The apparently Rwanda-like mayhem in Sudan/Darfur was explicitly talked about as a virus that might spread to other countries. In 2008, a writer for the New York Times said we had failed to stop the Rwanda virus from spreading to Darfur, so now we must make a special effort to prevent ‘the Darfur virus from infecting the surrounding countries’. The virus had mutated, from a Rwanda disease to a Darfur disease, silently and violently spreading through the dark continent. In the words of the critical author Mahmood Mamdani, Darfur was simplistically treated by many Western observers as ‘a replay of the Rwandan genocide’, with journalists using the same words and imagery they had used in Rwanda 10 years earlier: it was all ‘senseless violence’, taking place ‘outside of any [political] context’, just another part of ‘an eternal encounter between evil and innocence’.
This reaching for the R-word every time conflict breaks out in Africa shows how infantile and emotionalist media coverage of African conflicts has become. Instead of teasing out the specifics of each conflict, instead of working out what are the local and international driving forces and grievances behind the very different conflicts in places like Liberia, Sudan and CAR, observers reach for a one-size-fits-all explanation: it’s another genocide, another murderous rampage, another inexplicable event on this increasingly inexplicable continent. Local differences are flattened out; all Africans are treated as being the same, as being strange, senseless, instinctively genocidal.
There is now a palpable tendency to view all conflicts in Africa as incomprehensible. Where Western war reporting from the Middle East or from Asia will provide us with at least some explanation of who is involved in said war and what they are angry about – although far less than war reporters did in the past – war reporting from Africa only gives us overemotional talk about slaughter and machetes and dead bodies lining the streets, in which the people we learn most about are not the war’s protagonists but rather the journalists themselves, who never hold back from telling us how they feel about the ‘senseless violence’ enveloping the country they’re posted in. The individual journalist’s feeling of horror has trumped cool analysis in African conflict zones, meaning that viewers are often left believing that the wars on this dark continent – unlike our wars – are irrational, pointless, driven more by bloodlust than political or territorial grievances. We have wars; they – the strange inhabitants of Africa – have genocides.
Sometimes, it almost seems as if Western observers want, even long for, another Rwanda, another human calamity on the scale of that which unfolded in that benighted country. Certainly, their genocide-hungry commentary on every conflict that unfolds in Africa, where they wheel out all the old clichés about ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘rape camps’ and ‘senselessness’, suggests they are always ready and willing to revert to the Rwanda script. How could they want such a thing? It’s because they get a moral thrill, a sense of purpose and gravitas, from reporting on a conflict that looks – to them at least – like a very simple black-and-white tale about evil killers and poor victims.
The Rwanda script overrides the need to examine the causes of a war, including the international meddling that frequently pushes African countries to the brink. It’s a script that allows observers to say ‘Behold these horrors!’, without needing to explain who’s doing what, why they’re doing it, how they were armed and what international interests they might represent. (Even in Rwanda itself, where this infantile script was first drafted, Western intervention played a key role in creating the conditions for the savage war.) The Rwanda script also allows observers to demand Western intervention. In the words of Mamdani, the myth about Rwanda is that ‘the problem was the US failure to intervene to stop the genocide’. This myth – which overlooks the role America played in arming and cajoling the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a key player in the disaster of 1994 – has turned ‘Rwanda’ effectively into a codeword for Western intervention, says Mamdani. ‘Rwanda is the guilt that America must expiate’, he says, ‘and to do so, it must be ready to intervene, for good and against evil, even globally’. And the Rwanda script allows Western observers, whether journalists, authors, NGO heads or UN officials, to feel puffed up, to feel like ‘witnesses to evil’ as they trot around African conflict zones doing little more than gaping at and taking photos of dead people on street corners. Why they died, what they died for, who created the circumstances in which their deaths occurred… such questions are unnecessary for those who view Africa in super-reductive terms of good and evil.
And now they’re trying to christen CAR as ‘another Rwanda’. We shouldn’t let them. Because in truth, each African conflict has its own dynamics, and the last thing CAR or any of these other countries needs is yet more Western intervention and more colonialist-minded, borderline racist observers descending on their towns and villages to pontificate about the senseless savagery being carried out by their weird inhabitants.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.