Archive for April, 2014

A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part three and conclusion)

April 17, 2014

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…

cover Péan

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.

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A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part two)

April 16, 2014

Born to a doctor and a nurse, Bernard Kouchner went to the Lycée Turgot in Paris, where he befriended Alpha Condé, future president of Guinea. He studied medicine and specialised in gastroenterology at the Cochin hospital, also in Paris – in 1968. The hero was born that same year, when he was flown to Biafra, a first of three shifts, the last in November 1969. The Nigerian army was enforcing a blockade and it was de Gaulle in person, according to Pierre Péan, who authorised the French Red Cross to violate that blockade and fly drugs and doctors into Uli’s airstrip. Kouchner and his colleagues started receiving war victims as the front closed in. The adrenaline surged as operations went on around the clock. But most Biafrans died of hunger, because the state has been completely sealed off. Had it not been for the foreign arms, drugs, doctors, food and money, the war would have been over much earlier. That fact, however, had to be carefully covered up.

In his book La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République, the late François-Xavier Verschave, describes how a Geneva-based company called Markpress was hired to release huge amounts of propaganda on the public, designed to create the image that has proved so enduring: a small people under the jackboot of a bigger and meaner brother. The campaign employed a term which has since been abused in numerous other cases (Darfur, Kosovo) and in one case criminally prevented from being used, most notoriously by the US administration of Bill Clinton, when it was confronted with an event that bore all its hallmarks, in Rwanda. The term is, of course, ‘genocide’. Here is how Jacques Foccart describes the mechanism (translation from the French is by me and constitutes an improvement on an earlier version): ‘The journalists have discovered the great suffering of the Biafrans. It’s a good story. Public opinion gets worked up about it and wants something done. We evidently facilitate the transportation of the reporters and television equipment, by military airplane, to Libreville and from there trough the networks that fly into Biafra.’

Save Darfur

That sounds terribly familiar, does it not? It’s all there: embedded journalism. The great story. The humanitarian angle. Inflated figures and exaggerated facts. Public sympathy and emotion. The simplicity:  the good guys (Biafrans) against the bad guys (Nigerians). You’d see this play out over and over again. Take George Cloony in Darfur. As the great scholar Mahmood Mamdani said about that particular Markpress-style operation (and I paraphrase): We do not go out on the streets and protest against the devastation the USA has wrought in Iraq. But we can emote about Darfur because it has been presented to us as a just cause. ‘Iraq makes us uncomfortable. Darfur makes us feel good.’ Here is an article my then Radio Netherlands colleague Thijs Bouwknegt wrote about Mamdani’s remarks; unfortunately, my edit of Mamdani’s formidable speech in The Hague (April 2008) for the program Bridges With Africa has gone into outer cyberspace forever.

Bernard Kouchner understands this propaganda – because that’s what it is – perfectly and has used it throughout his career, turning Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo into a story about the good people (Bosnians or Albanians) against bad people (the Serbs), just as Darfur was criminally simplified (bad Arabs against good Africans) and Rwanda too (good Tutsis being slaughtered by bad Hutus). But there was yet another thing that started in Biafra and from which Kouchner was to take his cues. It was the modern-day conflation of two different operations: military and humanitarian.

 

To be continued

A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part one)

April 15, 2014

I have another long-ish read for you, which I have divided into three parts. Part one is today.

***

The writing of a small piece I recently did for ZAMChronicles, called “Simplicities”, coincided with me reading the unauthorised biography of one of the most iconic Frenchmen of the last couple of decades, Bernard Kouchner. The writer is Pierre Péan, a journalist who has courted controversy over his writings about Rwanda. He says that he has compelling evidence that it was Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, who on April 6 1994 shot down an aircraft that carried the then presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi. The event triggered the Rwandan genocide.

Like his friend Kagame, the ‘French doctor’ (Kouchner’s nickname) is unlikely to have been very happy about Péan’s 2009 book Le monde selon K. I found it on a table outside a bookstore in Abidjan’s Riviera neighbourhood. The book adds depth to the argument about simplistic writing about the African continent and why it is so pernicious and needs to end.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that Kouchner’s career started during the Biafran war (May 1967 to January 1970), when he worked for the Red Cross. The breakaway republic was said to be holding out valiantly against a cruel and merciless war machine mounted by the Nigerian federal government. That, at least, is the narrative. Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, governor of Biafra, decided to declare an independent state following prolonged political instability in the federal republic and terrible massacres of his people in the north of Nigeria. From that declaration onwards he held out, against the odds and against better judgement, for two and a half years. One million deaths later, his dream was shattered.

 

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

 

But there is a much more cynical side to the Biafra story and to find it we must go to Paris and Abidjan to meet the duo Jacques Foccart (Mister Africa of the French state) and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the father of the Ivorian nation.

The two men were agreed on one thing: Nigeria was too big. Foccart wrote that it would place the rest of the (mostly Francophone) region under ‘a worrying shadow’. But there was more. Nigeria had broken off diplomatic ties with Paris when it found out that the French were using a part of the Sahara Desert as a nuclear testing site. President Charles de Gaulle, Foccart’s boss, was swayed by the Anglophobe argument that having a big English-speaking nation in West Africa was detrimental to the beautiful French language. Yes, these irrational sentiments play a significant part. And then there was the matter of a French oil company, state-run, called Elf (now part of the Total company), which had major interests in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville. Here was the thinking: a dismembered Nigeria would be less of a threat for the region, less prominent diplomatically and would offer less resistance to French oil business designs. After all, the oil was in Biafra.

So, when Ojukwu declared his independence, France was there to help. With what? Well what do you think? Arms, of course! And the best places to fly these from were Abidjan, Libreville in Gabon and territories still in Portuguese hands (São Tomé) or Spanish (the island of Fernando Po, now Bioko). The two Iberian nations were, at the time, fascist dictatorships. Small matter. An elaborate air bridge turned the improvised airstrip at the Biafran town of Uli into Africa’s busiest airport for the duration. Gun flights arrived en masse throughout 1967 and 68, providing Ojukwu with a good source of income. President de Gaulle, meanwhile, told Elf to pay royalties due to the Nigerian state directly into Ojukwu’s coffers, further swelling his war chest.  Notorious French mercenaries like Bob Denard were involved in the gun running, as were French secret operatives who had been at the losing end of their wars in Viet Nam, Algeria and Katanga, frequently using Abidjan as a convenient stopover. Into that scene wandered the French doctor.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

 

Masters of the game

April 5, 2014

A review of AfricaFrance, quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jeu by Antoine Glaser

Between France and Africa, who calls the shots?

France, assert the conspiracy theorists, who see a concerted, coordinated, well-orchestrated and successful effort on the part of the French to keep their former colonies (and a few others) well in line and on board. Reality, as always, is rather less clear-cut and a lot murkier. Antoine Glaser is very well placed to shed a light on a few corners of this large French-African village; for thirty years he edited La Lettre du Continent, the confidential repository of the inner workings of this large and complex web.

But who calls the shots? In his new book, AfricaFrance, quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jeu, Glaser asserts that the balance of power has shifted. Moreover, this is not even something new. It has always been the case that France needs Africa more than the reverse. For diplomatic assistance, i.e. votes in the United Nations. For some of its enterprises, like France Télécom, Bouygues and Bolloré (all manner of transport, agribusiness, infrastructure). And for its famous force de frappe; uranium from Niger fuelled France’s status as one of the few nuclear powers in the world; it still fuels France’s power stations that bring light to millions of French homes. The French firm Areva runs one of the biggest uranium extraction operations in the world in Niger.

So what has changed? Two things spring to mind as Glaser takes you from Côte d’Ivoire to Gabon to Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea and five others. First, France is no longer the only game in the village; there is healthy competition from the likes of China, North America, Brasil, India and Turkey. All have their designs on the continent and especially in a business sense they are giving the former colonial power a run for her money. Second, France now has to deal with a generation of African leaders who do not hesitate to use their leverage to get what they want. If France does not comply, they go elsewhere.

Cover Glaser AfricaFrance

And third, if you like, the nature of their personal relations has changed. There used to be an axis that essentially consisted of two people. On the French side: Jacques Foccart, the spider who weaved his elaborate web of personal relations over a long period, from before independence in the 1950s until his death in March 1997. On the African side: Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the aristocrat from Yamoussoukro in the heart of Côte d’Ivoire, a former minister and member of parliament in Paris and at the helm of the richest territory in former French West Africa from 1960 until his death in December 1993. They were on the phone daily. Friendship apart, they had a joint interest in keeping French dominance in the region in place; after all, Houphouët-Boigny is credited with the term that symbolises this symbiosis: La Françafrique.

They stopped at nothing to maintain French dominance in the region and this included tearing West Africa’s nascent superpower, Nigeria, apart. Glaser is adamant that the idea to support the secession movement that triggered West Africa’s bloodiest war came from the Ivorian president. Houphouët-Boigny and Foccart, with the permission of General De Gaulle, the French president at the time, set up an elaborate secret operation that circumvented the Nigerian blockade of what the federal government there considered a renegade state and sent arms and humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Biafra. They certainly prolonged the war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, cost one million lives and traumatised countless more.

Biafra. The story, so movingly recorded in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Half of a Yellow Sun, needs much closer study because it is at the origin of a highly pernicious modern-day confluence of cynical geopolitical designs and interventions touted as humanitarianism, with modern media (press, radio and most of all television) as the vehicle to get the “correct” message to the masses. Media consumers were made to think of the people of Biafra as helpless victims of a merciless war machine. Volunteers were flown in to help heal the wounded; they may or may not have been aware of the larger designs of which they were a part (including secret arms deliveries) but they certainly were aware of the power of the media. It is no coincidence that Biafra launched the career of a man whose unauthorised biography I am currently reading, one Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of what became Medicins sans frontières.

Bamako Airport, February 2013. The Antonov transport plane was shuttling between Dakar and Bamako at the height of the French operations in Mali.

Bamako Airport, February 2013. The Antonov transport plane was shuttling between Dakar and Bamako at the height of the French operations in Mali.

There is no chapter on Mali in Glaser’s book but twice he mentions current French president François Hollande’s exclamation on arrival in Bamako in February 2013, as his army is removing jihadists from the North of Mali: ‘Today is without any doubt the most important day of my political life.’ De Gaulle would not have dreamt of saying something like that. Times have indeed changed in some respects. The Gabonese president Ali Bongo, son of another departed pillar of La Françafrique, Omar Bongo Ondimba, prefers London as a place to do business, as does Alpha Condé, president of Guinea who spent most of life in exile – in Paris. And Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who re-conquered the presidency of Congo-Brazzaville after a vicious civil war that was fuelled on his side by French oil money, clearly is the Africa-French patron today. He calls the shots in Paris. A picture emerges of a French president who, when told by his African counterparts to jump, responds with: how high?

However, the clean break with the past that has often been promised by incoming French presidents, fails to happen. This would mean getting rid of the various webs of opaque, unaccountable, dodgy and at times downright criminal relationships between the movers and shakers in France and Africa. Reading the book you get the impression of watching a film with an endless cast of shady characters that appear, then disappear (sometimes for good) or re-appear in another guise. What to think of the richissime businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, recently breathlessly lionised by the usual suspects (BBC, Guardian, Independent et al) for his untold part in the liberation of the late Nelson Mandela and the creation of post-apartheid South Africa. Well, he has his cameo in Glaser’s book too: as the best friend of Denis Sassou-Nguesso and an ally of Jean-Pierre Bemba, currently at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes. Ollivier is also a friend of yet another one of those characters, Michel Roussin, formerly a big shot in the French secret service, then minister for development cooperation and a special advisor to big French businesses with interests in Africa. He has a handful of African presidents on speeddial.

It takes a bit of prior knowledge of the African/French village to appreciate the extent and the depth of these and other networks. They persist, unless countries just break off ties altogether, as post-genocide Rwanda did. But there is another constant here. While it is fascinating to read about all this intrigue, this real-life feuilleton, you must realise that this is a game of the 1%. The vast majority of Africans on whose life some of these games have impacted directly, have an idea of what is going on but no means to influence events. And that is the real travesty of La Françafrique, or Africa-France.