Some Reflections on the Congo

by Stanley Meisler

May 23, 1997

In the "good old days" of the late 1960s, when Zaire was known as the Congo and its leader did not yet call himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga (the all-conquering warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake), the United States proudly had the huge, unwieldy, volatile country wrapped around its little finger. The US propped up Joseph Désiré Mobutu, enriched him, shielded him and spoke for him. When a band of mercenaries and Katangese gendarmes led by the Belgian Jean Schramme rebelled and took over the eastern Congo in the summer of 1967, the Mobutu government did not bother briefing the hordes of foreign journalists arriving in Kinshasa. The US embassy did the job instead.

Of course, American diplomats did not tell us the whole story. They were too intent on making their puppet look good. We were told one morning, for example, that "everything is normal in Kisangani." When we reached Kisangani, however, we ran flush into a host of woeful tales of plunder, assault, rape and murder of civilians - not by the Schramme band but by the Congolese army returning to the city after the mercenaries withdrew. Later, when I remonstrated with the American diplomat for lying about Kisangani, he replied, "You don't understand. Whenever the Congolese army is humiliated and returns to the site of its humiliation, they beat, rob, rape and kill civilians. That's normal."

In more recent years, American interventionism has given way to American indifference, not only in Zaire but throughout much of Africa. That was obvious in Liberia when its terrible civil war erupted in 1989. No African country has ever been closer to the United States. It was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society and settled by former American slaves. For many decades, its government was almost a parody of the American government in the ante-bellum 19th century United States. The Whigs, Masons and Baptists dominated society. The people used American dollars and American mail boxes. The police wore New York cop uniforms, and the elite spoke in the accents of the Black American south. Yet our government did next to nothing to stop the war, and our people, including African Americans, did not seem to care.

For a few months, the United States shook off indifference when President George Bush sent American marines into Somalia in January 1993 to feed the starving and President Clinton put US troops into the United Nations force that replaced the marines. But the Somali intervention became a debacle in October 1993 when 18 American soldiers died in a firefight with soldiers loyal to Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed. President Clinton withdrew the Americans and issued new guidelines that drastically curtailed American participation and even financial support of UN peacekeeping missions.

Rwanda erupted a few weeks after the guidelines were issued, and the Clinton Administration is the main reason the UN did next to nothing to prevent a mass slaying of 500,000 to one million Tutsis by the majority Hutus and a mass flight of almost 5 million Hutus from a vengeful Tutsi rebel army. Military analysts including some in the US Army believe several hundred thousand lives could have been saved if a large UN force had been assembled and deployed quickly.

An attempt was made last November to launch a Canadian-led UN intervention in eastern Zaire to protect hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees caught in the fighting there. But Laurent Kabila protested that the intervention would prop up Mobutu, and US officials insisted falsely that almost all the Hutu refugees had returned to Rwanda. The intervention was called off.

Since then, the American role in Zaire has been reduced to one no greater than that played by Spike Lee at New York Knicks basketball games: a lot of shouting but no baskets. At the end, we put UN Ambassador Bill Richardson in the humiliating position of offering Kabila $10 million in US aid and $50 million in European aid if only he would promise to hold elections soon. Kabila turned him down, but he might as well accept the bribe. Elections are meaningless barometers of democracy. Mobutu staged them all the time.

There was a revealing dialogue in early May at a breakfast meeting of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Howard University Professor Stephen R. Weissman called for the US government to support intervention in Burundi to prevent further genocide there. Weissman, a specialist on Burundi, said that 150,000 people have been massacred there in the last three years after a history of hundreds of thousands murdered during the previous quarter of a century. Most of the victims were Hutus killed by the minority Tutsis who rule Burundi.

But Richard Bogosian, the State Department's special ambassador on Rwanda and Burundi, told Weissman that US policymakers found themselves caught between two syndromes - the Somali syndrome that persuaded many Americans that helping the starving there was not worth the death of 18 Americans and the Rwanda syndrome that persuaded many Americans that much of the genocide could have been avoided if the UN had intervened quickly with force. "That's the dilemma we find ourselves in," Bogosian said. That dilemma, of course, induces paralysis.

We and the rest of the world have no moral right to turn our backs on the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus and of Hutus by Tutsis simply because they are Africans. Nor do we have the moral right to tolerate the wanton killing of refugees by a rebel army even if that army does overthrow a strutting, egomaniacal tyrant. But if we do not turn our backs, what do we do? The answer does not lie in a return to the good old days of American intervention. Our record is too sullied for that, and our will for such adventure dissipated long ago.

It is obvious that only the United Nations can mount the kind of interventions needed. But President Clinton and Madeleine Albright have weakened the UN woefully for domestic political gain, and they see no votes now in trying to revive it. Many years may pass before the UN has the strength to deal with new crises in Africa.

The strengthening might come more swiftly if a constituency emerged in the United States that demanded an interest in Africa. During the Bosnian war, Edward Luttwak wrote that the world would not tolerate all the deaths in Bosnia if those dying were dolphins rather than Muslims. That is even more true, of course, for Africa. Wildlife and the environment exercise far more Americans into making demands on Congress than Africa does. That is true even though a significant minority of Americans are of African descent. African Americans have not coalesced into a constituency that lobbies for African causes. Randall Robinson of TransAfrica Forum is trying to awaken African American interest in African issues, but so far his is a lonely voice. And most other Americans are looking elsewhere.

May 23, 1997
Washington D.C.

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