The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa by Bill Berkeley
The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa by Bill Berkeley

The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa

Jan 15, 2002

Tyrannical leaders in modern-day Africa create and stoke ethnic conflict so they can "divide and rule," according to Bill Berkeley. The absence of legitimate institutions and justice has allowed these leaders and their "mafia culture" to rise to a position of preeminence, he says.


JOANNE MYERS: Since World War II and the decline of colonialism, a considerable degree of chaos has engulfed the continent. Today Africa is torn by war, beleaguered by countless rebel and splinter movements, and home to a panoply of corrupt regimes. In The Graves Are Not Yet Full, our guest demystifies the Dark Continent. Although our awareness is most often focused overwhelmingly on the victims, Mr. Berkeley was interested in the perpetrators, whose interests, machinations, and evasions of responsibility, he says, might help to explain the suffering of so many.

In his book he has launched into a gripping exploration of some of the worst African atrocities of the past twenty years and addresses universal and timeless questions, such as: How do evil people operate; what accounts for their power; and why do people follow?

Focusing on several flashpoints, he visits Liberia and Charles Taylor, then on to the apartheid era in South Africa, to the post-genocide times in Rwanda, and the political violence in the former Zaïre and Sudan. Along the way, Mr. Berkeley portrays ethnic conflict as a form of organized crime, a rebuttal to the argument that it is in the blood of Africans to murder. Mr. Berkeley believes that these catastrophes are not as senseless as they seem, that they are not inevitable products of primordial, immutable hatreds; but, he alleges, there is method to the madness.

Bill Berkeley has reported on African events for more than a decade. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post. He was a recipient of an Alicia Patterson Fellowship and an editorial writer for The New York Times. Recently he joined the investigative staff as an investigative reporter, and he also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Bill Berkeley.


BILL BERKELEY: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Those of you who have followed the story of bin Laden and al Qaeda know that there is an African connection. Bin Laden, you will recall, actually built his al Qaeda group in Sudan during the early 1990s. From 1991 to 1996, his initial investment of $50 million was in Al Shamal Islamic Bank in Khartoum. His main paymaster, indicted recently along with Zacarias Moussaoui in a federal court in Virginia, was Mustafa Ahmed, who built bin Laden's business investments initially in Sudan, but elsewhere in Africa as well. The Bush Administration is contemplating military intervention to attack alleged terrorist camps in Somalia, but the main bin Laden connection there is the Al-Baraka banking group whose assets the Bush Administration has frozen. The Washington Post has also run accounts of West African—primarily Sierra Leonean—diamond smuggling connections to al Qaeda, as well as Eastern Congo diamond-smuggling with links to Hezbollah.

There is even a South African connection: The primary European propagandist for the government of Sudan at the moment is a former South African military intelligence operative.

My book is about ethnic conflict, or what some might call tribalism. I attempt to de-mystify ethnic conflict in Africa, by focusing on conflicts in Liberia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Ugandan, the former Zaïre, countries where tens of thousands, and in some instances hundreds of thousands of people were killed in ethic conflicts during the 1990s.

Many Americans imagine that these are exotic conflicts. Although there are exotic components to various cultures and societies in Africa, they don’t explain why people are killing each other. The conflicts have a recognizable logic, which my book tries to describe.

Secondly, many Americans believe that these conflicts have roots in ancient, age-old hatreds, the kind of stereotypes that were often applied to the Balkans as well. The conflicts I write about have often been explained as having roots in ancient hatreds, but in fact some of them are the result of political struggles that are no more than five or ten years old.

And finally, perhaps the most widely held misconception is the so-called arbitrary borders theory. Africa’s borders were drawn up in the 19th century by European colonizers who grouped disparate ethnic groupings or tribes into nation states that had little coherent explanation for being. They also divided groups one from another. My own view is that these borders in themselves explain little. For example, a border divides Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire on the eastern side of Liberia, cutting through several disparate ethnic groupings, dividing the Gio and Mano groups and the Krahn groups one from another. On the Liberian side of that border, a civil war during the early 1990s claimed the lives of as many as 100,000 to 150,000 people. On the other side there has been peace. Gio and Krahn live on the Liberian side; Gio and Krahn live on the Ivorian side. On the Liberian side, Gio and Krahn are at war; on the Ivorian side, they are at peace. So clearly, the border itself doesn’t explain the fighting.

My chapter in the book is about President Charles Taylor of Liberia, for many years the country’s most notorious warlord. His story and that of Samuel Doe before him goes to the core of my explanation of ethnic conflict as a product of tyranny. Ethnic conflict is a tactic which tyrants use to divide and rule; and in the broader, historical sense, ethnic conflict is a legacy of tyranny.

Let me start with the immediate sense, the tactic of divide and rule. In all of the countries I examine, you find either tyrants or aspiring tyrants who use ethnicity to magnify, exploit, and stoke ethnic divisions, very much as we saw in the Balkans, in order to pit groups one against another, to acquire and exercise power and its accompanying booty.

Ethnically-based militias, proxy militias, preying on ignorance, stacking police and army with ethnic kinsmen, these are the tactics which tyrants use to divide and rule.

Radio propaganda, again very much as we saw in the Balkans, is also a common tactic. The title The Graves Are Not Yet Full comes from radio propaganda in Rwanda in 1994, used by the Hutu government and its allies to beseech Hutu militias to carry on the slaughter without delay: “You have missed some of the enemies. You must go back there and finish them off. The graves are not yet full.”

Another very important dimension I have tried to highlight is ethnic conflict as a form of organized crime. In all of the conflicts I describe in Africa, there is a moneymaking component.

What is fundamentally different in some parts of Africa is the complete absence of criminal law. In a lawless environment, ethnicity is a means of legitimacy for those who seek and wield power. It is also a means of protection, justice, and revenge, a badge of legitimacy for leaders who otherwise lack any source of legitimacy.

The Mafiosi and Mafia tactics in Africa are not an exotic phenomenon. We have Mafias in our society and Mafia influences in our own economic life, but here they operate on the margins. In many of these countries – Liberia, Rwanda, the former Zaïre, particularly during the Mubutu era and since—Mafias exist at the very heart of the state, controlling the central bank, the army, the police, the courts and all economic activity. Therefore, economic life is a life-and-death struggle, and ethnicity is a means of mobilizing support and protection and acquiring legitimacy for those who seek power.

Another very important element in these conflicts is the exploitation of children. Child soldiers are an important dimension of many of these conflicts in Africa, and particularly vulnerable to the machinations of those who seek to inflame ethnic divisions.

But that raises the question: Why does it work and why is it so potent?

Liberia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan and Zaïre (now DRCongo) all have a history of racial tyranny. Colonial rule was, among other things, a form of racial tyranny—in South Africa apartheid; in Sudan the history of British and Egyptian domination; in Liberia, the descendants of freed American slaves dominated the country as a tiny minority oligarchy, governing a vast majority of indigenous inhabitants for more than a century.

A fundamental component of racial tyranny is the domination of a vast majority with the wherewithal of a tiny minority. It is impossible for a tiny group of whites or Americo-Liberians, or even, in the case of colonial rule, a group of colonial administrators to dominate a vast majority over a sustained period of time simply by coercion. One needs to co-opt allies and enlist collaborators.

In all of these countries, groups from within the indigenous majority were enlisted as allies and collaborators in the system which was described as a form of indirect rule. The most vivid example is the history of Rwanda. During the Belgian colonial era, the small minority of Tutsis, comprising barely 15 percent of the population, enlisted as allies the Belgian colonizers, granted privileges, bureaucratic advantage, education, and economic opportunities. They became an elite who were able to dominate the vast majority of Hutus on behalf of the colonial power. The system of indirect rule was magnified and entrenched through an ideology, called a Hasidic hypothesis, a system of thought that elevated the Tutsis as a privileged, elite caste, and created, among other things, a reservoir of envy, hatred, and prejudice which very much underlay the genocide that occurred in 1994, and subsequent massacres as well.

You see this pattern all across the continent in different forms. In South Africa it was the traditional chiefs, who were granted privileges and enlisted to do the dirty work of, first, the British during the colonial era, and then the apartheid system.

Secondly, the coercive arms of racial tyranny in many of these countries had a way of outlasting the tyrannies they were designed to preserve, and you find that a great many of the leaders in the post-colonial era who did the most damage had their start in the armies and coercive institutions of colonial rule. Idi Amin was a product of the King’s African Rifles, the British colonial army; Mubutu Sese Seko in Zaïre, and his protégé Juvenal Habyarimana in Rwanda products of the Belgian colonial army; and Gatsha Buthelezi in South Africa of the homeland system, finding his protection in South African military intelligence.

And finally, a critical legacy of racial tyranny in many of these countries is the absence of legitimate institutions of law and justice. In the absence of justice, ethnicity takes on paramount importance as a source of legitimacy for those who seek to rule, as a source of protection and justice for those below.

My book focused primarily on conflicts in the 1990s, in the immediate-post-Cold-War era. Many Americans imagine Africa as a distant phenomenon over which the U.S. has little influence. If anything, most Americans think that our entire relationship with Africa is altruistic and humanitarian, and that our only failing is insufficient humanitarianism and altruism.

My own view is quite the opposite. I focus primarily on the destructive role of outsiders, including that of the United States during the Cold War, in the political, diplomatic, military, and economic spheres. American economic business interests are very important elements in many of these countries.

In Liberia, for example, during the years leading up to the horrendous conflict that erupted in the 1990s, Firestone Rubber Company leased and operated the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia. In the early-20th century, around the time that automobile tires became an enormous economic factor, Firestone had entered into an agreement with this tiny minority of Americo-Liberians, whom they basically bankrolled for much of the century.

More obviously, in the diplomatic and military sphere during the Cold War, Republican and Democratic administrations alike entered into client relationships with allies who participated in our competition with the Soviet Union in Africa—Samuel Doe in Liberia, Mubutu Sese Seko in Zaïre, just to mention a few.

My discussion of the American role in Liberia focuses on Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during both of the Reagan Administrations. Chester Crocker, remembered by some for his policy of constructive engagement with South Africa during the uprisings of the mid-1980s, was a very controversial lightning rod during that era. Very few Americans are familiar with his policies with regard to the rest of black Africa, something akin to constructive engagement.

Let me read you a quotation from my 1997 interview with Chester Crocker, during which he speaks quite candidly about his own role in propping up a military dictatorship in Liberia in the aftermath of a failed, stolen election and an extremely bloody failed coup: “I would never in a million years tell you I was seeking what was in the best interests of Liberia. I was protecting the interests of Washington.”

The piece I’m currently working on is about bin Laden’s years in Sudan and an attempt to explain why the country was an ideal incubator for his al Qaeda group. The account hinges on Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist leader who was the dominant figure in Sudan for most of the 1990s, the ideological and financial brains behind the National Islamic Front until he was sidelined in a power struggle just a couple of years ago. He is now under house arrest in Khartoum. Al-Turabi is one of the world’s foremost experts on al Qaeda, and the United States counter-terrorism investigation has an obvious interest in interviewing him, and perhaps even arresting and extraditing him for trial for his own complicity in the growth of al Qaeda.

But U.S. investigators have been denied access to al-Turabi because he knows too much about the leadership in Khartoum, who cannot possibly turn him over because he’s in a position to document the extent to which all the current top leaders in the government of Sudan were complicit in the growth of al Qaeda during the early-1980s.

What made Sudan an ideal incubator for al Qaeda? A permanent war zone, very much like Afghanistan, with assets that were ideally suited to the incubation of a fledgling terrorist organization: extensive black market economies completely under the control of a militarized state, and extensive smuggling and money-laundering opportunities.

What did bin Laden bring to Sudan? He brought money and investment from private Saudi source in the early-1990s, when Sudan was prosecuting a war without the benefit of oil revenues, which it now has. In exchange, he sought the protection which Sudanese intelligence provided for him.

I will conclude by reading my own description of Sudan and my introduction to Hassan al-Turabi, who really personifies the links between ethnicity and organized crime and, in this case, the links between Islam and power and organized crime in a permanent war:

Sudan has been at war for thirty-five of the last forty-five years, thirteen of the last seventeen decades. The current round of fighting is entering its sixteenth year, with no end in sight. The best guess is that upwards of 2 million have died since 1983. Eighty-five percent of southern Sudan’s population has been displaced. Southern Sudanese, with a mix of sorrow and shame, reckon they’ve been bludgeoned nearly back to the Stone Age.

Sudan’s war is usually explained as a clash between the Arab and Islamic north and the long-subjugated Christian and animist black African south. There is truth in this view. But another way of looking at Sudan is as a textbook case of big men using little men, a handful of elites endlessly maneuvering for power and booty while millions perish.

For generations of Sudanese, war has become a self-perpetuating industry. Many suffer, but more than a few are benefiting. Politicians, soldiers, weapons merchants, warlords, gangsters, and famine profiteers, all tirelessly jockey for advantage, heedless of the suffering they cause.

What’s left of the Sudanese state is a composite of predatory interests. Whoever is on top is the faction most skilled in preying on others. It is as if Sudan were not a country any more, but a process. It exists through the fact that people are fighting and exploiting each other.

Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is a laboratory for disorders common to many of its most intractable sectarian and ethnic conflicts. Sudan’s big men personify a particularly ruinous symbiosis of ethnicity and organized crime, with the added dimension religion.

I had come here in May 1994 to meet some of these men: John Garang and Riek Machar in the southern Sudan in their southern guerrilla redoubts, and in Khartoum the spiritual leader Hassan al-Turabi, perhaps the biggest man in Sudan, the cast of characters at the top on all sides whose interests and machinations and evasions of responsibility might illuminate the pathology of an endless war.

Then I shift to Khartoum in my introduction to Hassan al-Turabi, who brought Osama bin Laden to Sudan in 1991, after he was exiled from Saudi Arabia:

Slouching languidly in its desert isolation at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, sand-strewn, dilapidated, oven-hot, Khartoum seemed a universe apart from the war in southern Sudan. The cry of the muezzin wafted across the capital, calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Women in veils, men in long, white djellabas, their heads wrapped in twisted turbans, made their way through sluggish traffic amid taxis honking, donkeys bleating. Apart from the moonscape of fetid refugee camps on its distant periphery where a million displaced southerners languished in humiliating beggary, Khartoum did not have the feel of a capital at war. The edge in its otherwise somnolent air derived from the pervasive presence of informers for Hassan Turabi’s secret police.

Turabi greeted me in a plain stucco villa on a quiet side street near the center of Khartoum, the headquarters of his power base, the National Islamic Front. His office was cool, with Venetian blinds shut tight against the midday sun and air-conditioner humming. There were few outward signs of power. The walls were bare, the desk uncluttered. The interview had been speedily arranged through the government’s otherwise-obstructionist press office, and Turabi appeared to have all the time in the world for a foreign journalist, the better to cultivate his messianic image.

Islam is a current, he told me in fluent English. Islam means submission to God exclusively, submission to a higher power. Turabi is a diminutive man with soft hands and a white wisp of a beard, bespectacled, urbane, resplendent in a flowing white robe and turban. A lawyer by training, with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, he spoke in a deep, sonorous voice, his undulating sentences punctuated by a nervous giggle and an ingratiating smile that gave an impression of trying to seduce.

Sitting behind his polished desk, Turabi would have talked without interruption for two solid hours if I had let him. He said things like this: Of course you know very well who controls American foreign policy. Zionists, of course, among lawyers, bankers, journalists. Their number is very big. I know who is a Jew among them. Many people know, of course.

Turabi was the brains behind the military regime of General Ahmad al-Bashir, which seized power in a coup in 1989 and has ruled Sudan ever since through sheer terror. Turabi achieved international notoriety and the abiding enmity of Washington because of his alleged support for terrorists and because of his avowed ambition to lead an Islamist crusade from Algiers to Damascus.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: What does Africa need most of all right now? Does it need more Firestones going in there with investments?

BILL BERKELEY: My book is not prescriptive. I deliberately avoided trying to come up with solutions to Africa’s problems. Investments all over the continent over the years have mainly wound up lining the pockets of corrupt dictators and warlords. So investment by itself, although it could be a wonderful addition to Africa, has in the past, as often as not, propped up tyranny. The one element that I consider indispensable is criminal justice and the establishment of legitimate institutions of law and accountability.

The culture of impunity, or a Mafia culture, is at the root of Africa’s problems. It’s the gangsters operating in a gangland culture, the guys with the guns who rise to the top.

What the well-meaning West could do is to help those many Africans who have been trying for years to build institutions of accountability for their political leadership.

My concluding chapter is about a modest, but significant, attempt in that regard, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I focus on the trial of Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was the first man convicted of genocide in an international trial in Arusha, Tanzania.

So justice is the brightest idea I’ve been able to come up with, an idea that many Africans across a broad spectrum over many years have been trying in vain to build. Until very recently, the West and the rest of the world has attached very little importance to justice.

QUESTION: To what extent are former colonial powers, Belgium, England, France still involved in Africa? Is this a deciding factor in the activities of these warlords?

BILL BERKELEY: Very much so, and particularly with tremendous business interests coming from all of the former colonial powers. The Portuguese were really kicked out of their former colonies, Angola and Mozambique, by avowedly Marxist governments, although there are other business interests that have come into play.

But certainly, from other colonial powers, both diplomatic and business relationships, established around the time of decolonization, played a very important role in helping some of the tyrants I’m speaking of to consolidate power. The United States has also played a role.

There is a movie that was a particularly dramatic reminder of it recently: Lumumba shows Belgium’s role in undermining the democratic election in 1960 of Patrice Lumumba. It is a particularly well-documented and disturbing depiction of the role of the CIA, the Belgian Government, but particularly Belgian business, with an interest in maintaining control over the lucrative copper mines in Congo.

I wrote an editorial last spring on a report by the United Nations investigative team documenting the business interests that are currently involved in exploiting diamonds and other minerals in eastern Congo from as far afield as Malaysia and Ukraine and, certainly Belgium, Britain, and the United States. The business interests in the global era from all over the world are preying on some of these war zones, in league with warlords and rebel armies.

This also cuts across countries. It is not just the French involved in former French colonies and the Brits involved in former British colonies. Charles Taylor formed very important business relationships with French political and business interests in the early-1990s that played a key role in his own quest for power.

QUESTION: You alluded briefly to the role of propaganda via radio as an important element in subjugating people or in carrying out the power of the leaders. Can you describe what counter-efforts have been made or might be made to dilute that influence, either alternative networks that could be encouraged, or purely exterior networks, such as Radio Liberty? It is a very cheap way to have influence, far cheaper than arms, or even aid, and yet has the potential for great influence. Has that been tried? Is it feasible? Or is there a language problem?

BILL BERKELEY: Until recently, the role of propaganda and radio propaganda was insufficiently understood. It was dramatized and well documented in Rwanda to a greater degree than it ever has been before. And certainly, USAID, for example, in the years since then has undertaken to fund programs that train journalists, and the BBC and Voice of American broadcast broadcasts across the continent.

The key problem is that the radio propaganda is, to a great extent, a function of the absence of independent political and economic activity, all of which in most of these countries is dominated by the state. It is not just propaganda as a manipulative tool that has destructive consequences, but the absence of alternative sources of information from within the country.

There are independent journalists all over Africa who are risking their lives. There have been independent journalists in Liberia for years who start up one independent newspaper after another, and get shut down, bombed out, beaten and exiled, and, one generation after another, they come back.

Unless outsiders and those on the ground are in a position to challenge the monopoly of the state over access to the airwaves, it is difficult to have an impact.

QUESTION: You gave a very convincing analysis of the factors underlying ethnic conflict. One factor that you didn’t discuss is poverty. If you compare Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, the latter’s greater economic level of development played a role in the combustibility of the situation. Is justice without providing a basic economic level for people going to do it?

BILL BERKELEY: When I speak of justice, I use the term accountability. An accountable government would have a vested interest in trying to address the problems of poverty in a way that an unaccountable government does not. Poverty is, among other things, a function of tyranny in many of these countries. All the competition for resources is among elites.

Many who enlist in ethnically-based militias do so to acquire a gun, which in turn means access to what is otherwise inaccessible, such as food and some measure of wealth. So yes, it helps to explain the potency of some of these machinations.

I hesitate to evaluate it, because similar conflicts have occurred in many parts of the world throughout history, including the middle of this century in the heart of Europe, in one of the most advanced and most prosperous parts of the world, in which certainly economic chaos was a contributing factor. You mentioned Côte d’Ivoire. The western part of the country which borders Liberia is every bit as poor as on the other side of the border.

One factor in the potency of ethnicity in many of these societies is that ethnicity is a means of providing social services and access to financial and economic resources. In societies where there is a broader middle class, the pull of ethnicity seems to be less potent.

An example of that is Kenya, where people have been predicting ethnic conflict for years. But there is a much broader middle class that cuts across ethnic lines, and people’s economic interests tend to be class-oriented rather than ethnically based, which seems to cut against the trend toward ethnic conflict.

Poverty by itself, even acute poverty, may render certain societies more vulnerable to the machinations of cynical leaders, yet with all the poverty in Africa, only some countries have disintegrated into large-scale, mass slaughter.

QUESTION: How do you view U.S. or Western military intervention in Africa?

BILL BERKELEY: I will have trouble answering your question concisely. I would not advocate a military intervention in many of these countries, even countries that I’ve cared about deeply for many years. Liberia is a particularly good example. When their country descended into civil war in the early 1990s, many Liberians wanted the U.S. to intervene.

Many of these countries lack an ability to pull themselves out of these problems because they’re trapped in a Macbethian logic, in which political leaders are compelled to kill ever greater numbers of people to survive in power. They really do need outsiders to come in and change the rules of the game, somehow shift the balance of power.

I write about some of the better-intentioned leaders, or at least some who appeared to be better-intentioned in recent years, including Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, in many ways a charismatic and impressive leader, who brought a measure of stability to Uganda in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And yet he’s embroiled in wars in Congo and implicated in fighting in Rwanda. His own army is involved in Mafia activities in eastern Congo. He has been engaged in a proxy war in south Sudan. He has found himself caught up in the same game, the Mafia logic of his environment, and even the best-intentioned leaders lack the wherewithal to wrest their countries from this kind of destructive cycle.

But, as I say, my book is not prescriptive and I’m not here to say, Well, the United States or the West ought to go in and send peacekeepers into Congo, for example.

QUESTION: It’s obvious that Robert Mugabe's opposition has developed some real clout in Zimbabwe. How do you explain the strength of that opposition, even though at the moment it doesn’t look very hopeful?

BILL BERKELEY: Mugabe is struggling to survive in power and is imposing emergency laws in advance of an election in March. How do I explain the clout of the opposition in Zimbabwe? It remains to be seen whether they will manage to pull off a free and fair election and oust Mugabe. I am not optimistic.

But the opposition includes some very impressive political leaders who have roots in the trade-union movement and particularly in the cities. Zimbabwe is a country that has a relatively well-educated population that is sick of being dominated by an ossified, effectively one-party state. It is well known among educated Zimbabweans who form the backbone of the opposition’s support that Mugabe and his friends and allies in the military and his ministries have been looting the country—and looting Congo—for the better part of two decades.

But it has been very difficult for Zimbabweans to organize. There has been much violence and intimidation. And Mugabe, in turn, very much in keeping with the themes that I’ve just been articulating, has been playing the race card, summoning up historic grievances against whites, mobilizing mostly illiterate, opportunistic, so-called war veterans, many of whom were born long after the war in Zimbabwe was over, giving them economic incentives to occupy white farms. The situation in Zimbabwe is troubling.

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