Posts Tagged ‘Bernard Kouchner’

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.

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