Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nii Akuetteh's Letter to Nicholas Kristof

Mr. Kristof:

Your just-concluded Congo series is superb. Thanks. Its two central questions outshine its many other gems: Given the millions already dead and the widespread rape and massive other suffering, why does the Eastern Congo catastrophe receive so little attention--compared to say Haiti or Darfur? And how can Americans ameliorate the situation?

For what they are worth, here are my insights.

Haiti receives big attention mostly because its devastation gives everyone great opportunity to play a beloved role—superior and compassionate Messiahs to the rescue. Because nature is to blame, non-Haitians need feel no guilt. The dramatic TV videos of French and American rescuers pulling out dying Haitians serve an even greater purpose. Those powerful pictures obliterate any possibility of imagining or believing an inconvenient historical truth—that for 200 years and counting, France and America have been ruthlessly strangling Haiti.

Darfur, like Haiti, received massive attention. There Westerners struck even bigger poses as saviors. Witness the largest American coalition calling itself “Save Darfur.” The apparent paradox--Darfur’s shocking devastation is largely man-made—is easily explained: In the age of the war against Islamic terror, what could be better than to give great publicity to bad Muslims killing good Muslims in Darfur?

Though its devastation is even greater, Congo differs in other respects. Unlike Haiti, the Congolese catastrophe is man-made. And unlike Darfur, the villains in Congo are not enemies of the West. Rather the Congo depredations are traceable to the countless “friendly tyrants” in Africa that US and French leaders have continued to nurture, protect and praise since the height of the Cold War. Exhibit A consists of Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni today. Exhibit B: Joseph Mobutu sese Seko yesterday. Thus in the Congo, the West collectively will find the Messiah role impossible to pull off. Consequently, it is expecting too much that Western leaders would voluntarily confess their costly Congo blunders to their decent, no-nonsense publics, even if the Congo death toll has exceeded six million.

The sound 4-point plan you present will improve the Congo situation immensely—PROVIDED Washington implements it. Implementation demands strong political will. Translation: We need intense grassroots pressure not unlike the Free South Africa Movement that, 25 years ago, overwhelmed Ronald Reagan’s support of apartheid South Africa.

Your column and The Times have a golden fleeting opportunity to help build today’s movement. Here is how.

Kambale Musavuli is a courageous Congolese studying in the US. With help from concerned Americans, he and other young Congolese have created Friends of the Congo, an advocacy group. It has just started the “Break the Silence” campaign. The aim is to get American campuses discussing events in the Congo.

Publicity. That is the campaign’s sorely-needed oxygen. My key suggestion Mr. Kristof is that your column and the entire New York Times organization should give the campaign significant publicity. This is will turn the young people’s spark into a steady flame.

Thereafter, the flame must be transformed into a fire, a national conversation. Its topic? A thorough review of America’s friendly tyrant policy and its role in the Congo during and since the Cold War.

I admit the conversation will be quite controversial. Inevitably, ideologues and opportunists on the right will try to intimidate critics with charges of hating America. Still, courageous, patriotic Americans must stand firm and the conversation must happen.

If and when it happens, the conversation would entail excruciating American self-examination. However, in Gdansk last September, Angela Merkel demonstrated that painful national self-examination is doable, liberating and beneficial.

Another reason for the American conversation is that Congo’s dead and dying need it. It is a vital first step. Unless it happens, Congo’s agony will be prolonged for an unconscionably long time.

After the conversation starts, subsequent steps must include the four you outline plus vigorous other American policies that hold Mr. Kagame and Mr. Museveni accountable--at least for their direct and indirect actions in the Congo.

So once more thank you very much shining a light on the Congo.

Could you now publicize and help transform the Break the Silence campaign?


Contact Mr. Akuetteh at


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