“Crisis in The Congo: Uncovering the Truth” A Comment 21.05.13
I took the weekend off to open the cottage. When I opened my email this morning, Roberta Morris, a former PhD student of mine who has been working in film in California, emailed me in response to my blog on Dan Gertler, and presumably the parts referring to his role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Roberta asked if I would comment on the DRC knowing that I had written extensively on both Rwanda and the DRC. She had just returned from a one-man show on “Heart of Darkness” by Actors’ Gang Theater (Tim Robbins’ company) and a screening of “Crisis In The Congo: Uncovering The Truth” released by Friends of the Congo. She had been asked and was considering committing her organization to sponsoring screenings far and wide, but wanted my input on the situation in the Congo and my views of this video. My comments follow. Though I started writing on Harper and Ford this morning, I set that material aside to comment on the film.
The plight of the people of the Congo remains dire. The Congolese people have been subjected to enormous miscarriages of justices at least since King Leopold of Belgium received a trusteeship over the territory in 1885 and treated the country as a resource for building his own personal fortune on the backs of the Congolese. Adam Hochschild, author of the very moving and upsetting, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa and who is interviewed in the film, depicts the colonization and exploitation of the Congo’s resources. The film is correct that the DRC is rich in an enormous variety for minerals, some both necessary to modern cell phones (coltan) and available uniquely in the Congo. The DRC has been exploited for over a century for its wealth. The Congolese people have not benefitted from that wealth but, instead, have suffered as the victims of that exploitation time and time again.
In the film, Dedy Mbepongo Bilamba, a Congolese author commented two years ago on the UN Mapping Report primarily to assert that reports without any follow up action are inadequate. Action must follow. Secondly, he insisted that focusing on “half of truth is lying”. I will have more to say on the UN Mapping Report within this blog but for now I want to concentrate on the film. The documentary has two major theses in addition to the claim of exploitation of the Congo which I believe is indisputable. First, the agents primarily held responsible are Western powers, primarily the USA, UK and France but certainly also Belgium. Canadian mining companies are also charged with responsibility. There is no mention of the role of Israelis. More directly, the so-called proxies of the United States, Rwanda and Uganda, have provided the military muscle for these exploitive Western imperial powers. Secondly, the motivation for the involvement is the mineral wealth of the DRC. These two theses hold half the truth, and if half the truth is lying, then the film lies. For the mineral resources were used primarily to finance the conflict, to enrich locals, to repay loans for and also the purchase of additional military equipment. If the film distorts, it is a terrible shame because the injustices brought against the Congolese, the war crimes and crimes against humanity need to be emphasized and broadly disseminated.
Is that simple story of the agents responsible correct? Is the account of the motivations of external actors accurate and adequate? I think not. In the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR, the USA through the CIA opposed Patrice Lumumba, can be held responsible in part for his assassination and can be charged with installing their own selected candidate, Joseph Desire Mobutu, as President of the country that he renamed Zaire. However, this is only part of the truth. The film in its timeline states that from 1965 to 1997 “The United States installed and maintained Joseph Desire Mobutu in power for over thirty years in spite of a number of attempts by the Congolese people to overthrow him.” There were few serious efforts to overthrow Mobutu. More importantly, as Dan Fahey himself noted in the film, contradicting the film’s own claim, the USA, followed subsequently by other Western powers, abandoned Mobutu at the end of the Cold War in 1989 and did not support Mobutu from 1990 until his overthrow in 1997. The humanitarian crises has many intersecting causes and involves many diverse agents, including competing aims by the countries named. As Fahey has written in his studies of the current situation, comments not included in the film:
Over the second half of 2012 and the early months of 2013, Mambasa territory in Province Orientale, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been the scene of escalating violence that is a consequence of brutal gangs running illegal poaching and mining operations coming into conflict with militarized conservation forces. Local politicians, prosecutors, conservationists, former militiamen and civilians tell the story of a devastating conflict driven by armed groups backed by powerful figures in the Congolese army. The violence in Mambasa territory “involved murder, rape, torture, beheading, setting people on fire, cannibalism, kidnapping, sexual slavery, pillaging, arson, threatened assassinations, and the killing of animals.” The principal perpetrators are in a newly formed militia known as Mai Mai Morgan, led by an elephant poacher called Paul Sadala. They are driven, they say, by a desire to protect the land from conservation efforts that give locals limited land use rights and access to resources; however they have committed astonishingly brutal attacks. They are supported, according to the UN Group of Experts and others, by a powerful Congolese army general in the region.
Local military forces and acquisitive ambitions of locals are and have been involved. Further, the divisions are often along ethnic lines so, except as an abstraction, it is difficult to speak of a Congolese people as if there is an identifiable group with a common purpose. In the advertisements for the film, the copy states that, “Analysts in the film examine whether U.S. corporate and government policies that support strongmen and prioritize profit over the people have contributed to and exacerbated the tragic instability in the heart of Africa.” In fact, the film has no analysis. Individuals testify that US corporate and government policies are primarily responsible for the support of strongmen in the interests of profits, but this is not a conclusion drawn from any analysis. It is simply a repeatedly expressed opinion. Is the assertion correct? Partially! But insofar as the film claims to uncover the truth by exploring “the role that the United States and its allies, Rwanda and Uganda, have played in triggering the greatest humanitarian crisis at the dawn of the 21st century,” it has more untruth than truth.
Let’s begin with the two claims made in the film abut the Rwanda genocide itself. One claim is made by Gregory Stanton after he notes that Hilary Clinton stated that she had one regret with respect to the Clinton presidency, that nothing was done to stop the Rwandan genocide. Stanton goes further and makes two further accusations: 1) Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright knew about the genocide; 2) they did everything to prevent the UN from doing anything to stop the genocide. The first is universally accepted as true but only three weeks after the systematic genocide started on 6 April 1994. In the first three weeks, there is no evidence that Clinton, or anyone else high in the administration, took any serious note about Rwanda so why would they know? The filmmakers or Robert Stanton could have read the writings of or interviewed Michael Barnett who is a professor in the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They could also have read Holly Burkhalter, Director of Human Rights Watch, who published a reasonably balanced account of the failures of the Clinton administration with respect to the Rwandan genocide. (“The Question of Genocide: The Clinton Administration and Rwanda,” World Policy Journal) My file of US confidential emails undermines Stanton’s exaggerations. (On April 15, the US advocated withdrawal of UNAMIR from Rwanda “for their safety” and because it could not fulfill its mandate.) Though we strongly criticized the American position, we did not misinterpret American motives or intentions.
During the 1993-1994 year, Barnett spent the year as an exchange government bureaucrat at the United Nations. Barnett was assigned to the Rwandan desk – where else would you put a famous political science theorist but on what was considered the least relevant political desk? He, as he admits in his analysis of his own actions and motives, participated in the decision to keep the US uninvolved in Rwanda when the crisis began to unfold. The explanation was that America had no geo-political interests in Rwanda. Further, as Barnett and as I and Astri Suhrke separately documented, the US did not have to force Boutros Boutros Ghali, then the Secretary General of the United Nations, or Kofi Annan, a subsequent Secretary-General and then in charge of Peacekeeping at the UN, to stay out of Rwanda. The UN had followed that path systematically on their own, though certainly reinforced by the position of the Clinton administration to stay out of wars in Africa, a position itself reified by the Mogadishu syndrome and the disaster in Somalia the previous year. When the Clinton administration did find out and agreed to a peacekeeping force, the American military petty bureaucracy effectively sabotaged the efforts to supply the UN with armoured personnel carriers in a timely fashion. To say the least, Clinton did not do everything he could have to prevent stopping the genocide. He was just sufficiently neglectful to have made the USA complicit as a bystander.
Is this a nuance without a substantial difference? Not at all! There is a major difference between the irresponsibility of bystanders, the responsibility of backers of genocidaires and the responsibility of the genocidaires themselves. Further, analysis requires attending to differences and not silly simplifications. There were many agents involved at different levels of responsibility. Some of the agents included the Rwandan Catholic Church – as distinct in this case from the papal nuncio who was one of the exceptional persons who kept warning about the immanence of a massive humanitarian slaughter. See for example, one of the experts on the Rwandan genocide, Tom Lanagan, a colleague of Michael Barnett who has written extensively on the role of the church and has a new book forthcoming on the subject. However, by and large, experts are interviewed who, by and large, reinforce the view that the crises in the DRC is a fallout from the Rwandan genocide and responsibility can be attributed primarily to Rwanda and Uganda as proxies of the USA. Another scholar who could have been used to complicate the picture would have been Scott Straus who has also studied the area and written extensively on it. There are many others.
However, there are a minority of scholars and many ideologues who have assiduously worked to shift the blame for the genocide in Rwanda at least significantly onto the RPF, the Rwandan Patriotic Front that invaded Rwanda in 1990. Alan Stam followed the lead of Alan Cooperman, an excellent scholar, and stood against the dominant voices who tended to view Paul Kagame through rose coloured glasses. Stam has upped the critical ante against Paul Kagame. Not only has he joined the genocidaire chorus in suggesting elements of Kagame’s RPF set off the genocide by downing Habyarimana’s plane but he insisted that the RPF not only could have stopped the genocide but deliberately decided not to. This is another half truth that amounts to a lie.
Allan Stam has done an excellent scholarly job of tracing and mapping in detail the movements of the RPF troops and claims that Paul Kagame could have moved much faster and saved Tutsis but failed to do so. Further, he claims that the RPF represented a foreign force invading Rwanda. The latter claim should make one suspicious abut his interpretation of his mapping exercise. For it is like calling the PLO working first out of Jordan and then out of Lebanon a foreign force invading Palestine.
The RPF was made up of Tutsis who had escaped or been expelled from Rwanda when the Hutu overthrew the Tutsi monarchy thirty years earlier. They had not been allowed to acquire citizenship elsewhere. Even after serving Museveni in his overthrow of the regime in Uganda, the Ugandan parliament refused to allow them to gain citizenship in Uganda. They were not a foreign army but refugees from Rwanda who adopted military means to insist on their return and overthrow the Habyarimana regime, a common behaviour pattern among stateless refugees.
Secondly, could the RPF have saved many more lives by advancing much more quickly? In my own interviews with American military experts and with Paul Kagame himself, it seems clear that he made a choice. He was a very cautious military strategist. His use of pincer movements by a better disciplined but inferior army in both manpower and armaments to defeat a stronger foe is taught in military schools. It requires proceeding from two sides but allowing an escape route for the fleeing soldiers and then keeping them off balance and preventing their regrouping for a counter-attack.
Stam makes much of the fact in his scholarship that Kagame then paused on a crucial line for three weeks when he could have advanced much quicker. The implication was that the pause was responsible for allowing the interahamwe to execute their genocide with impunity. What Stam leaves out was the extended negotiations with the French to prevent a French-RPF clash so that when Operation Tourquoise launched by the French takes place, the two armies would not come into conflict. Further, Stam also leaves out the failure of the French themselves to go beyond the main roads and go into the surrounding hills to save Tutsis who were being slaughtered. Finally, Stam makes much of the claim about both the indefiniteness of the numbers killed while disabusing anyone that only Tutsis were killed. That is a red herring. For the leading scholars on the Rwandan genocide refer to Tutsi and moderate Hutu who were slaughtered in the genocide.
I believe Kagame should have moved quickly to save innocent civilians. Kagame is a hard nosed military man, however, was unwilling to risk his army and the military progress he made to save civilians. That does not make him complicit in their killing and certainly does not lend weight to the charge that Kagame welcomed the genocide of Tutsi to provide a moral cover for his won dictatorial regime.
That was 1994. What about the operations in 1996-1997 with respect to the invasion of Zaire? After the genocide, the defeated FAR (the former army of Rwanda) and their families along with the interahamwe militias fled primarily into Zaire. They took up residency in and control of the refugee camps. As The Democratic Republic of the Congo 1993-2003 UN Mapping Report noted,
After moving into North and South Kivu in July 1994, the ex-FAR/Interahamwe used the refugee camps along the Rwanda and Burundi borders as bases and training camps. Using the decades-old strategic alliance with President Mobutu and the widespread corruption within the FAZ to their advantage, the ex-FAR bought back or recovered the military equipment confiscated on their arrival in Zaire and resumed war against the army of the Front patriotique rwandais, which was now the national army of Rwanda, the Armée patriotique rwandaise (APR). (para. 191)
The ex-FAR used that control of the camps to milk the international system by enhancing by 25% the number of claimed refugees in the camps and then selling the extra rations on the black market in order to buy more ammunition and some additional arms. They used the camps to launch raids into Rwanda. When these efforts were futile or were defeated, they turned against the indigenous Tutsi in Zaire, the Banyamulenge, and launched a second genocide. This crucial information is missing from the film. As everyone familiar with Rwanda at the time or through subsequent scholarship knows, Paul Kagame repeatedly warned the international community that if they did not intervene to prevent the ex-FAR and interahamwe from raiding Rwanda and from their new killing spree within Zaire, he would take action. The international community stood by, kept feeding and taking care of the genocidaires along with the other 600,000 plus civilian Hutu refugees from Rwanda. In November of 1996, Rwanda and Uganda launched a full scale invasion against the refugee camps, destroyed them and sent the ex-FAR and interahamwe and their families fleeing east while the greatest part of the civilian refugee population that had been held hostage by the genocidaires walked home back to Rwanda.
Laurent-Désiré Kabila had been an old colleague of Lumumba’s and had survived over the decades as a smuggler and self-promoter. Museveni of Uganda knew him and persuaded Paul Kagame to use him as the spokesperson for the invading force to provide a smokescreen that the invaders were Zairean rebels when the most were “volunteers” from the Rwandan and Uganda armies. Kabila promoted himself gradually from spokesperson to the leader of the rebellion. Without the detail, this account is in line with the story of the film. There are, however, several major differences. The United States did not back the invasion of Zaire. Secondly, the three parties – Rwanda, Uganda and Kabila – quickly fell out. When Kabila wanted to go beyond the overthrow of the camps and attack Kisingani, the Ugandans and Rwandese governments said no. He paused and was lucky. The Zairean army fled before he got there so he conquered Kisingani anyway and then went on the long march to capture Kinshasha and set himself up as the dictator. By this time he was not only at odds with both Uganda and Rwanda but those two countries also fell out. In the meantime a new exploitive regime had been installed in Zaire, now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Other than the absence of any significant role of the United States in either promoting or stopping the invasion, and the disagreements among the allies, the main difference in this account is in the numbers killed. At the time, based on the inflated numbers in the camps, assertions were made that 600,000 men, women and children had been killed by the Rwanda-Uganda invasion. (Stam at least kept his figure down to a more credible 150,000.) The 600,000 was a ghost number. The death toll was horrendous, with numerous massacres of groups of civilian refugees, many killed deliberately by army units and others killed for revenge by Mayi-Mayi and Tutsi who had earlier been victims of the Hutu, and others murdered by the ex-FAR as documented at length in The Democratic Republic of the Congo 1993-2003 UN Mapping Report, but no where near the hundreds of thousands claimed at the time.
The repeated figure of six million killed in the DRC to echo the Holocaust figure includes all those who died as a result of both the first and the second Congo War based on what the expected population might have been starting with inflated figures and then inflated the numbers killed further in this way to claim there was a second genocide perpetrated by the proxies of America, particularly Paul Kagame, who was already held to be responsible for allowing the Tutsi to be slaughtered in Rwanda and was now accused of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Congolese in another far worse genocide. The Rwandan and Ugandan forces can be accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and there were a significant number of civilian slaughters, but there is no evidence that an attempt was made to exterminate the Rwandan Hutu otherwise why were over 600,000 encouraged and allowed to march back to Rwanda and reclaim their homes? In fact, 13,000 were flown back to Rwanda on 22 May 1997 from MbandakaAirport.
I could go on. I just find it a double horror to see humanitarian crises and crimes hijacked by ideologues and propagandists. This film does precisely that. Though Friends of the Congo have been a leading organization opposing the exploitation of the wealth of the Congo and the imposition of another dictatorship in that country, and though the organization has been strident in unveiling the role of both Rwanda and Uganda in that exploitation, it has also, as in this film, done so through distortion of the historical record and by a simplistic and neo-marxist interpretation of what occurred, ignoring in particular the deep geographic divide between east and west and the deepened ethnic divisions that have coincided with the long wars. They have also ignored dissident scholarly voices that do not line up with their simplistic message that the invasion of the Congo was organized by the United States and the UK using their proxies, Rwanda and Uganda. They have also exploited the Holocaust by repeatedly asserting that six million have died since 1996.
As advertised, “Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering The Truth explores the role that the United States and its allies, Rwanda and Uganda, have played in triggering the greatest humanitarian crisis at the dawn of the 21st century. The film is a short version of a feature length production to be released in the near future. It locates the Congo crisis in a historical, social and political context. It unveils analysis and prescriptions by leading experts, practitioners, activists and intellectuals that are not normally available to the general public. The film is a call to conscience and action.” Unfortunately, because of the lack of analysis, the distortion in the presentation and its utter failure to place the conflict in an adequate historical, social and political context, calls to conscience and action will be largely ignored, not to say that they would not be if a more objective and more penetrating documentary had been produced. This is just another way of exploiting the Congo.