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…