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The African Predicament | The Nation

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The African Predicament

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Paul Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front finally relieved the Administration of this embarrassment by invading Rwanda and seizing power there. The Clintonites rewarded him with a shower of patronage. In a further attempt to evade responsibility, they allowed Rwanda's new Tutsi leaders and their Ugandan allies to carve up Zaire, now known again as Congo, while pursuing their vendetta against Hutu refugees hiding in that country. And the Administration turned a blind eye toward the Western businessmen who formed a series of unholy alliances with Rwandan, Ugandan and other warlords feasting on Zaire's carcass to maintain control over West Africa's oil, diamond, cobalt and other natural resources. The result has been the Congo wars, known in Africa as "Africa's World War." As French writes about the onset of the wars:

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Deborah Scroggins
Deborah Scroggins, a former editor and correspondent for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, is the author of Emma's...

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Since independence, instability and bad governance had been Africa's twin Achilles' heels. They were the two internal weaknesses most immediately responsible for the continent's persistent misery, and the fighting that had just begun under Washington's generous political cover would spew both of these plagues across Central Africa, sowing political unrest, armed conflict and humanitarian disasters for at least the next decade.

If one moment symbolizes the US-African relationship chronicled in this book, it's when Clinton's UN envoy Bill Richardson visited Zaire in 1997. In the midst of his efforts to engineer the departure of longtime US ally Mobutu Sese Seko in favor of America's new, Rwandan-backed favorite, Laurent Kabila, Richardson invited French to accompany him on a side trip to rebel-held Kisangani. Richardson's intention was to demonstrate Washington's concern for the Hutu refugees Kabila's forces had been massacring. "There was an absurd proposition behind the stopover: a photo-op amid a holocaust," French writes. Kisangani was the "innermost river station" of the Belgian Congo, the last place from which boats leave up the Congo River, a brooding place of innumerable horrors. On the day he and Richardson arrived, a fresh surge of Hutu refugees confirmed that in the forest only thirty miles away, Kabila's men were engaged in massacring Hutus, including women and children. Aides quickly ushered Richardson toward a distraught mother carrying an infant.

Like any American politician, the envoy reached for the baby as he spoke a few sympathetic words to the mother. "Richardson's face bore the most basic expression of human sympathy and recognition of life's fragility, and his pity appeared entirely genuine," French writes. But this was Africa, not America. The moment Richardson reached for the baby, it died.

Needless to say, the baby's death didn't make the US evening news. And despite Richardson's assurances, Washington has made sure the revenge massacres of the Hutus and all the others who have died in the Congo wars have never really registered on the American consciousness, although at an estimated 3 to 4 million, the number of dead is truly astounding--far greater than the 800,000 memorialized during the recent ceremonies marking Rwanda's genocide or indeed in any other conflict since World War II.

Seeking to account for the West's indifference to Congo's nightmare, French does not spare the media. He blames himself for failing to do the "rudimentary ethnic detective work" that would have allowed him to spot Zaire's "Banyamulenge uprising" for the Rwandan-inspired Tutsi coup that it was. And he feels that in chasing the tale of Mobutu's fall, he and other reporters lost sight of the human carnage taking place inside Zaire's rainforest. But he reserves his most serious criticism for the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, whose reporting on the Rwandan genocide--later published as a book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction--made a deep impression on President Clinton. In French's view, Gourevitch mistakenly applied the template of the Holocaust to Rwanda's genocide, comparing the Tutsis to the European Jews and Kagame's regime to Israel. As the Congo wars got under way, Gourevitch's pieces became enormously influential in Washington. "Emotionally overpowering but deeply flawed analogies with Israel and with European Jewry and the Holocaust," he writes, "began to drive Washington's policies in Central Africa."

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