Chapter 9: Power to those who have it! - Philip Gourevitch

It is on the Anglo-American race that the hope
of the world for liberty and progress rest..
David Livingstone 95

“Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.” That is Philip Gourevitch’s definition of power, and that is the power he feels endowed with as he travels through the hills, across the lakes, in and out of the cities and towns of Rwanda, Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania, Europe and the United States, chronicling his adventures and opininions in a pompously titled book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Stories from Rwanda. 96

More than any other book on Rwanda, Gourevitch’s Stories reeks of power. By namedropping he makes it clear that he had privileged access to many of the main players in the Rwandan tragedy, including Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni and all the United States ambassadors in the area. Doors were opened so wide for him that in 1997 in the former Zaire he was the one who, with the blessing of Rwandan and Ugandan troops, discovered compromising papers in the late Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko’s palace in Goma. More important it seems though was his discovery of what he calls “the Big Man’s diapers” which he takes pains to describe so that he can heap even more scorn on him and, at the same time, on all post-colonial African leaders for whom Mobutu was supposedly the paragon.

Gourevitch is close to power and he has style, but neither enables him to escape the popular literary tradition that hatched during slavery and colonialism. In fact, his proximity to power and his style lead him further into the worst manifestations of that tradition.

Ever since the Europeans, and especially the British, set foot in Africa, they have held the kings, chiefs and leaders in total contempt and systematically displayed their contempt in their literature. By so doing, they were able to convince themselves of their own moral and cultural superiority and justify their so-called civilizing mission. Showing contempt for African chiefs and leaders is an insidious but effective way of showing contempt for all Africans. After all, what human beings would ever accept to live under such despots? Even the slave traders and slave owners could stand tall since they too were liberating the Africans from the tyrants. Among this grisly assortment of chiefs, the Europeans were always able to find one or two “good” ones, but they earned their good graces only because they were ready to march to the European drum. The chosen “good” chiefs could expect to be treated with the courtesy due to anybody who remained faithful and in line and respected his rank.

Since Gourevitch knew he was close to real power - the administration of “the greatest power on earth” as he likes to gloat - and because he is from the United States where good always prevails, he pushes the old “good-chief bad-chief” tradition to new limits. He identifies a few good chiefs and lauds their goodness to the point that one wonders why they have not yet won a Nobel Prize. In contrast, the others, who make up the vast majority, are necessarily “bad”, but not just bad like hardened criminals, but bad like evil, bewitched, incomprehensible, bordering on the inhuman.

The two African leaders to receive Gourevitch’s blessings are predictably Paul Kagame, now President of Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda and number one supporter of the RPF ever since on the October 1990 invasion of Rwanda. Blessing is an understatement: Gourevitch waxes hagiographic. Paul Kagame, for instance, is a man who “always sounded so soothingly sane… a man of rare scope - a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence”. 97 His grandeur is awe inspiring. He is one of the best military strategists of our time. “He was an intensely private man; not shy - he spoke his mind without bluster. A neat dresser, married, a father of two, he was said to like dinner parties, dancing and shooting pool, and he was a regular on the tennis courts at Kigali’s Cercle sportif”. A description like that could appear in the personal ad section of a paper serving New York’s Upper East Side. Carried away by his own eloquence, and aware of the people in the United States he wanted to convince, Gourevitch found that he could not help thinking of another “tall skinny civil warrior, Abraham Lincoln”. That of course is a hard comparison to beat.

The other good chief, Yoweri Museveni, is a pragmatic man of enormous energy. He possesses a “frontiersman’s inventiveness” and is a champion of free enterprise with an “everyman look that is part of his appeal”. When he speaks and when he writes it is “lucid, blunt, and low on bombast”. He attacks corruption and bad governance in Africa. He defers to the European by saying that Africa’s problems are African. He reads all the latest good American books. He assiduously promotes new products such as a toothpaste developed in the Ugandan backcountry. He understands the genesis and superiority of the “great democracies” and places African evolution somewhere between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. For Gourevitch, on the other hand, African evolution is somewhere near the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. As a reward for all Museveni has said and done, Gourevitch also gratifies him with a flattering comparison to another mythical American hero: he is like George Washington. Who could dislike a man of that stature?

It goes without saying that such high-calibre military and political leaders can only have armies that are “disciplined, polite and benevolent”, who have “ideas of right and wrong”. They develop “efficient” political and social institutions. In a nutshell, these two countries with two “good” chiefs give promise and hope to a continent that, according to Gourevitch, has little of each. The author’s two “good” Africans and their armies are given moral standards and behaviour that must surely be the envy of other modern American commanders like Norman Scharzkopf, Colin Powell or Tommy Franks.

The unequalled “goodness” of Gourevitch’s two favourites dramatizes the total abjectness of all the other African leaders. President Habyarimana and his entourage are made to be in constant communication with demons and “in concert with the occult”. The author gleefully mocks the Habyarimana family’s difficulties in giving the late president a proper funeral following the assassination on April 6, 1994. It is a laughing matter for Gourevitch that Habyarimana’s remains were transferred first from Kigali to Eastern Zaire and then to Kinshasa before being laid to rest. On the other hand, Gourevitch remains suspiciously silent about the assassination that triggered the beginning of the tragedy, except when he infers that President Habyarimana and his inner circle had plotted their own death.

When Gourevitch is not busy describing the dying Mobutu’s diapers - he could have told us about the diapers of other dying leaders like Ronald Reagan or the Queen Mother, or even his own parents - he holds forth about the “mint black” colour of his Mercedes, the shininess of his Land Rover, his bath oils and Jacuzzis. Why does he not also describe the bath oils and the cars used by Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright during their much praised sweep through Africa with stopovers in Rwanda and Arusha, Tanzania?

Gourevitch’s contempt reaches a peak in his treatment of the two Hutu presidents of Burundi who were assassinated respectively on October 21,1993, and April 6, 1994. Though their assassinations were watershed events, Gourevith does not deign to name either of them. They remain the unknown and unnamed assassinated presidents. Dead or alive, Melchior Ndadaye and Cyprien Ntaryamira simply do not fit into “the story of their reality” that Gourevitch wants to make Rwandans and other Africans inhabit. They will not go down in the history according to Philip Gourevitch.

There is method in the oversimplification of good versus bad in Gourevitch’s book, just as there was in earlier times and earlier books. By focussing on Mobutu’s diapers and limousines and on Habyarimana’s funeral or lack thereof, the author is simply reinforcing the image of the wonderful renaissance the leaders he has blessed are supposedly bringing about. He makes it into the symbolic burying of the post-colonial leadership, the supposed generation of corrupt despots who rose out of a mafia-like culture. To the very last one, they are “predatory”, “monomaniacal” leaders. This generation is being replaced by those Gourevitch has anointed as liberators and thinkers, namely Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni. The assassinated presidents of Burundi do not get named so that they will not cast shadows on the two anointed leaders, Kagame and Museveni, who, in fact, were very likely implicated in the assassinations. (For the record, this concealment is contagious: neither Gil Courtemanche nor Carol Off bother to name the Burundian president assassinated on April 6, 1994.)

The “good-chief bad-chief” formula also enables Gourevitch to put colonial and post-colonial Africa on an equal footing in terms of injustice and hardship foisted upon Africans. For instance he describes the war in Rwanda and the war that followed in Zaire/Congo as a “decolonization process”. To bolster his case, Gourevitch surprisingly refers to V.S. Naipaul and his complaints about African “post-colonial mimic men”, leaders that supposedly reproduce the abuses they rebelled against. One wonders if by citing Naipaul, Gourevitch also endorses that writer’s racism which, despite his Nobel Prize, has been roundly denounced by African and African American writers, including Chinua Achebe and Ishmael Reed. 98 It is outrageous for a writer to use such a thinly disguised reference to monkeys (mimic men) in a book meant to help understand a modern tragedy in Africa? Gourevitch is supposed to be a well-informed writer. Does he not know that Naipaul has declared that Blacks were “the most stupid, primitive, lazy, dishonest, and violently aggressive people in the world”? 99

The theme of the equivalent evils, the two sides of the same coin, the two old mentalities represented by the thirty-five years of African independence and the seventy-five years of colonialism is recurrent in Gourevitch’s Stories. Once again there is method in his madness: he thereby minimizes the crimes of colonialism, absolves their perpetrators and successors of those crimes and, most of all, absolves them of any responsibility in current catastrophes.

Another literary convention pervading his Stories is that of the “abysmal gulf” separating Africa from the United States. This convention helps the author to enhance the image of the anointed “good chiefs” who operate in such horrible situations and to justify the unjustifiable acts they commit.

Gourevitch sets the stage in the first paragraph of the first page of his first Story. He tells of a meeting with three drunken soldiers whose eyes “glowed the color of blood oranges” - all eyes seem to be bloodshot in books on Rwanda - and a pygmy from the jungle who was also drunk. The pygmy hates everything around him and only wants to marry a white woman because, according to the pygmy, “only a white woman can understand my universal principle or Homo sapiens”. 100 Under no circumstances could he marry a black woman. Gourevitch concludes the story proclaiming his belief in African humanity. But who in the world is questioning African humanity if it is not Gourevitch himself?

The author punctuates the opening story with a statement of mission which he borrows - oh surprise - from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Gourevitch’s mission, or point of departure, is to soothe people’s imaginations just as Conrad’s hero Marlow had requested when he returned from penetrating dark Africa. When Marlow’s aunt in London insisted on helping him get better, Marlow said “It was not my strength that needed nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing”. It should be remembered what tortured Marlow’s, and Conrad’s, imagination was “the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough.”

It would be difficult to imagine a more effective way of widening the gulf in the American readers’ minds between them and Africa than Gourevitch’s four-page introductory story with the pygmy.

As the saying goes, the tongue ever turns to the aching tooth. Judging by the number of times Gourevitch’s tongue turns to the question of African humanity, he must be terribly troubled by that question. (Only Gil Courtemanche in Sunday at the pool in Kigali equals him). In the praise for his book the publisher prepares the reader by saying that Philip Gouvervitch “risked life and safety to bring dark truths to a world reluctant to know them… he raises the human banner in hell’s mouth, the insignia of common sense, of quiet moral authority.”

The two conventions - good chiefs winning out over the bad ones, and the “abysmal gulf” - are the mould into which Gourevitch pours the observations and fantasies of an intrepid American investigator sent to faraway lands and the deliberations of the supreme American court of morals. It all leads to the obvious conclusion that good will defeat evil.

The totally unwarranted massacres committed by the army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front against civilians in the Kibeho camp in April 1995 101 are made to be regrettable incidents that resemble those that occurred as General Sherman led the Union army to defeat the Confederates in the American Civil War, or during the liberation of France and Italy from the Nazis. Yes errors may have occurred but that does not make the cause less noble. The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion of Zaire/Congo in October and November 1996, the bombing of refugee camps and the forced return to Rwanda become justice and truth in action. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda becomes a valiant and noble attempt to bring the Nuremberg model to a continent where the rule of law and public morals are established at best by criminals, if not by demons themselves.

The Stories end like a bad Western. President Clinton lands in Africa in 1998 shortly after his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a visit. Both apologize for the international community’s slow reaction to such a horrible genocide and solemnly promise to restore the truth and see to it that people who do not share their views will be put in their place.

On the second last page of the book, Gourevitch first fawns to President Clinton, “as the voice of the greatest power on earth, he had come to Kigali to set the record straight.” Then he gives the microphone to a Hutu who says: “Here was a politician who had nothing at stake, and who told the truth at his own expense.” The concluding words are left to a Tutsi: “Maybe you have to live somewhere far away like the White House to see Rwanda like that.”

All that’s missing is the sunset and the Marlboro cigarettes!




95 David LIVINGSTONE, Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and its Tributaries; and of the discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, New York, 1866, p. 725, in Hammond and Jablow, op. cit. p. 54

96 Philip GOUREVITCH, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Stories from Rwanda, Picador USA, 1998.

97 Gourevitch, op. cit. p. 225.

98 Chinua ACHEBE, Home and Exile, Oxford, 2000, pp. 84-91.

99 India West, April 25, 1980, in Ishmael REED, Writin’ is Fightin’, Atheneum,1988, p. 212.

100 GOUREVITCH, op. cit. p. 12.

101 The Kibeho massacre occurred from April 18 through April 23, 1995, in what the RPF called Operation Homeward. International observers and many soldiers in the UNAMIR II witnessed the killing and saw troops burying bodies of civilians as soon as they killed them. 8000 internal Rwandan refugees were killed during this operation. The RPF Government reported that 350 people had died. See description in Jacques Castonguay, Les Casques bleus au Rwanda, L’Harmattan, pp. 219-231.