Posts Tagged ‘François-Xavier Verschave’

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