Out of Africa— but they still take his calls

Allan Fotheringham February 3 1997

Out of Africa— but they still take his calls

Allan Fotheringham February 3 1997

Out of Africa— but they still take his calls

Allan Fotheringham

"OK,” I sez to the Canadian ambassador to the United States, “how did you screw up in Africa?”

Raymond Chrétien lifts his big head, outlined against the magnificent dome of the Capitol outside his office window, and just laughs at the opening salvo. He’s not afraid of anything, least of all a blustering columnist trying to get a rise out of him.

He doesn’t think his month-long mission to sort out the mess in Rwanda/Burundi/Zaïre was a failure at all. This is a man who has a positive view of everything. As someone once said of another strong personality: “He has never said ‘on the other hand’ in his life.”

“They have a dozen of these around the world,” he says in awe. “What was the Soviet Union has three, one rusting and another useless. China is decades away from this.” He waves his arms in wonder. “This will be,” he predicts, “the major decision for Canada in our lifetime”—the encompassing rampage of American culture. In the Africa he knows so well, everyone wants a Michael Jordan sweatshirt. He points out that, thanks to NAFTA, our exports to the United States have risen from 75 per cent of our total to 82 per cent. “That’s one market!” He’s excited now—meaning alarmed. “Our trade to the Pacific”—where the unnamed relative has just returned—“is miniscule.”

I tell him there is somewhat an embarrassed attitude among Canadians that our Boy Scout offer to head a UN effort to save lives foundered when the hordes of Rwanda refugees suddenly were allowed to leave Zaïre and head home. Not at all, he scoffs. He thinks that Canada only gained by leading the charge in search of calm.

“I’m not going to be told by you guys in New York where I’m going or what I’m going to do,” he recalls of his assertion to the appropriate UN officials after then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali approved his mission. It was a natural for Chrétien, since he was our ambassador for those three countries—“I was just a kid”—from 1978 to 1981. He was then 36.

He phoned that relative at 24 Sussex Drive—“fortunately it was raining so he couldn’t play golf and I said, ‘Jean, it fits.’ ” It certainly did. That area of Africa is at the confluence of our Commonwealth and Francophonie connections. Big Raymond (more fluent in both English and French than the relative up north) already knew most of the players. He stopped off in Nice on the Riviera to see the vile President Mobutu, dictator of Zaire, ailing after an operation.

He set out to interview 10 African leaders, and got to seven of them, from Nelson Mandela on down. “It was very tough. No one would even offer me a glass of water in the first week. I had to say to some of them”—from Kigali to Kinshasa to Kampala and on—“ ‘I don’t believe you. You’re lying.’ It was tough. Believe me.”

As always, he’s optimistic. Of his 21-page report delivered to the UN Security Council, he says, “We went into a situation that other

countries wouldn’t touch with a 100-foot pole. It turned out to be win-win for Canada. It didn’t cost much because the crisis ended so quickly. And we didn’t pay the price—none of our guys were killed.”

He sees himself as “St. John the Baptist” in his efforts there. “Someone else is going to have to be Jesus Christ.” He agrees that only Africans can solve Africa’s problems. “The key player is South Africa. Only South Africa has the economic power and the military power. We’ll see if they are prepared to use it.”

I try to steer him onto Quebec, but he won’t bite. He allows that there will be “a fall election.” (A little leak there, Jean?) Getting back to Africa and peacekeeping, he says that Canadians should wake up. ‘We’re not Sweden. We’re not Denmark. We’re a G-7 member. We should act like one.” He waxes philosophical when I remind him of Boutros-Ghali—while being sandbagged by Washington as UN boss—remarking that the United States is now like Rome at the height of the Roman Empire: it doesn’t even need diplomacy since, as the only remaining superpower, it can do anything it wants. He agrees, recalling a recent boggling trip on the giant U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. Some 6,500 bodies aboard. A 75-bed hospital. Four doctors. Three dentists. Two nuclear-powered engines lift this monster out of the water at 30 knots, capable of pulling 1,000 water skiers.

He’s proud of what he tried to do on his Africa mission. ‘To this day,” he says, waving at his desk, “anyone over there takes my calls.” Behind the desk resides a proud portrait: two lawyers—a son and a 22-year-old daughter.

I tell him the joke taught to me by Washington’s highest-paid lobbyist: the difference between a diplomat and a lady. When a diplomat says yes, he actually means maybe. When he says maybe, he means no. But he never says no. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a diplomat. When a lady says no, she means maybe. When she says maybe, she means yes. But she never says yes, otherwise she wouldn’t be a lady.

He ignores the political incorrectness of the line and recounts his recent appearance at a brunch with all the ABC on-air hotshots. “There were only 10 people in the room I wanted to talk to and I got to all of them. This job never ceases to be work.

‘You know, you have to almost be an actor as much as an observer.”