To Be or Not to Be; Is the story changing in Rwanda?

By Eleneus Akanga

Some things, you just can’t buy. You either have them in abundance or they are scarce and rare. Their abundance often scams recipients into comfort zones where everything is assumed constant until that time when supply becomes skewed.

Then, we start reacting differently. Some people blame their handlers while others choose to place all the blame on others. Yes, others because it is easier to blame someone else than take full responsibility ourselves.

Most Rwandese of my age have grown up to the story that 16 years ago, their countrymen took to the streets and villages killing fellow countrymen on a scale never witnessed anywhere in the world. In what we have known as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Rwanda is said to have lost close to 1,000,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus when the Interahamwe militia went on rampage. And that it was the Rwandese Patriotic Army under current president Paul Kagame who brought this sad chapter to an end by taking over Kigali in July 1994.

President Paul Kagame has built his reputation on this very fact and his government has been systematic as they have been consistent, in pressing forward this version of the story. With ending the genocide under his belt, President Kagame has seen his image soar and has rightfully won a host of accolades for his overall performance as Rwanda’s head of state.

Many around the world including former US president Bill Clinton were not shy to refer to him as one of the best leaders Africa has seen. He was on all accounts, a man of great integrity, so highly regarded across the globe that 8 months ago, any criticism of his style of leadership or version of events –as happened in 1994 – was bound to be viewed as nothing but a disgruntled rant from naysayers.

Just last month, President Kagame’s government came under heavy criticism for stifling free speech when it suspended two local newspapers Umuvugizi and Umuseso in the run-up to presidential elections. Then as the world opened their eyes up for the apparent lack of democracy in a country that had a couple of months earlier suspended and refused a visa to a Human Rights Watch researcher for a discrepancy in visa documents, Rwanda refused to register the country’s only genuine opposition parties in FDU-Inkingi and Democratic Green Party of Rwanda.

The coincidental shooting of Jean Leonard Rugambage the Umuvugizi editor whose publication happened at the time to be investigating the suspected assassination of Lt. Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army Chief of Staff in a foreign country and the murder of Andrew Kagwa Rwisereka, the vice chairman of the Greens did not help matters. Kigali and Kagame came under the spotlight.

But as bad press (or the truth) depending on how you look at it continued to come in, Kagame and his men tirelessly worked on his re-election. He pulled crowds each day on campaign rallies and as expected won comfortably with over 93 percent of the vote, giving him another seven year term.

For some time, the Rwandan story as told by the RPF and Kagame has stood unchallenged as we know it. Those who have dared question the official story have either been charged under the genocide law for negationism and genocide denial as with Victoire Ingabire, Bernard Ntaganda and a host of opposition party supporters arrested during a demonstration. American law Prof. Peter Erlinder had to endure a spell in a Kigali jail for expressing his opinions on what he thinks the Rwandan story should be.

But if the events in Rwanda in the run up to, during and after the elections have not provided the current government with something to really think about, the revelation that the national army may have committed crimes tantamount to genocide against Hutus in Congo will surely give everyone in government something to help argue.

A leaked report from the UN high commissioner for human rights says that after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Tutsi-led Rwandan troops and their rebel allies killed tens of thousands of members of the Hutu ethnic group inside the Congo.

If this is true, it brings into fore a hitherto untold version of the Rwandan story. It would appear that a government whose image has been created on bringing an end to the Rwandan genocide is the same government whose forces committed yet another.

According to the leaked report, “The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick, who were often undernourished and posed no threat to the attacking forces.” The report goes on to say the crimes committed by Rwandan forces amount to “crimes against humanity, war crimes, or even genocide.”

It is the heaviest ever statement ever written against the Rwandan government. We all remember how Kigali reacted three years ago when French Judge Jean Louis Bruguire issued arrest warrants for members of the Rwandan government; we remember too how the same government reacted when a Spanish judge accused Kagame and his men of atrocities. To think that Rwanda will let this go without a proper fight is akin to forgetting so easily, for if there is anything Kagame is so afraid of at this moment in time, it is a damning report showing or even suggesting complicity in an atrocity he has so effectively used against his enemies both real and purported.

Honey Moon Over?

Rwanda has long claimed it attacked Hutu camps in eastern Congo to pursue those responsible for the killings of over 800,000 Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide. But the report marks the first time the UN has accused Rwandan forces of deliberately attacking the tens of thousands of Hutu civilians who also had fled. For some time, Rwanda has received good coverage and good press from most western countries partly because Kagame was seen as a good chap to work with. Secondly the guilt of forsaking Rwanda in 1994 when she needed the international community’s help has curtailed the West’s moral ability to criticise the guy who is known largely for stopping the genocide.

No wonder Kigali was quick to dismiss the report. The country has threatened too, to withdraw any of its servicemen from UN peacekeeping missions if the report is published. Why threaten if you know you have nothing to do with what is alleged in the report? Either way, withdrawing troops would serve as testament that Rwanda is doing the right thing; there obviously would be no moral right for a country whose forces are genocide perpetrators to then go ahead keeping peace. Maintaining deployed troops in their designated locations will also bring into question whether accused troops should really continue in positions where they are paid for by an organisation in whose report they stand accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Way Out

I was speaking to one of the officials in Kigali yesterday and he seemed to agree that this is a very damning report. He however contends that it might help bring to into line, the possibility if there ever was, of the ruling RPF (majority of which are Tutsis) to sit down with Hutu representatives for an open debate that will seek to establish what actually happened.

He did not want to add any more voices to this assertion just like he asked me not to even think of quoting him. But even with such an open debate, the atrocities committed in Congo if proven to be true and linked to the Rwandan forces would call not only for open debates but successful convictions at the Hague.

I have even had my old friends in Kigali trash the report and instead heap the blame on the UN for in the first place; failing to pass UN Resolution 1706 that would have seen the organisation send more troops to Rwanda. It is one of those very old classic colonial thoughts where we Africans tend to easily refuse to accept responsibility and instead shift the blame to others. For, the question is not why the UN failed to send more troops but whether as a nation whose people had lived together and spoke the same language, we should have been involved in the kind of savagery that we found ourselves into before, during and now, after the genocide?

Over to you my little monsters…

New Amnesty report criticises vague Rwanda laws

Posted: 31 August 2010

Amnesty International has today [31 August] urged Rwanda’s new government to review its vague laws of ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ which can lead to imprisonment for up to 25 years.

In its new report entitled Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’ Amnesty raised concerns that the laws are being used to suppress political dissent and stifle freedom of speech.

It details how the vague wording of these laws is misused to criminalise criticism of the government and dissent by opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists.

Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director, Erwin van der Borght said:

“The ambiguity of the ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ law means Rwandans live in fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing. Most take the safe option of staying silent.”

Amnesty International found that many Rwandans, even those with specialist knowledge of Rwandan law, were unable to precisely define ‘genocide ideology’. Even judges noted that the law was broad and abstract.

Accusations of ‘genocide ideology’ have also been used to settle personal disputes. Current laws allow for the criminal punishment of children as young as 12, accused of genocide ideology. Parents, guardians and teachers can all face the threat of “inoculating” a child with “genocide ideology”.

Sentences for convicted adults range from 10 to 25 years’ imprisonment.

The ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ laws were introduced to restrict speech that could promote hatred in the decade following the 1994 genocide.   While prohibiting hate speech is a legitimate aim, the approach used by the Rwandan Government has violated international law.

The Rwandan government announced a review of the ‘genocide ideology’ law in April 2010. The government should also launch a review of the ‘sectarianism’ law and demonstrate a new approach to freedom of expression in order to stem the chilling effect of past legislation.

Amnesty International is urging the Rwandan government to significantly amend the laws, to publicly express a commitment to freedom of expression, to review past convictions and to train police and prosecutors on how to investigate accusations.

Erwin van der Borght added:

“We hope that the government review will result in a meaningful revision of the ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ laws, so that freedom of expression is protected both on paper and in practice.”

Notes to Editors

· Rwanda’s ‘genocide ideology’ law was promulgated in 2008 and the ‘sectarianism’ law was promulgated in 2001.

· According to government figures, there were 1,034 trials related to ‘genocide ideology’ in 2007-2008. These were prosecuted under charges ranging from assassinations to damage to cattle.

· According to government figures, 435 ‘genocide ideology’ cases were tried at first instance in 2009.

· In the lead-up to the 9 August presidential elections two opposition candidates were arrested and charged, among other things, with ‘genocide ideology’. A newspaper editor was also arrested on the same charge.

· The BBC and VOA have both been accused of disseminating ‘genocide ideology’ by the government. These accusations led to the suspension of the BBC Kinyarwanda service for two months from April 2009.

Should We Run and Hide now That Kagame is President?

By Eleneus Akanga

There are those who believe the presidential election in Rwanda was nothing else but an illegitimate consecration of President Paul Kagame. There even are some who did refer to the election as a “selection with no choice given” and have refused to accept it as valid.

So are those who feel that the reported massive turn out on election day and the subsquent total number of votes cast in favour of Kagame, is testament that Rwandans still love the former rebel leader.

Whatever the belief, there is one fact that stands out. Kagame is now Rwanda’s president and will at least legally or illegally remain so till 2017. It is a fact that the two sets of protagonists have got to contend with. How and whether they should, is a different matter, alltogether.

If there is anything Africa’s strongmen have managed to effectively do,hang on to power is that thing. From Uganda to Libya, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, Africa has had it’s fair share of authoritarians or longest serving presidents if you may. Trouble is, as in the case of Kagame, those in question have laid claim to the fact they were democratically voted back into power. Even where it has neccessitated tampering or ammending the constituions for them to get to the ballot paper, the result in those cases has passed as legitimate because such is democracy as understood in authoritarian countries.

Kagame has said previously that this should and will be his last term as head of state and for purposes of objectivity, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Writing in the FT last week (August 19) he maintained that “competitive democracy requires sustained social cohesion”. His argument was pitched on the very note his leadership has defended its vice-like grip on political pruralism for years – the one that 16 years they have had is too short a time for competitive politics.

“Many also fail to understand that it was precisely a system of pluralistic politics that played a major role in the genocide, as newly formed parties with shared extremist ideology outperformed the former one-party state in mobilising the population to commit mass murder,” he argued.

To Kagame, pruralistic politics breed divisionism and chaos and should thus,be avoided. While he may be true, his assertion brings into fore a few observations. One, that for 16 years Kagame has failed, despite his economic prowess, to promote genuine unity among Rwandans and fears the message of forgiveness and reconciliation is yet to be accepted after all these years. Two, that he now looks increasingly even more authoritarian compared to his predecessor as far as political space is concerned. And three, which probably is more worrying, that his country’s much touted and publicized peaceful co-existence between victims and perpetrators, is just a bubble waiting to explode.

While it is important to work toward ensuring that what happened in 1994 does not happen ever again, success on this matter wont come from the duration granted for wounds to heal but a genuine and well thought arrangement where both sides take to an open and clear debate about what actually happened.

Some people will argue that Kagame has done his best and continues to, and therefore with enough time, will deliver. Well to this group of thinkers, I say hold it. Everyone knows that Kagame has consistently avoided such politics as the politics of open debate. His crackdown on independent media, his continued fall out with those who oppose and question his repressive style of leadership notwithstanding, his government’s decision this year not to register the only credible opposition parties and the incarceration of Victoire Ingabire – the only politician to ever call for an open debate about the country’s history, went to show just how unprepared Kagame is for this sort of debate. The question then becomes not one of can he, but rather that of for how long.

The Rwandan story under Kagame is destined to that sad fact where even after 100 years, the same wounds that have taken 16 years to heal might still be very raw and well visible, if the current policy is maintained. And that to me would not be progress. It is what happens when you know the truth but instead choose the slightly easier option because the truth hurts or you feel the time is not ripe. Some scholars have even suggested that Rwanda’s issues would quite easily be sorted by embracing the model taken by South Africa after apartheid – a notion that Kagame appears to be totally opposed to probably because it dictates that the two sides get to open up and confess to their atrocities. And when one side has been pleading complete innocence for 16 years, you get the idea of why such a move can only succeed without the incumbent.

And it is worse. You have to feel for the real opposition in Rwanda when an under pressure president after getting the hint that the world has began to understand how he really conducts his business and will soon be demanding real answers to the pertinent questions, suddenly speaks about forming some sort of coalition government. (I will write in detail about this in my next piece).

Kagame is a very tactical guy. In his heart, he knows the truth. He knows forinstance that his style of leadership is one he would have struggled to stomach himself had he been in the opposition’s shoes. He knows that his government has made and continues to make it extremely tough for free speech to succeed in Rwanda. He knows that what he refers to as his opposition is not but just a group of strategists and RPF sympathisers who for the sake of keeping their jobs have agreed to play opposition when in actual sense, they are subsets of the ruling political party. But he does not give a damn like he said before. To calm the nerves of the international community, he will open up or pretend to be opening up for power sharing but only share with his own. Notice too, that Rwanda has theoretically embraced some sort of a coalition government ever since the country formed the Forum for Political Parties in 2002. So why make a fuss about it now? Because it diverts the attention.

To those unaware of his true character, such a move will be seen as a clear indication that he is an inclusive president intent on sharing power. Share power? Remember this is a gentleman who in the early 90s refused a power sharing agreement with then president and instead went ahead with war. But this cannot be used against him really as people do change – may be he has changed! It however remains to be seen if Kagame can really be trusted, which raises the question, is he really going to step down come 2017?

As for those who do not subscribe to his principles and style of leadership, the times are getting harder. Just yesterday, I read that Lt. Col Rugigana Ngabo, has been arrested on charges of “destabilisation”. Despite the Rwandan army confirming the arrest, Col Ngabo’s wife seems to have no idea as to the whereabouts of her husband or where he is being detained. And when you consider that the colonel is brother to exiled former army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, you get the picture of what Gen Nyamwasa said in his first interview to Voice of America about Rwandan officials living in fear, so much that comrades and friends alike are no longer associating with one another for fear of being labelled “the bad guys”. Now that Kagame is president again, when he surely should have been sitting home looking after his cattle and reading books about his role in the Rwandan history, should we run and hide?

…over to you my little monsters.

Of Rwanda and the coveted image

By Eleneus Akanga

Writing August 3, in The Guardian, another of UK’s newspapers I regard highly, Robert Booth exposes yet another of those rambling defences that the regime in Kigali now considers part of the lingua-franca. One, of a nation which under President Paul Kagame has managed to develop, foster unity and completely re-invent itself 16 years after it was torn apart by the genocide.

Rwanda under Kagame continues to fascinate. You have a leader, who has managed to silence all opposition, crack down heavily on free press and dissent despite ushering in a period of economic progress and prosperity (at least for some) but he never gets any criticism from leading nations like the US or the UK.

Well, if you have been wondering why Kigali gets away with accusations of state terror, violation of human rights, suspected journalist killings, sham elections or serious concerns about the level of political freedom, here is the answer. According to The Guardian, a London PR firm Racepoint , hired by our dear head of state himself, is in control.

When I wrote the other day about the gutter that is The New Times, a few people wondered why I was so dismissive of my own national newspaper, some even reminding me that I mustn’t trash TNT so much as it is where I began my career. Well, they were right, why trash an organisation that gave you a chance. While it would be humane for me not to bin The New Times for the opportunity it gave me, it would be suicidal on my part as a journalist to knowingly not tell the truth. By questioning why Rwanda spends millions on adverts in foreign papers or why Kagame always chooses foreign media when giving interviews instead of our own newspapers, I was only trying to point to the fact that The New Times is not taken seriously even by the people it serves. And if Paul Kagame, the man who and whose government The New Times has pampered since 1998 does not think it is worth giving an interview, why not say the truth?

But this is not the point today. Publicity is good.  Make no mistake; Rwanda needed some great publicity after what happened in 1994. I know of people in Europe who still know of Rwanda from the movie Hotel Rwanda. And so often, I have had to explain that the genocide ended some 17 years ago. Good publicity has helped revamp our tourism industry which, it has to be said, remains our highest foreign exchange earner to-date.

But if this publicity is going to come at the expense of the truth about the country’s democratic path, facts about free speech and press freedom or the exact truthful experiences of the local Rwandan, I rather we don’t get it. There is coming to London to look for a good PR firm to help you get recognised and known world wide, this I agree with, but when such trips, are made with the sole aim of striking deals aimed at promoting spin and lies about the real experiences in Rwanda from the Rwandans up and down the country who wish they could have some bread on the table and are not sure what tomorrow holds, then it becomes highly questionable that the taxpayer should foot the bill.

President Kagame is free to become a dictator if he chooses to but he must not forget that Rwandans reserve the right to demand he explains why he is leading the country dangerously to the brink with his reclusive and iron-fisted approach to leadership.  And if he or those working for him have no moral authority to explain this to the masses choosing instead to employ the services of spin masters in London and at ludicrously high prices, then that is betrayal.

It is clear who Kagame wants to hear his music. Like one of the PR moguls put it in Robert Booth’s piece, “If you are managing a client’s reputation, whether individual, company or country, it is the Anglo-Saxon media that matters and particularly the London-based media,” said Ivo Gabara. And you would not have to search far to see why Rwanda is keen at spending so much in London for image rights.

Rwanda received £70 million from the UK last year and as Kagame prepares to assume another seven-year term on Tuesday August 10, he can look forward to another cool £56 million from London this year. And if Racepoint is there to help advance a spin that will blind London and Washington from seeing that this is a gentleman whose government refused opposition candidates to register, has successfully outlawed dissent, banned independent media from operating in the country, persecuted critical journalists and above all spent an astonishing $100 million on two executive jets when 60 percent of the locals are classed by the UN as living below the poverty line, why not pay millions of this free money to those who help you gain it?

There is probably not much the West can do given the power of Paul Kagame’s public relations machinery ironically financed wholly by their (West) free money. But besides reading and following the choreographed stories in these London or Washington publications planted by the lobbyists at Racepoint and others like it, the West might want to borrow a leaf from researchers and Rwandese themselves who at least know what is going on.

And like Susan Thomson pointed out, there are three things that donors (development partners as Kagame calls them) can do to encourage him to create a more open and peaceful culture after his re-election on Monday.

“First is to question the government’s ability to manage Rwanda’s natural resources its people and its land.

“Second is to encourage open dialogue and a culture of constructive criticism and debate about government policies amongst the political class.

“Third is to encourage Kagame to engage the diverse political views of the Rwandan Diaspora”.

From me, it is congratulations President elect Paul Kagame on your second term as Rwanda’s head of state. You may have won confortably but surely events in this year’s campaign will have proved to you that freedom is not divisible. The tighter you control the tenets of democracy, the more it is going to be harder to loosen it once that time you so keenly talk about comes. Silence is a bad thing, and just because people are silent does not mean they are contented.

Over to you my little monsters…