Book Review: The Graves Are Not Yet Full
Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2004
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The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa By Bill Berkeley
This is a crucial book for understanding the dynamics of white behavior in Africa and its horrific results. The modern story of Zaire/Congo is a dramatic example of the author's thesis that 'ethnic cleansing' and 'tribal conflict' have their roots in European imperialism and their fruits in the killing fields of Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Angola, Rwanda…and Congo.
"A common illusion of the post-Cold War era is that the superpower rivalry suppressed traditional ethnic rivalries that have since resurfaced with a vengeance. In fact, all too often the opposite has been the case. The superpowers did precious little to suppress ethnic conflicts and much to spawn them-by elevating, financing, and arming tyrants who would one day exploit ethnicity as a means of clinging to power. Buffeted by history's changing winds, bereft of their superpower backing, one by one the embattled creatures of the old world order have struggled to survive in the new by playing the ethnic card." (17)
The 'tribalism' that Western analysts bemoan as the underlying problem in Africa is a direct product of the worst slaving years of the 18th century, when disrupted societies retreated to family and kinship ties for self-defense. The word 'tribe' itself came into use in the colonial era, and as a racist smear pointing to the hopeless inferiority of Africans. As in so many cases during this period, the Europeans perceived the 'brutality' and 'barbarity' of Africans and did not realize that they were looking in the mirror.
The story of Mobutu is a story that stands for many others across the globe, where 'American interests' took precedence over basic morality, with results so terrible it is hard to take them in.
"It was the Kennedy administration that helped to elevate Mobutu Sese Seko to power in what became Zaire…Republicans, for their part, would toss the more memorable rhetorical bouquets at Africa's most notorious despot. In 1976, Henry Kissinger, during a stop in Kinshasa, cooed about the 'respect and affection that lie at the heart of the relationship between' the United States and Zaire; he assured Mobutu that 'the United States will stand by its friends.' It was President Reagan, in a felicitous phrase undoubtedly screened if not crafted by his assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, who called Mobutu 'a voice of good sense and good will.' President Bush called Mobutu 'one of our most valued friends [on] the entire continent of Africa.' By then the United States has ponied up $1 billion for Mobutu's predatory regime." (81)
The CIA recruited and groomed Mobutu in Belgium, where he was exiled as a member of the opposition to Belgian rule. Eisenhower ordered the murder of Lumumba, first prime minister of newly independent Congo, fearful of another Cuba. CIA operative Larry Devlin brought Mobutu back to Congo to lead the coup. Lumumba was murdered. Mobutu was supported by every president from Kennedy to Clinton.
Here are the fruits of Mobutu:
. Per capita income in 1980 1/10 of what it was at independence in 1960
. In the 1990's poverty 'dropped below measureable levels'
. One paved road in ten that existed at independence made it to the 1990's
. The only reliable surface transport was the Congo River, but there were no boats to travel it
. Half the country's children die by the age of five
. 6,000% inflation in 1992 (24 million Zaires to the dollar). When Mobutu ran short of funds for his various pleasure palaces and escapades, he simply minted more.
. 80% unemployment
. in 1986 schools received $8 million of the $73 million budgeted for them, health programs $8 million of $24 million
. Zaire received 1 $billion in US aid during the Reagan years
. Mobutu's personal wealth was estimated at over $5 billion, roughly equivalent to the national debt. He opened his own Swiss bank.
. All of this rampant gangsterism was of course accompanied by brutal repression of all opposition.
Mobutu's Mafia-style 'kleptocracy' began sagging under the weight of the monstrous corruption, and so he pulled the 'ethnic card,' just as Charles Taylor did in Liberia. The IMF and World Bank pulled their support from Mobutu. As in so many other places in Africa, the end of the Cold War meant that the US and Europeans suddenly dropped their pet dictators like hot potatoes, having no use for them anymore. It is at this point that the desperate despots resorted to fanning the flames of ethnic conflict.
Like the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Kasaians in Zaire were enlisted as favored groups by the whites and used as 'proxy agents of domination.' They had been cultivated by the Belgians, and Mobutu used the long-standing resentment of them as a tool of his tyranny, fomenting mass slaughter, promoting the ensuing chaos to his own advantage by using hostility against the Kasai to deflect it away from himself.
The armed rebellion by Laurent Kabila in 1997 finally toppled Mobutu after 37 years, but the chaos and ruin Mobutu left behind have ensured 7 years of civil war and foreign incursions with horrific suffering for the Congolese people.
In the summer of 2000, the UN reported that 1.7 million Congolese had died in two years of civil war. The war continues with staggering death tolls to this day.
"[Rep. Howard] Wolpe had been a scholar of African affairs before he went to Washington. He clashed repeatedly with [Chester] Crocker for eight years as Africa subcommittee chairman. When I asked Wolpe about Crocker's argument to me about the legitimacy of protecting American interests in the Cold War, Wolpe replied, 'I have no quarrel with that. But every time America stood up for dictators, we actually did very little to advance American interests. We stood up for regimes that were inherently unstable. We were complicit in their crimes. We fed instability on the entire continent….This engagement or walk away analysis-it's a false dichotomy. We ended up creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Mobutu especially. We were always told that there was no alternative to Mobutu. In the end we ensured there was nothing left behind." (78)
It is important to remember Congo today. As Americans try to take in the Abu Ghraib revelations, they should understand that it is all of piece with American conduct throughout the world for the past 50 years at least. It IS us, of that there is no doubt, and if we don't like it we should do something about it.
This is from Berkeley's chapter on South Africa:
"In my own interviews with apartheid's securocrats, they never failed to remind me of what they took pains to describe as their close relationship with 'you guys,' as one put it. 'It's a brotherhood,' General Joe Buchner, the notorious covert operative and torturer who was at the heart of the 'black-on-black' violence in South Africa, told me wistfully: 'We in the police of the various offices overseas-everybody knew you. Our training came mostly from you guys-and the Brits.'"
I fail to see the distinction between training torturers, financing and sanctioning torturers, and doing the dirty work ourselves.
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