The stop-go evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from Aleppo had begun again as I write, but the reason for the last interruption was instructive. It was Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) that burned the buses coming to evacuate the wounded from Foah and Kefraya.
The same organisation dominates the rebel forces in Aleppo, and its propaganda has worked very well. According to Western media, the city of Aleppo has not just been “destroyed”; it has been “annihilated”. There has not only been a “massacre”; there has been a “genocide”.
Official sources have not been much better. Last week at the UN Security Council, US ambassador Samantha Power compared what was happening in Aleppo to other scenes of slaughter “that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later…Rwanda, Srebrenica and, now, Aleppo.”
In Rwanda, an estimated 800,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi minority, were murdered by the militia of the Hutu regime in 1994 in a period of three and a half months. About 20 percent of the country’s population, and up to 70 percent of its Tutsis, were killed.
In Srebrenica in 1995, 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, civilians who had been living under UN “protection”, were systematically shot and buried by Serbian troops in a single day. That was a genocide too, although the numbers were far smaller than in Rwanda. The victims were killed BECAUSE they were Muslims.
So does Aleppo really belong on this grim list? We don’t know the exact number of civilians who died there, but a reasonable guess would be that between one thousand and several thousand civilians were killed by bombs and shellfire during the final four months of the siege.
That would be a dreadful toll even if eastern Aleppo had really held 250,000 civilians, as the rebels claimed. The real number of civilians was far lower than that, maybe as little as a quarter as many, which would mean that the civilian death rate was even worse.
But that is what happens in sieges, even when they are conducted by people much nicer than Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Does anybody really believe that the civilian death toll will be lower if and when the Iraqi army retakes the besieged city of Mosul?
Nothing that has happened so far in either city is a patch on what happened to civilians in Leningrad in 1941-42, or in Manila and Berlin in 1945. And by the way, Aleppo has not been “annihilated”, although there has been massive destruction in the eastern suburbs and considerable damage in the centre.
In the western half of Aleppo, where the regime never lost control, around a million people have gone about their daily lives almost as normal, losing only a dozen or so dead a month to the shells and rockets that the rebels fired into their zone.
I’m not writing this as a defence of the Assad regime, but because we need to understand why the Western media peddled such a distorted picture of what was going on.
The problem was that the ten thousand fighters who controlled eastern Aleppo (but were never mentioned or seen in any of the reports that came out of there) also controlled the people who were doing the blogs and uploading the images. The civilians were the rebels’ most valuable resource. Indeed, they frequently killed civilians who tried to leave.
Some of the bloggers and videographers probably supported the extreme Islamist groups who dominated the rebel forces in eastern Aleppo. Others may have been less keen on their local rulers, although they all backed the revolt against Assad. But they all knew that the penalty for saying or showing things that displeased their juhadi rulers would be arrest and torture, perhaps death.
The rebels wanted the siege to be portrayed as a senseless and brutal assault on civilians (and only on civilians) because their only hope was to shock and shame foreign powers, especially the United States, into intervening militarily and stopping the siege. It was never likely to happen, but they obviously thought it was worth a try.
And the Western media ran this propaganda because nothing else was available. Foreign journalists did not dare to enter eastern Aleppo because they knew they would be killed. If they were allowed to report freely, it would spoil the rebels’ game.
A lot of news editors understood just what the game was, but they used the material anyway – and they did not warn the audience that it was, in effect, propaganda. So it’s not surprising that even normally sensible grown-ups are resorting to the apocalyptic rhetoric we have been hearing recently.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“That…worse”)
The good news is that the killing in Burundi has not yet grown into a civil war like the one that killed 300,000 people in 1993-2005, let alone a genocide like the one that killed 800,000 people in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The bad news is that Burundi is getting there.
It’s hard to speak well of Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former head of Fifa, the international football federation. But Africa would owe him a large debt of gratitude if he had persuaded Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza not to seek a third term, and instead to accept a job as Fifa’s “ambassador for football” to the world.
When the story came out recently in Blatter’s autobiography, the Swiss foreign ministry (which asked Blatter to make the offer) explained that “The intention was to contribute to a peaceful solution in order to prevent the current crisis in Burundi.”
It might even have worked. Nkurunziza is a keen footballer, and he certainly has put aside enough money to retire on. But he chose to stay on and run for a third term, and started Burundi on the road back down to Hell.
African presidents suffer from two besetting sins. One is the belief that they are irreplaceable: almost two-thirds of African countries had two-term presidential limits in their constitutions by 2000, but since then ten of them have seen attempts by their presidents to remove the limit. The most recent was Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame’s last permitted term will now end in 2034.
But Pierre Nkurunziza’s excuse was particularly pathetic. He became president at the end of the civil war in 2005, when the peace was precarious. There was no time for a presidential election, so he was elected to the presidency by a parliamentary vote.
On the basis of that, Nkurunziza began claiming last year that his first term shouldn’t count towards his constitutional two-term limit because he was chosen by parliament and not by the people. Even Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe (seven terms and counting) saw the humour in that. “They say the first term was not a real term,” he said at an African Union summit last June, “but you were there for five years!”
Burundi’s Constitutional Court accepted Nkuruniza’s claim, however, as it would have been hazardous to the members’ health to do otherwise. (One of the judges then fled the country, saying that they had all been bullied and threatened into giving that judgement.) The opposition parties all boycotted the election last July, so Nkurunziza “won” – and by then the level of violence was rising rapidly.
The killing started after a failed military coup that tried to stop the sham election, and the reported death toll is now around 400. The known victims are mostly political activists and ordinary citizens murdered by the police in Bujumbura, the capital, but the real total of the killings must be far higher. Rural killings are rarely reported, but a quarter-million people have fled the country in the past year and now live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
The one consolation in this dreadful situation until recently was that it wasn’t a tribal confrontation. In both Rwanda’s genocide and Burundi’s civil war the majority Hutus (85 percent of the population) were on one side and formerly dominant Tutsi minority on the other. Since the civil war, however, Burundi’s army has been evenly divided between the two ethnic groups, and the opposition groups have also included both Hutus and Tutsis.
The other besetting sin of African presidents, unfortunately, is that if they come from the biggest tribe (as they most often do), when they get into deep political trouble their default solution is to fall back on tribal loyalties. That is what Nkurunziza is doing now. The army is being purged of Tutsis, and the very same language used by the Hutus in the run-up to the Rwanda genocide is now being used by Nkurunziza’s Hutu backers in Burundi.
Révérien Ndikuriyo, the president of the Burundian senate, has been referring to the regime’s opponents as “cockroaches” (the same word used for Tutsis by the Hutu extremists in Rwanda). He has even called on the government’s supporters to “start work” (“kora”), which was the code-word used in Rwanda for the launch of the 1994 genocide.
Nkurunziza is trying to turn a political confrontation he might lose into an ethnic conflict that he could win, but the cost would be another genocide. The future of an entire country of ten million people is being put at risk by his personal ambition.
The African Union offered to send 5,000 soldiers to help quell the violence, but backed down when Nkurunziza objected. There are 19,000 United Nations peacekeepers just across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the political will to send them in is lacking.
So far the opposition parties (which are, of course, mostly Hutu) are resisting Nkurunziza’s attempts to scapegoat the Tutsis, but in the world’s poorest country many ordinary Hutus will be tempted to go along with the regime’s lies in order to steal their Tutsi neighbours’ land. We may be weeks away from Africa’s next genocide.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 12, and 14. (“When…Burundi”; “Révérien…genocide”; and “The African…lacking”)
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
6 November 2013
Congo: A Good Start
By Gwynne Dyer
Can it really be as easy as that? Get Rwanda to stop supporting the rebels in eastern Congo, pay the soldiers of the Congolese army on time, send in a United Nations force that actually has orders to shoot, and presto! The bad guys surrender or flee, and a war that has lasted almost twenty years and killed up to five million Congolese is suddenly over.
At least that’s the way it is playing in the media (to the extent that news about the Congo plays in the media at all), and there certainly has been a sudden change for the better.
Less than a year ago the latest and one of the nastiest rebel militias, M23, actually occupied Goma, a city of one million people that is effectively the capital of eastern Congo. UN troops watched helplessly from the sidelines and the Congolese government’s army got drunk and took revenge on civilians for its defeat, while M23 officers swaggered through the city taking whatever they wanted.
It was so humiliating, so stupid and wrong, that Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to give it its proper name, stripped dozens of officers in eastern Congo of their commands and called them back to Kinshasa. Their replacements had at least a rudimentary grasp of their trade – and they have not yet been in the east long enough to develop lucrative deals with the local mining interests and the militias that feed on them.
The Congolese army’s soldiers in the east got some much-needed training in small-unit combat drills. They also started to get paid regularly (in contrast to the more usual pattern where the officers steal their pay and the troops compensate themselves by looting civilians). It’s actually not that hard to turn a rabble into a disciplined army if you have a bit of time and money, and the job was done within a year.
Meanwhile the “international community” (aka the United States and its friends) put heavy pressure on Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to stop supporting M23. Recently the US even blocked military aid to the small but heavily armed republic, just across Lake Kivu from Goma, that has been meddling in the DRC’s affairs, sometimes even invading the east, for the past two decades. It worked: Kagame stopped answering the phone when M23 called.
And the United Nations, whose 13,000 peace-keeping troops in the eastern Congo had been of no use against M23 because they had no mandate to fight, was so embarrassed that it changed the rules. A new “intervention brigade” made up of 3,000 South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops was sent, with tanks, helicopters, drones, and full permission to use its weapons against the rebels.
Finally, M23 helped by breaking up into rival factions that fought one another. The former commander, Bosco Ntaganda, known as “the Terminator”, lost the struggle, and to save his life he fled to the US embassy in Rwanda and asked to be turned over to the International Criminal Court to face trial in The Hague on war crimes charges. His successors were just as cruel and corrupt, but less competent.
The offensive against M23 started two weeks ago, with the DRC troops doing the fighting and the UN “intervention brigade” in support. Apart from firing a few mortar rounds on the last day, the UN troops were not even committed to combat. On 5 November the M23 forces lost their last hilltops and surrendered or fled across the border into Uganda or Rwanda, and the war was over. Maybe.
It is a huge step forward, but the peace will only last if two things happen. One is that the DRC now turns its attention to the biggest remaining militia in the east, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
The FDLR is a Hutu militia, run by the remnants of the Hutu regime that carried out the genocide against Tutsis and Hutu moderates in Rwanda in 1994. Like most of the eastern Congolese militias, the FDLR makes its living by looting the local population and running protection rackets against the rich mining operations in the area, but its ultimate aim is to regain power in Rwanda.
It was the presence of this force just across the border in eastern Congo that caused Rwanda to intervene in its giant neighbour in the first place. M23 was just the last of a series of Tutsi militias that Rwanda created to contain the FDLR, and if it is not destroyed the Rwandan meddling (and the war) will resume.
The other condition for a lasting peace is that the DRC’s own troops in the east of the country do not fall back into their bad old ways. There is big money to be made if they collaborate with the various militias in shaking down the mining operations, and it remains to be seen if the soldiers (and members of Kabila’s own government) can resist the temptation to profit from deals of this sort.
So it isn’t really over yet, but it’s a good start. After a generation of carnage, the people of the eastern Congo deserve a better future.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The Congolese…year”; and “Finally…competent”)
8 August 2012
The Fate of Africa
By Gwynne Dyer
Good news from Africa: after two decades of bloody anarchy, Somalia is finally on the mend. There is something resembling a government coming into being in Mogadishu, with much help from African Union troops – although the country’s most popular comedian, Abdi Jeylani Marshale, famous for his parodies of Islamic militants, was assassinated in broad daylight a week ago
Bad news from Africa: the situation in Mali is awful. The military coup in March that opened the way for Tuareg tribalists and Islamist extremists to seize the northern half of the country isn’t really over. The ignorant and brutal young officers who made the coup are blocking the arrival of 3,000 African Union troops, Mali’s only hope of ever regaining control in the north, because it would undermine their own power.
News about Africa that you don’t know whether to cheer or deplore: the major foreign aid donors have finally got fed up with Rwanda’s endless military meddling in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The United States has announced a cut in military aid, and Britain, Germany and the Netherlands are delaying payment of civilian aid, until Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, stops backing a rebel Tutsi militia in his country’s Congolese neighbour.
Everybody sympathises with Kagame’s attempt to rebuild peace and prosperity in Rwanda after the genocide that killed about half of the country’s Tutsi citizens. Everybody understands why he worries about Hutu militias in the eastern Congo. But he has to stop backing murderous Tutsi militias there, and using them to loot Congo’s mineral wealth. (On the other hand, don’t destabilise Kagame’s rule too much or the genocide might resume.)
Too many names, too many places, too much news. Even Africans cannot keep up with the news about their own continent. Is Africa going forwards, sideways, or nowhere at all? Indeed, is Africa any more than a geographical term?
The surfeit of news is inevitable in a continent that contains half a hundred countries. The sense of chronic crisis and chaos is due to the fact that in such a news-rich environment, the bad news will always jostle the good news aside. And yes, there really is an Africa about which you can usefully make large generalisations.
First, the entire continent is finally growing economically. Many African economies stagnated or even went backwards in the first three or four decades after decolonisation, but now there is real growth. Local disaster areas remain, of course, but over the past decade the gross domestic product of those fifty countries has grown at an average rate of 5 percent.
Manufacturing production in Africa has doubled in the past ten years. Seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa. The growth is starting from a desperately low base, in many cases, but the magic of compound interest means that a 5 percent growth rate will double the size of the economy every fourteen years.
So there really is hope that most Africans can escape from poverty in the next generation – but on one condition. The birth rate is declining in most countries, but it must fall faster. The 2008 UN projections saw Africa doubling its population to two billion by mid-century, even assuming that the current gradual decline in African birth rates continues. That means an average population growth over this entire period of almost 2 percent a year.
If the economy is growing at 5 percent and the population is growing at 2 percent annually, that only leaves room for a 3 percent growth in average income. That means a doubling time of about 23 years for African average incomes, so let’s assume that they triple by 2050. That’s not enough.
African average incomes now are so low that tripling them would still not create the degree of prosperity and security that people in other continents are coming to expect. Worse, it would not give African governments the resources to cope with the huge damage that climate change will do to the continent.
The impact of global warming is worst in the tropics and subtropics: huge floods and semi-permanent droughts will become almost routine in these areas. Africa will suffer more than anywhere else, because it is the only continent that is almost entirely in the tropics and subtropics. Feeding the population will become a major problem.
There is enough potential cropland in Africa to feed twice the current population in the present climate, but it’s far from clear that this will remain true in a two-degree-warmer world. If African governments invest enough in agriculture now, they can probably keep everybody fed; if not, the long-term future of the continent is probably widespread political violence and gradual economic collapse.
It’s a race. Grow average incomes fast enough and you probably survive the coming storm. Otherwise, you lose all you have gained, and more besides. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“Everybody…resume”; and “The impact…problem”)