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Burundi: The Next Genocide?

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.

Congo: A Good Start

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”)


The Fate of Africa

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”)



Sudan Is Not The Norm

26 April 2012

Sudan Is Not The Norm

By Gwynne Dyer

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been having some fun with language recently. He has come up with a new name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that has formed the government of South Sudan since it finally got its independence from Sudan last July.

“Movement”, in Arabic, is “haraka”, but Bashir has started using the word “hashara” instead. “Hashara” means “insect”, and Sudan’s official media have obediently taken up the abusive term. Everybody remembers that the Hutu regime in Rwanda described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” when it launched the terrible ethnic genocide in 1994, and it’s particularly troubling because Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of war.

The oil town of Heglig, on the new and disputed border between the two countries, has changed hands twice this month: first South Sudan drove Sudanese troops out, then the Sudanese took it back. South Sudan’s government insists that it withdrew voluntarily, but the facilities that supplied half of Sudan’s oil have been comprehensively wrecked.

The war, if it comes, would be over the control of the oil reserves along the undefined border, but it would also be an ethnic conflict. The majority in Sudan thinks of itself as Arab, and looks down on the “African” ethnic groups of South Sudan. Members of the Sudanese elite, conditioned by centuries of Arab slave-trading in Africa, sometimes even use the word “abd” (slave) in private when referring to southerners.

The rhetoric is getting very ugly. Bashir recently told a rally in Khartoum: “We say that (the SPLM) has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens. The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.” It will, he implied, be a total war: “Either we end up in Juba (South Sudan’s capital) and take everything, or (they) end up in Khartoum and take everything.”

This is nonsense: neither side’s army has the logistical support to advance as far as the other side’s capital. But they could certainly kill a lot of people – about two million died in the 22-year war that ended in South Sudan’s independence – and they seem determined to do it all over again.

So what are we to make of this folly? Many people will simply say “It’s Africa. What did you expect?” Others, more sophisticated, will lament that mankind is still trapped in an endless cycle of wars. Almost nobody will say to themselves: “Pity about the two Sudans, but they are just one of the inevitable exceptions to the rule that war is in steep and probably irreversible decline everywhere.” Yet that is what they should say.

War between countries is not the norm in Africa: there are 52 African countries, and only two pairs have gone to war with each other in the past twenty years.

Internal wars are much more common, and some, like those in Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Sudan, have taken a huge number of lives. But those wars were killing on average more than half million people a year in the 1980s; now the annual death toll from internal conflicts in Africa is around 100,000. It’s not as bad as people think it is, and it’s getting better.

There has been a profound change in attitudes to war not just in Africa, but all over the world. Most people no longer see war as glorious, or even useful. They don’t see it as inevitable, either, and their governments have put a lot of effort into building international institutions that make it less likely.

No great power has gone to war with any other great power in the past 67 years. That is a huge change for the better, for the great powers are the only countries with the resources to kill on a truly large scale: it would take a century’s worth of Africa’s wars at their worst to match the death toll in six years of the Second World War.

This change of attitude has not reached the Sudans, where several generations have lived in a permanent state of war. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid and truculent than the decision of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to halt all oil production (although it provided 98 percent of his government’s budget) because Sudan was siphoning off some of the oil.

No, wait. That was no more foolish and aggressive than Omar al-Bashir’s unilateral seizure of much of South Sudan’s oil (which crossed Sudan in pipelines to the sea), just because the two sides had not reached an agreement on transit fees. Now both countries are short of oil, strapped for cash – and about to waste their remaining resources on another stupid war.

But at least the rest of world is trying hard to stop them. Even South Sudan’s closest friends condemned it for seizing the town of Heglig, and forced it to withdraw. The African Union has sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and special envoy Haile Menkarios to mediate between the two sides. China, which took most of the oil exports from both countries, has sent its envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, on a similar mission.

Who knows? They might even succeed. Miracles happen all the time these days.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 11. (“The war…southerners”; “This is…again”, and “No great…war”)