Go with a smile!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


When I first set up my first blog in 2003 I had intended to talk quite a bit about my uni days, which at that time was just 1 year in the past, rather than many years. But I still remember them, partly because they made me think a lot, and partially because many things have taken place since then that have cast everything in here in a different light.

One of the more memorable courses I had taken in the uni was a philosophy course which grappled with the question, “is it OK to invade another country and save them if a genocide is taking place?” They looked at 2 incidents, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, and the Kosovo war of 1999, which culminated in the bombing of Belgrade.

Rwanda was not a country I had heard about. It is one of the smallest countries in Africa, and the most densely populated country. This is the story that I had read: there were 2 main castes in Rwanda: the Tutsis and the Hutus. In ancient times, the Tutsis were the elites, and they were the aristocracy. The colonial powers (in this case, Belgium) sided first with the Tutsis, and later on the Hutus. There was a lot of potential for friction in this situation, although there were also times when both of these peoples got along fine.

In 1959, there was an extermination of Tutsis by the Hutus, and the Hutus set up the government, and they have ruled Rwanda since. Many of the Tutsis were in exile all over Africa, and also elsewhere in the world. In 1994, there were Hutu extremists in Rwanda who hatched a propaganda plan to kill all the Tutsis. It was a plan that was planned for very carefully, and executed impeccably. However, it was presented in the newspapers as a spontaneous outbreak of tribal violence: this was, I suppose bias on the part of newspaper reporters who don’t think that Africans can ever get their shit together to pull of something as impressive as this.

In April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwanda president was shot down. He died. This was seemingly the trigger for the genocide to take place. Over the next few months, around 1 million Tutsis got slaughtered by Hutus.

A lot of what was said in the course centred around the inaction of the UN peacekeeping force that was stationed in Rwanda at that time. The commander had been told time and time again not to take action against the Hutu government, even when they had knowledge that weapons were being freely circulated around the country for the genocide to take place. Later on, it turned out that France, who has a permanent seat on the UN security council (this is one of the 5 really powerful positions in UN, the other 4 being UK, US, China and Russia) was solidly behind the Hutu government of Rwanda, because they thought that it was important that France should have more influence in Africa.

Looking back at the term paper I wrote at that time, I condemned the rest of the world for leaving them alone. I had absorbed and synthesised the lessons of the course, and I was parroting the conventional wisdom. To me it seemed that the rich, imperialist nations were just plundering the resources of the poor 3rd world countries, and all the financial risk fell entirely upon the poor countries: changes in commodity price could adversely affect their economies and produce reccessions many times worse than what you saw in the richer countries.

I thought they were evil, but later on I took the more nuanced view that the world does not give a shit about you. Being evil and not giving a shit are different things, and the conclusion is of different degrees of culpability. I forgot to blame the Rwandans themselves for not being able to form a strong government.

A lot of the horrors unleashed by the end of the Cold War were motivations for "armed intervention". There definitely was a sense that the US could have "done something".

The other angle I missed out upon is the sheer logistics and legality involved in staging an armed intervention. I completely underestimated how difficult it was to commit US troops to a dangerous mission that did not have much to do with US interests (even as it could save many Rwandan lives). I forgot to ask how complicated the political and legal issues are for a Team America to dash in to save the day.

The Iraq War took place after I was out of uni. I saw some of the implications of armed intervention that I didn't forsee. I still think it's a great plus that Saddam Hussein was removed, that Iraq was no longer a pariah state. But I also saw whatever was still functional about Saddam Husseins government fall apart. I saw how the US invasion was partially motivated on good intentions, but I also saw a lot of corrupt intentions.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about the Iraq war. For Rwanda, I came across a book which updates the story of Rwanda - and it is one of the most remarkable stories I've heard. Not long after the genocide, a military movement, the Rwandan People's Front, led by a skinny general called Paul Kagame won a series of military victories that enabled it to take provisional control of much of Rwanda. From there, it fought a lot of civil wars on the soil of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and defeated a lot of its militia enemies. In some ways, the RPF adversely contributed to the 2nd Congo War, which was one of the bloodiest wars in history. Inevitably there were some atrocities commited. But they managed to vanquish their enemies and then carry on with their nation building.

So it was quite shocking to know that as of now, Rwanda has a reputation of being one of Africa's best governed states. Paul Kagame has so far been the sort of benevolent dictator in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew and - great as Lee Kuan Yew's achievements have been, he didn't have to fight any major wars. Like Lee Kuan Yew, he's blessed with driven and hardworking people.

What happened with Rwanda challenged a lot of lessons I thought I had learnt in university. Perhaps the US was not that important to Rwanda anymore. Kagame wants nothing to do with the US or the UN. Understandably - because they seriously let down Rwanda in the past, but also for some other reason that I can't recall at this moment. Instead, they are co-operating with many NGOs to build development projects. Because of the international exposure that Rwanda had from the genocide, it attracts a lot of help from corporations who want to improve their image (looking at you, Starbucks). But a lot of the help comes in the form of co-operative projects and transfer of technology, rather than just monetary aid. An important lesson for the rest of Africa.

I suppose a lot of this is not in my area of expertise, even though it was a minor for me in college. I must admit that I will always be a bit of a dilettante when talking about politics. I can understand underlying principles and posit some theories but will never master the massive amounts of information that comes with being a domain expert.

As a sidenote, this has probably come as a surprise to some of you but I have banned myself from going to the library. I think I'll blog about this later.

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