than the statement to that effect there was little analysis of this facet.

My disclaimer: Since I lived briefly in Koru as a PCV (1968) and worked in that area for nearly two years, I easily recalled the physical geography relevant to the murder. Although I did not know the minister, I knew other “big men” who owned farms in the sugar zone. Additionally, I gleaned some understanding of the dynamics of Luo politics, at least from the perspective of the common man. Finally, from a later diplomatic posting in next door Uganda, I assisted Ouku’s brother Barrack Mbajah to join his son in the U.S. in 1991.

Those who served in Kenya during the early nineties undoubtedly recall the ongoing soap opera of the investigations, especially the commission’s months long hearings that were reported verbatim in the Daily Nation. All that verbiage will jump back out at you as you read this book. For others who knew Kenya before or after this event, this book serves as a good divider. Earlier observers of the political scene, recalling Mboya’s and Kariuki’s deaths, would perhaps not be terribly surprised, albeit disappointed, that assassination would occur again. Later observers will more realistically appreciate the political currents unleashed by Ouko’s death and the changes subsequently wrought. In any case, Risks of Knowledge is an interesting foray into a complex topic. If you have patience, it is an excellent read.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Rwanda - Commemoration of the Genocide

April 7, 2007 marks the 13th anniversary of the commencement of Rwanda's terrible genocide. During the hundred days that followed April 7, 1994, almost a million souls perished in a cataclysm of violence that stunned the world...and the world did not respond to the violence. Consequently, guilt for the massive loss of life rests not only on the perpetrators, but also on those who stood by, both willingly and un-willingly, and did nothing. Without resolving issues of responsibility, it is, of course, proper that we pause again to honor the dead and the victims of this tragedy.

As U.S. Ambassador in Rwanda I attended a number of memorial services for the victims. Each year on April 7, a national commemoration was held. Such events involved the exhumation of a mass grave at a genocide site, then proper reburial of the victims. These were sobering occasions when the true horror of genocide was clear to see. Yet they were also healing sessions with prayers and speeches. The dead could now rest in peace. Those present recommitted themselves never to let such events happened again.

I was not in Rwanda when the genocide occurred, but I became the U.S. Ambassador there in the years afterwards. My tasks were recovery, return refugees, reconstruction and reconciliation. I wrote about these undertakings in my book "In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda" (go to for more info). Reconciliation was the most nebulous of these tasks. How to contribute to a healing process between individuals and communities that were so decisively torn apart by hatred? Many Rwandans considered that the rendering of justice to be an important step. The U.S. could help there, so we created programs to help reconstitute the judicial system, train personnel, help draft a genocide law, etc. Socially, we supported a number of survivor groups, especially women's organizations, that inter alia worked to rebuild trust and communication between ethnic groups. Yet there was only so much outsiders could do. Reconciliation, that is admission of guilt, then forgiveness, are mostly individual decisions. Aid programs, church efforts, discussion groups, government attention to the issues, all could build a climate conducive to reconciliation, but the individuals involved had to make the decisions.

Even as people were coming to grips with such internalized issues, they had, had to get on with their lives. In this Rwandans were more successful. Homes were repaired, fields planted and commerce reignited. The refugees did return. The new ethic of "get along" promulgated by the government was accepted. After a while, peace and predictability returned to the hillsides.

One of the post-genocide/refugee return success stories was the placement of lost, orphaned or abandoned children with families throughout the nation. Initially over a hundred thousand children were collected into camps, orphanages and institutions. One model orphanage was run by an elderly American lady, the late Mrs. Roz Carr. A massive effort was undertaken to reunite the children with their families, extended families or place them in adoptive homes. This succeeded in fairly short order. By 2000 only several thousand children remained in group settings.

Following is an excerpt from my book that highlights this success.

" I visited an orphanage we supported in Rubungo just outside Kigali. A gracious lady, one of the sponsors of the orphanage, showed me around and explained how successful they were in placing children with extended or foster families. So much so, she said, that the institution would be closed within six months. In the meantime, she pointed with great pride to a cow contentedly chewing its cud in an adjacent pasture. She said the cow was newly acquired and would provide milk for the remaining children. She elaborated, saying that the cow had come to the orphanage as bride price. A girl in their charge agreed to marry, and the husband-to-be's family insisted that traditional practices be followed. Otherwise they believed the marriage would not be legitimate. Accordingly, a family group from the groom's side and a team of sponsors from the orphanage conducted traditional negotiations and settled on the cow as the bride price.

I found this transaction to be a remarkable statement of resilience and hope. Despite all the tragedy, lives went on. Customs adapted. "