A Wish List for Central Africa with Few Models, the Approach Must Be Creative, Culturally Sensitive, and Committed to the Long Haul

Article excerpt

In the absence of a televised humanitarian catastrophe, the world may forfeit a historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for long-term peace and stability in Central Africa. Few areas in the world have experienced such frightful misery as the Great Lakes region. In the last three years alone, its inhabitants have endured civil war, hunger, rape, pillage, epidemics, genocide, anarchy, and bouts of bloodletting, while the international community has vacillated and meddled from afar, wringing its hands or washing them. With the return of the vast majority of Rwandan refugees, now is a propitious time to address the region's underlying problems. Yet the world seems poised to let it slip from its priorities.

In Rwanda a steady and reliable government has so far demonstrated exemplary efficiency and self-restraint. After vanquishing the genocidal Hutu regime in July 1994, Paul Kagame's guerrilla army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), confronted conditions to test the wisest and hardiest of governments: a national treasury that had been vacuumed by the fleeing enemy; a ransacked civil service; and a population still convulsed by war and genocide. Large-scale reprisals were expected. Instead, in the 2-1/2 years since taking power, the RPF has made extraordinary progress both in learning how to govern and in "normalizing" social and political institutions.

Yet the international community failed to meet pledges of economic assistance to the new regime, while holding it accountable for debts of the old. It spent immense resources on Zairean refugee camps housing Hutu genocidaires - thus setting the stage for the current crisis. And it squandered much of its goodwill and legitimacy by focusing on minor violations of human rights in Rwanda without taking into account the implications of the genocide. Why jails are crowded The 90,000 or so prisoners who crowd Rwanda's jails no doubt live in squalid conditions, but the solicitude of the international community has been disproportionate. The vast majority actively participated in the genocide; to let them out pending judicial review would inflame passions and probably provoke a violent response. The return of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Zaire, and now Tanzania, ought to refocus international attention on the root causes of the Rwandan conflict: the state of Hutu-Tutsi relations and competition over resources, particularly land. Long-term development in the region depends on creating neighborhood and village-level reintegration programs that allow victims and victimizers to confront and resolve their differences without resorting to violence. With few models, work in this area must be creative, culturally sensitive, and committed to the long haul. At the same time, something truly dramatic needs to be done about land scarcity. The population faces the basic Malthusian survival problem of increasing faster than the food supply, and agricultural schemes that teach farmers how to grow a few more beans per acre won't be enough. Viewers of the film "Gorillas in the Mist" may remember the elderly American woman whose yard sprouted a profusion of tropical flowers; high-value crops such as flowers may be part of the way to create sustainable development. People will and do get on with their lives, as the coexistence of victim and victimizer in Cambodia demonstrates, but only if they have lives to get on with. In Zaire a sea change of attitudes has taken place regarding Laurent Kabila's invasion. No longer considered a pawn of the Rwandan government, he has been hailed as a "son of the country" by Zairean business groups and nongovernmental organizations, which are urging the government to negotiate with him. …