International Day Of Reflection On The Genocide In Rwanda: What Have Biafra And The Death Of Thatcher Got To Do With It?

By Nkem Ekeopara, Syndicated Columnist

Rwandan children orphaned by a cholera breakout in the refugee camps of Zaire lie down facing the same way to save room at a tiny, crowded orphanage in Goma. Their parents died of disease after fleeing the civil war in their home country. Image: David Turnley.

Last week, the hazardous situation in North Korea and the death of the former British Prime Minister Mrs. Margaret Thatcher dominated the news around the world. Those two issues are still very much in the news. But there was the other news that didn’t capture the attention of the world the way it ought to – the commemoration of the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. In 2004, the UN declared April 7 as the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.

To commemorate it this year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the occasion to honour the victims and survivors of that genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus lost their lives in the hands of Hutu extremists. Also, Mr. Ban used the occasion to emphasize the fact that countries have shared responsibilities to prevent genocide from happening again. Of course, some members of the Twa ethnic group also lost their lives in genocide in Rwanda. It’s a shame that this group is hardly mentioned when the genocide is discussed for, even if only one member of this group died or survived that heinous crime, it is worth honouring him/her too.

The indifference of a greater section of our world to this annual event is quite appalling. Every year, when this event is marked, the indifference of the world to it makes one to remember the words of Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the former Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), who made commendable efforts to prevent the genocide, but was frustrated by the inexcusable noncommittal attitude of Mr. Kofi Annan, the head of the UN peacekeeping forces at the time, and the coldness of the UN Security Council.

During the 2004 Memorial Conference on the Genocide in Rwanda held at the UN, Lieutenant General Dallaire made a memorable and profound statement, which ought to keep the world on perpetual vigilance and infuse in the members of the Security Council the willingness to act hastily to prevent genocide anywhere. He did say: “I still believe that if an organisation decided to wipe out the 320 mountain gorillas there would be still more of a reaction by the international community to curtail or to stop that than there would still be today attempting to protect thousands of human beings being slaughtered in the same country.” This statement made a decade after the genocide is truer today than when it was made.

At the time the genocide in Rwanda started on April 7, 1994, I had argued that what Mr. Kofi Annan as the head of UN peacekeeping forces and more importantly as an African needed to have done was to dramatize the situation by offering to resign his job with the global body if his reasoned advice, if any, was falling on the deaf ears of the members of the UN Security Council. Anyone who was following closely what was going on in Rwanda at the time knew that the situation was clearly like a tree that screamed before falling. Such a tree, my Igbo elders say, does not kill anyone.

Additionally, I had stretched the argument by positing that Mr. Annan ought to have known that because Africans were involved, the powers-that-be in global politics, nebulously subsumed under the tag “International Community”, which essentially are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the other two permanent members of the Security Council outside NATO, Russia and China, would not act with haste and optimally to prevent the genocide from happening. I strongly believed and still do that the experience of the Biafran people ought to have taught him (Annan) the bitter lesson that the value placed on the life of an African is very much less than that placed on the Caucasian or indeed, any other racial group in the world.

The later events in Bosnia-Herzegovina on one hand and in Dafur on the other vindicated one on the assertion that the UN was indecisive on the Rwandan case because Africans were involved. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO and the UN through close collaboration that resulted in a number of resolutions, brought to an end various acts of genocide and saved many lives. We saw a similar collaboration in preventing genocide in Kosovo. Whereas in Dafur, we saw the UN dithering in bringing to an end the unimaginable and systematic destruction visited on Africans by the Government of Sudan through its proxy Arab militia called Janjaweed. In September 2004, the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared what was going on in Dafur as genocide.

But in Rwanda, we had a Kofi Annan who failed to take a very important decision some would unfortunately argue an average Caucasian would easily have taken. He didn’t dramatize the situation by offering to quit, which could have altered the cause of events in Rwanda and changed our world. There were those who believed quite strongly then and their conviction became reinforced after Mr. Annan became the Secretary-General, that he didn’t dramatize the situation by resigning because he did not want to lose career progression in the global body. It is interesting to note that he also got a Nobel Peace Prize eventually.

To be fair to him, he was not the first African who found himself in such a situation. Before him, there was Mr. Emeka Anyaoku. Mr. Anyaoku was honing his career in the Commonwealth of Nations when about 50,000 of his Igbo people were slaughtered in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria in 1966 following the crisis that engulfed that British contraption that year. Subsequently, during the Biafra-Nigeria War between 1967 and 1970, another 3.1m of the Igbo people and some members of the ethnic minorities like the Efik, the Annang and the Ijaw that constituted the former Eastern Region of Nigeria before it was declared as Biafra, lost their lives.

But rather than joining the rank of his contemporaries like Professor Chinua Achebe in the war efforts, Mr. Anyaoku remained with the Commonwealth of Nations where he later became Secretary-General. And this was a war in which Britain, the mother of the Commonwealth of Nations extensively collaborated with Russia, Egypt and the Arab league not only in arming the Nigerian side, but in providing them with advisers and the diplomatic support they needed at the UN and other international bodies. It was a war in which starvation was used as a weapon of war that led to the death millions of children.

The question is, how do all these relate to the “International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda: What have Biafra and the death of Thatcher got to do with it?”

Let me first observe that during the Biafra-Nigeria war in which Nigeria was clearly the aggressor, the world was silent; the world abandoned Biafra; with the exception of Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Gabon, Zambia and Haiti that recognised her as a sovereign state. France and Portugal assisted Biafra covertly. Also, let me underscore the fact that at the time that war was fought, the world did not accept that what happened in Biafra was genocide. The world did not accept that the Nigerian rulers at that time like Rtd. Gen. Yakubu Gowon who was the head of the military junta, Rtd. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and Rtd. Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, who are still alive, perpetrated genocide against the Biafran people.
However, following the release of Professor Chinua Achebe’s memoir on the war, There Was A Country, which I consider a Nunc Dimittis of sort, the humane people around the world now acknowledge that the Nigerian rulers committed genocide in Biafra. The controversy that trailed the release of the book, in particular the weight of what Professor Achebe wrote on some of the key dramatis personae like the Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, made it possible for highly respected individuals like the Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka himself a Yoruba, to strongly affirm that truly genocide was committed in Biafra.

Some people might say there is a difference between the genocide in Rwanda, which is today officially recognised by the UN, and the genocide in Biafra that is not so recognised. To such people, I would say yes. And there are two reasons for this. In the genocide in Rwanda, the perpetrators were not the victors, unlike in Nigeria where the perpetrators were victorious and have made every effort since the “end” of the war to erase the genocide from even our memory. Also, unlike in the Rwandan case where some of the perpetrators have been brought to justice, in Nigeria, no such thing has happened.    

Well, others might say one happened during the cold war era and the other at a time when there was the uni-polar supremacy of the United States and therefore could easily be recognised as genocide, especially as the US president at the time did not act to prevent it. But I will not agree, because even in that cold war era, Britain and USSR set aside their differences and collaborated to defeat Biafra to further their respective economic interests. The unconcerned posture of the US in the war might lead some people to believe that it tacitly supported the immoral role Britain played in the war.

In the wake of the passing of Mrs. Thatcher, world leaders have been pouring encomiums on her. The knocks she has received have come from the millions she pauperised in her country, Britain, and a few of us who as very young Africans felt aggrieved by her robust support for the Apartheid machine that jailed Nelson Mandela for 27 years. Yes, she has received knocks from a few of us who felt dehumanised by her effrontery in branding Mandela a terrorist. And yes, she got knocks from a few of us who felt aggrieved by her robust support for an evil system that massacred innocent teenagers in 1976 that protested against the imposition of an inferior educational curricular on them, and in which Afrikaans was introduced as the language of instruction.  

My impression of Mrs. Thatcher is that she, like P.W.Botha and Ronald Reagan, constituted the topmost trio on the list of those I branded as forces of darkness of that era. She in particular, was a metaphor for inhumanity.

It would be expecting too much from the world, in particular the Rwandan people, and Igbo people of a certain generation, not to give some knocks to Mr. Annan and Mr. Anyaoku respectively on their passing for their aforementioned despicable behaviour in the face of mass death of their kind. If it is an African tradition not to speak ill of the dead, I am sure there would be those who would consign that tradition to where it belongs-the cesspools, when the time comes.

The world leaders who lied through their teeth and engaged in loads of diplomatic niceties in Mrs. Thatcher’s case, instead of spicing their praises, which they think she so deserves with deserved knocks as well, must remember that if we want to breed a generation that respects and upholds truth as a necessary ingredient in tackling all sorts of evil that strip us of our humanity, then they must not fail to seize moments such as Mrs. Thatcher’s passing to build the culture of truth.

The above is even more so for leaders who appear to be role models to millions of young people around the globe that look at them as the essence of humanity.