A Wish List for Central Africa

With few models, the approach must be creative, culturally sensitive, and committed to the long haul

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 gnocidaires - 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. He has appointed a talented and honest governor to run Kivu; the schools are scheduled to reopen; and people are generally responding favorably to the change of regime. Asked to comment on the difference between Mr. Kabila and Zaire's President Mobutu, a peasant exclaimed, "Now I can go to market with money in my hand, and no one bothers me!" Caution is still advisable; any enthusiasm for Kabila must be tempered by unconfirmed reports of summary executions of Hutu leaders.

The larger problem is that there is little government of any kind elsewhere in Zaire. Members of the political class in Kinshasa - including those in nominal opposition to Mobutu - are viewed by most ordinary Zaireans as hopelessly corrupt, more interested in their positions than in doing good for the country.

The international community, however, is proceeding with plans to hold elections in Zaire in the summer, as though Kabila's invasion were simply a minor obstacle on the path to the promised land. In fact, the attitude of more and more people is that elections would simply provide international legitimization to the class responsible for ruining the country in the first place.

A constructive role for Kabila

Kabila has indicated that, once installed in Kinshasa, he wants to head a democratic regime. But he has to know how hard it will be for him to complete his invasion, and a stalemate - with the country effectively partitioned - is likely. Rethinking and broadening the electoral process to include Kabila may not only bring about an end to the civil war but give ordinary Zaireans a viable, attractive alternative to the status quo.

Burundi remains the most intractable of the Great Lakes countries. For much of the last two years, the conventional question was what the international community would do if Burundi erupted the way Rwanda had. But by now, with nearly 200,000 deaths in the last 18 months, it should be obvious that Burundi has erupted; the lava is simply flowing a bit more slowly. It is time to recognize that the patient, diplomatic negotiations that the US, Tanzania, and other countries have undertaken there may no longer offer much hope. Killing in Burundi has become a vicious cycle; internal mechanisms are insufficient to stop it. Only outsiders can do so, and thereby create the conditions for peace to take root.

The US, with the help of newly elected United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, should revive its proposal for an all-Africa peacekeeping force with a mandate to intervene in Burundi on its own terms. We should not delude ourselves: If we wait to send in troops on terms acceptable to the current batch of leaders, they will arrive in essence as note-takers, and will soon be given a lot to take notes about. Intervention would not be easy. There would be no immediate exit strategy. The possibility of African troops taking casualties is real. But we don't have an exit strategy in Bosnia either; NATO troops are successful there because local bullies know our soldiers mean business.

None of these options come cheap, and perhaps only the spirit of the season makes them seem politically viable. Yet, if we can bring a sense of urgency and purpose to the region now, we may just be able to perform a miracle.

David Aronson, an editor in the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, has conducted research in Zaire.

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