Will Nelson Mandela ever stop astounding and humbling the world by the force of his moral vision and the transformative authority of his personal courage and conviction? Not soon, we hope.

Fresh from the peaceful transfer of power he presided over upon his retirement as president of South Africa last year, in January Mandela plunged into the even more intractable political turmoil that has gripped Central Africa for the better part of a decade. The genocide that momentarily propelled Rwanda onto the front pages and TV news in 1994 is well known, if not well understood by those outside of Africa (see, "Never Again? The Church & Genocide in Rwanda," Commonweal, November 5, 1999). Rwanda’s neighbor, Burundi, long wracked by violent conflict, now seems similarly poised on the precipice of some unimaginable horror. Mandela hopes to avert that possible outcome while negotiating an end to the civil war that has devastated Burundi’s economy and terrorized its 6 million people. It would appear to be a near impossible task-but then, Mandela has pulled off miracles in the past.

As in Rwanda, the fighting in Burundi pits the ethnic minority Tutsi against the majority Hutu. In Burundi, however, the power relationship is reversed, and it is the civilian Hutu population that is most threatened. Since taking power by force in 1993, the Tutsi-led government and army have been fighting various Hutu insurgencies. The conflict has already claimed 200,000 lives and flooded neighboring countries with tens of thousands of refugees. Recently, the Tutsi government, accusing the general population of giving aid and protection to the rebels, has forced 350,000 Hutu into squalid, disease-infested camps. Humanitarian groups as well as the United States and other governments have strongly protested this action, fearing that such forced relocation could be the preamble to genocide.

As the crisis intensified, Mandela inserted himself into the peace negotiations among Burundi’s numerous warring factions. He did not mince words in addressing government officials and representatives of the rebel forces assembled in Tanzania. Nor did he excuse Africans from full culpability for the horrors convulsing the region. "Please join the modern world," he scolded the representatives of the political groups. "Why are you lagging behind? Why do you allow yourselves to be regarded as leaders without talent, leaders without a vision?"

As in Rwanda, unarmed civilians, including women and children, are the most common victims of the fighting. Mandela tried to appeal to the combatants’ sense of honor in the face of such senseless killing: "When they [the outside world] hear this they say, ’Africans are still barbarians-no human beings could do what they are doing.’"

Whether or not Mandela’s intervention will bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict is of course impossible to tell. "You have reached a stage where none of you is completely right and none is completely wrong," he said, urging the parties to compromise. But to what extent either side will be willing to disarm, or the Tutsi government be willing to share power, is far from certain. Many of the Hutu rebel fighters have become mere bandits and are no longer under the control of any political authority. Mandela is not naive about the difficulties. His apparent strategy is to promote an African-mediated cease fire while looking to the international community for humanitarian aid and constructive diplomatic and economic pressure. He plans to return to the peace table in Tanzania this month, bringing with him the weight of a galvanized and concerted international community, including possibly President Bill Clinton.

Obviously these are hopeful signs. In the meantime, the potential for mass slaughter remains a daily worry. Lessons drawn from Rwanda tell us that the genocide was not the result of any spontaneous uprising or longstanding and intractable ethnic hatreds. The genocide was planned and carefully promoted by the Hutu government for months in advance. In retrospect, signs of the impending calamity are easily recognized.

This suggests that ways can be found to avert the worst of such killings. First, observers on the ground should be able to keep track of the government’s more malign initiatives and thus alert the world. Second, it is now widely believed that early, forceful action by the UN, or the international community acting through some other venue, could have forestalled the Rwanda genocide. The UN has frankly admitted its manifold failures in this regard. What was missing at the time, of course, was the political will to act, and the United States was among the most derelict, as President Clinton himself has admitted. Building a public consensus for such intervention-even to stop genocide-is not easy, and neither elected officials nor humanitarian agencies have done nearly enough to convince the public of the moral imperative justifying such action. But if the tragic lessons of Rwanda and Bosnia continue to be learned, and if Mandela’s leadership and enormous prestige can be put to good use, history need not repeat itself in Burundi.

Published in the 2000-02-11 issue: View Contents
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