East Africa`s Tall Vs. Average War
January 11, 2008, 02:08 PM
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The New York Times reports about a Tutsi general who operates his own army in the chaotic Congo:

Fighting in Congo Rekindles Ethnic Hatreds

... It began with the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu extremists killed 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in 1994. Many of the genocide’s perpetrators fled into Congo, igniting regional conflicts that were fueled by the plunder of Congo’s minerals, lasted for nearly a decade and killed, by some estimates, as many as four million people through violence, disease and hunger.

Now a new wave of anti-Tutsi sentiment is sweeping Congo, driven by deep anger over the renegade Tutsi general. Many see his rebellion as a proxy for Rwanda, to the east, whose army occupied vast parts of Congo during the most devastating chapter of the regional war and plundered millions of dollars’ worth of minerals from the country, according to many analysts, diplomats and human rights workers.

The current battle is in many ways a throwback to the earliest and most difficult questions at the heart of the Congo war, and also a reflection of longstanding hostilities toward Tutsi, who are widely viewed here as being more Rwandan than Congolese.

Many Congolese Tutsi see themselves as members of an especially vulnerable minority, one that has already suffered through genocide and whose position in Congo has always been precarious. But many other Congolese see Tutsi, many of whom have been in Congo for generations, as foreign interlopers with outsize economic and political influence.

At the center of this latest rebellion is the renegade general, Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi with longstanding ties to the Tutsi-led Rwandan government.


Yet, the Rwandans themselves are deeply linked to the government of Uganda.

Indeed, Rwanda's Tutsi President Paul Kagame was the Intelligence chief for Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni when the latter overthrew Ugandan President Milton Obote (Idi Amin's successor, if you are keeping score at home) in 1986. Museveni then helped finance his friend Kagame's Tutsi invasion of Hutu-ruled majority-Hutu Rwanda in 1990. As Kagame came closer to winning the war in 1994, the Hutu leadership went nuts, like Revolutionary France fighting refugee invaders in 1793, and launched the genocide, which was shut down when Kagame's Tutsis won.

In Burundi, the Tutsi minority has managed to stay in power over the Hutu majority for all these years of independence.

So, what's going on? Underneath it all, there's a vague, intermittent struggle in East Africa that keeps popping in different forms up between the tall, thin, black Nilotics (like the Tutsis, Luo, and the shorter, dark brown Bantus.

For example, in Nairobi in 1987, Barack Obama noticed the physical difference between the "... tall, ink-black Luos and short, brown Kikuyus ..." Currently, the Luos are rebelling against the domination of Kenya's government by the Kikuyus, with hundreds dead in ethnic clashes. Indeed, the Luo leader Raila Odinga told the BBC after a recent phone call from Obama that he is the American Senator's first cousin (which I doubt).

There are exceptions to this pattern (for example, the main rebels in Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army, are mostly tall Luo-speaking Acholis), but the underlying dynamic across several East African states tends to be tall vs. medium. (There are also short and very short pygmoid peoples in this region, such as the Twa of Rwanda, but they are not power players.)

The tall black Nilotics generally see themselves as more intelligent than the shorter brown Bantus. Obama's Luo relatives in Kenya told him: "The Luo are intelligent but lazy." The Bantus tend to fear that they will be outsmarted by the Nilotics if they give them a fair shake, so they often treat the tall people like the Jews tend to be treated in Eastern Europe.

The dividing lines between the Nilotics and Bantus are not sharp. There's been lots of interbreeding. (This is Africa, after all.) But, they still exist. The situation is rather like that in Latin American, where after five centuries of interbreeding, the economic elites are still pretty white-looking, and the indigenous masses occasionally organize under demagogues like Hugo Chavez to fight back.

All this obscure anthropology is becoming increasingly relevant because the U.S. has been building new military bases in Kenya as part of the War on Global Islamic Extremism. I suspect we will increasingly be sold bills of goods by ambitious locals in East Africa who want U.S. subsidies for their indigenous power struggles, such as Tall vs. Medium, which they will mask with rhetoric about fighting Global Islamofacism.

We'll be especially vulnerable to being suckered into imagining local conflicts are part of the frontline in the War on Terror because our cultural anthropology experts these days mostly refuse to use vulgar physical descriptions, even though helpful shorthand tags like Obama's phrase "tall, ink-black Luos" are extremely useful in keeping the players straight. That kind of thing just isn't done anymore in polite society.