"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


angels & demons

Rwandans vote today, and by the time many of us in the states are awake, voting will be nearly over. There is little reason to expect that the polls will be anything other than peaceful, orderly, and calm. Nor is there reason to believe that Paul Kagame won't win a resounding victory, giving him another seven-year term in office. According to the country's constitution, this should be his final term in office.

It's been interesting to watch global opinion on Kagame shift over the course of the last year or so. Was it only last year that Time ran a breathless Rick Warren Time 100 tribute to Rwanda's president? That piece demonstrates quite a contrast with the international media's view of Kagame today, where pieces questioning his democratic credentials and authoritarian style, wondering if the RPF had a role in several murders and assassination attempts, and debates on the wisdom of unquestioning Western support for the regime are everywhere.

I'm not sure what prompted this shift. Quite a few observers have claimed that Kagame and the RPF seem to have gone off the rails in the last few months. But that's not really the right way to look at it. Very little has changed in the way Rwanda is ruled. Authoritarianism has been the modus operandi in Rwanda since the genocide. Allegations of human rights abuses were widespread in the years immediately following the genocide. The Congolese have been complaining about Rwanda's extracurricular activities in the Kivus for years.

The difference, it seems, is that the world has taken notice. Whether that's because the UN identified Rwanda's major role in recent conflicts in the Kivus or because a new generation of reporters were less likely to believe everything the RPF told them or because Twitter and the blogosphere make the free and open exchange of information easier, I don't know. But more balanced coverage of Rwanda is a welcome change for those of us who've been watching the region for a long time.

Every time I write about Rwanda, I brace for a barrage of wild comments and hateful emails from various sides of the Rwanda debate. Some of these commenters are in Rwanda; others are in the diaspora, mostly in London, Paris, Brussels, and D.C. They allege all kinds of things - that Kagame is a sociopath, that he's a saint, that I'm shilling for the RPF, that I'm shilling for the FDLR, that Kagame can do no wrong, that Kagame can do no good, that I'm a racist for calling out Kagame, that anyone who thinks anything good about Kagame is delusional. Not all, but many of these comments come off as pretty irrational, based more on feelings than fact.

Here's the thing: Kagame is a politician. He is neither all good nor all bad. He is not an angel, he is not a demon. Like most politicians, he wants to stay in power. In a country with still-weak institutions, a traumatic past, and a dangerous neighborhood, Kagame has taken steps to maintain his power that are well outside the norms of democratic governance. He has restored stability and grown the country's economy at an astonishing rate, while trying to move past a devastating genocide that was primarily directed against members of his own ethnic group. He has also overseen the perpetration of major human rights abuses, both in Rwanda in the years immediately after the genocide, and, to a much greater extent, in Congo/Zaire, during the wars and through support of the RCD-Goma and the CNDP.

Kagame is a brilliant military tactician and is a public relations genius. He is incredibly skilled at telling influential people what they want to hear. He has a serious problem in that he's lost control of the narrative about his country and his person. He has a more serious problem in that the RPF is beginning to fragment over his leadership and degree of control.

To me, these are facts. The specifics (how many people died, where and how exactly they died) are up for debate; we will never know how many people were killed at Tingi-Tingi or Kibeho, just like we'll never know the names of everyone who died in Kibuye. But it's hard to have discussions on these topics in a forum like this, because even facts are up for debate, even among well-educated, well-informed commenters like the ones this blog is fortunate to have.

I think about this a lot. Why do so many debates about Rwanda almost immediately descend into chaos, with two sides talking past one another, not agreeing on a narrative or on the terms of the debate?

I suspect it might have something to do with the trauma so many Rwandans, including those in the diaspora, experienced over the course of the last 20 years. That's not to say that "being Rwandan makes you irrational," but rather to raise an important question about the limits of reconciliation when you've experienced horror beyond what most of us can imagine. If I'd watched members of my family be slaughtered or had to flee my country or lost my savings as a result of genocide or war, I'd probably have a hard time evaluating the situation with a fair eye to both sides of the story, too. And I'm not sure what trade-offs I'd be willing to make in the name of stability.

I don't know how you get past that kind of trauma, or if it's even possible. But I do know that Rwanda desperately needs an open and free arena in which all issues can be peacefully discussed. Labeling dissent as "genocide ideology" won't solve this problem, and many other RPF initiatives don't seem to be convincing most that ethnicity in Rwanda doesn't exist.

Much of the debate over Rwanda's future has been framed in terms of a choice between stability and development or freedom and anarchy. That's exactly the way the RPF wants the discussion to proceed; their claim that freedom will result in another genocide justifies repression in the name of maintaining stability and the regime's impressive economic growth record. It would be mistake to think that many, many Rwandans don't see their choices in the same terms.

But the clock is running out on Kagame's style of authoritarianism. The international community has clued-in to his style, and while I'm sure the lens of attention won't be so sharply focused on Kigali after today, the tensions we've seen bubble up over the course of the last year aren't going to go away. The likelihood of violence there is higher today than it has been at any time in the last decade. It would be an unspeakable tragedy if Kagame's rule ultimately produced just the sort of violence he's worked so hard to prevent.

Rwandans need the right - and the space - to determine their country's destiny. I'm among those who believe that freedom and development are possible, side-by-side, and that allowing the one will make the other stronger. Here's hoping that one day, Rwanda's people are allowed to choose both. I'm just sorry that they weren't allowed to do so today.


Blogger Adam Hooper said...

I'm guessing here: I think the people who write inflammatory comments are very young--under 25 (like most Rwandans). Something to consider when doing psychoanalysis.

My take: many Rwandans, such as these, still believe there's a war going on and they need to line up on the proper ideological side to achieve the best life when the dust settles.

And there are three clear ideological camps, not two. Nkundites are numerous and many are outspoken, and they're facing a good deal of repression with next to zero international attention. (Locally, I've seen them hunt for media attention and fail to achieve much, probably because their version of history doesn't line up with Rwanda's narrative.)

I've had their beliefs expressed to me as, "Kagame was the right choice for president in 2003, but now he's a powermonger who is the wrong person to lead the country."

But, as with FDLR sympathizers, Nkundites have nobody to vote for.

And of course, ordinary Rwandans (who don't want a war) stay silent.

Monday, August 09, 2010 12:34:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see what future international reaction is like. And whether for example the commentators outside do really know what is happening and in particular what is best for Rwanda. Andrew Harding wrote the other day that it is a complicated place. It is. The Commonwealth Human Rights Report is often referred to by critics but it made no difference to Rwanda joining the Commonwealth. As is clear from Kagame's comments the govt suspects an international conspiracy against it. It fails to understand much of the press in particular where whatever they do they are described as being in the wrong. Like it or not we are in a PR war with critics/opposition (and I do not include TIA in this) trying, not for the first time, to get Aid stopped or reduced and frustrate development. It is said that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" - an appropriate statement for many of the people who write copy about Rwanda. Many of them also skate over the considerable development gains that have been made, in particular those assisting the poorest.

Monday, August 09, 2010 2:59:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for yet another insightful article on Rwanda.

I would add that we have to consider the version of history that this government created and has enforced for the last 16 years by labeling and jailing any who question it as genocide deniers. In this version, only Hutu commit crimes. There's a 1994 genocide but no 1990 war. There are massacres of Tutsi, but never of Hutu, except by other Hutu. And there is never any real explanation of why these things happened. Now obviously no reason on earth can justify genocide, but without any attempt to understand the context of these events, there's a simple implication: Hutu are inherently genocidal. It's not surprising then that people who have grown up with this see the RPF as the only way of preventing another genocide in Rwanda. Even if they accept that RPF is doing some pretty nasty and undemocratic things to stay in power... these are considered justifiable on the basis that its the only way to avoid another genocide.

Most westerners also bought into this version of history for two reasons: guilt and racism. Sadly, the average westerner seems to have little problem accepting the idea that "Africans" are just more violent and more inclined to start hacking up their neighbours because of "tribal" differences. But I think you are very right that this has changed over the last year. Perhaps the guilt is wearing off, or maybe a new generation is looking for a more coherent understanding of this fascinating part of the world.

I think the government here really shot themselves in the foot over Peter Erlinder. They should have put him on the next plane back to the US, but instead they threw him and his views on Rwanda into the spotlight. Suddenly the western journalists "discovered" a completely different version of the events in Rwanda, and got some juicy headlines about it.

We also have new governments in the US and UK. Clinton, Bush, Blair were all invested personally to varying degrees in Rwanda and its current regime. Obama and Cameron aren't.

I can't see things going back to the way they were a year ago.

Monday, August 09, 2010 3:31:00 AM

Blogger Nkunda said...

As you'd expect, today is not one of my best. I woke feeling completely numb, disorganized and discouraged. There is a feeling of powerlessness that is dangerous and hard to resist. Your post reignited a smile on my face. All is not lost, there is still some hope.

In Rwanda, as you well know, political and military power means everything. Given our weak institutions, power can mean life or death. The power dynamics cannot/won't be resolved by the military/political victory of either Hutu or Tutsi. It will only be solved through engagement, dialogue, compromise and humility.

Just for a reference, Rob Walker (BBC), in his interview with a young Rwandan activist sheds more light on how an average young Hutu feels." To be Tutsi means access to jobs, scholarships, housing..."

It is not long since I was last in Rwanda, and I can tell you for a fact that a lot of Hutu feel disenfranchised. If recent news is anything to go by, many Tutsi feel the same way.
This perspective has little to do with FDLR. In fact, young Hutus are far removed from the idea of a militant resistance--too afraid to bear the cost. If pro-FDLR sentiments were so popular among young Rwandans, many would be enlisting. This is not the case. Hence, claims that some young Rwandans are influenced by the FDLR are erroneous. Just another reason for Kagame to curtail freedom.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In my many interactions, I am also realizing the vast numbers of Hutu are too traumatized or too afraid to openly oppose the regime.

I for one have been too terrified to use my real names. I’m forced to write anonymously. Is it fear? I am unable to tell.

Thus, courageous individuals, like Ingabire, who dare criticize the regime, must be taught a tough lesson (an exemplary one that will return/reinforce the status quo).

Laura, you are absolutely right. Seeing Kagame as evil is way too simplistic and adds little substance to the debate.

Like you said, there are factual issues that can be discussed. We need to discuss, As General Kayumba alleges, whether the institutions of Rwanda are there to serve the interests of one man. Whether all Rwandans are duly protected under the constitution. The allegations that opposition activists bring forth need to be explored--branding them as genocidaires or divisionists won't change much.

Well, the RPF has seven more years. We wish them all the best and hope they move towards democracy, human rights and free speech.

For many Rwandans, it is just another calendar day of oppression and deceit.

Monday, August 09, 2010 11:51:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"whether the institutions of Rwanda are there to serve the interests of one man"

Is Kayumba saying that Kagame gets the institutions just to serve his interests? Come on if he is then we all know that is rubbish.

Kayumba tried to cause division in the Army when he was there and knowing how good some of these people are at being jealous and resentful what I think he means is that he thinks HE should be in charge so that the institutions could serve HIS interests.

Kayumba grabbed lots of land and had to give it up. Kagame did not take it (or the land that others also had to give up). It was given to those who had none. Kayumba showed what he thought about that by selling all his cows rather than let them go to people with none.

I read about two sisters of Kagame this week. One runs a small dairy and another a souvenir shop at the airport. He seems to have done nothing to favour them. I wonder how many African leaders we can say that for.

On a BBC profile yesterday someone said that although they expected Kagame to be grateful for what Aid had been given in fact he was impatient to achieve more development.

Sorry but whatever you have to say about Kagame he has improved the living standards of the poorest - although there is a long way to go - and is desperate to do more. Does that development distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi? No it does not.

And those that claim to be disenfranchised what do they have to offer? Nkunda and others may be unhappy but did he go and examin whether the people on the hill are better off? Did they complain? Of course what else would you expect. It was what you wanted to hear. But what would you or Ingabire do differently? Would you have the political will to get people to progress development? We all know that without that little would happen.

Monday, August 09, 2010 3:04:00 PM

Blogger Artificial Wisdom said...

Saying you believe that freedom and development are possible, side-by-side, is the politically correct answer that hasn't been backed up by a single bit of real world history.

Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, etc. You could even include occupied S. Korea and Japan.

If you believe development and freedom are possible side by side, despite the many occasions where freedom always leads to anarchy in Africa, I hope you can provide some evidence to back up that claim. or at least a roadmap of what you believe would be necessary. Otherwise, you're just wishing for perfect world where everyone's happy and no one's ever sad.

Monday, August 09, 2010 4:33:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What line the international press takes is heavily determined by the foreign affairs departments of the global Northwest.

If the papers are turning a cold shoulder to Kagame, it's likely that the State Department etc. are as well - likely they started doing so first.

Why? I don't know. Did the bad press start under Obama or was it already happening under Bush. Either Kagame forgot to grease the right hands, or some bright desk-jockey figured out that kicking Kinshasa in the face constantly was a loser's game with China in the neighborhood.

Kagame's gotten the message at least partially, which is why he's been pulling away from Museveni and trying to make nice with Kabila.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 2:44:00 AM

Blogger ColoredOpinions said...

"Saying you believe that freedom and development are possible, side-by-side, is the politically correct answer that hasn't been backed up by a single bit of real world history."

For anyone who remembers vividly the fall of the Berlin wall, this statement is incredible. This is the 21st century. Do we still have to explain the importance of an open society?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 3:47:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure what prompted this shift [in the Western media's attitude toward Rwanda]."

Here's a clue:


Wednesday, August 11, 2010 7:07:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The latest Anon

You are the 2nd person today who has suggested that Rwanda's willingness to take help from China (even at the cost of accepting a lot of goods that don't last five minutes) is behind negative media from the west.

The problem with this is that negative media, feeding on biased releases from the likes of HRW, is nothing new. In the late 1990s Kigali made it clear it did not want to continue with a country full of 4x4s driven by mzungus who thought they knew what was best for Rwanda after five minutes in the country. Much Aid e.g. from the UK was redirected to the govt which wished to direct development. Inevitably this did not go down well with the international NGOs. Some NGOs who were considered to be supporting opposition groups were thrown out. In the early 2000s NGOs e.g. CAFOD, Christian Aid were meeting covertly in London and the Benelux countries to press London and The Hague for example to stop Aid. So you see not much has changed. The other day on BBC Radio an HRW spokesperson said that Kigali deserved no credit for the number of women in govt (which is specifically provided for in the constitution) since "it was because so many men died in the Genocide".

We still know who gives Aid to Rwanda but not who funds Human Rights Watch. They do not even have a comments facility on their website. They are accountable to no one it seems.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 9:22:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for a long time: sometimes I agree with what you say and sometimes I don't. This is the first time I comment but I find dificult to understand the way you face an issue as serious as this.

You say that Kagame is just a polititian in a dangerous neighbourhood. This could be said of any dictator and human rights violator in the world: is basicaly saying nothing.

What is more worrisome is that you sum up the debate on Kagame's record saying that he has done good things and bad things: again this could be said of any leader in the history of the world, from Ghandi to Hitler.

The question is how bad are the bad things that a polititian does and here is where the facts are important. You cannot dismiss the issue saying that we will never know the figures: this is what international justice is for. The question is extremely relevant, we are not talking about the track record of a president, we are trying to find out if Paul Kagame is a war criminal or not. And let's be clear about this: either he is or he is not.

Many of us believe that he will never be brought to justice to elucidate this issue simply because his international supporters are too strong. If this is the case, again, it is a very serious issue.

Of course anyone can claim that what I say is the product of a reasonless, passionate, fanatic approach to the recent history in the Great Lakes region. I am not from that region and I think I am a fairly reasonable person. Saying that claims of war crimes should be seriously investigated is not an unreasonable request.

For some reasons there are leaders whose crimes go almost unnotices or underreported, like Kagame, Museweni, Déby Itno, the late Lansana Conté, etc. There are others whose crimes are rightly denounced and broadcasted, like Mugabe, Bechir, Taylor, etc. We know the reasons for this.

Your relativism, with all due respect, I think is harmful and it leaves untouched the critical issue of geopolitical power and it scorns the concept of justice.

Thursday, August 12, 2010 7:49:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Anon, I don't think it's fair to say that I've dismissed the very real problems in the RPF or with what Kagame is responsible for. I've kept up a drumbeat of criticism of Kagame for several years now. I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but I am concerned for facts. And when you look at the facts, the story of Kagame is pretty complicated.

Thursday, August 12, 2010 8:54:00 AM

Blogger MissBwalya said...

As much as I espouse democracy, I also recognise some of the inefficiencies that come with it especially in countries like Rwanda where re-building is the main focus. The inefficiencies I refer to are trying to meet the needs of everyone while trying to reach consensus. Most African countries don’t have the luxury, and in some cases executive decisions must be made and carried out. If not, things don’t get done because you’re spending precious time wooing opposition leaders to support a cause that may not necessarily benefit them personally but benefits many ordinary citizens. This is a hindrance and can be detrimental.

With that said, I think as Africans we need to be very mindful of how much power we abdicate to our presidents and ministers. This is imperative given our chequered history with cult-like personalities who started out as leaders looking to improve things for their people, ended up as power-mad dictators who clung to power at all costs everyone else be damned, and reversed a lot of the good work they had done in prior years!

We ought to place more emphasis on good governance but also be mindful of giving up too much in pursuit of a better future. I just really hope that Kagame proves us wrong in the long run, but I am not entirely hopeful of that coming to fruition because of history’s lessons.

Friday, August 13, 2010 3:12:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find dificult to understand your answer because the question at the end of the day is pretty simple: do you think that there are pieces of evidence that suggest that the killings of hutus in 1996, the invasion and exploitation of DRC and the backing of militias in that country could be considered crimes against humanity and war crimes? If so, do you think that Paul Kagame should be brought to justice in order to determine if he is responsible for this?

Please, don't write like a polititian: that is not our world. Answer the question.

Saturday, August 14, 2010 11:06:00 AM

Anonymous Zach said...

TIA: What do you make of the recent grenade attack in Kigali just after the election?

It would appear the RPF-internal conflict narrative could be linked, but its so difficult to know anything because information is so tightly controlled.

I thought your previous post on pre-election violence in Rwanda was well-written and helpfully summarized the potentialities. Do you think the occasion of Kagame's election victory confirmation could be seen as any turning point in internal RPF struggles, or simply as a continuation of a long-simmering tensions? In other words, I wonder if we might expect an escalation beyond what we have seen already?

I returned to Rwanda recently from holiday (shortly after the attack), so I have not had a chance to speak to Rwandan colleagues or filter through the Rwandan media concerning the attack.

Monday, August 16, 2010 10:26:00 AM


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