ICGLR Leaders and UN envoy in the Great Lake Region should confront prejudices

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By Tom Ndahiro

I have just finished reading an article in Tanzania’s weekly, The Guardian on Sunday (Sept.1-7, 2013). This piece by Richard Mgamba has a title: “The Genesis of M23 rebels, Banyamulenge and Congo’s conflict” and begins with a quotation from Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, former Tanzanian President who once said: “Africans are more interested in their differences than their similarities”. Words of wisdom!

It is clear the article is the beginning of a longer one but has touched a button in my memory code forcing me to remember Nyerere.

In 1972, when Idi Amin chased the Ugandans of Indian descent, some Africans, who did not otherwise openly praise him, commended him for the action. It is only the former President of Tanzania, late Mwalimu Nyerere, who passionately condemned the act. In a very good speech -very wise, and deep in thought, he had this to say:

“If a country expects other people to respect its passports, then it must itself respect them. Citizenship must be respected without discrimination, or it will be met with disrespect without discrimination. What does it mean, to say to a large group of people, “From today –or tomorrow, or next week –you citizens are no longer citizens”? It means that they are people in the world who have no state, nor country, no place where they have a right to live. Physically what do you do with such people? If you give them thirty days to get out –or any other period –what do you do when it is expired? Where are they supposed to go –to the moon? Suppose we in Tanzania were to decide to get rid of some of our citizens, what do we do? We herd them to the border with Kenya, and Kenya says, “No, they are not our citizens”. Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zaïre, Burundi and Rwanda all say this –what do we do?  Do we kill them? That is what Hitler did in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. He said that all Germany’s troubles were caused by the Jews; and he killed all those who could not escape from the country. He killed six million Jews –put them in gas chambers and use their bodies for fertilizer and their hair for stuffing. This was people, not chimpanzees. Is this what you do? Sometimes we in Africa adopt the attitude that we have suffered so long it will be good for other people to suffer and see what it is like. But it is necessary to remember that we are talking about people.” [1]

Nyerere’s speech, over forty years ago, is even more relevant today than ever. No one can answer Mwalimu’s questions as questions, because they were answers in form of questions.  Tanzania, under his leadership was the first country in the present East African Community to ratify, and, without reservation, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).[2] Nyerere practiced what he believed to the letter.

Nyerere condemned Iddi Amin in clear terms. Now, there is no sound voice to condemn the Congolese government for denying its own people a fundamental right, nationality. To the contrary, the DR Congo government is openly supported in the ongoing political transgression.

Is it not dishonouring for us Africans to turn our people into stateless men and women? Where do we take or place our fellow human beings who have been disposed of their land, denied citizenship and therefore the right to protection by the state. How are we to react when our fellow human beings are denied all basic and fundamental human rights, despised, humiliated, insulted, and in fact turned into slavery in their own country? How can we see racist and murderous ideologies spread and feel it should be business-as-usual? How can we remain silent when a people are not only blamed for crimes they never committed but denied justice for the crimes committed against them and leave the culprits to dominate the ground?

Ms Mary Robinson is currently the UN special envoy to the African Great Lakes region. Robinson is the former president of Ireland, a country known for age-old sectarianism. It is my hope and my wish she confronts racist tendencies and ideologies which have caused, and still cause a lot of harm in this region.

Thirteen years ago, October 2000, Mary Robinson, as the UN High commissioner for Human Rights addressed a European Conference about fighting racism and related tendencies, saying heavy responsibility rested on the shoulders of national governments and politicians. “Yet the impression is that it is racists and bigots who make the running in the debate, and that some politicians remain silent for fear of antagonising the few…” and then she reminds of an important observation by the famous philosopher Edmund Burke who believed, ‘For evil to triumph it is sufficient that good men are silent’.

In addition Mary Robinson told the forum that, while the persistence of racist attitudes is a complex issue, we do know that ignorance and lack of information are root causes. Furthermore, she stressed the need ‘to educate people about the fundamental importance of respecting the rights of others, and to conquer prejudice’.[3] Can she please repeat the same in the Great Lakes Region? It is my wish ICGLR summit in Kampala puts that on its agenda.

On April 7, 1995, the then United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ayala-Lasso, said: “Human beings in the world should focus on Rwanda in order to understand what took place in this country –what happened is a tragedy which should never have happened.”


[1] Julius K. Nyerere: ‘All Men are Equal’ – A speech at Changombe Teachers’ College, August 21, 1972- Published in the Man and Development (Oxford University 1974)

[2] Ratification was on October 27, 1972 and entry into force November 26, 1972. See: http://www.bayefsky.com/pdf/cerd_ratif_table.pdf and http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?mtdsg_no=IV-2&chapter=4&lang=en#29

[3] Speech by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
and Secretary-General to the World Conference against Racism, European Conference Against Racism Strasbourg, 11-13 October, 2000 “All Different, All Equal: From Principle to Practice”

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