The twitter exchange between President Paul Kagame and veteran journalist Ian Birrell has sparked the kind of media interest unusually generated by twitter. The conversation has attracted wide coverage either in the form of news and op-eds. Similarly, both the content and medium have raised question. Some have asked whether Kagame’s confrontational style is compatible with the normal decorum of a head of state. To his credit, Birrell has defended Kagame arguing that, “It is admirable to see a leader engaging so personally with new means of communication.” Still, it is very clear that the twitter exchange exposed Kagame’s much darker side: a rabid intolerance to even the slightest form of criticism coupled with near dogmatic belief in his invincibility. These characteristics are exactly what hinder democratic development in Rwanda.
As with every instance that gives Kagame a public relations nightmare, The New Times Kigali is often the first to fire back. To Rwanda watcher, its standard procedure is already clear: any attack on Kagame is an attack on Rwanda. Never can Kagame be wrong. Sadly, this exactly the approach adopted by Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo. Instead of addressing the issues under discussion namely; Kagame’s interference with media’s independence, she found it worth her time to launch personal attacks against he journaist. She wrote, “Let me preface my account by revealing that Ian Birrell is no stranger to most observers who follow how Western journalists treat Africans as a people who need foreigners to decide what is good for them.” She goes ahead to indicate that only those journalists who agree with Rwanda’s point of view deserve to be taken seriously. Of course this is hardly surprising coming from a regime with a strong distaste for free thought.
On Mushikiwabo a brief disclaimer is necessary. Unlike Kagame, Mushikawabo is hardly a despot. If she is then her life story reveals no such indication. A polyglot, she lived in the United States since 1986. She belongs to the family of the late Lando Ndasingwa, a pro-democracy activist and a member of Habyarimana’s cabinet whose entire family was massacred during the genocide. Like many Rwandans, Mushikiwabo would return to Rwanda to help with the reconstruction effort. How she ended up an apologist for a dictatorship, which his late brother would have undoubtedly opposed, is something I feel unqualified to explain. It is one of those tragic episodes in Rwanda’s long and bitter history.
Her blanket attack on “foreigners” is most unfortunate. Rwanda has spent the last decade marketing herself as safe bet for foreign investors. There is reason to believe that their efforts have garnered considerable success. However, if you want foreign investment you must be willing to open yourself up to (foreign) scrutuny as well. An undemocratic Rwanda cannot be good for foreign investment. I suspect that the prime motivation for Kagame to aim for investment rather than aid is the desire to be a full blown, autonomous dictator. He wants to be able to imprison who he may without having to explain to foreign embassies. At the moment, he lacks such freedom. However, even putting investment aside, Kagame has foreigners to thank for his celebrity status around the world. Journalists aware of his contribution towards ending the 1994 have been reluctant to criticize him and have helped create his personality cult. Unforutantely, his message is that foreigners are only good if they fit his personal agenda.
Also criticizing Ian Birrell was Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah, who heads the editorial at New Times. Ironically, Oluoch Ojiwah, a Kenyan citizen, is more of a Rwanda expert than the Rwandans who oppose Kagame. But this is also not surprising at all. Try to debate with Andrew Mwenda on Rwanda and you will not fail to notice how zealously he defends Kagame. I have no problem with that. However, other views should also be respected including those that disagree with Kagame. Mr. Kagame might well be a hero but that does not canonize him beyond criticism.
I am unsure where social media will lead us next. Deep inside my heart though, I can’t help but wish that some of these conversations would be held in Rwanda. Like one commentator said, “it is a shame he [Kagame] doesn’t allow such debate in Rwanda with his own people.” They are easy to have on twitter!