// archives


This tag is associated with 10 posts

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”)


Ratko Mladic and the End of Impunity

31 May 2011

Ratko Mladic and the End of Impunity

by Gwynne Dyer

Last week’s arrest of the former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, for the murder of 7,500 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, helped Serbia’s campaign for membership in the European Union. But more importantly, it is a big step in the international effort to enforce the law against those who used to be free to murder and torture with impunity.

They were free to do so because the old rule was: kill your wife or your neighbour, and you will be punished for murder. Kill thousands of innocent people while in the service of the state, and you will get a medal. The state was above the law, and so were its servants.

That ancient tradition was first challenged after the Second World War, when political and military leaders of the defeated Axis powers were tried for war crimes and for the newly defined crimes of aggression and genocide. But it was an innovation with no follow-up – until the genocides in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the early 1990s forced the international community to act again.

In 1993 the United Nations Security Council set up the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. The following year a similar tribunal was created to investigate the genocide in Rwanda. But these were ad hoc courts to address specific crimes.

What was really needed was a permanent international court to enforce the law against politicians and officials in countries where the government could not or would not bring them to justice in the local courts. The Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court (ICC) was signed by over 150 countries in 1998, and the treaty came into effect in 2002.

Since its creation, the ICC has opened three investigations at the request of the local government (Uganda, the Central African Republic, and Congo-Kinshasa), two at the request of the UN Security Council (Libya and Sudan), and one at the initiative of chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo (Kenya). Most of the killers will escape its net, of course, but two dozen people have already gone to trial.

The ICC has no jurisdiction over crimes committed before it created, so Ratko Mladic will go before the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, but it’s really all part of the same institution. The major complaint against this new international legal system is that it moves too slowly – but that could even be an advantage.

It took sixteen years to track down and arrest Mladic, and his trial will probably take several more. That is a long time, but it also suggests a certain inexorability: they will never stop looking for you, and eventually they will probably get you. That has a powerful deterrent effect.

It is almost universally assumed by ordinary Kenyans, for example, that the inter-tribal carnage in Kenya in 2008 after the ruling party stole the last election was launched and orchestrated by senior political and military figures. Supporters of the leading opposition party, which was cheated of its electoral victory, began killing people of the Kikuyu tribe (most of whom backed the government), as soon as the results were announced.

The ruling party responded by using not only its own tribal supporters but also the army and police to kill opposition supporters, especially Luos and Kalenjins. Over a thousand people were killed and more than half a million became “Internally Displaced Persons.”

Another national election is due next year, and Kenyans fear that it might happen again. However, three powerful men from each side, including the deputy prime minister, the secretary to the cabinet, and the former commissioner of police, have been summoned before the ICC to answer charges of “crimes against humanity.”

There will inevitably be a long delay before these men are tried, but that is actually a good thing, said Ken Wafula, a human rights campaigner in Eldoret, the city in the Rift Valley that was the epicentre of the slaughter. “Those who are supposed to incite will see what ICC has done, and they will not be ready to (stir up violence) for fear of maybe a warrant coming out.”

Many suspect that the Sudanese regime’s acceptance of the overwhelming “yes” vote in the recent independence referendum in southern Sudan was similarly driven by fear among top officials in Khartoum that using force would expose them to the same kind of ICC arrest warrant that has already been issued for President Omar al-Bashir over the Darfur genocide.

So long as they stayed in power, of course, they would be safe. But what if the wave of democratic revolutions sweeping the Arab world comes south to Sudan? They would become hunted men, and probably be handed over to the ICC for trial. So they seem to have opted for the peaceful path instead.

Even after sixteen years, the ICC got Ratko Mladic. It got most of the surviving organisers of the genocide in Rwanda. The likelihood of being pursued by the ICC represents a real risk for senior political and military leaders who contemplate using force against their own people. They may do it anyway – consider Libya, Syria and Yemen at the moment – but it is nevertheless a genuine deterrent, and sometimes it saves lives.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 14. (“Since…trial”; and “So…instead”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Rwanda: Kagame’s Dilemma

10 July 2010

Rwanda: Kagame’s Dilemma

By Gwynne Dyer

Did Paul Kagame really stop the genocide in Rwanda sixteen years ago, or did he just interrupt it for a while? That question frightens him so much that he will not risk everything on the outcome of a democratic election.

Kagame is running for re-election to the presidency of the traumatised Central African country next month. If economic success automatically brought political success he would be a shoo-in: Rwanda’s economy grew by 11 percent last year. But in fact, his resounding election victory in 2003 was the result of ruthless manipulation, and this one will be the same.

In recent months, opposition party leaders in Rwanda have been arrested and charged with denying the genocide. An opposition newspaper was banned and its co-editors attacked (one died, one survived). Leading generals in the Rwandan army have been arrested or have fled into exile. (One was wounded last month in an attempted hit in South Africa.) So is Kagame over-reacting? Maybe.

If you cut Paul Kagame open, you would find engraved on his heart William Faulkner’s terrible truth: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” One-tenth of Rwanda’s population – at least 800,000 people, Tutsis and those who tried to protect them – were murdered by their neighbours, mostly with machetes, only sixteen years ago.

Not nearly enough time has passed yet for generational turnover to take the edge off the grief and the hate. Everybody pretends it’s over, but of course it isn’t. How could it be?

Kagame’s whole life has been shaped by genocide. He grew up in Uganda, where his parents fled when an earlier wave of violence killed about 100,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in the early 1960s. He became the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a mainly Tutsi exile organisation dedicated to overthrowing the Hutu extremists who ruled the country, and he led the RPF army that marched in to stop the great genocide of 1994.

He knows, of course, that Tutsis and Hutus are not really separate ethnic groups. All of Rwanda’s nineteen major clans includes both Tutsis and Hutus. They speak the same language and they live in the same villages. The term once distinguished cattle-herders from farmers, and later the wealthy from the poor. Rich Hutus could become Tutsis – but the Tutsis naturally always remained a minority of the population.

He also knows, however, that the colonial authorities exploited those class differences and gave the Tutsis political authority over the Hutus in return for their loyalty. By the later 20th century the Tutsis and Hutus had become ethnic groups for all practical purposes, with a constant undercurrent of resentment by the Hutus against the Tutsis. After independence in 1960, the killing got underway very quickly. It peaked in 1994.

This past will not leave Rwanda alone. The very words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” have now been banned in Rwanda, but a ministerial investigation in 2008 found anti-Tutsi graffiti and harassment of Tutsi students in most of the schools that were visited. The army is exclusively Tutsi and the government almost entirely so, because Kagame does not really believe that this generation of Hutus can be trusted.

To make his position even more precarious, Tutsi solidarity is breaking down. The arrests, exile and attempted assassination of various generals may be in response to real plots. Most Tutsi generals belong to the Nyiginya clan, which traditionally provided the country’s king. Paul Kagame is from the Umwega clan, and some of the Nyiginya think that power has remained in the wrong hands for too long.

It is an awful situation, and Kagame has only one strategy for avoiding a return to genocide: hang onto power, and hope that rapid economic growth and the passage of time will eventually blur the identities and blunt the reflexes that have made this generation of Rwandans so dangerous to one another.

His model is Singapore, an ethnically complex state that avoided too much democracy during the early decades of its dash for growth. If Rwanda could become the Singapore of Central Africa, then maybe its citizens would eventually come to believe that their stake in the country’s new stability and prosperity was more important than the history. But Singapore did not have so far to travel, and its history was not drowned in blood.

The logic of Kagame’s strategy obliges him to stay in power: his first duty is to Rwanda’s Tutsis, at least half of whom have already been murdered. But he must provide prosperity to the Hutu majority too, in order to reconcile them to Tutsi survival, and his relatively corruption-free government has made impressive progress towards that goal.

Nevertheless, in a free election today most Rwandans would vote along ethnic lines. His Rwandan Patriotic Front would instantly be replaced by a Hutu-led regime of unknowable character and purpose. He dares not risk it, so real democracy is not an option.

If Paul Kagame is now killing opposition journalists and dissident generals, then he is making a dreadful and probably fatal mistake, but it may not be him. In the ruthlessly Machiavellian world of Rwandan politics, other possibilities also exist. Either way, he has the loneliest, scariest job in the world, and he must know that the odds are long against him.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“To make…long”; and “His model…blood”)

The Unstoppable Rise of English

16 October 2008

The Unstoppable Rise of English

By Gwynne Dyer

Just over half of Africa’s 52 countries speak French, but the number is dropping. This month Rwanda defected, announcing that henceforward only English will be taught in the schools. It would not be overstating the case to say that this caused alarm and despondency in France.

You couldn’t help feeling, either, that Rwanda’s trade and industry minister, Vincent Karega, was deliberately rubbing salt in the wound when he explained why French was being scrapped. “French is spoken only in France, some parts of west Africa, and parts of Canada and Switzerland,” he said. (In parts of Belgium, too, actually, not to mention Haiti, but you get the point.) “English has emerged as a backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe.”

No country cares more passionately for its language than France, and it has waged a long and expensive campaign to guarantee the survival of a French-speaking zone in central and west Africa. It even provided the bulk of the foreign aid for the former Belgian colonies that spoke French: Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. But the present government of Rwanda has special reasons not to be fond of France.

Getting very close to the regimes in African countries that have French as an official language, even sending troops to protect them from their domestic enemies, has always been part of Paris’s strategy for preserving the status of French as a world language. In Rwanda’s case, that put France in bed with the extremist Hutu-dominated regime that ruled the densely populated country before the genocide, to such an extent that Paris largely paid for the tripling in size of the Rwandan army in 1990-91.

When the Hutu regime began murdering the minority Tutsis in industrial quantities in 1994, France did not abandon it. The French president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, is alleged to have remarked that “in such countries, genocide is not too important…” And a principal reason that France overlooked its Rwandan ally’s ghastly behaviour was that the Tutsi-led opposition in exile mostly spoke English, because its members had found refuge in English-speaking Uganda.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 1994, but the Uganda-based Rwanda Patriotic Front put an end to the genocide by invading the country and overthrowing the regime. Even a direct French military intervention in Rwanda (thinly disguised as a humanitarian operation) could not save the Hutu “genocidiaires,” as they are universally known. So it was not to be expected that the new, mainly English-speaking government in Rwanda would have warm feelings towards France.

Fourteen years later, more than 95 percent of Rwanda’s secondary schools still teach mainly in French, although an alternative English instructional programme or intensive English language courses are usually available. Knowledge of both English and French is required for university entrance (and for most government jobs), but the government’s own statistics say that only 3 percent of the population are fluent in English. Nevertheless, the new decision ends the teaching of French in Rwandan schools.

The government defends it as a purely business decision, driven by Rwanda’s membership in the largely English-speaking East African Community (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), but there is no question that resentment of France also plays a role. This is a country that has already expelled the French ambassador and closed down the French cultural centre, international school and radio station.

But can an African country just switch from one European language to another like that? It can if, like Rwanda, it only uses one language domestically. Almost all Rwandans, whether Hutu or Tutsi, speak Kinyarwanda, so they have no need for a lingua franca to communicate among themselves. Only those going into higher education or working with foreigners need any other language at all — which is why only 8 percent of Rwandans speak fluent French after all this time.

This is far from typical of African countries, most of which have many different ethnic groups, each with its own language. Such countries use the language of the former colonial power as a neutral “national” language, and have such a large investment in teaching it by now that switching is out of the question. The Congo will always use French; Nigeria will always use English; Mozambique will always use Portuguese.

So francophones can relax: their language is not about to be vanish from the African continent. On the other hand, French will always lose out to English in situations like Rwanda, where there is a single national language and the main reason for learning a foreign language is communication with the rest of the world. Vietnam, an ex-French colony, has long taught English as the main foreign language in its schools, and Madagascar, also formerly ruled by France, made English a national language last year.

English-speakers often assume that this world role for their language owes something to its huge vocabulary and wonderful literature, or at least to the fact that Hollywood speaks English. Nothing of the sort. The sole reason is that the world’s dominant power for the past two centuries has been English-speaking: Britain in the 19th century, and the United States in the 20th. Timing is everything, and English just happened to be the leading candidate when globalisation created the need for an agreed global second language.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“No country…France”; and “The government…station”)