Assault on Dystopia—a Travelogue

Edward B. Rackley

1 I’m spending this month visiting a clutch of countries in East Africa defined, in part, by their history of armed conflict and failed governance. This is a causal relation, not just collective misfortune: conflicts ignite and humanitarian crises ensue because of poor governance. Felonious states, murderous regimes and the eternal recurrence of la politique du ventre.

Somalia being the sole exception, the rest of this neighborhood is entering an ‘early recovery’ phase now that peace was bought on the cheap. That means no justice for victims; impunity greases all palms. Rebel leaders lay down arms in exchange for posts in the national army, government, or some other enticement. No sticks, just carrots–it’s donkey heaven. Let all the asses come home to papa. The international community who funds these charades can only pray the juice is worth the squeeze.

Lower on the rungs of power, paramilitary thugs and drooling militiamen get their reward too: a poorly run disarmament and demobilization program and the chance to return to village life without trial or sanction for all the bloodshed and rape in their wake. La politique du ventre started these wars; in turn it offers an incentive to end them. I recall Goethe saying that however complex man’s psyche may seem, the ‘circle of his states is soon run through’. Or in this case: ‘me want you got’, as they say in Sierra Leone.

So besides an Empedoclean dance of love and strife, what drives this dynamic of power and suffering, of ‘grievance and greed’, I see a perfectly balanced Pavlovian equation stuck on infinite repeat: Oppression, rebellion, reward. Oppression rebellion, reward. Hunger for power starts wars as easily as it ends them. Keep justice and culpability out of any peace negotiation and the powerful can remain atop the dung heap for generations to come. Laundry detergent dreams for evermore! Even Pavlov’s dogs could have smelled the rot of this seamlessly conditioned feedback loop–a mile high stench totally lost on the big brains at the UN Security Council.

But what about the African Union–are they not capable of some form of leverage, an anchor of reason in this ocean of impunity? Alas, the AU still worships the ‘brotherhood of African leaders’. In practice this means Mugabe gets a winking tisk-tisk from Mbeki; Obasanjo offers exile to Charles Taylor. The AU says nothing, which is consent. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of ZANU-PF supporters continue believing the absurdity that to vote for Mugabe is their only hope against ‘imminent British invasion’. A successful politics of the belly thus appears to confer mass hypnotic powers to the demagogue over the hoi polloi. If the AU ever awakes from its hypnotic state of genuflection, maybe it will stop facilitating the dingdongs at Africa’s helm and roundly condemn them.

Taking Tiger Mountain

So who’s taking Tiger Mountain by storm? Here comes a warm jest. Given the colossal scale of human suffering this madness entails, this post-conflict neighborhood is swarming with massive UN operations, hundreds of NGOs doing relief and development, philanthropists, human rights activists and do-gooders of every stripe. It’s easy to dismiss the humanitarian circus as futile or naively quixotic; it is a most imperfect enterprise, full of disappointment and disillusion. Nor can it fix any of the political dysfunction and self-serving governance at the heart of Africa’s problems. Still, I find hope in the humanitarian movement because it is the only full-fledged assault on dystopia going in this part of the world. Everyone else is either getting crushed under a boot, or donning boots to do some crushing.

I’m in Rwanda right now, and haven’t been here since 1994 just after the genocide. It offers a significant exception to my rant above. An amazing transformation of the country has occurred; it stands in complete opposition to its immediate neighbors, particularly DRC and Burundi. Under President Kagame’s rule, it is not exactly a democratic place, and there is no independent media or much civil society to speak of. But security and the foundations for economic development are clearly here, and Rwanda has prospered as a result.

One thing I agree with Kagame on is his ambition to wean the country off of international charity as quickly as possible. I too want a world where there are only workers, no expatriate labor force or foreign donors at the top of the food chain in developing countries. International financial assistance to private and public sectors will be needed, but the vast machine of intermediary entities–international NGOs, UN agencies, the World Bank country offices–should disappear, the sooner the better. Direct support to indigenous efforts, providing human capital and capacity are sufficient, will get everyone off the ground and into the air. Hence my visit: our little initiative (called ‘PRISM Partnerships’) aims to connect local civil society and NGOs with financial backers elsewhere.

I’m surprised how many positive reactions I’ve gotten from people across the board: locals, internationals, cynics and dreamers. From the bottom of the well at night, one can only dream–not of utopia but of resistance strategies, of the infinite possibilities for effective assault on dystopia.2

14 ans depuis…

This week is the national commemoration of the 1994 genocide here in Rwanda. Two Rwandan friends took me to the Kigali Memorial Center today, amongst thick crowds. A grenade had been tossed into the place the day before–perpetrators and survivors do not cohabit well, and anti-Tutsi ‘genocide ideology’ is still very much alive and well in the region.

The experience was heavy and I choked up, but emerged strangely grateful that I had been in the country for the immediate aftermath of the primary wave of killing. The visit also brought back a lot of memories from that period of my life that had faded or simply been repressed. I’ve always contextualized my time in Rwanda in 1994 as just another relief mission to a war-torn country, but I now realize that it was something else entirely.

It’s easy to say, but genocide is the most extreme human transgression. That thought needs a visceral connection; otherwise it remains purely intellectual, subjective and forgettable. Today I grasped in my bones that there is nothing else at the bottom of the human psyche after all other trap doors have given way. Beyond madness, beyond reason, beyond fantasy, beyond brute physicality, genocide is the final cul-de-sac at the bottom of human consciousness.

There are several genocide memorials around the country; this one is both a museum and an unmarked cemetery with enormous mass graves in submerged cement containers. Name plates are fixed to an adjacent wall, somewhat like the Vietnam Memorial in  Washington. 450pxrwanda_genocide_wanted_poster_

Survivor stories are playing on video screens positioned throughout the tour, which occurs largely underground. That of Valentine runs: “I lay down again among the dead bodies. It was three days after the killings, so the bodies stank. The Interahamwe would pass by without entering the room, and dogs would come to eat the bodies. I lived there for 43 days . . .” [read rest here]

Rwanda is recovering slowly; there is security and infrastructure, the two main ingredients for human prosperity in a post-conflict country. Latent tensions between Hutu and Tutsi are spreading, however, and many I’ve talked to are not optimistic about the prospect of peaceful cohabitation.

A book through my fingers

Once in a while you stumble on a book that’s been out for a while and ask, ‘How could I have missed this?’ Chris and Katy, my PRISM partners, have an excellent Africa library in their Nairobi home. I picked up a historical musing by Sven Lindqvist called ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’–the reference being Conrad’s Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness.

Out in Swedish since 1992 and in English since 1996, how did it slip by me? Old and lazy, I surmise. To make up for my failings, I’ve been trudging around with it for the last couple weeks, letting its thesis seep into my veins, like a slow-drip IV.

Lindqvist writes with a delectable dryness, like Kapuscinski (Guardian obit here), one of the few western writers on Africa I respect. Lindqvist also travels ’embedded’, and his content is driven by his encounters and their always unpredictable unfoldings. A man infatuated with Fortuna is a kindred soul.

Unlike Kapuscinski, always meek before taxing geopolitical questions, Lindqvist is a gleeful slaughterer of sacred cows, an iconoclast and anti-ideologue par excellence. The thesis of this book is that the Nazi quest for Aryan supremacy and Lebensraum was at its core an application of the expansionist and racist principles of imperialism and colonialism that Europeans had long been applying to the Third World.

In this light, there is little exceptional about the Holocaust itself, given that its precursors were myriad. No one notices this historical continuity because the victims of European expansionism and subjugation were not Europeans, until Nazism–itself a culmination of certain trends in European thought and action over centuries. Is this so shocking a thesis? I think not.

Among the African countries I know well where large scale human massacres have occurred, I’m finding that debate in Rwanda over justice, reconciliation and root causes is relatively free of the usual blame game and denial of responsibility that goes on elsewhere. All are aware that colonialism did much to poison Hutu-Tutsi relations here, and post-independence relations with France have been dubious to say the least. France was forced to pull its diplomatic presence here in 2006.

But Rwandans are not blind to the fact that a homegrown logic was unleashed here: it was not imported or forced down anyone’s throat by outsiders. What I’ve found so uncanny is that many here read the metamorphosis of mind that led to Hutu Power and the ‘Intent to Destroy’ (the name of Lindqvist’s new book on the methods of genocide) that were unleashed in April 1994 in almost identical terms as Arendt’s elucidation of the origins of totalitarianism.

A group I met today, Never Again Rwanda, made this case quite clearly, despite no one knowing Arendt or her work. Their efforts revolve around creating a ‘culture of reason’ in a country where a ‘culture of silence’ predominates, and automatic obedience before authority is expected and assumed. Critical thinking is rare, and not rewarded. NAR are trying to inculcate these values in schools and among local authorities.402019401_bbae7999e2_o

Genocidal ideology is resurging, and eyewitnesses to the genocide who survived and can now testify are being targeted and killed. ‘Survivor’ and ‘perpetrator’ are the new categories for Tutsi and Hutu. Although everyone knows that ethnic hatred is an organizing principle to the violence and not its root cause (which is unequal wealth and power sharing), many remain susceptible to ethnic rhetoric. NAR is doing good work; we hope to find them more funding to expand their efforts on a national scale.

Ugali in Kigali

I feel like the Cookie Monster when I’m in this part of Africa – can’t get enough ugali. Doesn’t help that I’m a vacuum cleaner by nature, generally eating anything within reach of my arms or legs. My gaping orifice welcomes anything remotely edible, except manioc ugali (foufou); I like the maize version.

The most recent leg of my journey took me from Bukavu to Kigali, where I would fly back to Nairobi. It took a while to figure it out, but my cramped minivan was filled with Banyamulenge (Tutsis of Rwandan extraction born or raised in Congo). Politics was the primary discussion point during our six hours together, and lots of laughter about life in general. In today’s ethnically charged climate, Banyamulenge are no longer welcome in Congo. Many felt forced to immigrate to Rwanda, a country they don’t consider home, and that does not accept them. Many never learned to speak Kinyarwandan, as pressure to assimilate in Congo meant speaking Swahili and French. Unwelcome in Congo, in Rwanda they must assimilate again, this time to a society controlled by Tutsis from Uganda—English and Kinyarwandan speakers.

JG, a friend here, was born and raised in Bukavu to a Tutsi refugee father and a Congolese (Shi) mother. In his final years of study towards priesthood at Bukavu’s prestigious seminary, his mentors and colleagues turned on him. Because he was half-Tutsi, he had to leave. With no English or Kinyarwandan, he came to Kigali and found the professional ranks occupied entirely by Tutsis who’d followed the RPF from Uganda. Along with the Hutu majority here, JG is essentially excluded from participating in the bright and prosperous Kigali of today.

Over ugali and beer yesterday, JG and I recalled the French expulsion from Rwanda in late 2006. For a government that brooks no dissent, no opposition politics and barely a peep from civil society, it was logical that they eject a threatening foreign presence: recall the Kagame indictments issued by a French court (and more recently by a Spanish court). However consistent the logic of this regime—brook no dissent—it is a recipe for open hostility, sooner or later.

JG wants a country where ‘all Rwandans are one’; his NGO works with former prisoners (ex-genocidaires Hutu) to reintegrate into society. Very brave, and essential if the time bomb is to be diffused. But JG’s work is a drop in the ocean, unfortunately. And as long as the government treats everyone except the Ugandan Tutsi community as potential traitors, the supposed center will not hold.

South Kivu Rising

Overnight shelling in downtown Bujumbura last week by the FNL, a Hutu extremist group in Burundi; attacks on the Rwandan genocide memorial and commemorative activities in Kigali during my visit the week before. Is there a link? Re-read the Hutu Ten Commandments, in case they’ve slipped your mind.

Hutu Power is once again raising its fist across the region. For the uninitiated, Pouvoir Hutu is the local species of genocidal ideology that unleashed the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It is also largely responsible for both Eastern Congo’s ongoing mess and Burundi’s failure to consolidate peace, some two years after a formal peace agreement and national presidential elections. Besides ongoing battles between the FDLR/Interhamwe, Laurent Nkunda’s troops and the Congolese national army, the last major assault on Tutsi civilians was the Gatumba massacre in August 2005.

The ideology covers the region; its supply lines and popular support base criss-cross Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Tanzania. Eastern Congo’s unruly wilderness provides excellent camouflage for extremist Hutu groups of Rwandan or Burundian extraction. Their rear bases are reportedly concentrated in the deep south of South Kivu. If Kagame and Kabila are able to find common cause on confronting this problem, it will likely see renewed conflict in South Kivu. Kagame has already stated that if Kabila gets no results, the Rwandan army will invade to deal with the problem. If that happens, we can expect the resurgence of a regional war.

If I could change one thing about international assistance to Africa, it would be to drop the democracy and elections obsession. Security and infrastructure are the most basic conditions for progress. Democracy bakes no bread, stops no bullets and prevents no rape in this part of the world.