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This month, we’re featuring a post by university student Sam Gillespie, a junior at Dickinson College majoring in International Studies and French. Currently studying abroad in Cameroon, Mr. Gillespie was introduced to concepts related to genocide and mass atrocity prevention last summer while working at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Institute with Colonel Dwight Raymond, an alumnus of our Raphael Lemkin Seminar. Gillespie told AIPR that taking classes on humanitarian issues and learning on the ground in Cameroon has heightened his passion for human rights and mass atrocity prevention, and that after college he plans to return to Africa to work in the development sector.
“Would you mind hurrying up? We have somewhere to be,” my professor said to the Cameroonian National Gendarmerie officer circling our bus. He was exasperated. The official was closely examining all of our passports, the bus’ registration papers, and my professor’s itinerary for our trip.
“I’m doing my job! Would you mind letting me do it? If you didn’t interrupt me, I’d probably be done by now!” barked the officer, his words slurred by anger, and likely alcohol. From our seats in the bus, we could see his bloodshot eyes and uneven footing, plus empty beer cans on the ground.
After his inspection of the bus, the unsteady gendarmerie claimed “discrepancies” existed with our registration papers and unspecified “problems” with our first aid kit. He also demanded a fee. Asked if we’d get a receipt for our payment, the man said he was out of paper. At this, my professor laughed and handed him a notarized letter from his friend who holds a high position in government. Upon reading it, the officer returned all our paperwork and let our bus drive away without paying our fine. This was my first day in Cameroon and my introduction to endemic corruption.
Standing at the wrong place to hail a taxi, touching a mural that shouldn’t be touched, or taking pictures in a public place are all examples of “violations” I’ve since committed in Cameroon. Through these experiences, I’ve learned how corruption is not just merely inconvenient and sometimes costly, but how it can handicap a nation’s ability to develop economically, politically and socially.
Across Africa, the roots of corruption have survived countless regime changes and international aid missions. Year after year, corruption is passed on to the next generation. In essence, this culture of corruption has kept many post-colonial states trapped in a vortex of hardship and struggle. The impact of corruption can even be deadly. For the last several decades, there are numerous examples where political and economic corruption has lead to mass atrocities. Perhaps the most stunning example came in the early 1990s in Rwanda where a combination of corruption, political tensions and economic failure, among other factors, precipitated the most horrific genocide of the modern era.
Although the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is usually attributed to ethnic tensions, political and economic mismanagement contributed to the supremacy of the Hutu elite. It was the Hutu elite who ultimately began and encouraged a killing campaign against 800,000 Tutsis. Roots of the violence can be traced to the 1980s when the price of Rwanda’s main export (coffee), fell 50% as a result of an international coffee crisis. The plummeting coffee prices impacted Rwandan GDP and devalued the country’s currency 40 percent. The IMF provided an aid package, but instead of it going towards a recovery plan, the funds were largely disbursed throughout the President Habyarimana’s corrupt administration, leaving the rest of the country to fend for itself.
Beyond the high walls of Habyarimana’s presidential palace, the country declined rapidly. With 85% of the population falling below the poverty line and farmland devaluing greatly, the country fell further and further into debt. Amid the economic deterioration and rising political corruption Tutsi rebel groups formed in Uganda (mainly the Rwandan Patriotic Front) and ignited a violent civil war. After a pair of missiles shot down Habyarimana’s plane after a peace accord had been signed with the RPF in April 1994, the Hutu government began the massacres. Over the next four months, Hutu extremist militias exterminated 11 percent of the country’s population and left the rest of the world in shock.
The events of the Rwandan genocide were undoubtedly a culmination of many factors, amongst them ethnic tensions unique to the Rwandan example. But at its core, corrupt and irresponsible political behavior precipitated the economic failure that led, ultimately, to genocide. Thus one of the many lessons we can draw from the genocide in Rwanda is this: countries with endemic corruption are at a greater risk of mass atrocity compared to societies with stable and highly accountable state institutions.
While Cameroon has its own legacy of mass atrocities and remains at risk for more, I have hope for the country I currently call home. Despite having the same president for 30 years, I believe the political process is becoming more transparent in step with economic growth and social progress. My time in Cameroon will end in June 2014, but I’m hopeful that when I next visit, the gendarmerie officer who examines my passport will not be looking for a simple kickback, but performing his duties in the service of the Cameroonian people and stability of the state.
Moise Jean, “The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings,” Emory Endeavors in World History, Volume I: March 2007.
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, London 2005.