A gradual descent into hell

The Great Lakes of Africa
June 20, 2003

As recently as the 1970s, the Great Lakes region of east Africa - encompassing Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, eastern Congo and western Tanzania - conjured up dreams "of an earthly paradise similar to an extended Solomonic Ethiopia", in the words of Jean-Pierre Chretién. But then events in Uganda in the mid-1980s, and those in Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1990s, made it a veritable hell on earth.

The Great Lakes of Africa was first published in French in 2000. Chretién, a historian with 30 years' experience of the region, sets out to explain its historical dynamics, notwithstanding what he calls "the absurd obstacle" stemming from its colonial partition into separate nations. He goes to considerable pains to expound a single regional history rather than a number of national histories, and thus plays down the roles of national leaders in either the colonial or post-colonial periods.

This is a serious omission given the author's view that "the contemporary crisis" in the region "is difficult to understand". The personal nature of Idi Amin's dictatorial regime in Uganda is well known, as is that of Mobutu in Zaire - and individual leaders' ambitions undoubtedly played a significant role in the ethnic conflict that led to the genocide in Rwanda.

The earlier stages of the book address oral traditions, myths, languages, art and the arrival of Islam and Christian missionaries, until the author eventually reaches an ideology of races structured by invasion. He admits to telling a history "of ruptures and contradictions that are part of Africa's daily life".

The indications are that a distinct cultural identity evolved, and human settlement was established in various pockets by about AD1000. There followed various "Bantu migrations" and the appearance of monarchs in the 16th century and after: kingdoms such as Buganda, Bunyoro and Karagwe, Rwanda and Burundi. By the 19th century, a complex social situation developed, with various kingdoms that would play a key role in the European conquest of the region. The colonial explorers who arrived in the 1860s were more interested in exploiting the divisions between kingdoms than in understanding the kings' relationships with the peoples they ruled. With the exception of Buganda, by the end of colonial rule the monarchies had gone.

In the 1890s, the British took over Uganda, the Germans seized the area between lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, and the Belgians grabbed the area west of Lake Kivu as part of the Congo Free State (which became the Belgian Congo in 1908). After Germany's defeat in the first world war, the Belgians and the British divided up the German territories: Belgium acquired the mandate for Ruanda-Urundi, as the southern part of Rwanda was then called, while the British ruled Tanganyika as a protectorate.

During the colonial period, the countries were in practice ruled along ethnic lines. With the independence in the early 1960s of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, this "registering" of society had become so obsessive that it was bound to lead to terrible violence between competing ethnic groups. The problem was most intense between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Far from independence being a triumph of "revolution under trusteeship", as it was hailed in 1962, it meant the Tutsi elite, who were favoured by the Belgian colonists, were forced to relinquish power and flee the country. By the late 1980s, 700,000 Tutsi refugees were living in Burundi, Uganda, Zaire and Tanzania.

In 1988, bands of Hutu peasants massacred Tutsi families along the Rwanda/Uganda border. After retaliation by the Tutsis, more than 50,000 Hutus fled the area. The stage was set for the genocide inside Rwanda during 1994. The presidential guard (Hutus) set up road blocks and encouraged groups of Hutu militia to massacre Tutsi families and accomplices. By mid-April, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were dead.

When I travelled in the region two years later, I witnessed the continuing refugee turmoil in both southwestern Uganda and western Tanzania. Today, hatred of the Tutsis has taken over the former Zaire, with rebels from different countries "networking" and inciting further hatred in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The rebels are promoting a "holy war" against the Tutsi infiltrators, Chretién says. A reliable estimate is that well over 1 million people have been killed in Rwanda and Burundi since 1993 and that 3 to 4 million have so far died from fighting and diseases in the Congo following Mobutu's downfall.

Astonishingly, given this history, the author concludes by pleading for the urgent creation of political and economic "union" in the Great Lakes region. He is convinced that the pre-colonial African kingdoms - both their territories and their institutions - were constructed around "the need for a central authority, which in turn became a fact of culture, if not of collective psychology". This authority was destroyed by the colonisers for their own reasons and substituted by ethnic nationalism, which mutated into ethnoracial democracy after political independence. Now, a generation later, no less than two-thirds of the population of these east African countries have been indoctrinated with the ideology of ethnoracial conflict. Hence the author's call for a regional union as an attempt to end the propensity of national leaders to pursue their antagonists rather than solutions to the regional crisis.

I cannot help but feel that the idea of a union is impractical. Chretién also soft-peddles the poisonous influence of the European colonial powers. As for the French government's well-known role in financing and training the Hutu militias in 1994, the book maintains a shameful silence. To understand this episode, one must turn to established books on the Rwanda crisis by Gérard Prunier (1995) and Philip Gourevitch (1998). The first is at least cited by Chretién, the second does not even appear in his bibliography. This is an extraordinary and telling omission.

Christopher Ondaatje is on the council of the Royal Geographical Society and is the author of several books on east Africa.

The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History

Author - Jean-Pierre Chrétien
ISBN - 1 890951 34 X
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 484

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