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Innocent Pawns in a World War

March 14, 1999|George B. N. Ayittey | George B. N. Ayittey is an associate professor of economics at American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation, is the author of "Africa in Chaos."

WASHINGTON — On Feb. 28, eight Western tourists, including two Americans, and four Ugandans were hacked with machetes and shot to death by a gang of some 150 Hutu militiamen, known as the Interahamwe, "we stand together." The dead were visiting Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwest Uganda. A note pinned to one body read: "Britain and America. Stop your support of the governments in Uganda and Rwanda." It was an echo of early 1996, when another Hutu extremist group, People in Arms for the Liberation of Rwanda, put a $1,000 bounty on the head of every American killed in Rwanda and $1,500 on that of the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, Robert E. Gribbin III.

The murder of the tourists is but one example of a growing and disturbing trend in Central Africa's never-ending cycle of senseless violence and gratuitous mayhem. Missionaries, tourists, diplomats and even humanitarian relief workers have all been targeted to make a political point. The Western tourists tragically got caught up in the Congo's complex and deadly game of intrigue and war, in which there are no good guys.

The Interahamwe seized power from moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Under a tribal apartheid system that bore an eerie resemblance to South Africa's, the Hutu, who comprise about 85% of Rwanda's population, refused to share political power with the Tutsi minority. Facing intense domestic and international pressure to democratize their system, the Interahamwe government came up with a macabre solution: exterminate the Tutsi. Accordingly, more than 800,000 of them were slaughtered in an orgy of violence and murder over a three-month period, beginning in April 1994.

Subsequently, Tutsi rebels, led by Paul Kagame, Rwanda's current vice president and minister of defense, succeeded, with the help of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, in overthrowing the Hutu government. Hutu militiamen and officials of the rump government, as well as Hutus who did not participate in the genocide but were fearful of reprisals, fled Rwanda into refugee camps in Goma, Kivu and Bukavu in eastern Zaire. At the camps, the operation of which cost the international community at least $1 million a day, the Interahamwe continued their diabolical activities: They butchered their own moderate kinsmen to prevent them from returning to Rwanda, pillaged villages in eastern Zaire inhabited by the Banyamulenge, or Zairean Tutsi, and launched sporadic cross-border raids into Rwanda to destabilize the government there. In response to Rwandan complaints about security problems along its border with Zaire, the late President Mobutu Sese Seko ordered the expulsion of the Banyamulenge in September 1996. Thereupon, Tutsi governments in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda rose to the defense of their kinsmen in eastern Zaire.

A Tutsi rebel force was prepared, trained and sent to eastern Zaire to protect the Banyamulenge from persecution and pillage by Mobutu's soldiers, now joined by the Hutu extremists. But the speed with which they accomplished their task fed a more ambitious goal: the removal of Mobutu. In a clever move, the Tutsi rebels chose Laurent Kabila, a longtime Mobutu foe, to lead the rebellion. Within eight months, they controlled the entire country. Mobutu fled and died in exile. Kabila installed himself as the new president and immediately changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sadly, however, his rule has followed the same African script in which a change of leadership means nothing more than trading one brutal dictator for another.

In less than a year, the Congolese dismissed him as another Mobutu, mocking his ponderous style in a dance called the dombolo. More worrisome to ordinary Congolese, however, was the large number of Tutsis in Kabila's government and military, which fed accusations that he was a puppet of Rwanda. Kabila's problems escalated when he fell out of favor with his patrons, Museveni and Kagame, because of his persistent failure to solve the security problems along his eastern border. His erratic and inept governance also rankled his neighbors, who registered their displeasure by declining to attend ceremonies marking Kabila's second anniversary in power.

Kabila responded by expelling all the Tutsis in his administration last summer, which sparked another Tutsi rebellion in eastern Congo. Once again, Rwanda and Uganda threw their support behind the rebels. It would have succeeded, save for fast diplomatic footwork by Kabila. Five African nations sent troops, materiel and other logistical support and shored up Kabila's flailing regime. A stalemate currently exists in the Congo. Peace conferences held in Addis Ababa, Paris, Lusaka and Cape Town have all but collapsed.

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