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A History of Central Africa and the Rwandan Genocide

Earlier this week we posted an essay by Gérard Prunier and an interview with him. Prunier is the author of over 120 articles and five books. He is a widely acclaimed journalist and the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. The following excerpt is from the introduction of his latest book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe.

In 1885, at the heyday of European imperialism, Africa was a continent apart. It had no nation-states, no caliphate, and no empire. It did not even have the crude military dictatorships that at the time passed for states in Latin America. It was a continent of clans, of segmentary tribes and of a few sacred monarchies. Societies were what mattered, and the state was a construct many could live without. Boundaries did exist, but not in the European sense. They were linguistic, cultural, military, or commercial, and they tended to crisscross and overlap, without the neat delineations so much beloved by Western statesmen since the treaties of Westphalia. Colonial European logic played havoc with that delicate cobweb of relationships. New borders were drawn not so much in violation of preexisting ones but according to a different logic. African borders had been porous membranes through which proto-nations were breathing, and the colonial borders that superseded them were of the pre-1914 cast-iron variety. Then, within those borders, vast enterprises of social and economic rationalization were undertaken, all for the good of the natives, of course, and for the greater prosperity of the empire. African social and cultural ways of doing things were neither taken into account nor questioned; they were simply made obsolete. Karl Marx and Rudyard Kipling agreed: empire was progressive. The Europeans rationalized African cultures to death. And it is that contrived rationality that they bequeathed to Africa when they walked away from the continent in the 1960s.

The problem was that this rationality had not had time to filter down from the exalted spheres of government and philosophy to the real lives of ordinary people. Marxists would have said that, after seventy-five years of colonization, the administrative superstructure bore little relationship to the productive infrastructure. The Europeans had destroyed a traditional culture, planning to rebuild it along wonderfully rational lines at a later date. But history forced them to walk away before they could complete their supposedly benevolent alternative system, thus giving renewed tragic relevance to Antonio Gramsci’s famous remark that the moment when the Old is dead and the New is not yet born is a very dangerous moment indeed.

Because independence occurred right in the middle of the cold war, political evolution was frozen until further notice. France took as its special responsibility the supervision of the cold storage equipment and turned it into a dearly beloved consolation prize for its waning role as a superpower. As a result Paris was loath to acknowledge the geopolitical earthquake that took place in 1989, and the notion that this primarily European event could have African consequences was not accepted. President Mitterrand’s extremely traditional political worldview did not help.

The Rwandese genocide acted in this fragile African and international environment like the bull in the proverbial china shop because it was at the same time both typically “African” and typically un-African. Its deep-seated causes reached far back into the precolonial culture of Rwanda. But it could never have occurred without the manic cultural reengineering of the Belgian colonial authorities. It was both a traditional logic gone mad and a totally modern artifact. In other words, it was a contemporary African social phenomenon.

To think that an event of such magnitude, of such concentrated evil and of such political inventiveness could be kept bottled up in the 26,000 square kilometers of the official Rwanda state was naïve. But many people, including this author, hoped against hope that it could be. As for the self-styled “international community,” its standardized worldview could not hide the fact that as far as Africa was concerned it had willy-nilly inherited the mantel of the former colonial empires. Reluctantly trying to face a catastrophe of unheard-of magnitude, the international community attempted to deal with it in the stilted humanitarian style usually dispensed by the United Nations. And although the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda had been the ultimate experience in toothlessness, further bureaucratic remedies were nevertheless proffered after the genocide to a world spinning out of control, as if they would suffice to steer it back on course. Refugee camps were mushrooming, with armed murderers and hapless peasants living side by side, sharing the unreal bounty dumped on them by distant authorities who were choosing not to choose. Victorious victims were cradling their weapons in anticipation of a looming military solution. The diplomatic rout was almost absolute. The French, stunned by defeat and the torrents of blood they had unwittingly helped to shed, were incapable of coherent reaction. Shamed by their post-Somalia passive acquiescence to the genocide, the Americans were trying their hand at steering a situation they did not even begin to understand. And Marshal Mobutu, the longest-serving friend of the former free world, was clumsily trying to reformat the whole thing according to the obsolete parameters he was familiar with. Through a mixture of diplomatic routine and woolly good intentions, more septic material kept being injected into the already festering sores. By mid-1996 the infection was totally out of control.

Let me be clear: the Rwandese genocide and its consequences did not cause the implosion of the Congo basin and its periphery. It acted as a catalyst, precipitating a crisis that had been latent for a good many years and that later reached far beyond its original Great Lakes locus. This is why the situation became so serious. The Rwandese genocide has been both a product and a further cause of an enormous African crisis: its very occurrence was a symptom, its nontreatment spread the disease.

Recent Comments

  1. kindsir

    You are wrong. What about Abyssinia. That was an internationally recognized nation state. There was also the Emirate of Kano,the Sokoto Caliphate,the South African Republic,the Ouaddai Empire,the kingdom of Morocco, and the republic of Liberia. Do your research!

  2. me

    fact- the world decided to ignore the general thay had placed incharge of the un mission. when he said that it was a genecide

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