Take Rwanda. If you politicised sometime after that massacre as I did, you would have come to the topic bewildered by a blizzard of ethnic designations - Hutus, Tutsis and Twa - as if that explained what happened. As if it was a mere recrudescence of some ancient caste hatred or, well, often nothing even as specific as that. I even heard it referred to as "black-on-black violence". Indeed, according to Mahmood Mamdani (in 'Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror') the use of that phrase goes back as far as the 1970s when it was used alongside "tribalism" to summarise the violence of the far right Renamo in Mozambique or the insurgency of the Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa. There were and are Hutus, Tutsis and Twa in both Rwanda and Burundi, with roughly 85% Hutus, 15% Tutsis and a very small minority of Twa. But how distinct the Hutus and Tutsis really are or were is a matter of considerable debate. For all the talk of physical differences that one has heard, the years of intermarriage between the groups would have effaced that - it is a telling point that no one was killed in that genocide because of their 'willowy' physique or height or nose length: rather the genocidaires relied on the possession of ID cards or on information supplied by others in any particular village. Some argue that the Tutsis were an extraneous group that moved into Rwanda several hundred years ago, while others think these are fairly recent developments. But of what significance are these distinctions at any rate? It was certainly true that one Tutsi clan appears to have attained hegemony within a semi-feudal state before the arrival of colonial powers. But there were poor Tutsis and Hutus were involved in the ruling elite: what is more, one could be born a Hutu and die a Tutsi. The anthropologist Richard Robbins in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism put it like this:
If we examine cases of purported ethnic conflict we generally find that it involve more than ancient hatred; even the ‘hatreds’ we find are relatively recent, and constructed by those ethnic entrepreneurs taking advantage of situations rooted deep in colonial domination and fed by neocolonial exploitation.
Obviously, there is a colonial history here, as Linda Melvern discusses in her book Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, and it is rooted in the Scramble for Africa and the Berlin Conference in 1884, in which Germany was awarded Rwanda and Burundi, which were fused under 'German East Africa'. Their rule was brief and made little impact on the society compared to the Belgian colonists who took over both Rwanda and Burundi after World War I under the rubric of "Wilsonian idealism" and a League of Nations mandate. The new rulers substantially disrupted the old system of governance, intensified exploitation and set up forced labour with institutionalised cruelty. They introduced the first identity cards in 1933, doling out the identifications of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa somewhat arbitrarily. Hutu were particularly disadvantaged and oppressed under Belgian rule. And it was the Hutu that were to begin an uprising against their subordination in 1957, when Kambanda was only two, believing that Tutsi supremacy was the problem. In ending Belgian colonialism, they did not intend to allow the restoration of dynastic Tutsi rule. And there were Tutsi supremacists who felt that Hutus were naturally subservient, a belief undoubtedly encouraged over decades by colonial travellers and observers like John Hanning Speke who thought that they were a superior race with intelligence "rare among primitive people" or the Belgian administrator Count Renaud de Briey, who casually ruminated that the Tutsi could very well be the last survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis. The UN, in response to the Hutu uprising, called on the colonists to be nice to the Hutu and try to keep the fighting "races" apart. The Belgians seem to have decided to accomodate this into a strategy of dividing and ruling, and began to oust Tutsi from leading positions and systematic violence was initiated against Tutsi families. The UN concluded that it was "Nazism" against the Tutsi minority. It was a successful divide and rule policy. As Charlie Kimber shows in this article, beyond the minority of Tutsi who were part of the state system under colonialism, there was hardly a difference in class status between the two groups:
And yet: "The racialisation of consciousness affected everybody, and even the `small Tutsi', who did not benefit from the system in any way, started to believe they were indeed a superior race and that under the same rags as their Hutu neighbours wore, a finer heart was beating. The Hutu, deprived of all political power and exploited by both the whites and the Tutsi, began to hate all Tutsi, even those who were just as poor as they." There had been no trace of this in precolonial Rwanda and Burundi. But when Rwandan independence was declared in 1962, it wasn't because of a nationalist revolt inspired by socialism. It was probably the most conservative state in Africa. Postcolonial elites in both Burundi and Rwanda embraced 'ethnic' politics, and it became a means of governments retaining control over the populace, especially when fluctuations in the prices of key exports led very directly to instability for the government in question. We can go back to that in a minute.
If you take a look at Sudan, you see a similar picture emerge, albeit with different dimensions. The standard narrative, even shared by some leftist critics of Bush, is that 'Arabs' are doing terrible things to 'black Africans' because of 'Islamism' or expansionism or something of that kind. But again, these distinctions have no corresponding social, biological or lineal reality: they are ideological artefices, remainders from the colonial era that have been utilised by successive governments in different ways to legitimise exploitation. It is true that the Arab invasion of the Sudan in the Middle Ages was accompanied by centuries of slave-trading of 'blacks', although the successive centuries of intermarriage meant that what are now taken as ethnic designations would have been meaningless - terms like 'Nuba' and 'Arab' were used by different groups to indicate status not lineage or what we now term ethnicity. People from Dongola, for instance, used 'Arab' to refer (often disparagingly) to nomadic grazers, while 'Nuba' or even 'Sudani' was often a derogatory term used by northern elites for slaves. It is true that under the Turkiyya (Turco-Egyptian rule from 1820), these tendencies remained and were intensified - although it was only the later 19th Century that the south of Sudan was really opened up to exploitation by the northern elites. It is also the case that the Mahdiyya (the state formed by the overthrow of the Egyptian rulers between 1883 and 1898) based its power largely on slave riflemen from the south, and persisted in the same 'racial' attitudes toward southerners that had been the case under the Egyptians.
It was following the Anglo-Egyptian conquest in 1898 that ethnic designations were formalised, however, and usually as an incidental byproduct of the exigencies of British overrule combined with the racist purview of the colonial authorities. The British were able to 'pacify' and integrate the north of Sudan rather quickly because the northern merchants and tribal notables had done rather well out of the Turkiyya and many were resentful of the Mahdiyya's mode of rule. But neither the Mahdi nor the Egyptians had ever really controlled the south of the country, and it was therefore open to competition between the Belgians, the British and the French, which meant that the British had to establish a loose occupation at strategic points along the periphery before settling the borders internationally in 1903. For the south, the Mahdiyya had not been all that different from the Egyptian occupation beforehand, and indeed there was a continuity in personnel and practise. But this presented the British with a paradox: their claim to authority in Sudan was based on Egypt's continued claim to the territories – but while the south had never integrated with the Mahdiyya, they had never accepted the Turkiyya either. And since the Mahdist rebellion was in part motivated by Egyptian misgovernment, the British had to distance themselves from the government they were reasserting.
However, as before, the new government responded to defiance or even indifference by burning villages, seizing cattle and spiriting away war captives as slaves. The period of ‘pacification’ in the south thus lasted into the 1920s. Since the borders had been settled, the new authorities saw no reason to temper their rule or compromise with powerful local leaders. The Governor-Generalate based in Khartoum was supposed to govern for the whole of Sudan, but was remote from the south both physically and in its abiding preoccupations. The south was mainly seen as a reservoir of conscripts for the ‘Sudanese’ battalions of the Egyptian army – replenishment of which took place in catchment areas that coincided with the old slave-raiding zones. The Civil Secretary declared ‘Southern Policy’ in the 1930s, formalising the different patterns of governance in the north and south by saying that the south was to be developed along ‘African’ rather than ‘Arab’ lines – ‘devolution’. The Closed District Ordinance restricted the movement of non-native persons into the south, while overlapping networks of indigenous customs and laws were to be enforced. The ‘Native Administration’ involved support for local chiefs – but local executive hierarchies were not immediately ready to hand in much of the south. The ‘chiefs court’ which emerged was a colonial innovation. In the north, the British enforced and defined religious 'orthodoxy', modelling the Criminal and Penal Codes on India and enforcing shari'a in personal status law. In the south, there were no religious orthodoxies and so orthodoxies were defined and the movement of practitioners of various rites among one another was restricted.
Christian missionaries were allowed to set up schools in southern districts within some constraints, and conversions were rare – but through their education, converts were able to achieve strategic influence and an elevated role in late Condominium, early Independence periods. The British were averse to creating a class of educated indigenous civil servants - education was to be reserved to the ‘better class of native’. And at any rate, education was much less of a priority in the south than in the north, since Khartoum decided that it needed only “a few educated blacks” to administrate there. The first of these came from sons of soldiers. Education was largely left in the hands of khalwas servicing local Muslim communities and Christian missionaries. As late as the 1940s, there was little attempt to educate even the sons of pastoralist chiefs in these areas. This changed only in 1946 when London, preempting Egyptian claims to sovereignty, agreed to give independence to Sudan as a whole – then southern chiefs had to provide a quota of boys for education and government schools were established so that religions no longer monopolised local education. But decades of neglect meant that there were few southerners experienced in modern forms of administration and commerce when independence came in 1956.
These 'ethnic' distinctions had underwritten a policy of economic exploitation. While an Anglo-Egyptian blockade had effectively prevented the Mahdiyya from trading with the outside world, the renewed trade under the Condominium benefited the central administration. Ten percent of external trade was in ivory, but the royalties collected on its export went to central rather than to regional administrations. In the north, religious leaders and tribal notables were able to accumulate rights to labour and land and therefore a stake in the new political economy of Sudan. In the south, by contrast, commerce was largely in the hands of Greek, Syrian, Armenian and northern merchants. as Douglas H Johnson explains in The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars (2003):
The unequal distribution of educational facilities throughout the South and the uneven incorporation of educated persons within the structures of Native Administration were largely the results of administrative decisions taken by British officials either in Khartoum or in the provinces. Yet the disparities which were the results of these decisions were explained in terms of cultural differences or differences in ‘mentality’ among Southern peoples. The British in the 1940s commonly characterised the Nilotic Dinka as conservative and backward, and the peoples of western Equatoria … as progressive and advanced. These stereotypes linger today and have resurfaced as part of an Equatorian grievance at the loss of political dominance in southern Sudanese politics.
So it was that Sudanese nationalism was later to take the form of what southern Sudanese regarded as colonisation by the north - the direct transfer, in fact, of colonial authority from the British to the northern ruling class that they had cultivated and moulded. Being a minority, the nationalists were only able to mobilise substantial electoral constituencies by allying themselves with religious leaders and strong external powers, thus initiating a pattern that has been maintained to this day. But they were organised, through the Graduates' Congress, and had a degree of ideological and social cohesion that was not present in the south. Ismail al-Azhari, a strong advocate of union with Egypt (which is what Nasser proposed, having relinquished the deposed monarch's claim to sovereignty in Sudan), was the leading nationalist figure, and openly argued against federalism (then favoured by southern leaders) on the grounds that it was vital to the economic prosperity of the north.
In both Sudan and Rwanda, you have recently seen massacres perpetrated along the lines of, and with the use of ethnic distinctions - and although the racism is real, the cynical utilisation of such racism by those governments for other, extraneous ends is also real. Take the so-called Janjawid militias. The use of the ‘Arab’ militias was an incidental byproduct of the fact that the army was populated largely by southerners and Darfurians, and couldn’t be relied on to discipline the rebels. Famines had been increasingly common across sub-Saharan Africa throughout the 1980s, in large measure due to IMF-enforced price liberalisation for agricultural commodities. In Sudan, repeated crop failures aggravated tensions between farmers and nomadic animal grazers, especially during the 1984-5 famine, and the rise of a small ‘Arab’ supremacist movement amongst the nomads caught the attention of the Khartoum regime. It was perceived that they could provide an alternative army, and so they have through repeated rebellions. Now, what's interesting today is that having made a deal with the SPLA rebels, they are using them to suppress the remaining Darfurian rebels - because it's about wealth and privilege not tribal this and Islam that and ethnocentric the other.
In Rwanda, the genocide was an extension of the logic of civil war created by the destabilisation of a Hutu nationalist government under President Habyarimana that was entirely at the mercy of international commodity prices (particularly of coffee and tin). The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), a group of largely Tutsi exiles who had been driven out of the country during massacres in the early days of independence and during Habyarimana's ascent to power in 1973, and had fought with Yoweri Moseveni's insurgency in Uganda to depose Milton Obote, noticed an opportunity following the global collapse in coffee prices in 1989 that resulted in a famine among small farmers in Rwanda as well as provoking a crisis in elite rule that had been highly dependent on the income from such commodities. Relying on foreign aid, it had to shore up its position internally. Aside from that, it had to cut deals with the IMF in 1990 and 1992 which predictably involved austerity programmes and devaluation of the currency - the latter can be good if you're an export-led economy, but not if the price of your exports has already collapsed and the effect is to drive up the prices of imported goods like basic foodstuffs. The starving farmers had to simply uproot coffee trees and try to plant food crops and sell those instead - but cheap imports of food undercut them.
So, in 1990, the RPF launched its insurgency. The French armed the government and put one of their officers in charge of the counterinsurgency operation. The escalation in oppression led to a rising tide of protest which the government dealt with in two ways: 1) introduce some modest democratic reforms; 2) build up death squads in the army (particularly the Interahamwe, who would go on to be central in the genocidal campaign), indoctrinated with anti-Tutsi racism. The government also used radio broadcasts to propagate fairly direct and unsophisticated messages denouncing attempts at making peace with the Tutsi. Yet by 1993, the RPF were marching on Kigali, and only French troops prevented them from reaching the city. Negotiations ensued, and the Arusha Accords were signed under the auspices of the OAU - but since Habyarimana would have substantial power stripped from him under the accords, he frustrated their implementation. In retrospect, it is hard to see how the accords were signed since it called for the Hutu nationalist regime to lose substantial control over the most important levers of state power, especially the army. At any rate, once Habyarimana was assassinated, presumably by individuals from within his own regime who feared that he would slowly acquiesce in a peaceful resolution, the genocide began.
During the genocide, as Linda Melvern has shown (especially in A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide, 2000), the West intervened constantly. The French surreptitiously backed the extremists carrying out the genocide through its Operation Turquoise, while the US and UK acted to suppress attempts by some in the UN to increase the presence and mandate there, despite full knowledge of what was afoot. In fact, they deliberately acted to withdraw the UNAMIR presence. I have no illusions about the UN, but these actions would at least suggest that we're beyond the myth of petrified negligence or even indifference - we're talking about an active attempt to facilitate the genocide by removing an obstacle to it. They couldn't even bring themselves to "jam" the radio broadcasts, essential to the conduct and expansion of the genocide. Don't make the mistake of thinking the US was indifferent, however: it supported the RPF's military battle, and had trained Paul Kagame, the RPF's leader, at Fort Leavenworth. But the genocide was directed at civilians, not at the RPF who could defend themselves.
I've said that the murder has not yet ceased, and this is so as long as you see that this particular plot was embedded in a deeper and wider war, related to the decline in state hegemony brought about by politically imposed economic catastrophe, in which millions already die without having to see a gun or a machete. For, where did the war move next? The RPF did shortly win its war and deposed the regime, sending about a million Hutus (some of them guilty men) fleeing into neighbouring countries, mostly to what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was still ruled then by the CIA's local kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, and he found the regrouped Interahamwe (formed from among the refugees from the RPF advance) useful in terrorising opponents of his crumbling rule. The RPF government, for its part, backed Laurent Kabila's opposition movement.
Mobutu had, since helping the Belgians and US break the Lumumba government, turned the whole of the Congo into the private possession of himself, his family, his cronies and ultimately his paymasters, even going so far as to think up a new name for the country to reflect this fact in 1971. His initial nationalisations, promulgated under the Bakajika law in 1966, broke the Belgian colonial monopoly, but opened up the economy to the US, Mobutu's sponsor. At any rate, his state did not manage the nationalised industries effectively, and was not even particularly interested in the usual habits of adequate state formation - such as gathering reliable demographic statistical data. What it did do effectively was open up the Congo's precious mineral riches to multinational capital. By the end of his reign, Mobutu had sold off public assets, depriving the economy of potentially productive investment by converting it into profits for his associates, colluded in IMF austerity programmes that led to widespread malnutrition and poverty, and imbricated himself in those remarkable networks of international lending in which governments are encouraged to undertake vast, expensive and often unnecessary building works because the investors have promised the government in question massive pay-offs. It is the working class and poor which pay the interest on these loans, not the thieving governments. Mobutu got pretty rich as a servant of international capital, and he happily sent anyone who resisted off to outlying penal colonies. The wealth he accrued gave him a power of patronage that enabled him to keep wavering officials in check. He also made the mistake many personalised dictatorships have made, of purging the military of experienced leadership and imposing civilian leadership with personal ties to the despot. These purges, prompted by an alleged coup attempt in 1975, were partially responsible for the later decay in the state's ability to rule.
During the 1980s, civil society groups had emerged to try to challenge the worst excesses of Mobutu's rule, especially the growing use of paramilitaries. There were groups based outside of the country whose aim was to overthrow the regime, but it was the internally banned party, the UDPS, that was to mark the beginning of the end for Mobutu. Founded in 1982, it launched massive pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, on the anniversary of Patrice Lumumba's assassination. By early 1990, the internal pressure was drawing external criticism - he was advised to move to multiparty democracy or risk losing the whole country. He listened, and on 24th April 1990, he announced a shift to multiparty elections. Former dignitaries of Mobutu rushed away from him to form new parties, usually espousing technocratic neoliberal ideology, but they hoped distant enough from the old regime to avoid prosecution should Mobutu fall as they all expected him to. He hung on for seven more years, outmanouevring the main popular opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, who had been elected Prime Minister in 1992, and was restored in 1994 with the assistance of a hardcore of the military elite. Tshisekedi had acted as a caretaker Prime Minister, undertaking not even the most cautious moves toward reform, and leaving serious criminals in the state unpunished. The transitional framework set up in the early 1990s had proven incapable of delivering real change, and it fell to the forces of Laurent Kabila's AFDL to depose Mobutu. On 16th May 1997, Mobutu was told by his military leaders that they could no longer guarantee his own country, and he fled in a state airplane.
Had the Congo not been governed by a mafia-style crime family and surrogate for international capital, it may well have prevented the Rwandan genocide from occurring, and it would have been unthinkable that its fate would have been so determined by a tiny neighbouring state. The conflict of the Great Lakes region straddling the Congo's eastern border has involved Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, as well as various imperialist powers. Rwanda's involvement, as I have indicated, lies in the RPF government's support for Kabila as a move against the Hutu extremists based in the Congo. Kabila was not himself a powerful figure at all - a gold and ivory trader, and a former military go-between for Mobutu and Garang (the late SPLA leader), he had no significant popular base, and his position relied chiefly on the support of Museveni in Uganda, Kagame in Rwanda and a loose alliance of four guerilla groups. They relied on child soldiers to intimidate civilians, and would not have got far had it not been for the Rwandan soldiers who committed acts of genocide against Hutu refugees in the Congo. However, having put Kabila in power, Rwanda, Uganda and later Burundi swiftly took advantage of the disintegration of the Congolese state and tried to undermine Kabila, who showed alarming signs of wanting to govern on his own. That this aggression is frequently depicted as a civil war is in large part a result of the role that western companies and banks have had in the ensuing conflict.
Utilising a coalition of rebel groups with nothing in common other than hostility to Kabila, accepting massive arms shipments from the US and Britain, accepting military training from the US, the Rwandan government siezed control of the diamond mines and other mineral sources. A peace agreement between the government and the rebels at Lusaka in 1999 was short-lived and Kabila himself was assassinated in 2001, to be replaced by his son, Joseph. Both the Ugandan and Rwandan governments have received ample aid from the IMF and World Bank, while Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Rwanda and Uganda - all parties to the conflict. In fact, the great thing about this support was that Britain was arming all sides to retain influence with everyone, the former three countries taking the DRC government's side, with Rwanda and Uganda sponsoring the rebels. Up to four million people have died in this war, and a large amount of that blood is on British hands. The International Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria thanked the British government for "inflaming the situation by arming both sides", while the Foreign Affairs committee noted that British hawks were being used "in the intervention in the DRC". Ironically, Zimbabwe was the recipient of some of the nicer toys, including hawk military aircrafts which were certainly used to bomb the DRC. (Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, 2003, pp 190-1). The US also spread the arms and training about among different combatants, but particularly supported its local allies, Rwanda and Uganda, in 1998 sending a military and diplomatic team to Kigali under the cover of helping Rwanda prevent another genocide, in reality assisting in a plunder they hoped to benefit from.
One of the biggest contributors to the war was the sudden rush for coltan, an ore used to create an extremely heat-resistant metal powder called tantalum. Nokia and Sony love the stuff, because it is a key component in their products. When a UN report tried to draw attention to the countries and companies profiting from this exploitative and deathly trade, powerful member states got the findings removed from the report. If you set aside the small matter of genocide for a second, you can't blame them - there is a fortune to be had there. One area of Katanga alone is said to be worth $100 billion at current market prices.
In 2003, the war officially came to an end, although fighting has in fact continued and 'flared up' (to use a nauseating expression from the media), and the diamond, coltan, gold, copper and cobalt mines remained open to the use of slave labour, with children often being the slaves. A UN 'peacekeeping' force was sent in - as in Kosovo and elsewhere, its forces were found to have engaged in sexual exploitation, often of girls who had already suffered rape at the hands of the plundering 'rebels'. The UN has meanwhile requested a measly $668 million from the governments currently benefiting from the carnage - and have received less than half of that. That miserly sum is a guilt tax, something provided to make the plunder look slightly less indecent than it is. Earlier this year, the Congo was provided with what were referred to as 'elections'. Congolese refugee Innocent Nkung wrote that: "As long as the war in the Congo and the plundering of its natural resourses continue, we cannot talk of democratic elections" since in an ongoing war "based on Western interests", the "five candidates for the election are all bloodthirsty rebels". He added: "Several European armies will supervise the elections. It is inappropriate that they should intervene in the Congo. It is time for the Congolese people to determine their own destiny."
That would be an idea, and not only in the Congo. The demand for self-determination is a demand for socialism, since a population governed by a ruling class in alliance with imperialist states and multinational capital can't be said to be self-determining whether or not there are foreign troops present. To achieve self-determination would be to do away with the dense, hierarchical structure of exploitation and repression, and it would also be to combat and do away with those overblown 'ethnic' distinctions, a legacy of colonialism that is still a cover for killers today.