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We take pleasure in presenting the following commentary drawn from remarks made 11 February 1997 at a meeting of the English Speaking Union at Southern Pines, North Carolina, by a former U.S. ambassador to two Central African nations. His remarks touch upon these topics:

(A map of Southern Africa will help readers locate the areas discussed.)
~ Ed.

by Frank Crigler


“How is the United States to avoid taking matters into its own hands and becoming the world’s policeman if multinational institutions fail to do the job?”

Y   W I F E   A N D   I  spent three of our Foreign Service years overseas in a little-known “paradise,” one of those so-called hardship posts where you are paid a salary supplement to compensate for your miseries, and where you then cross your fingers and hope that the allowances people in Washington do not discover the truth. I offer a few words here about that remote paradise because it will help show how times have changed.

The capital city was small, pleasant, a bit dusty but always peaceful and safe, so that I usually walked to and from my embassy office, even after dark. Beyond the city limits, the countryside was green and hilly, the farmlands were black and fertile. We used to camp out overnight beside a small lake, where our only fear was being trampled in our sleeping bags by hippos. The climate was mild, and the people were gentle, soft-spoken, well-mannered, and friendly.
It was a poor country, to be sure — even desperately poor by our standards, mainly because there were too many people crowded into too little space. The land, rich as it was, simply could not support them all. Yet poverty was evenly shared; there were none of the extremes of wealth and misery you see in so many Third World countries. Moreover, serious efforts were being made by the government and by friendly donor nations both to increase the land’s productivity and to curb population growth.
Like so many other Third World countries at the time, the chief ruler of this “paradise” was a military man, General Juvénal Habyarimana, whose army had seized power some years earlier and ousted a democratically elected government, while promising to put an end to ethnic distrust and ensure public order. Their coup d’état had been a bloodless one, with no show trials, no purges, no hangings, merely a civilized house arrest for the ousted president.
The army strong man himself was exceptional; he was intelligent, sensitive, and well-spoken, a devoted family man, a “benevolent dictator” in the classic sense. The army he led seemed more given to songs, dancing, and poetry than to killing or looting. My favorite diplomatic duty was, in fact, attending the annual Armed Forces Day ceremonies, which were always full of laughter and comedy, more like a high school homecoming reunion than a display of military might. There was none of the usual parade of tanks and artillery.
Perhaps I should admit that in this description I have glossed over a few problems in our “paradise,” just as we glossed over them at the time. We knew our paradise was flawed, though we wanted to believe otherwise. We knew that historically there had been deep enmity between the two ethnic groups of people that mainly composed its population, that the smaller group had ruled over the larger one with a heavy hand for centuries, and that a great deal of blood had been shed when the majority finally overthrew their oppressors and established a constitutional democracy less than forty years ago.
We knew too that ethnic resentment still lay beneath the surface, but we believed in democracy’s curative powers. We were confident that the experience of majority rule and the responsibilities of self-government would somehow moderate old hatreds and eventually heal old wounds.
It is clear now that we were wrong. We should have paid closer attention to the obvious danger signs, tried harder to understand the country’s simmering racial hatreds, and maybe pressed our Rwandan friends more assertively toward accommodation and mutual respect. Perhaps, if we had, we might have helped them avoid their headlong plunge into hell just over a decade later, when those deep-seated hatreds burst again to the surface and led to the most awful bloodbath and most terrifying refugee migration in recorded African history.  
For of course it was Rwanda that seemed to my wife and me, in the late 1970s, to be the closest thing to paradise. And it was those gentle Rwandans who fell to brutalizing and killing each other on such an epic scale that I despair even now of finding words to describe it.



H E R E   I S   U T I L I T Y,  I believe, in discussing what happens when a country like Rwanda collapses in chaos, and in examining the problems it poses for American leadership. Consider the most recent turn of events in central Africa:

  • Late last year, Washington was on the verge of sending U.S. military forces into eastern Zaïre to help rescue nearly two million refugees who had fled Rwanda in the wake of the awful ethnic slaughter there, only to find themselves caught in the middle of more tribal fighting in Zaïre itself. There was a good deal of debate just then as to whether the United States should involve its troops in another so-called “humanitarian mission” that could easily turn as nasty, bloody, and pointless as the one in Somalia had two years earlier. America certainly was not to blame for causing these peoples’ problems, but if Americans declined to take the lead in alleviating their plight, who would?
    Could the world rely upon the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, or the former colonial powers to assume responsibility? If not, could the United States, in good conscience, simply fold its hands while tens or even hundreds of thousands more suffered and died?
The dilemma posed at that time for American leadership is worth examining. But an extraordinary thing occurred soon afterward. Before the America could get its humanitarian mission organized and underway, the anguished refugees themselves suddenly took matters into their own hands, bundled up their belongings, and began marching back home to Rwanda.
Understandably, this turn of events caused a great sigh of relief in Washington. At the height of a presidential election campaign, the political leaders were quite happy not to become tangled in a costly, dangerous, and politically risky rescue mission. Central Africa quickly disappeared from their action agendas and slipped off the newspapers’ front pages. Christiane Amanpour and her fellow journalists packed up and went on to cover more exciting news stories elsewhere.
But the crisis would not go away. Instead, it has spread like an Ebola virus through the region, causing still more bloodshed and misery, threatening in Zaïre now to overturn one of Africa’s most durable dictatorships, and posing new and greater challenges than before to American leadership.
In order to understand the larger sweep of events in Central Africa, we need to take a closer look at Rwanda’s own collapse into savagery and peer briefly behind some of the sickening footage we all saw on television two years ago. For it was the ethnic conflict in that tiny country that spawned the virus now threatening the entire region.


O R   T H O S E   O F   us who jealously guarded our Rwanda “secret” from an earlier time, the questions were inescapable:


  • How could such a ghastly tragedy have occurred in such an idyllic setting?
  • How could one group of seemingly gentle people suddenly begin to slaughter another group on such a massive scale that it came to be described, quite aptly, as “genocide”?
We are not speaking here, after all, of Greeks and Turks who had been quarreling for millennia, or Catholics and Protestants battling for centuries for the soul of northern Ireland. Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi peoples lived side by side, spoke the same language, shared the same traditions and myths, traded with each other, intermarried, and, as a result, had grown almost indistinguishable from each other physically.
But if Tutsi and Hutu had lived peacefully with each other for centuries, their relationship had never been one of equals:


who were relative newcomers to the region, had migrated there as a warlike race of cattle herders. Over the years, they had managed to parlay their conquest myths, trading skills, and cattle wealth into oligarchic rule over the far more numerous Hutu.


on the other hand, were a race of sturdy farmers who were awed by the physical grace and warrior skills of the newcomers. Envious of their easier lives as cattle-raisers, the Hutu got themselves deeply into debt renting access to their wonderful cows, entangled in their Byzantine schemes of mutual obligation, and eventually enthralled as serfs and subjects of the Tutsi aristocrats.

For many generations, Tutsi and Hutu both took for granted that the Tutsi were born to rule and the Hutu to obey. However, this “premise of inequality” (as one scholar labeled it) was shattered at the beginning of this century with the arrival of white missionaries and colonial administrators, who treated Tutsi and Hutu equally as savages, then poured salt in the wound by attempting to rule the Hutu peasants second-hand through the old Tutsi oligarchy. The system collapsed in revolutionary violence and bloodshed as independence approached in 1959; the Tutsi oligarchy was overthrown, the colonials went home, and the Hutu established their own constitutional republic based on the principle of one-man, one-vote — meaning, in effect, permanent Hutu control.
It was this post-revolutionary system of Hutu majority rule that began crumbling not long after I was posted to Rwanda 1976, although there were serious cracks in the system that we should have seen earlier. Military rulers had taken the place of the democratic government elected at independence; deep regional differences had emerged between northern and southern Hutu; corruption had become a major blot on the country’s reputation; raids by Tutsi exile guerrilla groups were growing more frequent; and if the former serfs and their ancient masters were still living peacefully side by side, it was a very tense situation. The Tutsi herders increasingly resented being denied an effective political voice; the Hutu farmers increasingly feared a restoration of the ancien régime and were divided over how to prevent it.
So clearly there was serious trouble in “paradise” by 1994, and ethnic relations were tense on the eve of the genocide:

  • Economically, Rwanda was mired in grinding poverty after a decade of declining world market prices for its only significant exports, coffee, tea, and tin. Further, there had been no slackening at all in its frighteningly rapid population growth — one of the world’s highest rates. Already one of the world’s half-dozen poorest countries, Rwanda was growing steadily poorer.
  • Politically, single-party government had fallen out of fashion worldwide with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a new generation of aspiring Rwandan politicians were impatient for a chance to run things themselves.
  • Socially, the system was still dominated by the ethnic majority and effectively excluded the Tutsi minority. But outsiders were pressing Rwanda for political reforms whose effect would be to allow Tutsis a greater voice in government and in the country’s social institutions.
  • Militarily, on the other hand, major changes had occurred. In October 1990, a sizable Tutsi-led insurgent force, based next door in Uganda, invaded the north of Rwanda and quickly fought Habyarimana’s 5,000-man army of poets and dancers to a stalemate. Although the insurgents were unable to topple the President, their control of significant portions of national territory rekindled age-old anxieties among the Hutu population.
Now, with all that handwriting on the wall — poverty, political unrest, ethnic tension, and a major insurgency — was it not evident to all of the “experts,” including myself, that Rwanda was in trouble and needed some serious counseling if it was to avoid an explosion?

Where were the mediators, the crisis managers, the conflict resolution experts? Where were the UN agencies that are supposed to help countries like Rwanda deal with disorder and head off disaster?

Interestingly (and this may surprise and perplex the reader, as it has me), they were all there and hard at work. And, I regret to add, they may even have made matters worse:

  • To deal with the country’s economic woes, the IMF and World Bank were engineering a “structural adjustment” program that required cutting popular social services and imposed other politically unpopular reform measures, further weakening a government that had already lost much of its earlier popular support.
  • To deal with political unrest, American and other western “friends” were pressing Habyarimana to share power with his opponents, and hold multiparty elections.
  • To address the refugee problem plaguing relations with Rwanda’s neighbors, experts were encouraging the government to invite home the tens of thousands of Tutsis who had lived as exiles for a generation in neighboring Uganda, Zaire, and Burundi.
  • And to deal with the stalemated insurgency, the United States and its U.N. partners were promoting a complex, step-by-step negotiating process aimed at reaching a peaceful accommodation between government and insurgent forces.
By early 1994, President Habyarimana had yielded substantial ground on most of these points. A provisional civilian government had been installed in the military’s place, a timetable for multiparty elections had been announced, major economic reforms were underway, and the army had been ordered out of politics. The face-to-face talks with the rebels meanwhile had resulted in a preliminary peace agreement and cease fire, and a contingent of some 2,500 UN peacekeeping troops had been deployed to the country to monitor the settlement.
So it could hardly be said that the world community had ignored Rwanda or failed to become involved in its problems. Whether its involvement helped to solve or to exacerbate them, however, is another matter, one to which I shall have to return below.
For his part, my “benign dictator” friend, former General Habyarimana, had resigned his role as military commander, hoping to win reelection as a civilian candidate when multiparty elections were held — and there was a good chance that he might. His personal reputation remained high, even while his governing power was attenuated by reforms. He had become personally identified with the search for accommodation with the rebels, possibly to his detriment, since many erstwhile supporters had begun to grumble that he had “caved in” to foreign mediators and “sold out” to the Tutsis.
It was upon his return on April 6, 1994, from yet another negotiating session in Tanzania that his plane was blown out of the sky on its approach to Kigali airport. In the profoundest sense, all hell then broke lose.

W I L L   O M I T  the grisly details here. Most of us saw enough of them on television. Let me merely summarize what happened and then try to approach an understanding of why it happened.

Anti-Tutsi violence spread out from the capital and across the country like wildfire. Although the cause of the plane crash remained a mystery, Hutus instantly blamed Tutsis and viciously vented their anger on the minority and those Hutus known to favor ethnic accommodation.
Leading the violence were many persons who had been prominent during the years of Hutu dominance and military rule. The late president’s own security guard evidently played a major role (and would later be accused of systematically organizing the genocide). Political youth groups formed under the old single party were mobilized to do much of the dirty work. But most of the mayhem was carried out by “average” Rwandan Hutus, young and old, acting spontaneously all across the country.
The results were appalling:

  • In only three months, more than a half million Rwandans were killed, or about one in every ten. The population was literally decimated. Many thousands more were were maimed and left to die, or stripped of their properties and forced to flee.
  • The vast majority of victims were Tutsis, members of the pre-revolutionary ruling caste; fully one-half the country’s entire Tutsi population was destroyed within the span of a few weeks.
The weak provisional government immediately lost control, and several of its members, including its woman prime minister, were murdered by mobs. Another Hutu-led “interim” government was installed, but it soon fled the capital and collapsed.
After six weeks of violence and terror, the Tutsi-led insurgent army marched on Kigali to fill the vacuum. Its leaders easily seized control and installed their own coalition government, one that included several “moderate” Hutus in top positions but was clearly Tutsi-controlled.
The rebel victory and the prospect of a vengeful Tutsi “restoration” set off a new phase in Rwanda’s agony: a human migration of truly epic proportions.

  • From mid-July to late September, 1994, close to two million Rwandan Hutus — more than one-quarter of the country’s entire population — abandoned their homes, fled the country on foot, and sought shelter in neighboring Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania.

And with them, the virus of ethnic conflict began its spread across central Africa.

One must ask, then,

Why was this ghastly tragedy allowed to unfold?
What had become of the UN peace keepers, the foreign peacemakers, the humanitarian organizations, the human rights advocates who were so active in Rwanda earlier?
Why were the multilateral institutions powerless to intervene and halt the violence?
And finally, where were the Americans?
As we have seen, the UN was certainly not absent from Rwanda, but its 2,500-person peacekeeping unit was wholly inadequate to halt the spasm of violence that erupted after the president’s plane crash. Its assignment had been merely to monitor the government’s peace agreement with the rebels, and it was entirely unprepared to cope when the agreement evaporated and the killing began. Many of its members were seriously injured, and eight Belgian troops were murdered as they sought to shield the provisional government’s prime minister from angry mobs. Facing an impossible situation, all but a token force were quickly withdrawn.
As the magnitude of Rwanda’s ordeal became more apparent, however, the Security Council instructed Secretary General Boutros-Ghali to try to raise a major peacekeeping force to send back to Rwanda. But member nations failed to respond or posed conditions the Secretary-General could not meet. So the Council finally authorized France to send a 3,000-man team to stabilize the situation and protect relief workers and other foreigners who remained in the country.
Not surprisingly, the Clinton administration was reluctant to assume the lead in putting out Rwanda’s fires. Our frustrating experiences in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti were just then fresh in everyone’s mind. The Rwandan situation posed even greater logistical problems for deploying military forces; the politics behind the conflict were even more obscure to most Americans; and direct U. S. interests affected by the fighting were practically nil.
So the United States instead focused its attention on rescuing the “innocent victims” of the conflict, notably the throngs of Hutu refugees in Zaire and Tanzania and the genocide survivors inside Rwanda, and it joined in a massive airlift of relief supplies and humanitarian assistance to these groups. The effort certainly saved thousands of lives among the refugees. To be frank, it was too little; too late for more than a half-million genocide victims; it did little to stabilize the region politically or prevent the spread of ethnic conflict; and aid to refugees could hardly qualify as vote of confidence in international peacekeeping from the world’s “indispensable nation.”


E V E R T H E L E S S,   F O R   T H E  next two years, concern for the innocent victims on the one hand, and avoiding military involvement on the other, defined our response to central Africa’s ethnic turmoil.

International relief agencies delivered huge amounts of food, medicine, and supplies to the refugee camps dotting the borders, while diplomats and mediators (Jimmy Carter among others) sought to arrange for the refugees’ peaceful repatriation.
Media attention shifted to Burundi next door, where ethnic violence was rising sharply and a coup d’état by Tutsi military officers had ousted an elected civilian government. Burundi is Rwanda’s twin in many ways — historically, geographically, and ethnically — but it differed fundamentally in that its own Tutsi minority had never really lost power, as that in Rwanda had at independence. When its elected president Cyprien Ntaryamira (himself a Hutu) was killed with Rwanda’s Habyarimana in the mysterious 1994 plane crash, Burundi managed for a time to escape the chaos that wracked its neighbor.
Inevitably, though, violence spilled over as Hutu refugees from Rwanda swelled the ranks of Burundi’s own dissidents. The military coup-makers proposed to halt the cycle by tightening security controls; instead, their stringent methods caused growing numbers to join the rebels. The African community, strongly backed by the West, attempted to punish the Burundi military by means of a tight trade embargo on the land-locked country. But the embargo made life even harsher for the average Burundi without dislodging the military. Ethnic violence continued to increase, with over 200,000 killings since 1993, and refugee numbers outside the country began to rival Rwanda’s.
It was in Zaïre that the spill-over effects of ethnic turmoil were most serious. The refugee camps along its borders became hotbeds of intrigue and bases for cross-border raids by Hutu militia remnants. Increasingly, the Hutu refugees quarreled with the close kin in Zaïre of the hated Tutsis back home. Although these Tutsi communities had settled there centuries earlier, their members were treated as second-class citizens by Zaïrean authorities, and Zaïre’s army refused to protect them. So the Tutsi communities organized and armed their own militias to protect themselves. Quarreling soon spread up and down the eastern fringe of Zaïre, and what began as self-defense soon turned into an organized Tutsi insurgency on Zaïre’s own soil, aimed not only at expelling the Hutu refugees, but at defeating the huge but corruption-riddled Zaïrean army and even ousting President Mobutu Sese Seko himself from power.
Not surprisingly, Zaïre’s Tutsi insurgents, now styled the “Allied Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre” (ADFL), won immediate sympathy and substantial military support from their cousins in Rwanda and Burundi. Their campaign successfully closed down most of the refugee camps and forced the Hutu refugees either to return to Rwanda or flee still deeper into Zaïre’s forests and jungles. The ADFL’s lightening offensive humiliated Mobutu’s much larger army, and they now control virtually all of the country’s eastern border region with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, plus much of the territory inland as well, an area fully five times larger than Rwanda and Burundi combined. Although Mobutu has recruited some 200 European mercenary soldiers to spearhead a counter-offensive, the ADFL continues to capture important towns and enlarge its domain.
Now, Zaïre is not little Rwanda or Burundi. It is an enormous, potentially rich, and strategically important country, one that has engaged and worried the United States almost continuously since the earliest days of independence. Zaïre has also represented, for many years, the nightmare scenario for those concerned with multinational peacekeeping due to its very size and wealth, its corrupt and creaking political system, and its layered ethnic complexity. As ethnic conflict spreads across eastern Zaïre from our tiny Rwandan “paradise,” there is every reason to fear that the peace keepers’ nightmare is becoming a reality.


W O U L D   L I K E   to end this piece on a positive note and report that, at least in Rwanda itself, the spasm of violence is over and conditions are returning to normal.

Unfortunately that is not the case.
The returning refugees have posed major headaches for the new Rwandan government; identifying and detaining those suspected of leading the 1994 genocide has proven especially difficult (some 90,000 Hutus are now in prison awaiting trial). Nor have all the returnees come home seeking to live peacefully with their old neighbors; armed attacks, reprisals, lawlessness, and common crime have claimed hundreds of new victims since the first of the year, Hutu and Tutsi alike.
Moreover, a growing share of the renewed violence has lately been aimed at foreigners assigned there to help restore peace and stability:

  • In recent weeks, five UN human rights monitors were brutally gunned down as they went about their inspection duties in southwest Rwanda.
  • In March, a Canadian priest was shot and killed while delivering communion to parishioners in a small rural settlement; he had worked in Rwanda for more than thirty-five years.
  • Recently, three Spanish physicians were murdered as they treated patients at a clinic in the town of Ruhengeri; an American doctor was wounded in the same attack and lost both legs.
So while central Africa has slipped from the headlines, the peacekeeping challenge has become more urgent than ever, raising several crucial questions:

  • How is the international community to deal with disorder in a major, strategically important country like Zaïre if it has been unable to do so in tiny Rwanda?
  • How is the United States to avoid taking matters into its own hands and becoming the world’s policeman if multinational institutions fail to do the job?
  • And maybe most important, How are outsiders to avoid making a bad situation even worse, as clearly was the case in Rwanda?
I have no simple answers to set forward here, but it seems evident that the United States can neither wash its hands of involvement nor assume sole responsibility. Nor can the nation fail to act out of fear of making mistakes. Initiatives through the framework of the United Nations may provide the best available answer. As frustrating as the bloated UN bureaucracy may be, as aggravating and tedious as UN decision-making surely is, the collective approach to peacekeeping nonetheless has dampened more conflicts and curbed more violence in this century than has unilateral intervention.
Admittedly, multilateral action has serious drawbacks.

  • The system is slow-moving;
  • it is poor at anticipating problems before they mushroom out of control;
  • the UN is chronically short of operational resources despite its considerable budget;
  • and it depends far too heavily upon the constant political, material, and moral support of certain key members, above all the United States.
These drawbacks are significant, and the reforms promised by the new Secretary General, Kofi Annan, are long overdue. Still, it embarrasses me deeply as an American, when the United States sidesteps its responsibilities as a UN member and partner, demanding, for example, that the former Secretary General be fired, while refusing to pay the billion dollars owed in overdue assessments.
America could not, by itself, have prevented Rwanda’s descent into hell. But by joining more fully in the collective effort to curb the effects of ethnic conflict, the United States might significantly have helped prevent the spread of violence and averted the more serious conflict that now looms in the heart of Africa.
It is not yet too late.

Frank Crigler co-founded and publishes American Diplomacy. See his biographic entry in this edition of the journal. ~ Ed.

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