The good men theory of history
I am currently reading the state of Africa, by Martin Meredith. It is an overview of postcolonial African history and an interesting read, even though the book is not that great. For my taste the focus of the book is too much on the ‘great men’ and their coups, revolutions and other escapades. This did however bring to mind two questions that I think are interesting: how would the history have looked if some of these generals and revolutionaries were good — think Mandela type figures— and how can you interpret the strong men who popped up all over Africa in an institutional sense. I don’t have definite answers to these questions but I’d like to share my thoughts.
To answer the second question, let’s look at some postcolonial history. Let’s take Tanzania, as an example. Tanzania existed as two separate entities: Tanganyika and Zanzibar, who merged after they had gained independence from Britain. The leader of this new country was Julius Nyerere, who was the leading figure in the Tanganyika independence movement. Nyerere was a teacher and political organizer with a college degree (there was only one other Tanganyikan with a college degree at the time) and an interest in philosophy. As a ruler of a new country he found unity very important; he worked hard to distill some sort of Tanzanian identity across the country. He also turned Tanzania into a one-party state and had a disastrous scheme of de-urbanization, called Ujaama. I’m not doing justice to Tanzanian history of course but to me, Nyerere follows a pattern: a brilliant guy starts and a movement for democracy and independence but once in power he descends into authoritarianism and executes all types of badly thought out schemes.
At first, I thought that this was a consequence of the way these countries gain independence. The freedom fighter, the rebel who doesn’t give a shit what the colonial powers think, originators of secret political organizations, those are not people who are cut out for the boring job of governing well. I thought that the men who excel at starting revolutions are Che Guevaras not Angela Merkels.
Now, this ‘natural selection’ of personality traits might be part of the answer, but I am not that convinced any more.
A better explanation, I think, comes from a more institutional point of view. When a colony becomes independent the result is a colony that is ruled by someone from within the colony. I mean that in the following way. Most of the colonial institutions — the police force, the agriculture department, the land distribution agencies — remain intact. This is mostly unavoidable, just ask the Americans how hard it is to built a new government from scratch like they tried in Iraq. But it does mean that if you ask the question what can these postcolonial governments do, the answer will look like colonialism. Nyerere’s ujaama scheme, where he forced people to move to a specific kind of village, is very different in ideology from British colonialism, but moving people around is a typical policy in colonies.
In other words the reason why Nyerere and other beginning leaders of new countries became more authoritarian is because they controlled institutions that were made to do that and not much else. Across all of Africa countries were looted by their rulers, in part because looting a country was what these colonial states were built to do.
Martin Meredith’s book takes a horrific turn when it discusses Somalia and Rwanda in the late eighties and nineties. The story of those countries is not just a horrible civil war where the west failed to intervene. Western leaders, sometimes ones I admire, actively took wrong decisions that had predictable and horrifying outcomes. In Somalia, for example, the US and UN intervened to secure humanitarian aid (that was not necessary, according to Meredith) in an area controlled by clans fighting in a war partly fueled by military aid from Italy and the US. However, under president H.W. Bush the US decided not to disarm the warlords and militias. This backfired later, when an important warlord soured on US presence. A part of the UN force unwillingly provoked this warlord, Aideed and war against the UN+US ensued. This war was lost by the best army in the world under the command of Bill Clinton; Somalia was left to warring militias and clans.
It gets worse over in Rwanda. Rwanda is a former colony of Belgium, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, its giant neighbor. They spoke french in Rwanda, and France wanted to keep it that way. I don’t want to describe the whole Rwandan genocide, I don’t really have stomach and I wouldn’t do it justice, so I will focus on the role played by the French, which I think is relevant for the earlier discussion of good men in Africa.
The French were worried about so called anglophone influences in Rwanda and supported the ruling Hutu leaders, most notably president Habyarimana. Mitterand, the president of France at the time was a friend of Habyarimana and propped up his regime when Tutsi rebels/refugees invaded Rwanda from Congo. This invasion was a reaction against the discrimination and repression against the Tutsi. For the French however, it meant that they were giving arms (with an estimated value of $100 million) to a regime and ethnic group that were preparing for a genocide. Meredith writes:
“A report into human rights abuses in Rwanda published in March 1993 by a group of international human rights experts from ten countries held Habyarimana and ‘his immediate entourage’ responsible for a string of massacres, torture, arbitrary detention and other abuses against Tutsis and members of the opposition, carried out over a two year period. Despite the alarming nature of the report, it caused little international concern. France continued with its program of support for the army and the Presidential guard.”
After some murders by radical Tutsis the Hutu-dominated state was used to prepare for genocide, with a ‘self defense plan’. The military trained paramilitaries, the army’s head of administration Colonel Bagosora arranged for the import and distribution of fire arms and 500 000 machetes. The worst genocide since the holocaust followed the death of Habyarimana.
Near the end of the genocide the French established a ‘safe zone’, meant to stop the genocide. It mostly provided refuge for the génocidaires against the RPF, the Tutsi force bent on stopping the genocide. The previously named Bagosora was one of the génocidaires who could pass through the french safe haven, with the knowledge of the Mitterand government.
I wanted to talk about this for several reasons. One reason is that this is not that well known. The other is that Mitterand is an interesting figure in this story; I know Mitterand as a central figure in the history of the EU and the reunification of Germany. I don’t know much about his domestic policy, but he was a center left politician, the kind I usually agree with. Yet he knowingly and actively aided the Hutu extremists prepare for a genocide.
This brings me back to the question of what would have happened if the men in charge were more ‘good’. To me the story of Mitterand and Rwanda suggest that whether a person is good depends much more on the situation then we think. This is in line with something I heard about before, personality doesn’t really exist. Apparently some social scientists have come to the conclusion that there is not necessarily a thing like a personality, but that it all depends on the circumstances one is in.
Even though I have some issues with Meredith’s book, it’s good to learn about this stuff and it provokes interesting questions.