When outsiders stir up tensions in tribal societies

Opinion Article

2011 September, 10

I have just put down Jason Stearns's book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. It  tells the hidden story of what has gone on in the Democratic Republic of Congo  since Laurent Kabila seized power in 1997.  

The hapless former socialist revolutionary from the 1960s was nominated as the  titular head of what Stearns says was "a regional war, pitting a new generation of  young visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent's  dinosaur".  

Kabila turned out no better than Mobutu and the rivers of blood have not stopped flowing in this extraordinarily richly endowed but tragic country.  

Stearns says more than five million people have died in Congo in this period,  ignored by the world, through disease, starvation, ethnic and national wars and  an indescribable taxonomy of atrocities. You get the sense the last word on man's  inhumanity to man is still being written. 

For me, Stearns's account told the next stage of the story of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when 800,000 were slaughtered.  

I cannot believe the horrendous stories told by Stearns are simply manifestations of hearts of African darkness.

The Holocaust, Kosovo and the killing fields of Cambodia tell us plainly that there  is no simple racist explanation for the horror in Congo.  

There are political, cultural and economic histories lying behind contemporary  evil and such intense inter-ethnic hatreds that emerged between, say, Hutus and  Tutsis in central Africa so that neighbours killed neighbours, husbands killed  wives, priests killed their flock and so on.  

The only observation I want to make on this vastly complex subject is the conspicuous role played by certain European individuals and organisations in  the promulgation of ethnic divisions between the warring African protagonists.  For example, one of the most notorious propagandists inciting the Hutu  genocidaires was an Italian.  

Through my reading I keep seeing the neo-colonial hand in the frame, inciting  and promoting division for whatever reasons.  

The role of France in this sorry history is near obscene. Then there is the role of  resource companies seeking to exploit the massive natural resources of  countries such as Congo, and generating and fuelling conflict. Then there is the  role of the individual crusaders who believe in the rightness of a certain side of  an argument. And they take sides with a blind and careless zeal.  

Tribal people are particularly susceptible to outsiders causing intra-ethnic  division and conflict. Communally organised societies are so easily divided. The  challenges associated with adjusting such societies to changed economic and  political circumstances are immense. That there are people who would seek to  create and exploit fractures within these societies is a great problem.

The predecessor of Rio Tinto, the old Conzinc Rio Tinto, was notoriously subject  to accusations of fomenting intra-tribal conflicts all across the world. It was to  the credit of former chief executive Leon Davis that Rio Tinto turned over a new  leaf.  

While resource companies continue to disrupt indigenous communities with  these colonial manipulations, I have come to see how in Australia environmental  groups have crossed the line and are engaging in similar practices.  

The shift in the ruthlessness of green campaigning to exploit and promote divisions within indigenous communities is profound as when the US political  Right adopted the southern strategy under Richard Nixon.  

In 2007 the Kimberley Land Council released a joint statement with a range of  environmental groups concerning the potential establishment by Woodside of a  liquefied natural gas facility in the Kimberley. 

The statement calls on government to ensure that comprehensive natural and  cultural heritage assessments are undertaken. This was desired by Aboriginal  groups and the environmentalists. The statement called for a single hub, rather  than a series of them.

The statement called for proper benefits to accrue to the Aboriginal people of the  Kimberley.  

The relevant assessments were undertaken, and two weeks ago federal Environment Minister Tony Burke attended a ceremony announcing the declaration of large areas of the Kimberley on the national heritage register.  

As a sponsor of this outcome, the KLC was part of the celebrations, along with  the cheering environmentalists.  

That's fine. A good outcome for those concerned with cultural and environmental  sustainability of this magnificent region.  

But the tactics now being employed by some environmentalists are well known.  Exploiting divisions within the traditional owners, they are not principled  enough to say: "Well, the majority of the tribe have given their consent now  under a proper process set out under law and supervised by the courts. Yes,  there are dissenters within the tribe, but their position has not been upheld, so  we should respect the outcome and leave them to settle their differences."  

The differences within Aboriginal communities that are convulsed by arguments  such as this produce much psychological and spiritual hurt. Indeed, it physically  sickens and kills people.  

Why would outsiders be so unscrupulous as to play a hand in provoking and  exacerbating these internal conflicts? Some environmental groups and the deep  greens seek to drive wedges within Aboriginal groups. They peel off individuals  and subgroups, often through blandishments such as organising environmental  funding from government agencies over which they have great influence.  

They are not interested in sustainability; they do not want development, full  stop.

When outsiders stir up tensions in tribal societies