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!”



Author: ellyakanga

I am Eleneus Akanga. Welcome to my blog about my experience as a Rwandan journalist and all that comes with the trade in East Africa. It's been a great journey so far but very challenging at times. Join me, let's get cracking!

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