Helene Cooper

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An­other Fine Mess: Amer­ica, Uganda, and the War on Ter­ror by He­len C. Ep­stein

An­other Fine Mess: Amer­ica, Uganda, and the War on Ter­ror by He­len C. Ep­stein. Columbia Global Re­ports, 262 pp., $14.99 (pa­per)

When I was twelve years old, a new man-about-town ar­rived in Mon­rovia, the city of my birth. His name was Cap­tain Stevens, he had a mys­te­ri­ous job in the United States mil­i­tary, and he had just been de­tailed to the Amer­i­can em­bassy in Mamba Point. He showed up at par­ties hosted by my aunt and un­cle, sipped cognac, and charmed the Liberian ladies, who all whis­pered about the hand­some African-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cer.

What I would find out two years later was that Cap­tain Stevens was spend­ing much of his time in Liberia meet­ing with dis­af­fected men in the Liberian mil­i­tary who were plot­ting to over­throw the govern­ment. A cen­tury and a half of rule by the de­scen­dants of freed Amer­i­can slaves who had es­tab­lished them­selves as the rul­ing elite while the rest of the coun­try made do with scraps meant that Liberia was ripe for a coup, one that would be sup­ported, at least in the be­gin­ning, by most of the pop­u­la­tion.

Pres­i­dent Wil­liam R. Tol­bert, the lat­est heir to the dy­nasty be­gun by the freed slaves who founded the coun­try, had been cozy­ing up to the Soviet Union, even ap­prov­ing the open­ing, in Mon­rovia, of a Soviet em­bassy. In 1980, dur­ing the height of the cold war, when African coun­tries were seen by Amer­i­can of­fi­cials as be­ing al­lies of ei­ther the US or Rus­sia, it was anath­ema in­deed to the Amer­i­can govern­ment for Liberia to even con­sider such a thing.

And so it was that on the night of April 12, 1980, when twenty-eight en­listed sol­diers in the Armed Forces of Liberia stormed the ex­ec­u­tive man­sion, killed the pres­i­den­tial guards, and dis­em­bow­eled Tol­bert in his pa­ja­mas, there was not much out­rage com­ing out of the Amer­i­can em­bassy. When Tol­bert’s min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs, Ce­cil Den­nis, ar­rived at the em­bassy a few hours later to ask for sanc­tu­ary, he was turned away. He later sur­ren­dered to Liberia’s new mil­i­tary govern­ment, which ex­e­cuted him—along with twelve other for­mer govern­ment of­fi­cials—on the beach by fir­ing squad ten days later.

And Liberia? The coun­try plunged into eight years of mis­man­age­ment, bru­tal­ity, and tit-for-tat eth­nic killings un­der its new Amer­i­can-backed pres­i­dent, the for­mer mas­ter sergeant Sa­muel K. Doe. The US kept Doe’s govern­ment afloat with a flood of Amer­i­can dol­lars, and when Doe ran out of those, he just or­dered his print­ing presses to is­sue Liberian dol­lars. The Liberian cur­rency, once pegged to the dol­lar, quickly be­came worth­less.

Doe soon turned on many of the men who helped him storm the ex­ec­u­tive man­sion and ex­e­cuted them one by one, ac­cus­ing them of try­ing to kill him. When one of his for­mer friends snuck into the coun­try from ex­ile and tried to seize the govern­ment, the pres­i­dent had him hunted down and ex­e­cuted; his body was pa­raded through the streets of Mon­rovia be­fore be­ing chopped into pieces and put on public dis­play. Then Doe went on a man­hunt, find­ing and killing as many mem­bers of his ri­val’s eth­nic group as he could.

Through it all, the United States con­tin­ued to back Doe. The Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion in­vited him to the White House. Pres­i­dent Rea­gan mis­tak­enly called him “Moe” in­stead of “Doe,” caus­ing hi­lar­ity among jour­nal­ists and Liberian ex­pats. But the White House, the State Depart­ment, and Congress con­tin­ued dis­burs­ing the checks that kept the Doe regime afloat—right up un­til 1990, when Doe him­self was ex­e­cuted by the war­lord Prince John­son at the start of a civil war that would last more than thir­teen years and kill more than 200,000 peo­ple in Liberia and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.


Ep­stein’s An­other Fine Mess: Amer­ica, Uganda, and the War on Ter­ror makes no men­tion of Liberia—it is pre­oc­cu­pied by events three thou­sand miles away, in the Uganda of Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni, the strong­man who has ruled there for more than thirty years. But Ep­stein’s ab­sorb­ing book is a damn­ing in­dict­ment of the Amer­i­can hypocrisy that has been on dis­play across Africa since the Euro­peans packed up and left as colo­nial­ism col­lapsed af­ter World War II.

A public health con­sul­tant who has spent many years talk­ing to and writ­ing about many of the dis­si­dents who have op­posed strong­man rule in East Africa, Ep­stein has com­piled a cat­a­log of al­most every ar­rest, kid­nap­ping, and ex­e­cu­tion en­gi­neered by Mu­sev­eni and his goons—all while Amer­ica looked the other way. She ex­am­ines the bil­lions of dol­lars that have poured into the coun­try os­ten­si­bly to fight AIDS and poverty but that have ended up fi­nanc­ing Mu­sev­eni and his mil­i­tary, pro­fessed al­lies to a se­ries of Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tions, from Rea­gan to Bush to Clinton to Bush Jr. to Obama.

The East Africa pre­sented by Ep­stein is a law­less place ruled by cor­rupt and crim­i­nal mas­ter­minds, go­ing back to the Bri­tish. “In Acho­liland, Act­ing Com­mis­sioner J. R. P. Postleth­waite, nick­named ‘chicken thief’ by the Acholi, pub­licly strung up a re­bel­lious chief and low­ered him head­first into a pit la­trine un­til he died,” Ep­stein re­counts.

In a Bri­tish-backed op­er­a­tion against the Bavuma peo­ple, “such was the enor­mity of the slaugh­ter,” wrote his­to­rian Michael Twad­dle, “that, not only were sec­tions of Lake Vic­to­ria ‘all blood,’ there were so many dead bod­ies bob­bing up and down in the water that their heads re­sem­bled a mul­ti­tude of up­turned cook­ing pots.”

And that was be­fore Mu­sev­eni even came to power. Early in his ca­reer, he served in re­bel­lions that top­pled first Idi Amin and then Mil­ton Obote. His Na­tional Re­sis­tance Army com­mit­ted wartime atroc­i­ties of its own in the fight against Obote, but Amer­i­can govern­ment of­fi­cials paid at­ten­tion in­stead to Obote’s slaugh­ters, and there were many. By the time the war was over, Amer­ica and the West had en­dorsed an ac­count of Mu­sev­eni as a peace-lov­ing na­tional hero of the peo­ple, Ep­stein writes. “A se­ries of glow­ing trib­utes to Mu­sev­eni” ap­peared in West­ern news­pa­pers. “Po­lite Guer­ril­las End Four­teen years of Tor­ture and Killing” read one head­line; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again” read an­other. Ac­cord­ing to his ad­mir­ers, Mu­sev­eni was Robin Hood, Che Gue­vara, and Field Mar­shal Mont­gomery all rolled into one.

Mu­sev­eni swept into of­fice hailed by the West as one of a new gen­er­a­tion of African lead­ers who could be trusted with IMF loans that would se­cure eco­nomic re­lief for his coun­try. Joseph Kony and his mur­der­ous Lord’s Re­sis­tance Army, which rose up in op­po­si­tion to Mu­sev­eni’s govern­ment, were the bad guys—the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would spend al­most $800 mil­lion on a fu­tile ef­fort to cap­ture the no­to­ri­ous Kony, de­ploy­ing Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces, in­tel­li­gence, and lo­gis­ti­cal as­sis­tance to Uganda and to the African Union sol­diers fight­ing the group. They were able to di­min­ish his army, which now con­sists of around one hun­dred peo­ple, down from a for­mer fight­ing force of three thou­sand.

But they never found Kony, and in May of this year a group of Ugan­dan and Amer­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cials flew from En­tebbe to the re­mote town of Obo, in the south­east­ern part of the Cen­tral African Repub­lic, to par­tic­i­pate in a cer­e­mony or­ga­nized by Uganda to mark the end of the mis­sion to cap­ture or kill him—in essence cel­e­brat­ing some­thing that was never ac­com­plished.

For a na­tive African, it is both dis­heart­en­ing and in­fu­ri­at­ing to see one’s en­tire con­ti­nent por­trayed by the US govern­ment as a dump­ing ground for pro­duce Amer­i­can farm­ers can’t sell dis­guised as food aid (the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture); a class­room for ju­nior di­plo­mats-in-train­ing to of­fer up their plat­i­tudes about democ­racy (the State Depart­ment); or the next front in the bat­tle against rad­i­cal Is­lam (the Pen­tagon). But re­ally, as Africans, how can we ex­pect bet­ter given what we’ve done to our­selves? In the years af­ter the Euro­peans fi­nally left, we re­vived all that was bad about the West, from racism to crony­ism to priv­i­lege, while os­ten­ta­tiously re­ject­ing the wor­thier as­pects of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, in­clud­ing sup­port for demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and a more lib­eral ap­proach to things like sex­ual pref­er­ence and women’s rights.

In many African coun­tries it be­came ac­cepted as pro-African to re­ject West­ern no­tions of equal­ity for ho­mo­sex­u­als. When, in 2009, Ugan­dan Par­lia­men­tar­ian David Ba­hati in­tro­duced his anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity act, which would pun­ish gays with the death penalty, there was hardly a word of crit­i­cism from else­where on the con­ti­nent—other

coun­tries were too busy rush­ing to pass their own anti-sodomy laws.

And it be­came ac­cepted as proAfrican to re­ject West­ern no­tions of free demo­cratic pro­cesses. I can’t quite keep track of the num­ber of times Mu­sev­eni stood for elec­tions and then pro­nounced him­self the win­ner, or co­erced judges into declar­ing him so, in spite of ob­vi­ous im­pro­pri­eties. The United States and Mu­sev­eni’s other West­ern back­ers looked the other way again and again when democ­racy ac­tivists in Uganda were beaten or dis­ap­peared com­pletely, usu­ally un­der mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances.

But it’s not as if other Africans stood up against the sham elec­tions. Across the con­ti­nent, Mu­sev­eni’s fel­low pres­i­dents were ei­ther too busy rig­ging their own elec­tions or see­ing to their own po­lit­i­cal sur­vival, at what­ever cost, to ques­tion elec­tion re­sults and the court rul­ings sup­port­ing them that con­sis­tently seemed to ig­nore what ac­tu­ally hap­pened at the polls.

It be­came per­fectly ac­cept­able, in fact, for lead­ers to stay in of­fice for decades, treat­ing their cit­i­zenry as if it were ea­ger to see a despot em­body­ing their na­tional as­pi­ra­tions. Paul Biya, in Cameroon, has been pres­i­dent since 1982. Idriss Déby has ruled Chad since 1990. Robert Mu­gabe has headed Zim­babwe since 1987.

While Ep­stein should be lauded for the time she spends in her book tak­ing the Amer­i­cans—and the Bri­tish—to task for all that both coun­tries have done to per­pet­u­ate the mess in Uganda, I wish she had done more to hold Africans to ac­count for their own mis­deeds. These are our coun­tries, our pres­i­dents; at the end of the day it’s up to us to fig­ure out how to fix this. The days of blam­ing all of the con­ti­nent’s many woes on the Euro­pean col­o­niz­ers should be at an end; we’ve done plenty our­selves.

Ep­stein is a molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist by train­ing, but An­other Fine Mess, while dense, is leav­ened some­what by the pres­ence of the Ugan­dan jour­nal­ist Lawrence Ki­wanuka Nsereko as her Ish­mael. Ep­stein calls him by his first name, shar­ing with the reader their fa­mil­iar­ity, and his im­prob­a­ble life re­veals the hu­man con­se­quences of the dis­as­ters she de­scribes.

At the time An­other Fine Mess was writ­ten, Lawrence had been chased out of Uganda and was liv­ing in Pough­keep­sie, New York. But be­fore he boarded a flight to JFK, he was, in Ep­stein’s words,

a child soldier, a re­porter, an edi­tor, a democ­racy ac­tivist, and a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date. He’d seen his news­pa­per of­fices ran­sacked, his party head­quar­ters torched, friends and col­leagues killed. He’d been ar­rested and tor­tured and nar­rowly es­caped as­sas­si­na­tion him­self.

All that oc­curred be­fore he was forty. Through Lawrence, we join the Uganda Free­dom Move­ment as part of the op­po­si­tion against Obote, the pres­i­dent who pre­ceded Mu­sev­eni. We travel with Lawrence to north­ern Uganda, near the Su­danese bor­der, where, at Ka­longo Hos­pi­tal, we meet a teenage girl whose ears and lower lip have been cut off. This par­tic­u­lar mu­ti­la­tion, Lawrence knows, is pre­ferred by Kony’s LRA. But we are puz­zled, along with Lawrence, by two things the girl tells us: the men who at­tacked her were bet­ter dressed than Kony’s rag­tag rebels, and they didn’t speak Acholi, the lan­guage of the LRA. Most likely, the men who at­tacked her be­longed to Mu­sev­eni. Lawrence rashly men­tions what the girl has told him later that night to a group of jour­nal­ists, one of whom would soon be ap­pointed Mu­sev­eni’s press sec­re­tary. “When Lawrence re­turned to the hos­pi­tal the next day,” writes Ep­stein, “the girl was gone. The nurses said she’d been taken away for fur­ther treat­ment, but they didn’t know where. She re­mains on his con­science to this day.”

We ac­tu­ally could use a bit more of Lawrence in An­other Fine Mess. The pas­sages about him are alive in a way the rest of the book is not. The recita­tions of Mu­sev­eni’s evil and Amer­i­can com­plic­ity can oc­ca­sion­ally be­come mo­not­o­nous, re­duc­ing the ef­fect of some of their hor­rors. The rape of lo­cal women by Con­golese rebels so that the women would pro­duce fu­ture child sol­diers to fight Tut­sis—and Rwand­abacked Tutsi rebels mu­ti­lat­ing the same women by ram­ming them with guns to pre­vent them from ever con­ceiv­ing again—are de­scribed al­most offhand­edly.

I had to reread Ep­stein’s para­graph on that sub­ject three times. But per­haps that is her in­ten­tion—to con­vey the al­most rou­tine preva­lence of the hor­rors these women ex­pe­ri­enced on a daily ba­sis. The quote she uses to punc­tu­ate this story—“As one survivor told jour­nal­ist Paul Ndiho, ‘I’ve been vi­o­lated so many times I feel part of me is not my body’”—does not come close to capturing the mag­ni­tude of what these women en­dured. But who could do so? In the end, per­haps Ep­stein makes the right choice, to de­tail the never-end­ing vi­o­la­tions in­flicted upon in­no­cents with­out delv­ing too deeply.

When the United States backed Sa­muel Doe in his coup against the rul­ing Liberian elite in 1980, it was also im­plic­itly back­ing the nine years of reprisal killings and rapes that fol­lowed, which then led to an­other four­teen years of civil war.

I re­mem­ber my mom, who was raped by Doe’s sol­diers as she fought to pro­tect me, a thir­teen-year-old, and my sis­ters, six­teen and eight, from a sim­i­lar fate. I re­mem­ber her re­count­ing what had hap­pened a few days later, af­ter my fam­ily fled from our iso­lated house to town, where my mom be­lieved the safety of num­bers might pro­tect us. At my cousins’ house, where we took refuge, we ran into Cap­tain Stevens again.

It’s been more than thirty years but I can still re­mem­ber that ex­change. My mom, my grand­mother, and my un­cle, all on the front porch, talk­ing to Cap­tain Stevens. My sis­ters and cousins and I eaves­dropped on them from the liv­ing room win­dow.

“The sol­diers told me that if I didn’t go down­stairs with them, they would rape my daugh­ters,” my mom told Cap­tain Stevens. “There were three of them. At first, one soldier tried to stop the oth­ers, but he gave up soon. The last thing he said to me be­fore he raped me was, ‘You think the Amer­i­cans are go­ing to come and help you? Well, they back us.’”

When she said that part, she looked straight at Cap­tain Stevens. He looked back at her for a mo­ment, and then he looked away.

And yet we ran away to Amer­ica. It was to the Amer­i­can em­bassy in Mon­rovia that my mom went every day to try to get us visas. It took al­most a month but even­tu­ally she got tourist visas for us. It was a Pan Am plane that we got on, even­tu­ally end­ing up in Knoxville, Ten­nessee.

Lawrence’s jour­ney to Pough­keep­sie is a lit­tle more mys­te­ri­ous than mine, in Ep­stein’s telling. Af­ter years in and out of jail, and with Mu­sev­eni spies track­ing his every move, he sud­denly turned up on the doorstep of a Catholic pri­est in Nairobi, Kenya. Back in Uganda, his fa­ther was bru­tally beaten. Lawrence met with US em­bassy of­fi­cials who seemed only to care about who had leaked to him a let­ter his news­pa­per pub­lished that sug­gested that the US was in­volved in a plan to top­ple Mobutu Sese Seko, the pres­i­dent of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo and a neme­sis of Mu­sev­eni.

Lawrence didn’t re­veal his source and some­how, mys­te­ri­ously, got a ticket to New York, where two men—we’re not told who—drove him to LaGuardia and sent him to Bos­ton, and then New­burgh, New York, where he was met by some­one who drove him to Pough­keep­sie. He even­tu­ally ended up in his own place there, and teaches school. Amer­ica to the res­cue.

Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni, En­tebbe, Uganda, Novem­ber 2007

San­niquel­lie, Liberia, 2006; pho­to­graph by Tim Hether­ing­ton

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