American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 1997

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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.

"Descent into Hell"
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