Rwanda 17 years later: what is the truth?

NOTICE: Yesterday, after a post by Nkunda Rwanda which I published on this blog, Gerald Caplan contacted me asking me if I had given consideration to his essay before running Nkunda Rwanda’s piece. As editor of this blog, I have since decided to run his piece too so readers can read through ( those who have not read the two pieces) … over to you my little monsters!

By Gerald Caplan

The editors of ‘Remaking Rwanda’ tell us they are presenting ‘a comprehensive account of post-genocide reconstruction…Debates on contemporary Rwanda are often polarized and polarizing,’ they understand, and promise to do better. ‘We have tried to offer a more nuanced appraisal, though one that is ultimately critical.’

Such a book would be welcome, even indispensable, to illuminate a country and especially a government that attract wildly different points of view. But this is not that book. Despite the promise of its editors, ‘Remaking Rwanda’ is another pure example of how utterly unbalanced the RPF’s critics can be, so blind to their own biases they apparently cannot even recognise them. Only such blinkers can explain how a book that is anti-Kagame from the first to the last page, that entirely fails to mention, let alone record, the miracle of reconstruction that has taken place in the country in the 17 years since the genocide, can be presented as comprehensive and nuanced.

Don’t get me wrong. It is only right and proper to recount, as a number of chapters do, the disappointing record of human rights violations and democratic abuse that has characterised much of the RPF’s period of governance as well as the notorious record of the Rwandan Defence Force in the Congo. Indeed, this book was completed prior to the squalid events of the past 18 months or so, more or less the period surrounding the 2010 presidential election, so that this period is not included. Throughout 2010, in what sometimes seemed like an unending torrent, story after story poured forth of beatings, killings, attempted killings, harassment, arrests, abuse and intimidation of politicians, journalists and former comrades who had in common their opposition to the RPF government.

Of course in a tragic sense, the RPF’s human rights record is just one more example of the way so many of Africa’s leaders have betrayed their people for the past half-century. But there are two reasons why the RPF so often comes under fire. First, if it is held to a higher standard than most of its peers, which it often is, that’s because their leaders have always presented themselves as operating at a higher standard than other governments. Second, while Rwanda has genuine security needs that might call for harsh measures, few of the human rights and democracy violations and few of the killings in the Congo can be justified by these needs.

So there has been no shortage of reasons to criticise Kagame and his government, and Straus and Waldorf had little difficulty pulling together the work of some 18 foreign scholars and eight human rights activists, supplemented by two Rwandans, all of whom share a deep loathing for Paul Kagame and his government. All have spent time in Rwanda, many of them (even some that go overboard) contain important information, and many of their criticisms seem to me justified. In the end, this makes the unrelenting negativism and the total lack of balance all the more disappointing.

For the volume contains not a single essay, and barely a single word, recounting the astonishing recovery the country has made since July 1994 and demonstrates little or no sympathy for the enormous, almost intractable, challenges the RPF government has confronted since then. When in history has a post-conflict government, taking over a devastated and traumatised nation, been faced with the spectacle of survivors resuming their lives in the very same community (or on the same hill) as those who tried to exterminate them?

This failure is a shame. It sets the book up for easy dismissal both by the Rwanda elite, in the contemptuous way they demonstrate for criticism of any kind from outsiders, and by the blindly adoring political, corporate and religious VIPs whom Kagame has attracted. But how can they take seriously a book that offers not a clue why so many African visitors to Rwanda envy Rwandans so deeply? They return home railing bitterly at the failure of their own governments to provide the services Rwandans take for granted like safe, clean, orderly cities, decent roads, and officials and cops who do their jobs without demanding bribes.

Readers would learn nothing about the modest health insurance available almost universally, the professional care that mothers get in giving birth, the milk that malnourished children receive, the all-but universal enrolment of all children in primary education, the vast expansion of higher education, all with no one asking about their ethnicity. They’d know nothing of the relative sophistication of its HIV/AIDS program, the efficiency of the public service, the professionalism of government ministers, the pleasure UN agencies and foreign embassies find in working with a government that actually works.

They’d have no idea Rwanda was one of the four countries in sub-Saharan Africa to meet the Millennium Development Goals on sanitation. They’d never know that most corruption has been eliminated, that women play a major role in all aspects of governance, that violence against girls and women is being combated, that attacks on gays, unlike in so many African countries, were quickly snuffed out by the government, that capital punishment has been abolished, that Rwandan soldiers and police officers play a significant role in UN and African Union peacekeeping operations.

These things matter when you’re judging a government. It doesn’t mean that they compensate for, or minimise, the abuses noted earlier. But they are integral to a genuine overview of a very complicated country that cannot be described in either the one-dimensional blackness of some of its critics or the purer-than-pure whiteness of its local partisans and foreign groupies.

One might also have thought that in 25 essays on post-conflict Rwanda, at least one could be devoted to the phenomenon of genocide denial. Yet in the entire volume there are fewer than two pages on the subject, tucked into an essay by Lars Waldorf. And might we not reasonably have expected a chapter or two on the real menace from unrepentant Hutu extremists in the west and the FDLR criminal militia in Congo whose leaders operate freely in Europe and the United States? And on the threats from those muzungu like Gerard Prunier and disaffected diaspora Rwandans who openly promote the bloody overthrow of the Kagame government. Rwanda remains vulnerable in real life, but not in the pages of ‘Remaking Rwanda’.


Perhaps it is the passionate hostility to the RPF government on the part of so many of the contributors that leads them to so many distortions, oversimplifications, double standards, and such lack of perspective and context. Take, for example, Joseph Sebarenzi, one of the two Rwandans represented in the book, a Tutsi genocide survivor who later fell out with Kagame, fled, and wrote a damning book about his experience.

It is perverse of Sebarenzi to claim that presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire returned from Holland to Rwanda in 2010 intending to mount her campaign based on ‘constructive opposition’. It is only too evident that Ingabire, who was known to consort in Europe with some dubious allies, pitched up determined to provoke the government, as both her statements and her relationship with American lawyer Peter Erlinder did. Erlinder, a long-time active denier, surely was begging for trouble when he suddenly materialised in an already tense country to assist Ingabire. In my view, government officials were strategically foolish in both cases for taking the bait and for their wretched treatment of Ingabire, her assistant and Erlinder.

Indeed, ‘Remaking Rwanda’ co-editor Lars Waldorf, in his essay on how the RPF has exploited genocide (undoubtedly true at times), agrees. In choosing Erlinder as her lawyer, he observes, Ingabire ‘showed spectacularly poor judgment or perhaps something more sinister. Either way, it played straight into the government’s hands, seeing to confirm some of the charges against her.’ Far more of such empathy for the government’s perspective would have made this book considerably more convincing. But there is precious little.

Or take the chapter on the plight of the multitude of prisoners locked up after the genocide by Carina Tertsakian, a human rights activist. That they were held in abysmal conditions I’ve never heard anyone deny. Here’s Tertsakian’s conclusion: ‘Just as prisoners were at the bottom of the government’s list of priorities in the years following the genocide, so former prisoners remain at the bottom of the pile today…There is no recognition of the hardships they have suffered and, correspondingly, no support for them whatsoever. There are no counseling services, at least none that they feel able to use, as they tend to assume that these are reserved for genocide survivors…’

Frankly, this sounds like a delusional rant from someone from a galaxy far far away. Prisoners are at the bottom of the priority list in virtually every country in the world, rich and poor. No prize for guessing how many of them receive counseling services or help finding a job.

The gacaca experiment is duly covered in ‘Remaking Rwanda’, and the assessments are predictably negative. Personally I have been persuaded by Phil Clark’s latest study that these harsh judgments and those by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are largely unfair. (See my review of Clark’s ‘The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers’, in Pambazuka News,) Clark was a speaker at one of the conferences on which ‘Remaking Rwanda’ is based but he has no article in the book. I have no idea why.

Human Rights Watch’s show-no-mercy approach to Rwanda, which characterizes too many of the essays in ‘Remaking Rwanda’, was spectacularly demonstrated again as recently as June with HRW’s latest gacaca report, ‘Justice Compromised: The Legacy of Rwanda’s Community-Based Gacaca Courts’. Leslie Haskell, the author, introduced her report to an audience in Kigali. Despite the title, Haskell told the audience that she didn’t actually believe gacaca was a failure though she did think the courts had violated some rights. Asked what alternative to gacaca she would have recommended, she surprised her listeners by saying the gacaca courts were really the best solution to Rwanda’s challenges. Finally, the Dutch ambassador, Frans Makken, told Haskell that he considered the title of her report to be quite inappropriate and that he found the entire document to be ‘harsh, unfair and unbalanced’. That stands as a general indictment of a great many HRW reports on Rwanda over the past decade, and those of Amnesty International too for that matter, both of which are cited often by contributors to ‘Remaking Rwanda’.


In Rwanda in July, a well-connected friend and other officials insisted to me that the government was well aware of the bad press it had been receiving for its abuses of democracy and human rights and was taking active steps to address them. For example, prompted by Cabinet, parliament is about to pass a Freedom of Information Bill, described by the organisation ARTICLE 19, which campaigns for free expression, as ‘one of the hallmarks of government accountability to its people because it facilitates citizen participation in decision-making processes’. The group is cautious, going no further than stating that the bill offers ‘a glimmer of hope’ for more free expression in Rwanda.

Welcome developments are also afoot in the field of media, at least officially. Rwanda TV and Rwanda Radio are to become public broadcasters instead of state broadcasters, in theory a world of difference to be enthusiastically embraced. But even in countries where the public broadcaster is a key component of the broadcasting system, such as Canada, no government ever appreciates being criticised by the broadcaster that the same government funds. Of course the funds belong to the country, not the government, but it’s a distinction many governments tend to forget. Some Rwandans themselves wonder whether their government will end up allowing anything like the independence that the BBC and CBC have. We will know soon enough.

The government is also moving to introduce self-regulation for the media in place of state regulation. Ending government interference in media content should be a huge step forward. But if self-regulation merely means self-censorship, with wary journalists censoring themselves when it comes to criticising the government and the president, it will be dismissed as merely a propaganda stunt by a government that still can’t abide criticism by a free press.

There is also an initiative to modify the much-criticised genocide ideology law, used too often to silence any criticism of the government and to disqualify opposition politicians who can’t possibly be considered promoters of genocidal ideology. But the balance is a fine one – the right to free expression but not the right to incitement. This is a real issue, not to be scoffed at. Freeing the Rwandan press in the early 1990s by then-President Habyarimana led directly to the emergence of flagrantly anti-Tutsi hate media, which played a central role in the subsequent genocide. No one in government forgets this, nor should they be expected to. While the government must learn that not all disagreement is subversive, good-faith critics of the government (and many critics show little good faith) must recognise that not all criticism is legitimate dissent, especially in Rwanda.

Whether these related initiatives are anything more than an elaborate public relations exercise designed to counter the negative attention Rwanda has attracted in the past year is too early to say. We can simply hope.


A repeated theme of ‘Remaking Rwanda’ focuses on the ongoing economic problems that Rwanda faces and I applaud the essays that make this point.

‘Rwanda’s high growth rates are deceptive in that they hide large and growing inequalities between social classes, geographic regions and gender…Wealth is concentrated disproportionately in the hands of a small group, primarily anglophone returnees from Uganda…That trend appears only to be getting worse…Economic progress has been particularly limited in rural areas; the benefits of economic growth remains concentrated in the hands of a small class of agricultural entrepreneurs while the majority of Rwandan peasants confront worsening living conditions.’

An Ansoms, a specialist on poverty and inequality in the Great Lakes region, is appropriately trenchant here as she brings together two areas that have received inadequate attention from outsiders, agriculture and ideology:

‘The new elite portray the solution to rural poverty as a matter of adopting “a good mentality”. The president frequently states that each citizen has a responsibility to overcome her own poverty…The Strategic Plan for Agricultural Transformation refers to the peasant’s ignorance and resistance to productivity-enhancing measures that go beyond traditional subsistence farming. This elite view disregards the institutional barriers that small-scale peasants face such as land scarcity, climactic change, crop diseases, limited options to diversify incomes, no cash reserves, and the lack of safety nets…There is a profound mismatch between the Rwanda elite’s ambitions and the rural realities on the ground.’

These are important points well worth making. But again a larger perspective would have been useful. Increased inequality has become a characteristic that defines our era. (I write as the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon spreads around the globe.) What’s true of Rwanda could be said about most of the world. This is no singular misdeed of the Kagame government, as these essays almost imply. Yes, growing inequality is largely a function of the free market dogmas the Rwandan government so zealously embraces and which ‘Remaking Rwanda’ resolutely fails to explore. But the analysis applies equally to all those governments around the world that have succumbed to the false promise of neoliberalism as peddled by much of the economics profession and the IMF and World Bank.


There is great self-satisfaction among RPF officials and supporters about the remarkable strides their country has made in the past 17 years. In July 1994, or even when I first visited the country five years later, today’s progress would have seemed literally unimaginable. From that point of view, the self-congratulations that characterises any gathering of the elite is quite understandable. But the line between a realistic sense of accomplishment and hubris, or excessive, distorting pride, is a thin one, as some of the leadership have begun to understand. There may even be an internal struggle within the government between hard-liners who will hear no criticism of any kind and those who know the government has made serious mistakes that must be faced up to. The need to find the right balance between legitimate security needs and acceptable dissent is not a simple one, but it is urgent.

Of course other immense challenges still flow directly from the genocide. As both Armenians and Jews can testify, even after 96 and 66 years the burdens of such a catastrophe do not disappear. Seventeen years is just a beginning. Issues of justice and reconciliation, of security, of survivors’ needs both material and psychological, all are still urgent and difficult.

But there are other hard trials yet to face. For all its post-1994 progress in so many areas, Rwanda has a long way to go. If it’s UN Human Development Index is trending up, it’s because it was so far down; even now, it stands only at 155th of 172 countries measured. If steady advances in health care and rudimentary social services have occurred, two studies released in 2009 reported that half of Rwandan children suffered from malnutrition and 51 per cent of those under five suffered from moderate or severe stunting. If Rwanda is doing better than other African countries in approaching some of the Millennium Development goals, these data on hunger and malnutrition place it among the 10 most affected countries globally, even worse off, unbelievably enough, than DR Congo. While campaigns to stop violence against women are to be applauded, their need was great; as of 2008 figures, 31 per cent of females were experiencing violence, most often from a partner or husband. A Gallup Poll last year found that 79 per cent of Rwandans see rape as a major problem.

Rwandans proudly trumpet their determination to be self-reliant and dependent on no outsiders, yet half of the country’s budget comes from foreign aid. For 2009-10 that budget was under $1.5 billion for a country of over 10 million people (and a birth rate growing far too fast), with GDP at about $12 billion. Singapore, the government’s avowed role model, equally resource-poor, has a population of under 5 million, a budget of around $30 billion and a GDP at $290 billion. Rwanda remains one of many very poor undeveloped African countries.

Earlier this year, writing in the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer, author of ‘A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It’, summed up a view held by many foreigners of good will who have Rwanda’s best interests at heart:

‘When President Paul Kagame of Rwanda won re-election in August [2010], he could look back with pride on his accomplishments. Rwanda has emerged from the devastation of genocide and become more secure and prosperous than anyone had a right to expect. The central task of his second seven-year term, which by law must be his last, is to add broader democracy to this security and prosperity.’

Anyone who has read Kinzer’s book knows of his admiration and respect – though not blind respect – for Kagame. Yet here he pleads with Kagame to forfeit the authoritarianism that was perhaps once justifiable, to end the ‘paranoia and ruthlessness’ that a guerilla war may have necessitated, and to embrace instead ‘tolerance, compromise and humility’. What Rwanda needs, he too agrees, is much more political space.

‘[Kagame] still has the chance to enter history as one of the greatest modern African leaders. There is also the chance, however, that he will be remembered as another failed African big-man, a tragic figure who built the foundations of a spectacular future for his country, but saw his achievements collapse because he could not take his country from one-man rule toward democracy.’

Just as it was the absence of political will that led the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council in 1994 to abandon Rwanda, so it is now the political will of the RPF government that will decide the future of the country. The leadership speaks eloquently about Rwandans determining their own destiny, shaping their own fate. In terms of creating a genuinely democratic culture constrained only by legitimate security issues, it has a reasonable opportunity now. For worse and for better, Rwanda has made history repeatedly in the past 17 years. For better or for worse, it is bound to make history again.


Gerald Caplan, Remaking Rwanda and the Struggle for Democratic Reform

By Nkunda Rwanda

Among President Paul Kagame’s modest list of western promoters, there is perhaps no equal match for Gerald Caplan’s loud, spirited and consistence defense of the regime. Caplan defiantly refuses to reconsider his position even when faced with the clearest evidence that Kagame is treading towards the wrong direction of history. As such, his writing in particular, “Rwanda 17 years later: what is the truth” need to be read with deserving caution.

Many of Kagame’s advocates have jumped off the bandwagon or are abandoning “the sinking ship” to borrow from Saif Al Gadaffi’s premonition. One of them, Stephen Kinzer earlier this year cautioned Kagame in light of the increasing concerns of grave human right violations .Kinzer, is Kagame’s well known biographer whose flattering view of “Rwanda’s rebirth and the man who dreamed it” has gained wide publicity. Like many others, he has had some serious rethinking.

On January 22nd this year, in the heat of the Arab spring, Kinzer penned an article arguing that, “Kagame’s authoritarian turn risks Rwanda’s future”. In Kigali, it was not well received. Kinzer might be a close friend, but the regime did not appreciate the criticism he raised. Instead, the government-run newspaper issued a combative response with an equally matching arrogant title, “Kinzer didn’t get it!” They blamed him for being incapable of understanding the “realities of Rwanda’s troubled past and thus fails to understand her chosen path to a brighter future”. Ironically, the same newspaper had faithfully reprinted all his praise-full columns, including one written in the same month attacking Human Rights Watch for espousing “human rights imperialism” because of their unyielding criticism of Kagame’s dictatorship.

Predictably, the regime continued launching a series of attacks against Kagame’s biographer. At times it seemed to get too personal. For cautioning Kagame, Kinzer got quickly vilified as another ignorant muzungu (“white person”) easily susceptible to manipulation. If Caplan were to criticize Kagame even in the slightest way, I am sure his case would follow a similar fate. This is neither an exaggeration nor a matter of speculation. Re-imagining Rwanda, the book Caplan sharply criticizes, is written in memory of Allison Des Forge, whose book was the first comprehensive account on the genocide. Before her death, Kagame had already declared her persona non grata–and she was never allowed to visit again. Her only crime was to criticize Kagame and the RPF. Unfortunately, such is the reality of Kagame’s Rwanda, something Caplan continues to ignore.

Caplan the lone Academic

Caplan has defied the winds of change. At present, he regards himself as the one remaining and truthful defender of the Rwanda genocide’s narrative. That is why he believes it is his duty to counter the “foreign groupies” who authored “Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence”. Caplan considers the more than two dozen academics to be “blinded to their own biases“. Another individual he considers blinded is the French academic, and expert on Rwanda, Gerald Prunier. Since Prunier is not one of the contributors of the volume, one wonders why Caplan deemed it fitting to attack him in this essay. Grudgingly, he accuses Prunier and the “disaffected diaspora Rwandans“of openly promot[ing] the bloody overthrow of the Kagame regime. For an academic of his repute, it is rather disheartening that no single citation is given to back what are otherwise serious allegation.

To be fair, Caplan’s concern for genocide denialism exceptionally stands out. In the past, he has zealously confronted those he suspected of being sympathizers of negationism. After the publishing of Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s book The Politics of Genocide, Caplan was the most vocal among those who scorned the book. He accused the two academics, and other genocide deniers of “gleefully drink[ing] each other’s putrid water”. Moreover, in the same commentary, he adviced them (the deniers) to start reading and quoting the genuine authorities on the Rwanda genocide. Among the long list of names he gives are: Scott Straus, and Catherine Newburry, who are among the contributors of this volume. What has changed? One is tempted to ask.

It is important to mention that even in his criticism of Herman-Peterson he has failed to mount a formidable challenge. Herman-Peterson argue that the conventional narrative of the Rwandan genocide has turned the victims and the perpetrators upside down. They claim that Paul Kagame is responsible for genocide having started a war of aggression, assassinated two sitting heads of state and killed many Hutus both inside Rwanda and in the DRC. I believe there is evidence to support at least two of the claims.

As I have argued previously, Kagame is the most obvious culprit in the murder of the former president. To judge whether the 1990 invasion of the RPF was legal or not would largely depend on the extent to which Uganda aided them. So far, few accounts of Rwanda genocide have expressed a keen interest in this question. Regardless of whether the invasion was necessary or not, it is important, I believe, to consider asking the questions previously poised by Rene Lemarchand whom Caplan identifies as the “doyen of the historians of Rwanda and Burundi. The questions are, “Would the genocide have happened without the RPF invasion?” And also, “would the genocide have occurred had the 1994 assassination of Habyarimana not occurred”. Lastly, while Herman-Peterson have the right to contest the official narrative, they are wrong if they deny that the genocide against Tutsi did not occur.

It is my opinion that crowing the Rwandan genocide story with misinformation and lies only helps to further undermine the genocide itself. There is enough evidence from witnesses (here Scott Straus’ contribution is invaluable) that the genocide against Tutsi was well coordinated from top-down. However, this does not absolve the RPF of its own responsibility. Neither does it imply that everything the RPF says should be taken in at face value. There is no contradiction here, if there is evidence, one can believe that the 1994 genocide against Tutsi happened and still condemn the RPF for their role in it. Similarly, and as evidence seems to show, the RPF might have ended the genocide against Tutsi (in Rwanda), but gone ahead to perpetrate another one against Hutu (in the DRC).

Unfortunately, sometimes it appears as if Caplan is no longer interested in the question of the Rwanda genocide. Of Course this is quite puzzling if considered that Caplan was among the pioneer academics who wrestled with this question. In 2000, he was commissioned by the African Union to investigate the Rwanda genocide. The results were an impressive, lengthy document which he title, “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”. The document is important because it gives a comprehensive discussion of the genocide while exploring the failures of the international community as well. However, the 293 paged documents falls short on at least two important counts. (1) it does not handle the question of Habyarimana’s assassination, (2) it discuss the atrocities committed by the RPF troops both in Rwanda and in the DRC. In other words, it does not deviate from the officially rubber-stamped narrative.

Seen this way, Caplan’s function sometimes appears to have been reduced to that of a Spanish inquisitor, relentlessly trying to defend the canonized truth. But how can we claim to have perfect knowledge of a genocide, which occurred less than two decades ago and whose perpetrators are still being tried? I suspect that such a strategy, which obviously supports the Status Quo, is meant to stifle dialogue and conversation on the tragic events that have wrecked our country. The laws against genocide ideology and denialism, heavily criticized by rights groups, are nothing but an affront on intellectual freedom and a naive desire to control history. In this context, the words of US editor Charles A. Dana are particularly useful: “Fight for your opinions, but do not believe that they contain the whole truth or the only truth”. It is laughable that some people would claim to have a monopoly on how history should be understood.

17 years later, what is the truth?

In his scathing critique of Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, Caplan asks “what is the truth?” However, a more objective question would have been “what are the facts?” If the question is posed this way, Caplan’s essay might begin to make much more sense. Both the authors and Caplan essentially agree on a few facts. They contend that Rwanda’s human rights situation has failed to improve, and that the regime is not significantly different from the previous one. In the words of Aloys Habimana the African director of Human Rights Watch, the “the dancing is still the same even though the stage has undergone a switch of dancers” (354).

The only sections of the book that might qualify for a serious diversion from RPF’s dogma are the contributions of Filip Reyntjens, “Waging (civil) war abroad” and “Bad Karma: Accountability for Rwanda Crimes in the Congo” co-authored by Jason Stearns and Federico Borello. Specifically, the three allege that the Rwandan army committed possible genocide against members of the Hutu ethnic group in the DRC. Surprisingly, Caplan a devoted scholar of genocide ignores this monumental allegation in his entire critique of the book. His reasons, though unstated are not so difficult to see. If Kagame is accused of genocide by such organizations as the United Nations, then defending him against those who criticize his poor human rights record might be futile. Hence, it is easier to ignore the charges all together and this is exactly what Caplan opts to do.

Caplan’s other point of contention is that the authors of the volume have failed to appreciate the complexities of Rwanda. Perhaps they could have done so, he argues, had they invited more Rwandan scholarsr rather than relying on Mzungu. There is some fairness in this critique. Rwanda’s story is often overwhelming told by westerners and Rwandans are rarely accorded the opportunity to weigh in. However, even allowing Rwandan to articulate their story does not seem capable of appeasing him.

Two of the contributors, Aloys Habimana and Sebarenzi Joseph are Tutsi survivors and human rights activists. Yet, Caplan thinks it is enough to dismiss them at whim for their alleged “passionate hostility to the RPF government”. The only substantive critique of the two authors, Caplan offers, is fitted into a singular paragraph in which he attacks Sebarenzi for his alleged support of Victoire Ingabire’s cause. In particular, he is outraged at Sebarenzi for suggesting that Ingabire represented “constructive opposition”. Perhaps Caplan is not ready to seeing Hutus and Tutsi uniting for democratic reform, but many of us believe that this is where the future of Rwanda lies.

Democracy vs. Economic growth

Caplans biggest disagreement with the authors of Remaking Rwanda is that they failed to acknowledge the achievements of the Rwandan government. He draws a list of the accomplishments that begins to sound like a platform for the dictatorship’s re-election campaign. It may well be true that Kagame has provided clean water and decent roads, but is that enough to justify political oppression, murder and disappearances? Since he is writing at a time when despots who enthusiastically swam in this kind of political logic are being dislodged by their citizens, one might have expected that Caplan would have thought twice.

Take the example of Libya before the fall of Muammar Gadaffi. The regime provided services earning impressive awards that would make Kagame salivate with jealousy. His country ranked an impressive 53rd on the Human Development Index and 70th on the quality of life. The regime had zero external debt. Moreover, electricity, education and health care was provided free of charge to all citizens—among a long list of other benefits. Of course there are many differences between Libya and Rwanda, but the point here is that economic development should not be used as a justification for political oppression.

Does Kagame have the right to muzzle the press?

On media the struggle for media freedom in Rwanda, Caplan noted that: “Freeing the Rwandan press in the early 1990s by then-President Habyarimana led directly to the emergence of flagrantly anti-Tutsi hate media, which played a central role in the subsequent genocide. No one in government forgets this, nor should they be expected to.” If this is true, it is partly due to the immense pressure from the RPF at the time demanding free speech. In any case, it is not free media that is responsible for fanning hate. On the other hand, there was never free media in Rwanda–not even during Habyarimana’s days. The media was always attached to partisan interests—mostly close to the ruling party. Unfortunately, in this regard, not much has changed in Rwanda in today. Newspapers that write non-RPF sanctioned stories are continuously being ejected.

The media reforms that Caplan boasts about, would be welcome if they were real. In the past, the government has announced ambitious reforms, but in practice little has changed. At the moment, there is a serious media crisis in Rwanda as all the independent media is virtually absent and their journalists are either dead, in exile or imprisoned. If the government wants their reform-packed rhetoric to be taken seriously, a good way to start would be to release journalists currently serving sentences due to illegal sentences.

Outside the rhetoric meant to appease donors; however, the government shows no sign of relenting. In June 2010, journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage was gunned down as he drove to his Kigali compound. In May 2011, Jean Bosco Gasasira the editor of Umuvugizi was sentenced to two years. His paper was banned and an imitation of it was started by government intelligence agents. The situation is alarming, but the likes of Caplan having little to lose, ignore our plight. How different are they from the Belgian troops that abandoned helpless Tutsis at the verge of their deaths? This is a question for them to answer.

One such media reform hoax was the 2005 establishment of the Media High Council to serve as a self-regulatory organ. Unfortunately, the council has become a cozy bed for Kagame’s allies, who use the platform to terrorize independent journalists into conforming. Upon realizing the scam that it was, and due to mounting pressure from her parliament, Britain decided to halt funding. It later turned out that Rwandan authorities had been using this organ as a tool to further political repression. There is no reason to believe that this is no longer the case.

Finally, the reforms would mean nothing if the constitution—the highest law in the land, continues to deny people their reasonable right to free speech. A report by Amnesty International titled, “Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Law on “Genocide Ideology” and “Sectarianism” released last year brings to light this struggle. Of particular concern, is the vague definition of genocide ideology in a manner that “constitutes an impermissible restriction on freedom of expression under international law”. It appears that this law can be used to punish even children as young as 12 years old.

When the above draconian laws are supplemented with the regular ingando (“indoctrination”), they fulfill the function of instilling fear into the general population with the sole agenda of controlling discourse. Here, it is worth noting that after Victoire Ingabire called for the prosecution of RPF officers suspected of having participated in massacres, she was immediately charged under the genocide ideology law. When a citizen cannot complain about the wrongs of his/her state, you they are living under a crazy dictatorship.

Gay and Women Rights in Rwanda.

The insinuation that gay people have rights in Rwanda is, at best, a creative work of pure fiction. Granted, Caplan is right to suggest that a proposed amendment to criminalize people who “encourage or sensitize people to same-sex sexual relations or practice” were never considered. However, there is no explicitly clause that safeguards gay rights. In reality, gay people face discrimination on a daily basis from a society that is less accepting. Anti gay sentiments are rife in religious circles and policemen have arrested individuals for being gay (OHCHR). Instead of painting a rosy picture that is nonexistent, Caplan would have done better—urged the government to consider making the necessary reforms for our gay brothers and sisters.

Throughout history, some of the most heinous regimes in this world have scored great achievements in transforming their societies. It is true that there have been improvements in the situation of women in Rwanda; however, their access to political power has largely been misunderstood. Indeed, in a nation where political competition is severely curtailed, claiming that women have the highest representation in parliament has little or no meaning. In Rwanda, women can only be powerful in as much as they accept to be used as political tools by the ruling regime.

If they are the majority in parliament, it is not due to popular mandate, but it is due to their devotion to the ruling party or their being selected as a party ornament. Such an arrangement might help win Kagame international awards, but it does not help the cause of democratic reform in Rwanda. Neither does it satisfy the feminist conceptualization of a fully, independent and powerful woman. In fact, these women are (sadly) used as tool by the ruling elites to hoodwink the international community in favor of an anti-reformist agenda. The manipulation goes this way, “we have the highest number of women in parliament, why should anyone lecture us on democracy?”

Lastly, power in Rwanda is highly concentrated in a few hands, most of them ethnically Tutsi and with close ties to the military. Furthermore, women are lowly represented within the army structures. This is a concern that vibrates even among diplomats in the capital. As such, unlike in democratic countries, parliament in Rwanda lacks any actual powers. It can as well be said to be a branch of the executive.


The process of democratic reform is unstoppable human quest. Though some people may choose to ignore it, the suffering and oppression is too apparent. Even more, the so called “economic transformation” will not weaken our resolve for freedom. It is just is just a question of time, we believe. In the meantime, the international community better be on the right side of history. For, to borrow the words of Samora Machel, “A luta Continua!”


Did Paul Kagame Kill President Habyarimana?

As has always been the case, October 1, 2011 was meant to be just another day on Rwanda’s official calendar. The day meant to commemorate that audacious attempt when up to 50 gallant soldiers who in 1990, from bases in Uganda, attacked Rwanda, to try and get back to their motherland – a country most had hastily been forced to leave at a very young age or never been to.

But as Kigali prepared to let the day pass with as less pomp as has been the case over the years (notice that under the current regime October 1, has been celebrated with less ado), Theogene Rudasingwa, – a former Chief of Staff to President Paul Kagame, dropped a bombshell. In a statement released on his Facebook page, Rudasingwa (who it must be remembered is a former Rwandan ambassador to the United States) claimed that President Kagame not only is responsible for the death of Juvenal Habyarimana as he (Kagame) was the overall operations commander of the RPA at the time of the former president’s death, but that he (Kagame), “told me that he was responsible for shooting down the plane” – the plane in question here being the Falcon 50 jet (Reg No 9XR-NN) belonging to the Government of Rwanda and in which Presidents; Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi were travelling.

A powerful and indeed extra-ordinary revelation if you ask me. But before we go any further, let’s try to make sense of this claim.

When news about the claim started pouring out all over the internet, I tried contacting a few big shots I know in Rwanda to see if they would speak to me over this. Some did respond in an angry manner telling me to mind my own business and forget Rwanda. Others were dismissive of the news but one of them stood out. I will not say who but I can confirm he is a very senior official.  He did mention something which made me realise that I still have so much to learn about the dealings in Rwanda.

(Mr.) “Rudasingwa”, my source said “should not be taken serious because he is another deluded fool who like most of you and your ilk suffers from political excitement, excessive amnesia or perhaps the lack of it. You lot can continue to yap and yap but the truth remains that in Rwanda, we continue to match on. If indeed he was told by the president how about you ask him why it has taken him all this time to bring this out? And trust me he won’t have any answers to this. He is just someone who for reasons only known to him, and in part due to his greed, corruption and dishonesty fell out with the regime, and will now do anything to bring down what Rwandese have laboured to build, for years”.

I know most of this was a very hushed reaction to a statement that will and must be rubbing Kigali the wrong way but we cannot deny the fact that therein lies some good question – and until its answer has been found, Mr. Rudasingwa’s claim shall remain questionable. Yes, I say questionable but let’s not forget that questionable does not necessarily mean incorrect.

There are perhaps so many questions that Mr. Rudasingwa’s revelation will raise but one does stand out: Why now? The story of who actually downed the Falcon 50 and by so doing ended the lives of two presidents, and all on board including three French nationals has been running for over 17 years now. It has become part of Rwanda’s history although under the present circumstances, few will be learning about it in school (refer to the suspension of the teaching of Rwandan history in Rwandan schools). When Abdul Ruzibiza, first claimed to be privy to the actual shooting down of the said plane, Kigali reacted furiously. This was in 2006 and Mr. Rudasingwa was well in a position where he could, as he has now, added his voice to the hoarse groans of Ruzibiza. Imagine the reaction this would have received then? Imagine the amount of legitimacy this would have given the Ruzibiza testimony had a former Rwandan Ambassador to the US, and Secretary General of the RPF come out in support of the then less known former army Captain?

If we are to assume that Mr. Rudasingwa is right and that indeed President Kagame did confide to him that he (Kagame) had ordered the shooting down of the Falcon 5o, what happens next? What happens to the “details and facts” as gathered on the subject in the famous Mucyo Commission which after about 18 months of deliberation, research and inquiries, “established” that the idea of bringing down the plane “was the work of Hutu extremists who calculated that killing their own leader would torpedo a power‐sharing agreement known as the Arusha Accords?”

What happens to the French and Spanish indictments on members of the RPF and RDF which were partly based on Ruzibiza’s testimony? What happens to the new and revisited friendship between Rwanda and France who having severed relations over the indictments have since claimed to have buried the hatchet and agreed to work together “normally”?

And why did Mr. Rudasingwa choose to release his statement on a day which as a former comrade in the Rwandan army and by all accounts a historical, meant to commemorate the first attempt by Rwandan refugees and exiles to go back to their motherland? Is he so gullible not to have realised what attention this was bound to cause?

And what of Kigali? Usually, they come up in arms against any statement, news story or sound bite that is critical or contrary to the idea of praising the country’s achievements over the years. This time however, some four days after the sensational claim, we are yet to hear even a word from Kigali. Could the silence be a result of having had enough or is it a sign of admission knowing who Mr. Rudasingwa is or has previously been? Is it that they feel Mr. Rudasingwa has become so unbelievable that few will take notice of what he has to say? Or are they having been startled by the bombshell, planning a more measured rebuttal? Could it be that their main men at Racepoint are on holiday and thus until one reports to duty, Kigali has chosen to stay silent? Or is it a case of self censorship as has become the norm in Rwandan media?

If it turns out that what took the Mucyo Commission 18 months and about 166 witnesses to establish could have been unearthed by a single phone call or email to one of Rwanda’s former Ambassador, does the government get to pay the tax payer back for having “wasted” state resources and money on an inquiry whose results might have been got rather cheaply with the right people being questioned?

It remains to be seen why Mr. Rudasingwa chose Facebook to announce what clearly remains an astonishing revelation if indeed it is true. Rwanda is an oral society. In Rwanda the word of mouth is what matters. There is every possibility that what remains in terms of proof that President Kagame did indeed confess to having ordered the shooting down of the Falcon 50 is just Rudasingwa’s word. While this is hardly any hard evidence will most likely be inadmissible in most court rooms (especially international tribunals where if anything the case against Kagame might go) it does leave the suggestion – and based on how Rwandan courts or public inquiries conduct their business – that Kagame might at some point in the future be brought to book in Rwanda. What happens then if as a former head of state he is found to have been responsible for the downing of the plane? Remember as an oral society, the inquiry, or trial if any will just like the Mucyo Commission have to be based on witness testimonies most of whom will be saying such things as “I was told”, “I saw”.

Remember too that there are people who claim that it was the shooting down of the plane which caused the genocide (Kigali calls these negationists or where it suits, genocide deniers). I call them liars. Whereas an argument can be made that the shooting down of the plane did spark the genocide just like the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is said to have sparked World War I, in my opinion, one loses the plot by claiming that without the downing of the plane, the genocide would never have happened. No. From my discussions with a few Rwandans (depending on how extreme or pro a given ethnicity those you speak to may be) I have come to realise that the role of the plane in the Rwandan story remains very contentious and a point of departure to some as far as our country’s history is concerned.

This is why whoever has something to say about the plane, who shot the plane and what the plane shooting led to must do so with caution and most importantly with facts based on tangible evidence. I wrote some months ago about the Habyalimana death which continues to haunt Rwanda. I argued then that it is crucial that the truth is established once and for all. The truth regarding the events leading to the shooting down of the plane. When the Mucyo Commission report was published in August 2008, some in Rwanda hoped and believed that the report findings would put to rest what clearly has been a protracted saga/story. It didn’t. And part of the reason it did not is because it is only believable depending on which side of the story one wants to be. Given that Rwandans are people who over the years have decided to be on select sides while acknowledging in public that we are on the same side, this is and was never surprising.

This is why I think and believe that Mr. Rudasingwa, if anything must substantiate his claims. He must be willing to present himself to a credible judge, at a credible court and give his statement under oath – if he duly and clearly believes it. Then let justice follow its course. As it stands, his is another of those extra ordinary claims that we have come to regard as part of the Rwandan story. These days, it is even difficult to know which is which. Lt. Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa and Col. Patrick Karegeya escape and flee for dear life and the next thing we hear is that Kayumba used to be a thief who stole soldiers money and tractor spare parts, that Karegeya was untrustworthy and made a deal with Felicien Kabuga (Rwanda’s most wanted fugitive). Really? And we are told these by some leading public officials within the establishment in Kigali. Are we really to believe that Gen. Kayumba stole tractor spare parts and fertilizers? That Col Karegeya (under whose watch Rwanda had the best intelligence system in Africa) was a deceitful man – and that their (Karegeya and Kayumba’s ) story came to light after they had fled the current regime? My source did ask to ask Rudasingwa why he decided to come out this late. I probably should ask him why his government’s spin masters, only decided to come out on Col. Karegeya and Gen. Kayumba and by the way Maj. Rudasingwa, after the two had long left Kigali?

For those who have previously read Animal Farm, you will recall that at the end of the day, long after the animals had taken over the stewardship of Manor Farm from MAN, most could not believe the tyranny of some PIGS. They looked from pig to man, from man to pig and from pig to man again – it was impossible to tell which was which. There will be some Rwandans and peace loving people out there today who quite frankly must too be looking and looking and until some of the questions I raise above have been answered, they will continue to find it impossible to tell which is which.

Over to you my little monsters…