Blood and tears in Garden of Eden – II

Perhaps this was a barb at the state of lawlessness in the country and the region at large, where anyone with authority or a gun (or a machete) can interpret the law as he pleases. 

(Daily Times, 9 January 2013) 

While the United Nations’ bureaucrats and troops deployed in South Sudan fly in and out of Uganda’s Entebbe airport, ordinary people take one of the many buses that depart from a derelict bus stand in the centre of Kampala for the capital Juba. A distance of 515 kilometres is covered in 12-14 hours if one is lucky, which means no rains, no accidents and no breakdowns.

The Republic of South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having seceded from the Republic of the Sudan in July 2011 after a long and bloody civil war, becoming the 193rd member-state of the UN.  South Sudan continues the trend in Africa to name a country identically or similarly to a neighbouring country.  We already had Nigeria and Niger, the People’s Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and three Guineas (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea).

As value for money or performance against expectation, one would think that the world organisation is among the world’s biggest failures.  Coincidentally or not, most of the UN’s astounding failures recently have been in Africa, particularly Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Congo and Sudan.

In the many mini-wars in the D. R. Congo, more than 5 million have died since 1998, the Second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) is estimated to have cost over two million lives and the war in Dharfur anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 since 2003.  In 1994, in the space of three months, 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda in a pre-planned massacre of Tutsis by Hutus. The Rwandan genocide makes for an average of eight thousand killed every day for over three months!  Another gross failing of the UN, Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia has deservedly earned international infamy, but Rwanda translates into one Srebrenica per day, every day, for over three months!

In all the above conflict zones, the UN did have a “peace-keeping” presence, but either withdrew anticipating trouble or did nothing to stop the massacres.  In a damning End-of-Assignment Report to the Secretary General of the UN in July 2010, Under-Secretary General for Oversight Services, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, wrote: “There is no transparency, there is lack of accountability. Is there any improvement in general of our capacity to protect the civilians in conflict and distress? . . .  I am concerned that we are in a process of decline and reduced relevance of the Organization. In short – we seem to be seen less and less as a relevant partner in the resolution of world problems.”

Even as I write these lines, we are witnessing the unfolding of a civil war in Syria which has so far claimed over 60,000 lives in two years.  Of course, the UN can only be as good as its member-states, in particular the veto-wielding five permanent members of the Security Council. But there is also the problem of a grossly-overpaid and unaccountable UN bureaucracy whose principal concern is self-perpetuation and principal problem a lack of motivation.  Many if not most of the UN staffers are bureaucrats more interested in their perks and tax-free pay checks than in their commitment to the cause or the mission of the United Nations.  This is even more true of the troops drawn from various countries, predominantly from Third World Countries, to serve under the UN flag.

Speaking of African military rebellions and conflicts, Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times’ East Africa Bureau Chief (“Africa’s Forever Wars, Why the Continents Conflicts Never End”, Foreign Policy, March/April 2010), says:

“There is a very simple reason why some of Africa’s bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don’t have much of an ideology; they don’t have clear goals. They couldn’t care less about taking over capitals or major cities — in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. . . .

“What is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry.  . . .  This is the story across much of Africa, where nearly half of the continent’s 53 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one.” 

Among the recently ended ones are the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone where, fuelled by profit (from gemstones) and sustained by tribalism, exceptionally horrific crimes were committed, including the chopping-off of the hands of thousands of ordinary men, women and children.

Considering how much suffering has been inflicted on the men, women and children of Africa by colonialists, imperialists and their own (I will touch in a later column on that biggest of crimes against humanity, namely, slavery), it is a wonder that the man on the street possesses and exhibits a self-dignity, a sense of humour and a certain bonhomie and camaraderie that I have not seen elsewhere.  Television viewers have probably noticed that African men and women are very colourfully and immaculately dressed and that they sing and dance often, in joy, grief and anger.

The street in Kampala where my hotel was situated was a transport hub and a wholesale market, where trucks loaded and offloaded all day and were parked during the night like sardines in a can.  Amazed by the skills of a driver reversing his truck with no more than a 5-10 cm gap between itself and another truck parked parallel to it, I had set myself up to take a picture, when one of the helpers, with a mischievous smile on his face, shouted: “You are breaking the law!”  Perhaps this was a barb at the state of lawlessness in the country and the region at large, where anyone with authority or a gun (or a machete) can interpret the law as he pleases.

From Entebbe airport I caught a flight for Dares Salam in Tanzania, with a stopover in Kilimajaro. It was a spectacular flight, giving me a bird’s eye view of the serene blue waters of the massive Victoria Lake, Serengeti plains and a couple of volcanoes including the Ngorongoro Crater, which is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife.  At 5,895 metres, Mt Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania, close to the border of Kenya, is not just Africa’s highest peak, but also the highest “free-standing” peak in the world (like Mt Fuji in Japan).

By Razi Azmi




This entry was posted in Travelogues. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Blood and tears in Garden of Eden – II

  1. Javed Agha says:

    You have hammered UN in this article. That is so true. UN is a silent spectator in Africa. A lot can be done if they have the will to do. You are right in stating that the UN lot is more interested in their perks and hefty salary checks. Africa is a beautiful continent, only if its problems could be solved. Thanks for painting a good picture of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

  2. Razi Azmi says:

    A friend of mine who worked in the UN headquarters in NY for nearly a decade sent me the following comment after reading this article. With his permission, I am posting it here:
    “Your references to the UN are in order. Recruitment, promotions and transfers often lack professionalism and predictability – and as a general rule, political and other connections are more important. So it is not surprising if many staffers lack motivation and/or competence, etc. In addition, there are other problems, some of which are peculiar to the UN being what it is….
    I couldn’t hack it, so I finally quit despite the huge financial sacrifice that decision entailed.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *