Posts Tagged ‘Pierre Péan’

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