Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Supremacy of Ethnic Labels and the Effects on Ordinary People

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This opinion piece is from Dr. Susan Thomson. She is a respected scholar who has conducted many years of research primarily among Rwanda's poor. Her concern is that the "ethnic labels" dominant in the UN Mapping report, obscure the real truth. Victims of these horrific crimes, both in Rwanda and Congo, are mostly the poor. At the elite level, the ethnic labels appear to serve as a tool for political expediency.

Thus someone like Rwanda's President Paul Kagame will convince the world that he is a Tutsi savior. Or Hutu politicians will claim that they are fighting for the oppressed majority. While in reality, the very policies these leaders embark on, threaten the lives of the ethnic group that they pretend to fight for.

For instance, whoever killed President Juvenal Habyarimaana must have been aware of the consequences that such a crime would provoke. If it appears that Paul Kagame did so, as some evidence has already suggested, then it would be clear that his need for power, superseded the safety of his Tutsi group.

The Hutu elites did the same thing. And they continue to do so today. Refusing to share power with Tutsi elites, in a way, exacerbated ethnic tensions. The violation of the Arusha accord is responsible for the many Hutu deaths that would follow. The FDLR continue to fight on a Hutu platform, but their insurgencies in north-western Rwanda, in the late 1990s resulted in so many deaths of Hutu peasants.

And more recently, their presence and armed operations in the Congo, continue to have deadly consequences for the Hutu Congolese "Banyarwanda" living in the areas they operate.

So, who represents the Great Lakes region poor? Is it Kagame/ Rpf/ FDLR???

Below is the full article:

The hierarchy of ethnicity

So the UN Mapping Report was released yesterday. There has been a barrage of reaction, much of revealing of the political positions of the various actors, including "Hutu" politicians and activists and "Tutsi" politicians and survivor activists. These reactions are certainly valid but they don't tell the whole story. While none of us knows the whole story because of the nuanced complexities of the violence committed against and by various groups and individuals, I remain concerned that the language of "Hutu" and "Tutsi" (among other categories). The use of ethnic language is reflective of a major conundrum within Rwandan politics in particular, and politics in the GLR more broadly. Speaking of Hutu- and Tutsi- deaths continues the politics of othering that feeds the culture of impunity in the Region.

What I mean is that I sense of lack of commitment to human rights for ALL individuals, regardless of ethnicity, in the discourse and rhetoric of politicians and activists of all stripes. In other words, I have yet to hear any of the key actors in Rwanda and Congo talk about the importance of stopping the killing of poor, peasant people who are caught between armed groups, and who, more often than note, are caught up the violence and related circumstances (hunger, disease, displacement, etc) that they themselves do not create.

Instead, the rhetoric and action of powerful actors and decision-makers in the region continues to scapegoat peace in the language of ethnicity. The UN mapping report reveals the extent to which the politics of ethnic hierarchy (meaning that the lives of some are more valuable that others on the basis of ethnicity, and dare I say it, social and economic status) continues to dominate in Rwanda and the GLR.

So, for me, the UN Mapping Report does not represent an explosive exposee of what the RPF and other actors did on Congolese soil against resident populations. Nor does it present an alternative narrative. For those of us that have followed the region, knowledge of what is contained in the Report is widely known. We also see the politics of genocide manipulation that the RPF has followed since assuming power. We also see the ways in which opponents of the RPF manipulate its manipulation of the genocide for their own political gain. We also recognise that suppression of UN and other reports on the excesses of the RPF against ordinary people because of other suppressed documentation like that Gersony report from late 1994. See the excellent article by French and Gettlemen on Rwanda's relationship with the UN and its ability to craft a specific narrative of the genocide

The key question, for me at least, is what now? Will the shine come off RPF rule? Will the Report expose its excesses in Congo and Rwanda against its opponents (of all political stripes and ethnicities)? Will international actors begin to push Kigali to open up political space? If so, to what effect? Indeed, significant in Kigali's reaction to the Report are the thinly veiled threats of renewed violence against those who challenge its version of history about how it stopped the genocide and restored peace and security to Rwanda (see the remarks of both Kagame and Mushikiwabo). How far can international actors reasonably push Kagame before he begins to react against his opponents? The list of questions goes on...

I'd like to see the international community -- policy makers, academics, journalists, activists and other -- begin to push Kagame and his RPF to open up to criticism of its actions and policy. Take a carrots and sticks approach that includes discussion of respect for all in region, regardless of ethnicity.


susan thomson said...

Indeed, we should brain-storm together on productive ways to transcend the elite-peasant divide which is masked in the language of hutu-tutsi difference....

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