Paul Kagame and the politics of prison in Rwanda

You have probably heard the news. A few weeks ago, President Paul Kagame sanctioned the release of 2,140 prisoners in an apparent act of kindness.

There has been no official communication as to the disaggregation but a cursory look at the story so far points to a multitude of petty thieves, innocent folk – who should never have been in prison in the first place, and of course, the often-cited two political prisoners in Ms Victoire Ingabire and Kizito Mihigo.

As expected, Rwanda insists that none of those released is a political prisoner. How can they be, they say! To Kagame and his government, these are wrongdoers who deserved to be in jail and were inside legally. In fact, as far as the government is concerned, the freed prisoners should count their blessings for being out. It followed a suggestion earlier by one of the released that they had not sought pardon. The other day, whilst presiding over the swearing ceremony of Rwanda’s newest Members of Parliament, Mr. Kagame warned the government would not hesitate to return to jail, anyone who is perceived to not be towing the line. “If you keep acting like that, you may find yourself back there,” he said. It would appear that unknown to most, their release came with some strict rules against speaking out on how and why they were released. Incredible!

To Kagame: “In Rwanda, it is not pressure we respond to, it is our own thoughts. Where this country came from, we have learned that we must refuse to be a submissive people.” Contradictory, right? In one sense, Mr Kagame appeared to be appealing to Rwandans to not be submissive whilst asking them to submit to him at the same time. Independent thought is great and it must be promoted he seemed to say, but not when it is questioning my actions.

There is of course a reason for this. Mr. Kagame and his government would have preferred the story to focus on him and his act of compassion. He did not expect the headlines to be dominated by the story that Rwanda had released thousands of prisoners including two political prisoners. More than twenty years on, Kagame still sees himself as the only hero worth of praise when it comes to anything Rwandan. After all, he is the president. Not only that, he is the man whose forces stopped the genocide as the entire world looked on complicit or unwilling to help. That the international media chose to lead with the political prisoners angle instead of his act of compassion infuriated him. He had to make himself clear. You may be free but you all remain free because I so wish. Either you tow the line or you will be back to jail.

In Kagame’s Rwanda, prison has become a powerful symbol of power. A hammer with which to settle scores, against enemies real or perceived. A tool for clipping the heads of those with grand ambitions, be it in politics or in business. Those who have dared to challenge Kagame have either found themselves in jail or threatened with a trip there. Those less fortunate have been murdered or disappeared. Of course, like any country, Rwanda has criminals and wrongdoers and given its most recent history, it has people who deserve to be in jail. It is however a matter of fact, that post-genocide Rwanda continues to excellently use prison as a political tool.

I was there on Friday 6 April 2007, when Pasteur Bizimungu, Rwanda’s first post-genocide president was released midway through his 15-year sentence for inciting ethnic hatred. As with, Ingabire and Kizito, his release was communicated to a section of the media before hand. Having turned up to see him released, we were hoping he would share his thoughts with us. But a frail and visibly shaken Bizimungu only had a few words to say ” I want to thank the president for the pardon he has given”. Before adding: “It has taken me by surprise”. With that, Mr Bizimungu who said he felt very tired, was whisked away in a waiting Landrover Defender to an unknown location in Kigali and we have not heard from him since. Incredible, right?

As with Bizimungu, Ingabire’s statement upon coming out of prison was quite similar: “I thank the president who gave me this liberation,” she said as she spoke to the press after leaving Mageragere Prison in Kigali. The haste was apparent as journalists prepared to ask further questions. Before she could be ushered away, she was allowed one more question to which she answered: “This is the beginning of the opening of political space in Rwanda, I hope so.” That second question and Ingabire’s subsequent answer are crucial. Crucial in the sense that they revealed exactly how she felt. She may have been hoping, but the fact that she was willing to say something political immediately after her release says a lot about the type of politician she is.

In 2007, I was fortunate to interview Ms Ingabire shortly after I fled Rwanda. At the time, she was still in the Netherlands preparing to travel to Rwanda. Like many, I thought this was a dangerous endeavour but she was adamant she would go. She came through as an intelligent young mother, well aware of the dangers but prepared nonetheless to make the trip for a cause she believed in. I have interviewed a few politicians in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda and very few have shown the kind of charisma I saw in Ingabire. It remains to be seen whether Kagame will let Ingabire be. Unlike most African politicians, she is no career politician. She genuinely believes that Rwanda and Rwandans can do even better. While I am glad she is finally out of prison, I hope that Kagame can find a way of working with her as she definitely has a role to play in Rwanda’s political dispensation.

It would of course be disingenuous to dismiss the importance of a presidential pardon, especially in the context of Rwanda’s recent history. As president Kagame himself rightly said, “if we did not give clemency, how many people would still be in prison?”. Without such schemes, thousands of Rwandans will be languishing in jail. The prerogative to pardon has seen many people reunited with their loved ones, improved community relations, and is ultimately helping with the healing process. Mr. Kagame must now learn to accept that he does not have to be the hero every time. Neither does he have to hog the headlines. As president, he must find it within himself to let people be. Dissent is healthy as long as it is conducted within the confines of the law. He must resist the temptation of using prison and the threat of prison as instruments for submission. As a bonafide christian, he would do well learning from Jesus’s sermon on the mount: not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing. It is one thing extending a pardon, but the true measure of forgiveness is how the forgiving part gets on with the forgiven.

How many people must Rwanda lose? Bizimungu currently lives in a sorry state. As a former head of state, there is much he could be offering to support the development of this country. Freeing 2140 is fantastic, it would be even great if all political prisoners, currently serving time in Rwandan prisons across the country, were freed. Diane Rwigara, Adeline Rwigara, Théophile Ntirutwa, Léonille Gasengayire and others come to mind.

Over to you Mr President!

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South Sudan: What happened to hope?

On 9 July 2011, three years ago last week, the world joined hands to welcome a new state. A combination of high-level negotiations, persistent lobbying and, sometimes, puffed advocacy, had helped create a new country, aptly named South Sudan.

It seemed like a new dawn. Women, men and children – faces painted in the colours of the new national flag – braced the scorching sun to be part of their country’s history. You could feel the excitement. Even Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, hitherto an adversary, was present.
Good will messages came in from all corners. David Cameron, who was represented by William Hague, said it was “an historic day, for South Sudan and the whole of Africa”. Barack Obama said it was “a reminder that, after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible”. Women ululated, men jumped up and down in joy, as young boys and girls waved paper flags – all full of hope. It was big news and the story of a new country was on the front page of most newspapers in the world.
How things change. There are many people in the world, including some South Sudanese, who did not even notice that July 9, 2014 marked the country’s third impendence anniversary. I still remember where I was on Friday 9 July 2011. I was up north in beautiful York trying to finish my dissertation. I remember receiving a Facebook poke, followed by a message from one of my fellow students (Sudanese) who was overjoyed at the prospect of an independent South Sudan. He joked that he was thinking about petitioning to change the name to something without the word Sudan in it.
So much can be said about the tragedy that has become South Sudan. It is hard to even believe that since fighting broke out in December last year between loyalists of President Salva Kiir and his rival, former Vice-President Riek Machar, an estimated ten thousand South Sudanese have been killed and over 1.3 million forced to flee their homes. While there remains a multitude of opportunities for the warring parties to get back together and for South Sudan to steady itself, I still believe that the country’s undoing was the general assumption that secession/independence would be the magic wand.
Attaining peace, as we all know, is a complicated process which involves many variables, and players. It might seem surprising to many how a country could suddenly go from the joyful scenes witnessed on that sunny Friday in July 2011 to the disastrous ethnic killings of the last few months.
The South Sudan experience has cast doubt on the argument for independence-driven self-determination. It begs the question: is secession the answer to solving protracted conflicts? Is there anything flawed with self-determination as we know it? Last year, I was at a talk about the situation in eastern DRC, organised by the Royal African Society, at the time when the UN group of experts had released a report accusing Rwanda of arming and supporting the M23. One of the speakers (a Rwandan) infamously suggested that eastern DRC should be annexed to Rwanda. Her comments irked the many Congolese present, so much so that the event had to be cancelled for hers and everyone’s safety. It seems to me that while the right to self-determination is a core principle of international law and enshrined in a number of international treaties, its application vis-à-vis the process of building peace (not peacebuilding) remains contentious. And this is not least because the likes of South Sudan have created drastic precedents, but also because it negates the fact that there are many variables in the peace maze and separation will not always necessarily translate into peaceful co-existence.
I’m not an expert, but I clearly believe that while it might be understandable for the sake of peace and nation-building to ignore and incorporate adversaries (including spoilers), for peace to work, and particularly so in young states, there has to be a way of ensuring that impunity is not condoned, and that wrongdoers – however powerful or well-connected – are held to account for their actions.
There are of course so many factors that could help explain South Sudan’s current mess, including for example, as my colleague Jo Robinson said to me, the lack of a collective, national identity, or the fact that the international community, which the new state relied so much upon financially in the lead up to independence, has since gotten tired of providing endless financial support. But it also cannot be denied that one difficult truth could be the fact that the major players in the country are corrupt monomaniacs putting self-interest ahead of state unity. I’m pretty sure that President Bashir does occasionally look south and giggle.
Long live South Sudan – if only!

The dark, hellish hand of other actors

FYI – This is my take on Pan Butamire’s opinion piece in todays New Times. You may want to read that before or after reading this post. Otherwise enjoy…

Why does it feel as if M23 was formed long before its precursor, CNDP? It’s hard to believe that it came into existence only last April.  And it’s even harder to believe that it managed to grab the attention of the world so forcefully. In D.R. Congo that’s filled to its brim with decades-old rebel groups, its few hundreds of mutineers so easily rocked the world. What is it that stamped it on our conscience with such poignancy and permanence?

Against all expectations, it has aroused such strong ire in the UN and super powers around the world are denouncing it with unprecedented rapidity. These shakers and shapers of the world who for 8 months appeared oblivious of foreign support to M23 have woken up only to realise, they ought to have done better earlier.

Look at how the UN quickly churned out a succession of reports on Rwanda that put her on the cross as the villain that mothered this howling monster. Donors shouting cut aid! And western media belting out messages of the real power behind M23 with bravado! Uganda, for its ‘milder’ support, was spared the cuts but given the lip. To Western countries and to the UN, the leading role the countries have played in searching for a solution counted for nil – because you can’t have your cake and eat it.

Then M23 captured Goma. We waited for the looting, child recruitment, raping, arbitrary killings and all the other atrocities that defined the howling monster as we had been made to believe. But, gladly, we were spared the anguish of a confirmation. When it became clear they would have to withdrawal from Goma, like FARDC, M23, who had hitherto been masquerading as a good lot, started looting at will. Their target – Goma’s central bank.

Perhaps before we begin questioning the reason behind this cacophony of aid-cut threats by these powers that we claim have ganged up together in a way never seen before, we should prompt ourselves with such questions as why the hell did we end up in this mess? We can’t say there was no warning. In today’s world, it is impossible to hide anything leave alone claim ignorance of such things as what one is doing in their neighbour’s backyard. If not Congolese themselves, members of the mainstream media, whose byword is unwavering objectivity, were bound to wake up to these things.

World powers may be admitting that the roadmap presented by regional leaders through the ICGLR represents by far the closest workable solution to the mess we find ourselves in. But while MONUSCO and DRC embark on doing their bit, the big question should be did it have to come this far? How is it possible that we did not see this coming? Besides, if we have got nothing to do with M23, why should we feel the need to defend its actions or even care what attention its troop movements is attracting in mainstream media and in capitals around the world? A toad does not flop in broad day light for nothing. Discussions on the ills which have dogged the DRC for a long time must not shirk the role of foreign actors in Congo – or we will be losing the point. Congo has been labelled “the rape capital of the world” not just because the government is weak and incapable of protecting its people but because other actors internal and external stand to gain from its instability.

Are rebels part of the powers at play in this region? Of course. Are foreign powers part of the powers at play in this region? Certainly. I think that over the past months, there has been enough evidence not to doubt this.

What of the recent rumour that the recently suspended DRC army chief, Gabriel Amisi, has actually been in a gunrunning racket to arm all the rebels in the country, except M23? What of the evidence or rumour that Rwanda’s defence minister, James Kabarebe has actually been commandeering M23?

Clearly, the judging by the force and bravado with which M23 made a march on Goma, the truth is that someone well capable was in command. It could be the accused or it could be that in Bishop Runiga and the wanted criminal Ntaganda, the rebels have some capable commanders. M23’s propensity to kick beyond reach is in fact beyond their own prowess! Surely there is a god-father or some godfathers. This, in some warped logic, would explain why Vianney Kazarama found it fitting to go on the rooftops of Goma and shout out that M23 were not going to withdraw from Goma until their demands were granted – even as the ICGLR summit and UNSCR 2076 called demanded immediate withdrawal. It may also explain why Kabila’s government, weak as it is, refuses to listen to and have a dialogue with M23. In such situations, it is always wise to play spectator – especially if you are as hopeless and hapless as Joseph Kabila.

Politicking aside, there is another element. How could MONUSCO allow M23 to cruise into Goma so easily? Given what happened, surely talk now in UN circles should be that of revising MONUSCO’s mandate to ensure that it has the capacity to not only pretend to be protecting civilians but also the power to engage should civilians and their property be at risk. The same media frenzy which has followed M23 and its backers could do much for the advancement of a call to revise MONUSCO’s mandate.

And you thought peacekeeping did not mean standing between belligerents? Wish these world shakers and movers would remain on the Congolese people’s side.

Looting for the sake of it: The trouble with FARDC

It is sad when a government in power cannot exercise control over its territory. Sad still when that same government has little or no control over its national army.

That the DRC is a country in crisis is no secret. A cursory google search will give you so much info as to the mess this country finds itself in than you probably can get inside Congo. This is a country, whose people, having lived through years and years of successive incompetent governments, are not sure what to expect anymore.

Last year, the Congolese tried changing the state of affairs by turning up in huge numbers to end their long suffering. Their attempts proved futile when the country’s electoral commission announced – to the surprise of many – that President Joseph Kabila had been re-elected. I have never met President Kabila but while some of his countrymen portray him as an out of ideas head of state, somehow, he has hang onto the DRC presidency for a good number of years. And that says much. Either, the Congolese voices are not being heard or democracy as we know is dead.

But this is not about Kabila. This post is much about the army he presides over – FARDC – than his failings as the man on top. When reports came through that the M23 were advancing towards Goma, the news was that rather than defend their positions, FARDC ran off. While this was expected perhaps given the superiority in artillery of M23 rebels over FARDC, reports that the Congolese army was pillaging and looting from the very civilian population it was meant to protect shocked the world.

Some have said FARDCs behaviour was expected given that these are soldiers who so often go for months without pay. No matter the difficulties, a national army, particularly in a country where private armies and rebels continue to roam with so much ease, should have the discipline and morality to know that unlike rebel armies, national armies do not steal from citizens.

No wonder M23 was able to get so much support after they took over Goma. Which national army behaves in the way FARDC have and expects citizens to have any faith in it? M23 may be a bunch of ragtag mutineers intent on destabilising eastern DRC but as long as an FARDC is stealing, harassing and mistreating those it is meant to protect, they (M23) shall continue to get the leverage and sometimes quite rightly, reasons for intervention.

A South African journalist filming in DRC today reported having his Kenyan cameraman almost lynched by a group of FARDC soldiers for apparently looking Tutsi. It may have been an isolated case of bigotry. It is possible too that this could be related to reports that M23 is supported, armed and commanded by Rwandan and Ugandan generals. Whatever the case, it will play well into the argument that DRC’s issues are deeper than just M23. President Kabila as head of state working with his government ministers must ensure that his government takes a grip – a grip not only around Kinshasha but the whole of DRC lest as one twitterer joked today, the end of M23 might be the beginning of N24.

Why M23 wont be leaving Goma soon

The UN has demanded they withdraw from Goma. A summit of four African heads of state sitting in the Ugandan capital Kampala yesterday (Saturday) called on M23 to “stop expanding the war forthwith and stop talk of overthrowing an elected government.”

There is also, it would appear, at least seemingly, some agreement within the international community that for any talk meaningful peace efforts to be undertaken in DRC, M23 must first stop their advance – or better, give up the fighting altogether.

But none of these appear to be about to happen. Despite the numerous calls for their withdrawal, M23 have made it clear they are not about to leave Goma. Not yet. Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, M23’s political chief, told Reuters news agency that Rwanda and Uganda had no authority to order them to give up the city.

“We’ll stay in Goma waiting for negotiations. They [government forces] are going to attack us and we’re going to defend ourselves and keep on advancing,” he was quoted.

It would appear from Runiga’s statement that M23 are expecting an attack from government forces to which they will then respond by capturing more ground. The rebel outfit has proved to be more powerful than perhaps many thought. Just before the summit, M23, perhaps buoyed by the ease with which they took Goma, were already talking of going as far as Kinshasha. As a Congolese friend said to me yesterday, “with the international community and the world media focused on events in Gaza and Syria, we thought they might go for it.”

They didn’t. Instead they have zeroed on Goma where they appear very relaxed. I spoke to a Congolese diplomat in London earlier today who is convinced that even without the summit, it is unlikely that M23 would have gone as far as Kinshasha. “To do what? Their case has nothing to do with Kinshasha. They are confortable where they are and that is all they ever wanted. Nothing else,” he said.

If the Congolese government are aware of what M23 are looking for, why have they not managed to solve the grievance – after all, what becameM23 was once part of the Congolese army?

Why Goma?

Goma remains by far the biggest and agreeably most strategic city in eastern DRC. If one is to go by the assertions in a UN report released this week, it is nearer to Rwanda and Uganda – the two countries said to be providing support to M23. It has an airport and judging by the ease with which they captured it, and the way they were received, one might as well say M23 forces feel at home in Goma than anywhere else in the country.

Some people have also suggested that with M23 feel Goma is the bargaining chip they needed against President Joseph Kabila. Despite initially stating his unwillingness to talk to the rebels, President Kabila has since changed his mind – it would appear. On Wednesday this week, Kabila said he would study the rebels’ demands and consider negotiating with them. Such statements will galvanise M23 whose main aim some have insisted is gaining more leverage against the government in Kinshasha.

Withdraw or Advance?

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse in Goma says it is unclear whether the rebels’ capacity matches their ambitions. In Col. Vianney Kazarama, M23 have a very committed spokesperson. So committed that his statements have sometimes appeared so detached from recent events but he seems to be relishing his role. Kazarama is convinced the rebels have got the momentum and that only serious negotiations with Kabila can prevent an advance on Kinshasha. This, despite calls from the summit organised by his purported backers, that his fellow fighters withdrawal from Goma.

May be he has a point. Following the Kampala summit today, M23 will feel their recent antics have paid off. By agreeing to speak to them, the DRC government have elevated them beyond marauding mutineers – a tag they previously were associated with – to a rebel outfit with concerns that need addressing. Question remains, will they actually leave Goma?

Over to you…

London Despatch

Little known but committed Victoire Ingabire is a woman of all seasons. She has since her arrival back in Rwanda been trying to familiarise herself with the developments so far in a country she left 16 years ago. A career accountant-turned politician, she hopes, subject to the registration of her political party, to contest the forthcoming presidential election this August. Many agree she stands no chance but her introduction into the Rwandan political fold has already created a few surprises. Government propagandists under different pseudo names are already engaged in a tarnishing campaign to ensure all she says is never believed. Already, her political aide has been arrested and jailed over a Gacaca court conviction that Ingabire’s supporters and sympathisers believe is faked.

But as Kagame prepares to assume yet another seven year term, the world has been introduced to a politically charged mercenary type of society where opposition politics…

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