Howard Wolpe, Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, US Department of State
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PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today the images haunt us all—the dead choking the Kigara River,
floating to Lake Victoria. The international community, together with nations in Africa, must
bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy as well.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: President Clinton’s trip to Africa last March highlighted the failure
of the international community in Rwanda four years ago, but the President also pledged to find
new ways to solve conflicts before they explode into crises.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We must as an international community have the ability to act when
genocide threatens. We are working to create that capacity here in the Great Lakes region, where
the memory is still fresh. This afternoon in Entebbe leaders from Central and Eastern Africa will
meet with me to launch an effort to build a coalition to prevent genocide in this region.
DAVIDSON: During this half hour of Common Ground we hear from the President’s
Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, as well as Secretary-General Kofi Anan’s
Special Representative to Africa. Common Ground is a program on world affairs on the
people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Howard Wolpe is a former member of Congress from Michigan. Last year President Clinton appointed
Wolpe as his Special Envoy to the entire Great Lakes Region of Africa, which includes Burundi,
Rwanda, Uganda and the former Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s the
most densely populated region of Africa and the site of Africa’s worst conflicts in recent years.
The roots of those conflicts however, are different, says Howard Wolpe.
HOWARD WOLPE: If you take the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the origins of the
conflict are 20 years or more of Mobutuism, of a dictatorship that led to the total collapse of
any state infrastructure, to the economic pauperization of the population. This is a country that
is as large as the entire United States east of the Mississippi. A single country. And it borders
nine other countries. It is a country that is rich in mineral wealth; it has tremendous economic
potential. It has a well-educated population, particularly in the diaspora but also within the
country. And has enormous potential to help stabilize and accelerate the positive economic
developments of southern Africa. But on the other hand, if it cannot be stabilized in this
transitional period and if we cannot address some of these underlying social, economic and
political difficulties, it is a country that could spin out of control and really undermine even
the economic progress of southern Africa.
If you turn to Burundi and to Rwanda, there are different origins of the conflicts in those two
countries. The core issue in both is a conflict between the minority Tutsi populations of these
two countries and the majority Hutu population. But again, Burundi and Rwanda are themselves very
different. In the case of Rwanda of course, you have this history of this terrible genocide
directed against Tutsis and against moderate Hutus. And now you have a Tutsi government in
control and still dealing with the aftermath of that terrible trauma of genocide, in which
perhaps 800,000 people were slaughtered.
In the case of Burundi, unlike Rwanda, Hutus have never been in control of the government, except
for a very brief period of time. And you have a Tutsi minority, an excluded Hutu majority.
There’s also a history of enormous killing but in the case of Burundi it was the Hutus that were
the principally victimized population historically. So you have these two very intractable
conflicts, Burundi and Rwanda, that have produced tremendous refugee flows at different points in
time, that have impacted the other countries.
DAVIDSON: Also with me today to talk about the Great Lakes Region of Africa is Mohamed
Sahnoun, an Algerian and the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations in
Africa. Ambassador Sahnoun, in your analysis was the defeat of the late President Mobutu in the
former Zaire as positive as people had hoped for? What’s been the result since his….
SAHNOUN: Well, as Howard said, there is of course, the rule while Mobutu was in power over
30 years has brought very, very negative effects and consequences for the country. I visited the
former Zaire, which is now the DRC, in the early ’60s and I visited again recently when I was
involved in the mediation process together with President Mandela, and some of the cities had in
fact even deteriorated further than they were in the ’60s when Congo became independent. In the
case of Kananaa, which used to be called Stanleyville, I visited then in the ’60s and I visited
again, I was amazed by the almost no development of the city at all. Despite the fact that this
is one of the richest countries in Africa. And had potential to probably develop even faster than
many African countries. The second South Africa in terms of potential and in terms of means. So,
it’s I think one could almost say that any government after Mobutu would, is a positive step. But
of course one would have to judge the new regime after a while, especially in terms of how the
human rights record would show off and also the democratic system, the good governance and the
development of the country. I think that one should give some time to the existing power to
really judge and assess their ability to respond to the wishes of their people.
DAVIDSON: In addition to the problems with late President Mobutu what else do you
attribute these conflicts to? In the region in general?
WOLPE: I think there are many….
DAVIDSON: Dr. Wolpe.
WOLPE: I think there are many variables. In all three, again all three countries are each
unique, each somewhat different. In the case of Burundi and Rwanda in particular are two of the
most densely populated areas in the entire continent of Africa. You have had two very poor
countries. And in which there is a tremendous struggle for land and for economic resources. And
you had a history, a traditional history of, in which the ethnic minority of Tutsis tended to be
the dominant group, and particularly in Burundi where Hutus were historically excluded from
virtually every institution; from the economy, from schools, from government, from the military,
particularly recently. And so you have this history of inequality as between the principal ethnic
groups and you have the manipulation of ethnicity by ruling elites in both countries, Rwanda and
Burundi. And ways to perpetuate their dominance and to continue to exclude large segments of the
population. So at the heart it’s been the struggle for power, in which ethnicity has become a
weapon in that struggle.
SAHNOUN: Yeah, I think I would like to add to what Dr. Wolpe said. There is certainly this
feeling of antagonism between the communities, both in Burundi and Rwanda, which I must underline
was also to some extent the legacy also of the colonial period. One should I think remember that
these were German colonies and then they were for, under the League of Nation Mandate, given to
Belgium as a Belgian Mandate. And there was a tendency from the former colonial power somehow to
even enhance that distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. Some of the writers and the historians have
written recently on the fact that the Belgians, because they had their own division between the
Flemish and the Walloons had a tendency to somehow look at this distinction as very fundamental.
When you talk to the people there they would say that before this colonial period there was not
such an antagonism. That these differences are not really a fundamentally ethnic difference but
maybe a caste difference or something of that sort. Therefore that legacy has certainly, is bad.
I’d like to add too, the fact which I mentioned earlier on also, is the environmental
degradation, is the fact that there is a very large increase of the people, and these are people
who are working, who are really agriculturists. They are farmers. The land is very important. And
now there are more people claiming rights for the same land. And that is one of the most
important factors in the antagonism.
WOLPE: Burundi and Rwanda are in many ways quite unique if you take a look at the rest of
the African continent. The groups that are in conflict are groups that have historically
intermarried, they spoke the same language, they had the same culture; indeed, one has difficulty
even applying the term ethnicity to the two groups in the traditional sense. And as the
Ambassador indicates, there is much more of a caste or class differentiation between Tutsis and
Hutus than the traditional kind of cultural differentiation. The colonial experience was very
significant. And particularly in Rwanda, the colonial power actually started using identity
cards, sort of creating new ethnic identities. Making these things much more powerful, much more
significant. And much more available for manipulation by political elites who were striving for
power and for economic resources and for control of the economy.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. I’m talking on this edition of Common
Ground with Howard Wolpe, President Clinton’s Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of
Africa, and to Mohamed Sahnoun, the Special Envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan to Africa.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of Common Ground
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DAVIDSON: Obviously, fueling all these conflicts are the weapons and Ambassador Sahnoun,
just recently the Secretary-General of the United Nations issued a statement saying he wants the
veil of secrecy lifted from the arms merchants in these conflicts. Where are the arms coming from
and what percentage are illegal?
SAHNOUN: Well, that’s an important factor. This is one of our greatest concerns,
especially in the Great Lakes region, but in most of the conflict-prone areas. The amount of arms
which are available both to, to all sides in the conflict is amazing. And the Secretary-General
as you mentioned has raised now this problem in his report to the Security Council on Africa. And
there are a number of institutions such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and so on
who are also now putting this issue on the agenda, high on the agenda of the international
community. So that there should be mobilization around this issue so that we can stop these arms
transfers. They are mostly from arms dealers who of course are taking great benefits from this
traffic. There were arms which were available from before because they were, the governments
themselves had ordered these arms. There are also arms which are transferred from neighboring
countries. There were countries such as Somalia and so on where there were large amounts of arms
and they were ready to sell some of these arms to the neighboring factions in neighboring
countries. So unfortunately it, there are still dealers who sometimes go and tap the resources of
diaspora, of people from these areas who live around in the world, in Canada and the United
States and Europe, and try to use this money to buy arms. So there certainly should be in the way
we have been able to mobilize the world opinion and international community and the UN around
land mines, I think we should do the same for the arms, for the small arms.
DAVIDSON: Dr. Wolpe, the United States is one of the largest exporter of arms in the
world. What is the US position in curbing this flow of weapons, and in the Great Lakes Region?
WOLPE: Oh we actually I think took the initiative in the Security Council recently and in
reinvigorating or restarting the United Nations study of arms trafficking in the region. So we
can get a handle on it, so we can begin to expose the networks and dampen down this remarkable
explosion of weaponry in the region. Having said that, it also should probably be, needs to be
stated that in the genocide that took place in Rwanda, in which the estimates are 800,000 or more
people were killed, most of that killing was with machetes. Was with rather, was not high
firepower involved. Which goes to the really, obviously, forces us to look at the underlying
causes of the conflict in the first instance and also compels all of us to spend as much energy
as we can in attempting to develop truly lasting political solutions to the conflicts both in
Burundi and Rwanda.
DAVIDSON: Well, we’ve been focusing on the conflicts in the region. Where are the bright
spots in this part of Africa?
WOLPE: Oh, there are many bright spots. And one of the things that the, President
Clinton’s visit to Africa was attempting to do was to highlight precisely the more positive
aspects of the African experience, in the Great Lakes and elsewhere, that have, has too
frequently been neglected entirely by the media. The media have a tendency to report, “good news
is no news.” And so there’s a selective focus upon the wars, upon the famines, upon the negative
dimensions. In Africa you have today—and in that region as well as in southern Africa, and even
parts of Western Africa—a number of countries that have made very significant economic reforms,
that are doing much better economically today than they were previously. There are some—I think
it’s 30 countries now—that are actually having economic growth rates that are in anywhere from
the 3-10% range. In, I think it is somewhere around a dozen countries, economic growth rates now
exceed the rates of population growth. You have many countries that are in the course of
democratization, that have introduced very significant kinds of democratic reforms that are
broadening the base of popular participation in governance. Even within the region in which we
are speaking such countries as Uganda are really experiencing rather significant kinds of
economic growth as a consequence of some very major reforms that the, and political stabilization
that have been produced in recent years. And Tanzania is now embarked upon a much more
significant kind of economic reform effort. And of course in the neighboring southern African
region, if you take a look at not only South Africa but Namibia, Botswana, you have examples of
countries that are really doing quite well both politically and economically.
DAVIDSON: In fact, President Clinton chose to cohost a summit of regional leaders in
Uganda and I assume that was a very purposeful choice.
WOLPE: It was. And we chose, the reason for the focus on his trip, on that region, was
both because we see it as an area of tremendous potential and tremendous challenge. We’ve really
been speaking about both sides of that equation. But this was an effort to try to sit down with
regional leaders to talk through both the potentialities. In terms of economic growth there’s a
lot of interest in the region with Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, in particular; in strengthening
the economic community within the region; to begin to talk in terms of regional economic
institutions. There is a tremendous potential that if that can begin to create broader markets,
can really allow the region to become much more effectively integrated in the global economy. One
of the things the leaders told us in response was they also needed not only to talk about
integration they need economic transformation. If you have open, free trade and they have no
goods that are sellable to the international community, global integration does not mean very
much. So we talked through that kind of agenda that would serve the interests both of Africa and
of the Western industrial states.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Sahnoun?
SAHNOUN: Yes, I think I concur with what Dr. Wolpe said. You have the whole region of
Southern Africa which is now already stable. All the countries in southern Africa. We have had
recently a change of president in Botswana done in a constitutional and normal way. The former
president withdrew after his mandate was over and a new president has taken over. And so, and as
also Dr. Wolpe said, in a number of countries we have a very high economic growth. In Ghana in
West Africa, a couple of other countries in Central Africa also. So there are some bright spots.
And one would, should also add that the fact that there are conflicts today in Africa can also be
explained by the need for the people to put their demands and their concerns, if necessarily, in
a violent way, when they establish their governments, to not respect human rights and to not
respect good governance. During the Cold War this was not possible. There was in a sense a
support to dictatorships. We have spoken about Mobutu earlier. Because he served a specific
purpose during the Cold War he was in a sense supported and encouraged by foreign powers. But
today this is not the case anymore. And people are able to put their issues now on the table in a
sense. And sometimes they, because there is no other way they chose the violent way. But to a
large extent these are really important developments. What we should do in the international
community, so of course is to help to see to it that these developments are nonviolent and as
peaceful as possible.
DAVIDSON: And does the United Nations have a specific plan in promoting these nonviolent
resolutions and promoting prosperity?
SAHNOUN: Well, this is what the Secretary-General in his last report to the Security
Council, you remember this last year, on the proposal by the Secretary of State Mrs. Albright,
there was a special meeting, the first time ever of the Security Council, to deal with African
issues, and how to prevent conflict in Africa. And there was a request after that debate by the
Security Council that a report be drafted on ways and means to avoid future conflicts in Africa.
So the Secretary-General has written the report and submitted it to the Security Council. There
will be a debate again. And there will be a meeting again at the ministerial level to look at the
recommendations he has made. And among these recommendations of course are the need for, to go to
the root causes, which are also economic and social.
WOLPE: I want to say that I think that the Secretary-General’s report on Africa is really
one of the most excellent of documents. It’s remarkably incisive. It’s well-written. For anyone
who wants to get a quick but significant kind of review of the status of the African continent
today—politically, economically, socially, and what needs to be done to address the remaining
challenges—I think it is one of the most important documents that has appeared for quite some
DAVIDSON: And Dr. Wolpe, what is the US approach to promoting peace and prosperity in
WOLPE: Well, there are so many challenges and one of the first challenges is to
disaggregate the continent. And we keep tending to speak of Africa as a single entity. Africa
DAVIDSON: Is it better to break it down into regions?
WOLPE: Regions and countries. I mean, every country has a unique history, has a unique set
of economic characteristics, and a unique set of political challenges. So it’s very difficult to
generalize. There are certain kinds of issues that are generic to Africa. For example the problem
of debt and the relief, relieving the debt burden. It’s something that can make a huge difference
to the capacity of African states to meet their social and economic demands of their own
populations. The effort at opening trade so as to enhance Africa’s capacity to integrate with the
global economy is another important dimension of economic transformation. The need to maintain an
important economic development program, recognizing that trade alone will not allow the continent
to overcome the tremendous gaps in infrastructure, for example. And the need to help facilitate
regional economic integration which can allow the African states to collectively exert more
economic power and have much more economic capacity. These are the principal kinds of agenda
items that are kind of directing and motivating American policy on the economic front.
In terms of the political challenges there are a lot of initiatives that are in process. We are
for example beginning to explore with African leaders in the Great Lakes region the concept of an
international coalition against genocide. To try to develop much greater international capacity
so we do not again have a repetition of another Rwanda. We are right now engaged in the effort in
Eritrea and Ethiopia of attempting, at the request of both of the two countries, working with
Rwanda, and now with the international community more generally, see if we can try to prevent
this conflict from erupting into full-scale war. And so again we are attempting to really act
upon the proposition that prevention is a heck of a lot less costly than waiting till after
conflicts erupt in their full estate.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Sahnoun, is there interest within the people of this Great Lakes
Region in Africa in working together, in maybe eventually forming something like a European
SAHNOUN: Oh yes, actually. The countries of the Great Lakes Region have already organized
a couple of meetings between the heads of state. They have discussed the need to have regional
cooperation. There is actually already a structure of the economic community of the Great Lakes
states. And there are some experts now working, including with United Nations agencies, including
with UNDP especially but also the Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank
on how to have a regional approach to economic development. There are resources there, especially
water resources, which can be developed, but provided that the countries work together to develop
these resources. So there is certainly a strong will to see how this can be done. Unfortunately
up to now the conflicts, especially when Zaire was, the former Zaire was under Mobutu’s rule, the
relationships between the different countries were extremely bad. Now the relations are normal.
They are improving. And I think there is certainly a will to cooperate.
DAVIDSON: Mohamed Sahnoun has been guest on Common Ground. He’s the Special for the
UN Secretary General to Africa. We also heard from Howard Wolpe, the Special Envoy of President
Clinton to the Great Lakes Region of Africa. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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