Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

The Problem with ‘If’ Questions

In a recent article (found here), the spokesman of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF), Brigadier-General Joseph Nzabamwita, spoke with Berna Namata from Rwanda Today on the current state of the Rwandan military, its regional opposing forces (The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda -FDLR-) and its history. For those unaware, the RDF is the descendant of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), which fought against the then Rwandan government forces during the Civil War (1990-1994) to put an end to the horrific Tutsi Genocide.

Much has changed within the RPA since those days. It has fought in two major wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (First Congo War: 1996-1997 and Second Congo War: 1998-2003). It has served and continues to serve in United Nations and African Union peacekeeping missions throughout Africa (Mali, Sudan and Central Africa Republic) and outside the continent (Haiti); and it has become a mechanism for the construction of domestic infrastructure in the aftermath of the genocide. Indeed, the RDF government that has its origins in the RPA has a less flattering past when it comes to the Congo with allegations of organized theft of precious minerals, massacres and continual meddling in Congolese affairs. But these criticisms cannot undermine its achievements.

There was one part of the Rwanda Today article that really bothered me. It was when the reporter asked if the RDF would have been more successful than its predecessor, the RPA, in liberating the country during the genocide, which would have resulted in fewer massacres. General Nzabamwita responded that, yes indeed, if the RPA had the military equipment, logistical support and troop numbers that the RPF has now, it could have won the war faster and thus saved more lives. Right after reading this, my head was spinning. I hate ‘if’ questions to begin with, and this one, having huge possible implications for the broader study of the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide as well as the issue of saving human lives that were after all lost made my head spin that much faster.

Even more damning than the ‘if’ question are the myriad critics who bring their own hypotheticals into play. One of the most damning claims is that the RPA purposely did not want to stop the genocide forces, because it wanted to negotiate a better position for itself in the post-genocide Rwandan society. (I do not believe this claim in the slightest.) Another criticism is that the RPA wanted to focus on sustaining its conflict with the government that was conducting the genocide, because destroying the genocide government too early would pre-emptively halt the organization, planning and execution of the genocide. Does this sound familiar to Holocaust scholars?

Many Holocaust scholars might make this connection between the RPA and the United States and other Allied powers during World War II. Most of these governments knew the Holocaust was happening in the Nazi-occupied territories. Satellite pictures taken by Allied planes of Aushwitz-Birkenau can be viewed at Yad Vashem. Similar to the controversy surrounding the role and interests of the RPA during the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide, some argue that Allied planes could have easily been stocked with bombs to seriously damage Aushwitz and other extermination death camps. Doing so would have significantly interrupted the Nazis plan to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. Skeptics of this argument say that the Allied powers were indeed focused on destroying Nazi power ahead of any other goal. They argue that bringing down the Nazi government as quickly as possible was the best way to save those being persecuted. As we can see, there is no clear answer to whether a liberating force has acted in the best way possible

That is why I cringe at the ‘if’ questions that people ask. A question like “What if we had done ‘X’ during the war, would it have ended sooner?” drives me crazy. These theoretical questions are unable to resurrect the ones who perished. We cannot view history in ‘ifs’ but we must definitely ask, “What can we learn to prevent future disasters?” In the case of the Allied powers not bombing the Nazis exterminations camps, the question is how can airpower (whether in the guise of traditional military airplanes or modern drones) be used to target genocide forces or abusers of human rights? In the case of Rwanda, the military should be asking itself how it will prevent itself from becoming a genocide force like the previous government. Unlike some critics, I do not see a comparison between this current military force and the prior genocidal one. However, the question still must be addressed, and properly.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.