Friday, December 16, 2011

Where will Kagame's Rhetoric Take Rwanda?

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Today, I am re-posting an excellent article by Dr. Susan Thomson. In this piece, Dr. Thomson examines Kagame's rhetoric following the visit of US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice to Rwanda. As a reminder, Dr. Rice had given a fiery speech in which she called for political freedom in Rwanda.

Being Rwandan, I have to say that Dr. Thomson's research with Rwandan peasants deserves a lot more recognition than it actually gets. She has carried the pains of the most marginalized in Rwanda and continues to advocate for social justice on their behalf. Her work exudes both scholarly objectivity and compassion for Rwanda's poor--something that if often rare to find.


It has been a wild couple of weeks for Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame. American Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, offered a speech full of glowing praise for the country's institutional and economic development on 23 November 2011. In the final few paragraphs of the speech, Rice, who believes 'friends should speak frankly to friends', encouraged Rwanda to open up its political space so that 'the deepening and broadening of democracy can be the next great achievement of this great country and its remarkable people.' Word from folks resident in Kigali states that President Paul Kagame was so angry about Rice's nudge for greater political expression that he did not receive her as a diplomatic guest at Urugwiro Village. An insult to one of Rwanda's biggest donors? Perhaps. This is the least interesting part of the story.

I thought Kagame's immediate reaction to the speech showed his true stripes. He is the embodiment of Rwanda and to insult the country is a direct and personal attack on Kagame himself as father of the nation. A clear sign of his increasing megalomania is the outrage he showed for Rice's gentle words. Indeed, she could have come out much stronger against many of the regime's current oppressive practices, not least of which is the farcical trial of Victoire Ingabire. The government is so clearly involved in this trial that I hear from foreign journalists on the ground that even they can't cover it, for free of ending up in 1930 prison themselves! Leaving aside whatever you may feel about Ingabire and her culpablity, she still deserves a free and fair trial.

It wasn't until days later, allegedly during Kagame's participation in a Kigali-city umuganda clean-up that he began to rant about 'so-called friends or those among us who consider themselves extraordinary'. A quick diversion: If you look at these photos of Kagame at his Flickr site at umuganda you'll readily suspect that none of the people in images are peasant Rwandans (e.g., abakene (poor, living on less than $1/day) or abatindi (vulnerable, living on less than $0.50/day). Notice the western style of dress, the covered shoes and new rubber boots, wrist-watches, and other trappings of success. The audience members in these images reflect nothing of the peasantry I consult in my own research -- poorly nourished with weathered faces and bodies that belie their actual age, dressed in threadbare clothes, with little if any opportunity for socio-economic mobility. My guess is that the folks we see in these Flickr photos are part of the entourage of sycophants (willing, delusional or otherwise is another matter) that travel around, in the employ of the ruling RPF, to put the best possible spin on everything Kagame says and does. Word on the street in the US is that Rwandan sycophants, some of whom are on RPF-sponsored scholarships, receive between $250 and $1500 per protest. (These numbers taken from Rwandans resident in the US who protested at the HQ of the Lantos Foundation in early November because of its prize for Paul Rusesabagina; folks spoke openly to me about this, expressing themselves freely I suppose although we both know Kagame would definitely not approve!)

Back to the task at hand. During umuganda, Kagame spoke only in Kinyarwanda, meaning that Susan Rice may yet know about his anger towards her remarks in Kigali just a few days before. Key excerpts from Kagame: 'If you promote equality among people, and you are the first in the world in terms of gender equality -- by lifting up women who had never before reached such a level, if you tell me this is not democracy, if you tell me this is not respect of human rights, you certainly are sick' I guess I am also 'sick' (meaning sick in the head, i.e., deranged) as the equality of women in parliament has yet to trickle down to women in the hills. Indeed, I think it remains fair to say, as I did in an editorial published in The Guardian (co-authored with Erin Baines and Stephen Brown) in 2008 that 'even as women's visibility in politics is at an all-time high, their ability to shape the future of the country, ironically, has not improved. Parliamentarians – be they male or female – actually have very little power to legislate on behalf of their constituents. They have little room to develop policy or even to debate openly; space for free and open political expression is limited'. Instead, what I think we are seeing from Kagame is his an acknowledgment that his gender policy is only for elite women, and for elite women who toe the RPF line. Susan Rice surely knows this, but said nothing about it, opting instead for a more diplomatic statement of 'friends talking to friends.' Someone who is receptive to criticism sees it for what it is, considers the advice, reflects upon, perhaps seeks counsel from others, and finds ways to improve the situation. We see none of this emotional or political moderation from Kagame, and that is the worrying aspect of his leadership at the moment. Indeed, his rhetoric is reminiscent of the ramping of political language we saw before the 1994 genocide. Surely, this is food for thought for anyone concerned about peace in Rwanda.

President Kagame continued with his vitriolic reaction to Ambassador Rice. He said,'every person among the eleven million of Rwandans can speak whenever he/she wants and whatever he/she wants, because we continuously empower them in terms of freedom of speech. But I cannot accept you saying that there about hundred or hundred fifty people that we prevent from speaking – and to whom the right of reply is not allowed. What type of people are those? Why [should we allow them to speak]? Among them there are those who say useless things, and some of them even say destructive things. If you say things that destroy the Rwanda we are building, we shall destroy you. We don’t need to apologize to anyone about that; the only problem is that we don’t do it [destroy them] sufficiently (my emphasis).

Is this thinly veiled threat not worrying to anyone in the international community? Do we not remember the many warning signs, both rhetorical and programmatic, that presaged the 1994 genocide? I believe we are at a critical juncture in Rwanda's postgenocide evolution. President Kagame has entered a phase of political extremism. Threats to 'destroy you' if you speak out need to be take seriously. Indeed, the word on the street among Rwandans at home at abroad is that the murder exiled journalist Charles Ingabire in Kampala on 2 December 2011 was to send a message to silence critics. I am not entirely convinced of this myself as the Kagame regime has been killing its own since it took office in July 1994. One only need to consult the writings of Filip Reyntjens to learn of the killing machine that supports the Kagame regime (see in particular his excellent January 2011 article in African Affairs). Either way, Ingabire is dead, and a full independent investigation is needed.

At any rate, we know that Kagame is furious with the international community (and perhaps Susan Rice in particular). He made a speech at Rwanda's 9th National Conference on 15 December 2011. The tone is his voice is chilling as he tries to equate the press freedom that the international community desires to letting the planners and implementers of the genocide 'to go scot free'. Please email me and I will send you the .mp3 file. The last eight to ten minutes are in English. Listen for yourself. I am keen to hear what others think. To my ear, Kagame is throwing down the gauntlet in a veiled battle cry. It is the spectre of renewed conflict that is worrying, and this is something those of us working for peace in Rwanda, and the region, need to think about as the 2017 elections are less than five year away (and Kagame has already started posturing -- my money is on his running for a third term).

What can be done at this stage to not only avoid conflict, but open up freedoms of expression and assembly while reducing socio-economic inequalities in pursuit of sustainable peace?

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