Why does the world ignore 'ethnic cleansing' in Africa?

Wole Soyinka

August 27, 1992|By Wole Soyinka

LAGOS, Nigeria -- DURING its 20-year history, the brutish civil war in the Sudan has periodically involved atrocities that most would classify as genocide and acts of "cleansing" on both ethnic and religious grounds. Yet, it would be instructive to know how many hours of attention either the United Nations General Assembly or Security Council has devoted to this zone of inhuman conflict.

The accustomed response, that this is primarily an affair for the Organization of African Unity, would be historically justified if we were not witness to the assumption of responsibility by the United Nations in other zones such as the Middle East and, most conspicuously, in the ongoing conflict in Yugoslavia.

Of course, we agree that humanity is one, and that human suffering should not be subject to grading by any set of abstract indices. In this respect, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's recent rebuke of the Western European attitude of virtually ignoring the horror in Somalia is neither an attempted dismissal of the very real agony of Yugoslavia nor a plea to revise the current system of priorities.

What the secretary general clearly rejects, like many of us in the Third World, is any double standard in the arrangement of conscience which seems to operate sincerely in the rich European world, but only on a token level in Africa or elsewhere -- or is only triggered awake when a relief plane is fired on or a European humanitarian worker or observer is kidnapped or killed in a "distant conflict." Only then does the European media, conservative and ethnocentric, even recall which country is involved, and agonize over a situation where even neutral or friendly agencies appear to have no immunity.

This issue unavoidably takes one's mind back to Lumumba's Congo and the U.N. initiative in that conflict under the ambiguous vision of Dag Hammarskjold. Admittedly, the world has changed much since then. The East-West divide was then at its most uncompromising. Most African nations had yet to obtain, much less assert, their independence. And, of course, the Organization of African Unity was not yet born.

The failure of that well-intended intervention, we may permit ourselves to charitably suspect, may have something to do with the U.N. distancing itself from Africa's appeals in times of crisis. The birth of the OAU , with its own battle cry of "Hands off Africa," was eagerly seized upon to encourage a "benign disinterest" in the U.N. concerning this continent.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali's complaint is a timely reminder to us all that the world has been transformed radically in the past five years and that we must now accommodate the consequences. Europe's once-supercilious dismissal of Africa's intense conflicts of self-definition as "dirty little tribal wars" is now coming back to haunt it through its own tribal troubles.

Africa's tribal conflicts have centuries of causative history behind them. Now, the European nations themselves -- especially in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union -- are violently taking stock of their own histories. (In this regard, why are the people embroiled in the Yugoslavian tragedy referred to as Serbs, Croats and Muslims? Is this a carry-over from the tribal-reduction language, substituting religious groupings for tribes, since it is still difficult for the Western media to accept the tribal actuality of Europe?)

As a consequence, on an individual basis many of these disintegrating nations and their racial kin are reassessing their conduct toward the people Europe once colonized. But collectively, that is, through the United Nations, this exercise is proving to be much slower in coming.

The anniversary last year of a key event in Nigeria's civil war caused me to reflect on the relationships among people, cultures and states that have come to dominate the post-Cold War world.

In Africa, are there still some forms of enslavement that we diligently preserve? Do we remain slavish to absolutes (such as the nation-state boundaries drawn for us by colonial powers) that are remote from histories, cultures and from contemporary realities? The questioning of colonial boundaries in Cape Verde, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Morocco, Rwanda-Burundi introduces very sobering reflections on the idea of secession, that emotively dubbed negative tendency of national disintegration.

The act of redrawing boundaries anywhere raises severe questions about existing national entities everywhere. Just what are these entities? And above all, what are their histories? Are they eternal? Immutable?

Events taking place in Eastern Europe today suggest the valid proposition that billions of people have been forced to live an artificial, imposed, even resented existence.

In the past year, the American and European response to that reality in former Yugoslavia has been to recognize breakaway Croatia and Slovenia as the preferable alternative to further bloodshed.

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