Fighting to End Africa’s Worst Human Rights Crimes

Almost anything concerning human rights in Africa is likely to be unsettling– often bordering on hopeless–sufficient reasons for searching for solutions to some of the continent’s most intractable and on-going problems. The needs are even more urgent when the moment seems propitious for genuine alleviation of some of the continent’s worst excesses: the genocide in Darfur, the children forced to be soldier/murderers in Uganda, the out-of-control rapes in the Congo. John Prendergast and Don Cheadle both understand these issues as well as anyone else today. On numerous occasions, I’ve heard Prendergast lecture forcefully on the atrocities sweeping across the continent; Don Cheadle was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for his stunning role in Hotel Rwanda. There’s hardly anyone out there better versed in Africa’s problems than these two activists who wrote an earlier book also concerned with Darfur, called Not on Our Watch (2007).

Second books are often difficult to pull together—not always because of ideas but because of presentation. The three major sections of The Enough Project are focused, first, on the continuation of genocide in Sudan, with the authors’ fears that things can get worse. Second, on Joseph Kory’s Lord’s Resistance Army, mostly in Northern Uganda, with a spill over into neighboring Sudan. Untold thousands of young people have been abducted into the fanatic’s army, which wants overthrow the Ugandan government. And third, the years old war in Congo—sometimes referred to as Africa’s First World War—mostly over minerals used for making computers and cell phones but also diamonds and precious metals. Women, especially, have been the victims of the struggling forces. Rape as a form of warfare has been implemented to an unprecedented degree–mass rape which the authors refer to as “The genetic obliteration of a group of people.”

The statistics for all three of these atrocities are incomprehensible, especially their longevity. But it is this passage from The Enough Moment which ought to give Western governments pause: “The kinds of tactics used by warring parties globally are increasingly targeted at civilian populations who are usually defenseless and largely disconnected from the perpetrators of the violence. As a result, the ratio of civilians to soldiers who die at times runs as high as nine to one.” Millions of people have died in Africa during the past dozen years because of these three destabilized areas.

For me, the optimism that Prendergast and Cheadle share about solving these problems is unrealistic. The book speaks frequently of “Upstanders” (frontline people who are there where the atrocities occur; citizens in the general area, but not necessarily in the fighting zones; and famous people, mostly in the West, who are involved in movements to expose the atrocities) a realistic enough resource, especially if these people are supported by actions from the West, including the United Nations. But looking at President Obama—as the authors do–as the symbol of renewed hope for Africa seems to be unrealistic, almost foolish.

Yes, Africa—and people of good will throughout the world who are interested in improving the continent’s lot—galvanized around Obama at the time of his election, assuming that change would be coming. Almost two years later, little has happened in regard to the President’s obvious interest in the continent. Obama’s noble goals have been overshadowed by the high-jacking of his agenda by the economic collapse caused by his predecessor. Even one of the President’s closest advisors, Susan Rice, currently Ambassador to the United States, has shaky African credentials. She was undersecretary for Africa during Clinton’s years and unable to convince him to intervene and stop the genocide in Rwanda.

You can hear Susan Rice’s voice on the soundtrack of Hotel Rwanda. At a preview of the movie that I attended in Washington, D.C., Terry George, the director, said that the genocide in Rwanda could have been stopped by a force as small as the District of Columbia Police Department. Those involved in the genocide did not have sophisticated armaments; they used simple machetes. And yet Rice and Clinton did not stop the genocide, though Clinton later stated that his worst foreign affairs error as president was NOT intervening in Rwanda.

If I have belabored this example, I use it simply to show that optimism and good intentions are not enough. Even the three goals presented in this book—peace, protection, and punishment—will not be sufficient without more involvement from Western leaders and their governments. As a possible example, let’s go back to the Lord’s Resistant Army which—with a sadistic leader and a force estimated at ten thousand “soldiers”–has caused untold disaster in Uganda and neighboring areas during the past dozen years. Why is it so difficult to locate Joseph Kory and eliminate him? Can’t drones be implemented to take him out?

I found Prendergast and Cheadle’s goals worthy enough but their implementation less convincing. And the verbatim passages of dialogue between the two of them filled with colloquial terms are unequal to the gravity of their intent.

The Enough Project: Fighting to End Africa’s Worst Human Rights Crimes
By John Prendergast with Don Cheadle
Three Rivers, 304 pp., $14.99

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.