There has been a lot of teeth gnashing in the “humanitarian community” about the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially how humanitarian operations got mixed up in military action. They made it appear as if this was a new phenomenon. It is not. Not al all, in fact. This was done extensively in Biafra.
That French Red Cross operation of which Kouchner was a part, was headed by a French colonel, Merle. And it was a well-known fact that humanitarian flights acted as a cover for the delivery of huge quantities of arms. Indeed: guns and ammo were flown into Uli in crates that ostensibly contained Red Cross babyfood and concentrated milk. Now: who knew what when? Did any of the Red Cross people know this and if so, why did no-one raise the alarm about these acts of blatant piracy?
For the public at large, the Markpress campaign about Biafra served to obfuscate this illegal and criminal involvement of France, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal and Spain in their deadly enterprise. Most of the people directly involved are gone and will never have their day in court, where they should have accounted for their part in this monstrosity.
But the real cynicism is this: you can get public opinion on your side by using faraway human suffering for your own objectives, whatever they are. Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy and others have proved to be masters of this self-serving manipulation in the name of human tenderness. As was the case with Biafra, pretty much all of these open or hidden interventions (Sudan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Libya in 2011) were carried out in order to reduce human suffering. In point of fact, these self-proclaimed humanitarians have prolonged wars (or in the case of Libya exported chaos all the way to Mali), turned emergency aid into a commodity and have failed to contain violence and instead increased human suffering. ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,’ Napoleon is rumoured to have remarked. But at times, one wonders…
Biafra marked Bernard Kouchner’s career in three ways. First, it impressed upon him the need to get the media involved. ‘You have to make noise,’ he would later say. During his careers in NGOs, politics and in government (he was a minister of Health and Humanitarian Action in 1992 and 1993 and of Foreign Affairs in 2007 to 2010), he would never go to an event that could not be sufficiently “mediatised”. The media have been crucial to the success of the organisation he co-founded after the Biafra war: Médicins sans frontières.
Second, it impressed upon him the need to make the story simple: good guys against bad guys. Anything else and you would not be able to mobilise the support of the public – and its money. The Biafra story became the bad Nigerians bombing and starving good Biafran women and children to death. And three, it disabused him of the notion that there was anything wrong with conflating humanitarian and military missions, in fact: human suffering was the crowbar that he and others were to use to great effect to get the Americans, the French, the Dutch and a fistful of others to bomb the sh!t out of Serbia in 1999. Nobody cared. Serbs were bad people, the public had been told; they deserved to be bombed. And Mamadani wondered aloud and astonished: what did those Save Darfur activists clamour for? A military intervention!
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote an epic novel about Biafra, warned about what she termed ‘the single story’ in a TED talk she did in October 2009. It is deeply ironic that the man who has spent a good part of his life creating single stories about Darfur, about ex-Yugoslavia and about Rwanda, started his career in that same Biafra war. I am afraid that we will have to live with the odious legacy of this man and others like him for a long time. Consider this my attempt to remove from public discourse and policy making their kind of simplistic and dangerous thinking and their – at times – malicious intent and – far more frequently – unforgivable incompetence.