Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book review - Africa's World War

A book review by Amb. Robert Gribbin

Africa’s World War – Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe

By Gérard Prunier, Oxford University Press, NY, 2009

African scholar Prunier’s latest, Africa’s World War, purports to be the definitive study of the conflict arising from the Rwandan genocide that ultimately spread into the Congo twice as open warfare. That conflict still continues today in the Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By and large Prunier got the narrative correct. The war began in 1996 with covert operations by the Rwandan Patriotic Army designed to dismantle the refugee camps and squash the threat of genocidaire insurgency. Then, fighting expanded under the aegis of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL) and its odd leader Laurent Kabila with participation by forces from Uganda, Burundi and Angola that culminated in the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997. New president Kabila then turned on his masters thus igniting a second round of nationwide strife that flowered into a contest pitting Kigali and Kampala, and their rebel proxies, against Kinshasa supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Sudan. Respective control of territory split the nation for years while internal machinations amongst all the players led to divisions and sub-divisions according to various motives and interests. The 1999 Lusaka Peace Agreement paved the way for a return to normalcy – withdrawal of foreign forces, containment of militia, UN peacekeeping operations, internal Congolese dialogue and ultimately elections. All of which, in some fashion or other, occurred during the last ten years. But Congo today still suffers the effects of warfare. Skirmishing with Hutu genocidaire elements continues as does confrontation with various Mai Mai groups. Hundreds of thousands of persons remain displaced while perhaps millions have died, largely not from bullets, but from the collapse of social and economic infrastructure, i.e. medical services, farming, markets, transportation, schools, etc.

Prunier’s detailed recitation of events provides some insight into political personalities and the motives that he imputes to them. His grasp of the situation, however, is muted by the reality that many of his facts are simply wrong. In one section of the book Prunier ruminates about how African leaders successfully hoodwinked western governments and how easy that was given the indifference of such governments to the crisis. Yet he himself seems to accept every comment or observation by Africans (usually cited as confidential sources) as fundamental truth, whereas he discounts on the commentary either on the record or off from westerners as tainted spin.

My major squabble with Prunier’s “facts” has to do with his portrayal of American activities and motives. I was the U.S. ambassador in Kigali from 1996-1999 and can speak authoritatively (and I have in my book In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda). Simply put, Prunier spins out, and thus perpetuates, a series of lies and misrepresentations. He seems drawn to the idea that the United States mounted a large covert military operation (using black misfits recruited by the CIA) to support Rwandan fighting in Congo in 1998 and 1999. Of course, Prunier apparently believes that I was complicit in, if not the author, of such black ops. Even so, he managed to misspell my name in the several citations in his book and footnotes.

Prunier cites as proof: the presence of black English speaking soldiers in Kivu, their base at a former Peace Corps site near Bukavu, two bodies of dead soldiers handed over to American officials in Uganda, and airdrops by USAF C-130s to re-supply rebel AFDL forces in Congo. All of this is pure fabrication. None of it occurred. Prunier also asserts that the small $3 million U.S. de-mining program in Rwanda was simply cover for supplying the RPA with military wherewithal for the war effort, and that dozens of U.S. Air Force flights carried in the goods. Again, fiction! Although a few military flights did land in Rwanda during my three year tenure, their cargoes were high level visitors, humanitarian goods and surplus items – a C5A for example brought lots of recycled computers, office equipment and medical supplies for civilian entities. As for the de-miners, they did what they were supposed to, i.e. de-mine. Similarly, Prunier joined other conclusion-jumpers in assuming that the small joint training exercises (less than a dozen US troops) conducted with Rwandan forces were aimed at preparing for or sustaining conflict in the Congo. To the contrary, that was not the objective and furthermore as soon as the Congo imbroglio began, to demonstrate our dismay we cancelled such activities as well as planning for a quite large package of non-lethal military communication and transportation items.

Among other assertions of American complicity in the Congo war was a statement that my deputy the late Peter Whaley met with Laurent Kabila “thirty or forty times.” Peter was indeed our initial channel for communicating with Kabila, with whom he met only about a dozen times. The purpose of such communication was to restrain the rebel war effort, not to advise on political or strategic tactics as Prunier implies. Prunier’s exaggeration, however, underlies his thesis that the United States, feeling guilty on account of inaction to halt the genocide, afterwards sided blindly with Rwanda both in that government’s internal transgressions, but especially in its invasion of Congo and the ouster of Mobutu, whom, Prunier says, we had finally gotten tired of. (I concede elements of truth regarding sympathy for the new regime in Kigali, as well as the belief that change was needed in the Congo, but orientation should not be confused with actions. We provided no substantive support for Rwanda, AFDL rebels or others engaged in conflict in the Congo. We constantly sought a halt to the fighting and indeed sought accountability for human rights abuses that occurred during the violence. ) In attributing and analyzing nefarious U.S. motives, Prunier offers little evidence other than “confidential sources” to buttress his opinion. On the one hand, he seems to fall unfortunately into the French academic camp that simply assumes that the U.S. is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-managing of events in Africa (for example, he states that Rwanda adhered to the Lusaka withdrawal agreement only because the new Bush administration cold-shouldered President Kagame); while on the other hand, Prunier attributes U.S. policy and missteps to indifference to the fate of the continent. He wants it both ways when it suits his argument.

In light of the grave transgressions of fact with regard to the United States, and those are the issues that I know the accurate side of, I cannot help but wonder how badly skewed Prunier’s other information is. He relates lots of juicy details of meetings, encounters, massacres, troop movements, etc. but are they accurate? One must doubt. In conclusion, this book could and should be an important contribution to the history of the Congo crisis in all its complexities. There is some good stuff in it and an excellent bibliography, but its fatal flaws require that “truth” always be annotated with an asterisk.


A short story

The connection was scratchy, but the voice was clear, “I’ve been watching you, you know.”

“Yes,” I replied with more bravado than I felt. “I know. Should I be afraid?”

He chuckled, “No, don’t fear us. I needed to find out if I could trust you.”

“Trust me?” I queried. “You were on the verge of being arrested. Why does scaring me help you trust me.”

He laughed again. “I watch out for them even more than I watched you. Your movements, your contacts indicate that you are not one of them, or part of their apparatus. Even if you did not know it, they are not watching you, or listening. So now, we can safely meet.” He paused. “I am a democrat and a freedom fighter.”

This guy was careful I thought, much more than most dissidents I encountered in this dusty African capital on the southern fringe of the Sahara where I plied my trade as political officer at the U.S. embassy. The James Bond aspects of his approach were odd, but opposition figures did have much to be suspicious about. The reach of the president’s secret police was astonishing; and their tactics brutal. Critics of His Excellency disappeared into the jails, or more frequently these days before even getting to jail, with disturbing frequency.

“Okay,” I agreed, “but it will have to be my way.”

Two days later in the late afternoon I sat waiting at a small table on the terrace at the Golf Club. Because of the heat and the fact that the course was mostly windblown sand and dirt, the club did not attract many players. A few hard core drinkers, however, were well into their beers. A tall very black African approached. “It’s me,” he said, “Call me Jean Claude.”

I suggested a walk, so we strolled out the first fairway, found a bench and talked as the sun turned fiery red and sank into the Chari River. Jean Claude told me he represented southerners, the black Africans of the nation, who had been its educated class, its first administrators and provided the first president. In later years, all the progress and leadership provided by the south was swept away by desert warriors and their brutal rule. Now was the time Jean Claude asserted to reclaim their birth right. He acknowledged some southern participation in government. “Stooges,” he called them. But they too, he alleged could be brought into his movement. He sketched out a vision of political power based on mobilizing the southern majority to act as a coherent whole, break the stranglehold of the capital and assert regional autonomy. Once done, the south could strengthen its own institutions and evolve into its own independent state. He saw the process as one paralleling the evolution of southern Sudan, but without the need for a nasty war.

I heard him out and asked about the oil. His solution to that was revenue sharing. “All the president wants is money; money to buy arms and feather the nests of his cohorts. We will use the money to better the lives of our people.” Jean Claude closed with the pitch that I knew was coming. He wanted Americans to know of the struggle. He wanted our support – moral, if not material. Mostly he wanted assurances that we would restrain the government from using U.S. trained anti-terrorism forces or equipment against southern patriots. I said I took note of his ambitions and promised I would not betray his confidence, but that I could not promise either support or that the embassy could dictate how to employ the anti-terrorism troops. We agreed to stay in touch.

Jean Claude slipped out the gate of the golf club. I ordered and nursed a beer while thinking it over.

“Patron,” the club manager interrupted my thoughts, “please, don’t bring that man here again. It could go bad for me.”

“Why?” I responded.

“He’s a political ghost. He is the first president’s grandson.”

In following months the political temperature went up. Broadsides appeared vilifying the regime, editorials in the quasi-free press got tougher, new web sites appeared, especially one called action sud that blatantly called for southern autonomy. There was talk of tribal oathing, creating action cells, lots of agitation in southern towns. Southern politicians in the capital too began to adopt a more militant stance. Throughout I kept in regular contact with “Jean Claude;” mostly by phone, but and we met occasionally. He stayed out of the limelight, but seemed to be the motor of the movement. I heard that the security police were after him. I did note that anti-terrorism troops were deployed to two southern towns.

National legislative elections were approaching. They offered the opportunity for some success for southern power. I told Jean Claude of Stalin’s observation that it does not matter who votes, what matters is who counts the votes. He nodded grimly, but assured me that party poll watchers and international observers would be vigilant.

Lo and behold! The elections were okay. Southern power parties swept their home region and held a near majority in Parliament. Jean Claude’s first phase succeeded.

I tried to call to congratulate him, but could not get him on the line. After several days of futile efforts, finally, he called back. “I’m done,” he rasped wispily. “Finished.”

“No,” I rejoined, “Every thing is going well. Your plans are working. You cannot quit now.”

“No, my fate is death.” He coughed. “I have SIDA and the infection has spread. Victory is now up to others.”

A week later he died.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Too Close to the Sun

A book review of

Too Close to the Sun – The life and times of Denys Finch Hatton

By Sara Wheeler, Random House, London 2007.

Several books have been written about the tempestuous relationship between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, especially Baroness Blixen’s own account in her marvelous memoir Out of Africa. In her version Tania (Karen) provides her perspective and romanticizes the relationship of two differing souls who connect in great passion. Author Wheeler is much less ethereal and more practical in arriving at a more realistic appraisal of the relationship. Her assessment tracks a careful evaluation of Denys’ life from childhood, through school and university and then into the wider world beyond.

Finch Hatton was indeed endowed with a unique personality. He was affable, gregarious and intelligent – but not a scholar. He was well connected, rich, and extremely good company. Yet his defining characteristic, and perhaps his fatal flaw, was that everybody liked him. He never seemed to have alienated anyone; cuckolded husbands included. Because life – women, money, opportunities – came so easy to him, Denys did not really find purpose in life until his forties. And by then – unbeknownst to him – he was almost done.

Finch Hatton stumbled upon Kenya early in life and despite several efforts to change venue, it stuck. He invested in land and other businesses before finding his métier as a white hunter and conservationist. Certainly, twice serving as guide to the Prince of Wales, Denys was a celebrity in his own right. It was a spotlight he was often subjected to. By and large he handled it well. Relationships came and went, but with Tania, Denys struck something new – a deeper melding of souls, one that transcended into a spiritual plane. Yet the tragedy of such love was that it could not last.

Several aspects of this intriguing tale stuck me as especially meritorious. First, the author periodically pulled back from the story of Finch Hatton to reset the world stage. Indeed that stage changed dramatically prior to World War I as Britain experienced a social revolution that marked the demise of the landed aristocracy. World War I itself sealed the transformation of Finch Hatton’s world. Although he participated fully in the war effort; first in East Africa and then in Mesopotamia, Denys (obviously) survived, but virtually every male friend of his youth died in the conflict. What a staggering loss.

The book was well researched and is beautifully written. Although I pride myself on vocabulary, author Wheeler repeatedly came up with words: “prolepic,” “ashlar,” “cyclamen,” “lubricious” and more that I had to look up either for definition or for proper usage. I enjoyed that additional challenge.

Too Close to the Sun is a marvelous read. For aficionados of colonial Kenya, books don’t get any better than this.