Openly defying one of the founding principles of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Tutsis are making the first serious effort to redraw African national boundaries since the Berlin Conference of 1884 divided Africa. Although a minority in each of the five Central African countries in which they live, ethnic Tutsis currently find themselves in power in three of these countries (Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) and are expanding their power base, primarily at the expense of ethnic Hutus, their longtime rivals.
If successful, the Tutsis will alter the geopolitical dynamics of the entire continent. The precedent of ethnic self-determination could result in Africa violently fragmenting into hundreds of nations.
The three Tutsi-led governments all came to power through military coups and are now ambitiously expanding Tutsi influence. They are interlinked through personal ties at the highest levels.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is the ringleader of the Tutsis. The army that brought Mr. Museveni to power in 1986 was primarily Tutsi, though not primarily Ugandan. Museveni is a Hima (the umbrella term for the ethnic group to which Tutsis belong), and many of the Tutsis in his army were Rwandan by nationality, including Paul Kagame, Museveni's chief of military intelligence.
With Museveni's help, Mr. Kagame overthrew Rwanda's Hutu government in 1994 and is now Rwanda's vice president, defense minister, and commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Army. With support from Uganda and Rwanda, Maj. Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, overthrew Burundi's Hutu-led government last year and declared himself president.
The contiguous nations of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi have been coordinating responses to the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire. When Hutus tried to kick out Zairean Tutsis, all three countries secretly aided their Tutsi brethren. Units from their armies, in the guise of Zairean rebels, have joined Zaire's rebels who have grievances against Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko. Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi have helped create a civil war in mammoth Zaire, which is the western border for each.
The Tutsis provide training, supplies, and manpower to help Zairean rebels overthrow the current government. At the same time, they help create a Tutsi buffer zone in eastern Zaire, thus pushing the Hutus farther west. The alliance is a marriage of convenience for all parties to it. American foreign policy in Africa has often confused the interests of a regime in power and the interests of the nation. Typically, the United States has identified with a narrowly defined elite, as it did in South Africa for decades, and is currently doing in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Instead of drawing a line against the Tutsis' expansionism, the US has pursued an ill-advised policy of appeasement. The United States has given weapons to Uganda for the purpose of pushing back Islamic influence from its northern border with Sudan. Now we are turning a blind eye to the use of these weapons to destabilize the Great Lakes region in a Tutsi-led power play.
The Clinton administration has voiced its support for maintaining the current borders in Africa. The new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, has an opportunity to prove that the administration is not just giving lip service to this issue. Unless it does more than that, the administration will go down in history as the Neville Chamberlain of Africa.
* Mervyn M. Dymally, former representative (D) of California, was chairman of the subcommittee on Africa, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and of the Congressional Black Caucus.