Saturday, December 3, 2011

The West and Kagame: Who is Manipulating Whom?

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Not everything that shines is gold. It would be noble if Paul Kagame's army of cheerleaders would reflect on this saying, in light of the sad events that we are witnessing in Kagame's Rwanda. Perhaps this might compel the supporters to see the reality as it is and to stop giving credence to a brutal dictator. Indeed, so much of this common sense is urgently needed before Rwanda explodes.

As of today, Rwanda happens to be the only country in the east Africa community where opposition parties are completely outlawed and prevented from contesting elections. It is the only country where journalists are frequently murdered, imprisoned and exiled. Rwanda is also the only country in the region where the president enjoys unregulated powers and is able, as Rwandans say "kwica no gukiza" ( "to kill or give life").

Yesterday, I blogged on the savage murder of Charles Ingabire, a Tutsi journalist who had been exiled in Uganda. As it is becoming even clearer, Kagame's treachery and propensity for murder is no longer limited to Hutu opponents. He has diversified and no longer hesitates to kill his Tutsi kins. In fact, most of the high profile victim of his "death squads" in recent years have been Tutsi. Kagame's former chief of staff, Theogene Rudasingwa  (a Tutsi himself) calls the president a "serial killer". I believe there is more than enough reasons why we should consider taking Rudasingwa's warning more seriously.

As widely reported by the media, journalist Charles Ingabire was buried today. His body was laid to rest in a Ugandan public cemetery-- opponents of Kagame hardly deserve the honor of being buried in their country. Those on the ground report that the number of Rwandan spies far outnumbered mourners at the requiem. Uganda's Daily monitor describes the situation as follows:

One by one, the mourners walked into Evangelical Restoration Church in Bakuli, many avoiding eye contacts with strangers and only speaking in hushed tones.
The funeral service that started about 2:30pm lasted for only about 20 minutes and had only two speakers.
The two church ministers who spoke at the funeral urged the Rwandan community not to give in to fear. “If you shoot someone dead, you are only killing the flesh not the spirit. We should not fear those who kill the flesh,” one of the pastors preached. But it is seems quite clear that the mood was very tense. It is reported that the Rwandans present relayed concerns over their safety to the journalist and also refused for their pictures to be taken. This is just but a glimpse of the intricate system of terror that Kagame has installed in Rwanda. 

Still, I often get torn up as to whether Kagame is this stupid to commit such obvious crimes that would automatically portray him in negative international light. Why should he, for instance, attempt to send "death squads" to Britain as was uncovered by British intelligence (MI5)? Is Kagame this dense, callous or careless? Partly, I think he is. But the other reality is that, most observers have failed to understand Kagame's true nature due to a complex system that is based on deception and manipulation. Moreover, most dictators are surrounded by evil advisers who do the dirty jobs for them.

Westerners who have interacted with Kagame speak of a different reality. They depict him as a very charming  person with an equally likable personality. They are often amazed by what they perceive as his humility and thoughtfulness. As a British student who has paid Kagame a visit in the past told me, "he [Kagame] seems like a very brilliant man, and I cannot believe he would kill anyone".

Accordingly, this seems to be the image that pops into many visitors minds when they interact with the dictator, usual impressively dressed in his imported business suits and talking lovingly about foreign investments. It is also quite possible that Kagame has some of these characteristics as well. Otherwise, one cannot rise to the office of president, irrespective of the method, without having higher than average qualities. The question is what characteristics does Kagame have? And is it possible to identify them without falling into the pitfall of psychoanalyzing him. 

One key factor to understanding Rwanda is in the ancient old tradition known as UbwengeUbwenge literal meaning is knowledge. However, the deeper meaning of the word is "lies and deception". Nonetheless ubwenge is a heroic and desirable "virtue" in Rwandan oral tradition. The person with ubwenge uses all means at their disposal to achieve their desired end. As far as ubwenge goes, the end always justifies the means.

In essence, ubwenge encourages a culture of lies and deception which is very much a part and parcel of Rwandan life. This is one reason why Rwandans hardly believe what they tell each other. For instance, when you ask a Rwandan where they are going, they will often respond that "we are going there". In reality, they may be going to the market or even to another country. But they merely respond that they are going there. This is because, talking about one's private life is not that much encouraged, but lying about it is considered to be fine. I also do believe that it is quite likely that many of the lies are told unconsciously. It is just a habit that one inherits from the culture


I happen to be reading Johan Pottier's Re-imagining Rwanda, a book which I urge my readers to give a close look. It carefully analyses how journalists have covered Rwanda, before, during and after the genocide. It helps us make sense of why Kagame's crimes have often not made it into conventional media. Moreover, Pottier's work is a better explanation than the entanglement of conspiracy theories that get peddled around, explaining why Kagame has complete control over the Rwandan narrative. The most troubling of these conspiracies being the belief that kagame's destiny is entwined with that of the West.

Pottier's argument is not a hard one to grasp. He argues that Kagame has to a large extent succeeded in manipulating the foreign press. The manipulation, in my view, takes two forms. One is the outright withholding of information, the other form is based on denialism. Both happen at the same time, which makes it very difficult for the truth to see the light.

In the first instance, the Rwanda government is very careful in what they divulge out. They have a very sophisticated system of information management. For instance, Dr. Rudasingwa has said that they used to "give out scripts" to people on what they should say when being interviewed by journalists. Unfortunately many journalists fell victims of this highly orchestrated system of deception. They were quick to believe the RPF story line, believing Kagame to be the hero who stopped the genocide or a sort of rare angel in a land full of demons.

As for the second factor, denialism has played a big role in shaping the RPF narrative. Basically, the standard technique is to deny anything that portrays the regime in a negative sense. They do this religiously, and go to the extent of hiring academics or journalists to propagate their lies. The journalists in this case masquerading as "independent parties". The technique of denialism has been used in regards to RPF sanctioned killings both in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has been readily employed whenever the government has been accused of killing journalists or stifling the civil society.

It is important to mention that the technique of denialism takes different forms as well. In the past, all opponents of Kagame were described as genocidaire. The reason here being that the so called "moderate Hutus" were the first group to vocally and actively oppose Kagame's rule. While they raised allegations that Kagame's regime was Tutsifying power, Kagame would hit back by claiming that they "wanted to finish the job" or were that they were nostalgic for Hutu power. Of course, one can hardly argue against such attack. Anytime one uses genocide as their defense, they are likely to win the argument. 

Nowadays, denialism has taken the form of accusing all opponents (especially those who have served in Kagame's government) of corruption. This is sort of a ready to be packaged strategy that has now become commonplace. For instance, when responding to allegations that the government might have played a role in killing journalist Charles Ingabire, the government stated that he had been "arrested for embezzlement and convicted" before escaping. In both the two instances, the denialism strategy paints all Kagame's opponents as dangerous criminals, whether the crime is genocide or corruption.Such a strategy helps him build the intellectual base that justifies a one party state and criminalizes all forms of dissent.

Lastly, as I was recently chatting with Vincent Harris (the dutch author of Colored Opinion blog), I mentioned that the problem with westerners is that they are unwilling to admit that an African can just as well manipulate them. Perhaps due to years of colonialism, there is the feeling that it is always, to put it crudely, the "white' man taking advantage of the "black" person. In my view, I think black Africans are capable of manipulating westerners just as much.  In fact, the manipulation is made very effective by the mere fact that westerners are in denial about it. This might be one reason why African dictators stay in power for such long periods.

Rwandan scholar, Olivier Nyirubugara has written extensively on Ubwenge.  For a more in depth analysis, his website is worth visiting. Link here.

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