Americans, Belgians, Canadians, and their Colonial Desires and Diseased Eyes on the Rwandan Genocide: A Review of Robin Philpot’s Rwanda and the Scramble for Africa: From Tragedy to Useful Imperial Fiction
“Le génocide au Rwanda est à 100/00 la responsibilité américaine!”—Boutros Boutros Ghali—Robin Philpot, Ça ne s’est pas passé comme ça à Kigali
“The genocide in Rwanda was one hundred percent the responsibility of the Americans”—Boutros Boutros Ghali—Robin Philpot, Rwanda and the Scramble for Africa: From Tragedy to Useful Imperial Fiction
Robin Philpot’s new book Rwanda and the Scramble for Africa: From Tragedy to Useful Imperial Fiction (2013), an updated version of Ça ne s’est pas passé comme ça à Kigali (2003), is timely, appearing on the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide. Timely also because in an interview to Jeune Afrique Magazine (April 6-13, 2014), the Rwandan President Paul Kagame insists on accusing Belgium and France of participating in the genocide—“ le rôle direct de la Belgique et de la France dans la préparation politique du génocide et la participation de cette dernière à son exécution même [Belgium and France were directly involved in the political preparation of the genocide, and France participated in the execution of the genocide”—The comments prompted France to cancel its participation to the commemoration on April 7, 2014 in Kigali. Shouldn’t Uganda, Great Britain, and the United States of America be accused of the same crime? Philpot’s well-documented book suggests the world should hold the three countries responsible for the invasion of and the genocide in Rwanda.
In Rwanda and the Scramble for Africa, Philpot starts by unequivocally reminding us of the facts: Uganda actually attacked Rwanda via Rwandan exiles some of whom such as Paul Kagame were high officers in the Ugandan army. Not only was Paul Kagame training in the United States in 1990 as a Ugandan officer, but during the duration of the war and the genocide the Pentagon was in contact with the Rwandan Patriotic Front or was aware of what was going on the ground. Arguing that “the number of the dead in Rwanda was of little concern for the world’s only superpower,” Philpot cogently concludes that “Washington’s priority was to see its boys from the Rwandan Patriotic Front win the war decisively—it took much longer [and too many people died] than expected—and to bump France out of Africa.” Furthermore, Philpot shows how after the invasion of Rwanda by the Ugandan National Army in 1990, the world conspired to weaken the political leadership of Rwanda for the next three years,
While that army pursued the war against Rwanda foreign powers imposed a multiparty system that undermined the ability of the Rwandan Government and the country’s armed forces to fight off the invaders. The same foreign powers led by the United States and calling themselves the international community then imposed a so-called peace process that effectively transferred power to the invader. Non-governmental organizations began slandering Rwanda, its leadership, and its entire history. They became the cat’s-paw for the invading army and American and British interests in Central Africa (23).
Canadians have always been involved in Rwanda’s post-independence, pre-genocide, and post-genocide affairs. On the one hand, in 1963, Georges-Henri Lévesque, a Canadian Dominican priest and sociologist from Quebec, founded L’Université Nationale du Rwanda (National University of Rwanda), my alma mater, and served as its first president for eight years. Zealously attempting to dismantle all the pre-genocide institutions and to imbue Rwandans with amnesia, the Rwandan government has just renamed “Lévesque’s university” University of Rwanda. Ironically, the Rwandan president stole a “colonial” page from Lévesque by naming Dr. Mike O’Neal (former president of Oklahoma Christian University) as Chancellor of the University of Rwanda, and the Australian professor James McWha as the vice-chancellor. Clearly, the “new Rwanda” looks like the colonial Rwanda. Another “good” Canadian who is interested in Rwanda’s affairs is Robin Philpot.
On the other hand, there are General Roméo Dallaire, Carol Off, Louise Arbour, and Gil Courtemanche. Between 1993 and 1994, Canadian General Roméo Dallaire served as Force Commander of the UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) with the mandate to support the 1993 Arusha Peace Accord. It was also assumed that UNAMIR, if need be, would stand between the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Army and prevent either side from committing any atrocities. Philpot reveals that not only were Dallaire and UNAMIR forces close to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, but they were also in collusion with the latter. Philpot could have as well titled his book “Canadians and the Rwandan Genocide.” Indeed, Carol Off, a Canadian television and radio journalist from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, published The Lion, the Fox, and the eagle: A Story of Generals and Justice in Yugoslavia and Rwanda (2000). In this book, which Philpot cogently likens to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or at least its heir, Roméo Dallaire is the lion, Lewis MacKenzie the fox—he commanded the UN peacekeepers in Yugoslavia—while Louise Arbour is the eagle. Off lauds Arbour, former UN Human Rights Commissioner and former Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, for arguing that courts in Africa had to operate differently from European courts, particularly regarding the flexibility to hold suspects without due process.
In A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2003), previously published in French as Un dimanche à la piscine de Kigali (2000), Gil Courtemanche, a journalist-turned novelist from Quebec, paints a Rwanda that is bloodthirsty, warped into ignorance, marred by the hatred of the Tutsi, plagued by sexual obsession and obscenity, and whose AIDS-infested citizens prefer AIDS to genocide. Valcourt, the main character, is a middle-aged Canadian journalist who, weary of the world (he has experienced in Somalia), is sent to Rwanda to make a film on AIDS. When the project stalls, he gets frustrated and finds himself recording the bestial sexual obsessions of Rwandans, their ignorance about AIDS—AIDS becomes a reason for losing moral decency—and their lust for power that leads them to murder the Tutsi and rape Tutsi women like Gentille (though she is a Tutsi by accident). Ultimately, Courtemanche’s attempt to contribute to the ongoing debate on and construction of memory regarding the genocide in Rwanda is a colonial desire that imposes a sexualized discourse on the Rwandan genocide. Clearly, Courtemanche’s and Valcourt’s eyes are imperial eyes and their lenses are so diseased and so eroticized that they look at Rwandans through the lenses of colonial images culled from European-American imperialism and popular literature on Africa dating back from the 16th century. In fact, Courtemanche is the Joseph Conrad of Canada, just as Un dimanche a la piscine de Kigali is Courtemanche’s “Heart of Darkness.” Valcourt is to Canada what Marlow (searching for Kurtz in the “dark” Congo) is to England and Europe.
The picture would be incomplete without Belgium, one of Rwanda’s former colonizers, and the United States of America, the Super Power which, according to former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, is or should be held responsible for the genocide in Rwanda. From this perspective, Philpot analyzes Colette Braeckman’s Rwanda, Histoire d’un génocide (1994) and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998). Looking for “the last colonial avatar of pre-colonial Africa, of ‘savagery,” Braeckman glorifies Belgium and Belgian soldiers while presenting post-Belgian Rwanda as a country grounded in genocidal culture and ideology. Philpot is correct in stating that it “would be difficult to find a better ‘avatar of colonial Europe and its civilizing mission’ than Ms. Braeckman herself” (171). Similarly, it may be difficult to find a more appropriate twentieth-century heir to Joseph Conrad than Philip Gourevitch. In We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Gourevitch aligns himself with Joseph Conrad’s Marlow and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. While Gourevitch glorifies Paul Kagame, now president of Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president who oversaw the invasion of Rwanda in 1990, he exhibits utter contempt for the two assassinated Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. In this Conradian journey, Gourevitch has one colonialist formula: “The good-chief, bad-chief formula” that enables him “to put colonial and post-colonial Africa on an equal footing in terms of injustice and hardship foisted upon Africans” (143).
Philpot astute analysis demonstrates with clarity that Carol Off, Gil Courtemanche, Colette Braeckman, and Philip Gourevitch “helped draft the ‘right and proper tale,’ and all four are products—and perpetrators—of a colonial mentality that has unfortunately made a comeback” (25). Regarding the impact of Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families, I have argued in my article “Philip Gourevitch’s Platonic and Conradian Eyes on the Genocide in Rwanda” (Konch Magazine) that while resisting genocidal cultural logic, novels, biographies, poems, and films by American, European, and even African writers tend to read the West into the Rwandan Genocide. Be it noted that in these exploration-like reports on the Rwandan Genocide, the authors travel to Rwanda to discover themselves and restore their humanity lost through the genocide. Lacking profound knowledge of the history of Rwandan, books like Gourevitch’s tend to present simplified images of Rwanda and the genocide. Here, Philpot warns us about “the simplification of the tragedy to a tale of ‘horrible Hutu génocidaires’ massacring ‘innocent Tutsis’ aided by and abetted by France has hidden the causes and protected real criminals. Rwanda suffered a major human disaster. Like other such disasters, it has political causes. Any serious analysis will show unequivocally that that Manichean good guy-bad guy tale was developed by Western imagination for Western public opinion” (24).
Much has changed since this early reimagining of the Rwandan Genocide, and the facts have been changing, too. We now know with certainty that Paul Kagame ordered the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, which triggered the massacres. In Healing a Nation: A Testimony: Waging and Winning a Peaceful Revolution to United and Heal a Broken Rwanda (2013), Théogène Rudasingwa, a former chief of staff to the president of Rwanda, confirms what the world has always suspected: Paul Kagame ordered the shooting of the presidential jet on April 6, 1994. Philpot reminds us that instead of calling it a plane crash, we should call it a terrorist attack. Moreover, defense lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, convincingly argued that the Rwandan Genocide was not planned as initially thought. In his book The Accidental... Genocide (2013), Peter Erlinder documents how ICTR acquitted the ALL military and civilian leadership of having planned and conspired to commit genocide.
Not only does Philpot decry the fact that the Hutu have been demonized and pursued throughout the world while the real criminals are being protected, but he wonders why the world continues to “sit straight-faced as the Rwandan government and its supporters continue to justify their war on the Congo and the concomitant pillage by referring to the fleeing génocidaires” (233). As part of the title of Philpot’s book suggests, the answer lies in the “New Scramble for Africa,” with more Americans and less Belgians (and Germans). Watch out Africa!