Friday, November 29, 2013

Ndi Umunyarwanda: Desperate Re-branding or the Last Kicks of a Dying Horse?

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Ndi Umunyarwanda which translates into "I am Rwandan" has become the buzz word for speeches by government officials in Kigali, which have effectively been posted on almost all government-owned websites. While we don't know for certain what the campaign is, it is much easier to tell what it is not. It is not a bottom-up, engaging and conciliatory campaign. More importantly, it appears to be old wine in a new bottle.

Indeed, apart from a few reports, the blogosphere has largely ignored the campaign. Even Twitter has remained uncharacteristically silent. A simple search reveals that the Tweets are mainly from government officials and journalists dancing and singing the same tune. Which leads to the question, where is the *Rwandan* in it?

To be sure, I'll be the first to admit that Twitter mostly and perhaps only represents the Rwandan elite. A large majority of Rwandans, at least more than 80%, have no access to electricity much less the internet. But if the mostly Tutsi elites who form the backbone of the RPF regime are not interested in this campaign, who is?

As the activist and blogger Nizeyimana Ambrose urgues, dictatorships need no prior consultation with the population. Hence, Ndi Umunyarwanda can only be understood as yet another top-down radical policy that is meant to guide a population that RPF often refers to as "childish." However, as Nizeyimana points out, the campaign risks further dividing Rwandans into unnecessary dichotomies, which is ironically contrary to the regime's stated goal since 1994. According to Nizeyimana, the new hype about reconciliation is continuation of the regime's "duplicity."

Writing in for the East African, the pro-Kagame (and Ugandan) Frederick Mutebi has been more optimistic. Although his analysis characteristically never offers anything more than what the government has already stated. Lacking any form of criticism (no government can be presumed to be blameless much less Kagame's), his piece might well be the government's official press release. As such, it offers no valuable insights.

Perhaps a more important piece on Ndi Umunyarwanda appeared on the religious blog, A Living Text. However, the analysis largely focuses on understanding Ndi Umunyarwanda within the context of Anglican politics in Rwanda. As it turns out, the author alleges that the Anglican church is doing the bidding for the Rwandan regime (just as the Roman Catholic church did for Habyarimana two decades ago). It therefore hardly surprising that the two leading officials of Ndi Umunyarwanda: Bishop John Rucyahana and Antoine Rutayisire are all top-hierarchy in the Anglican church. The former currently maintaining cabinet-level position.

In theory, the Ndi Umunyarwanda program was started by a young artist by the name of Bamporinki Eduard. If the campaign had any traces of genuineness, it was before Bamporinki came out openly as a tool for the ruling party. He has since been “rewarded” by a post in parliament, which seems to suggest that the campaign was political from start to end.

As I wrote earlier in July, even I had initially been tempted to think that the young man was up to something profound. However, the fact that he has repackaged his ideas within the RPF’s acceptable “public transcript” shows that Bamporinki has nothing new or important to offer Rwandans. Accordingly, while the stated goal of the campaign is to offer an open space to discuss Rwanda's history: neither Bamporinki nor any Rwandan will raise questions that relate to RPF's criminal responsibility. Their victims will remain silenced in a dark cloud of mystery. Witnesses of these crimes (such as myself) will not be allowed to speak.

The ritual of forgiveness, as it were, will remain a one way traffic that begins with a Tutsi victim and ends with a Hutu perpetrator. Moreover, there will be no shortfall of RPF monitors (wearing military fatigues) meant to make sure that the traffic goes “smoothly”. Who will dare raise a finger in the presence of these entrepreneurs of violence?

A more puzzling question is why the RPF would choose to spearhead a program that seems in contradiction to the party’s official stand for the last twenty years. One explanation is that the regime has gone completely bonkers. A close friend, who is also an expert of the region told me, “This is incredibly stupid.” The other explanation is that it shows us what everyone (including US diplomats) know but are reluctant to say in public: that ethnicity remains a salient if manipulated aspect of Kagame’s Rwanda. That far apart from the usually sold image of ethnic harmony, the reality remains stark. Power is instrumentalized along ethnic lines and programs that would suggest women or youth emancipation are actually a deliberate ploy to obscure this “hidden” reality (for more on gender manipulation, read here.

The last explanation is that the recent unification of Hutu and Tutsi opposition parties, particularly Victoire's ingabire FDU-Inkingi and RNC represent a terrifying if uncertain fate for Kagame. In order to downplay this, Kagame must come out openly in support of the ethnic card. Riding on the myth that portrays him as the messianic liberator and protector of Tutsi people, he must seek to solidify his base again. The defeat of M23 whose sole agenda was Tutsi nationalism only points to the urgency of renewing such an ideology. Otherwise, Mr. Kagame's sense of invincibility becomes threatened the more. Ultimately, any campaign based on ethnic nationalism and its usual byproduct of discrimination is bound to fail. That is Mr. Kagame's realistic fate.

Meanwhile, the campaign aims to mobilize everyone: from ordinary villagers to the highest ranking civil servants. Already, the government plans to spread the campaign to the lowest and highest educational institutions. Considering that over half of Rwanda's population is below the age of 18, this appears to be mass propaganda on steroids. Exactly why children in primary schools need to learn about Hutu guilt is left unexplained. However, one needs no profound imagination to know that Kagame's regime has never been interested in coherent policies. The apparent hip-hoping from one reconciliation program to another represents the government's lack of commitment to both truth and virtue. Ultimately, though they lie with a straight face, Rwandan officials are aware that the country remains deeply divided.

The key dividing issue remains ethnicity although increasingly disloyal Tutsi are becoming victims of the regime. Exactly how different this new window-dressing is from past rituals is anyone's guess. To illustrate that, below is a throwback from a US cable, which I think is what Kagame should focus on resolving:

An analysis of the ethnic breakdown of the current Rwandan government shows Tutsis hold a preponderant percentage of senior positions.  Hutus in very senior positions often hold relatively little real authority, and are commonly "twinned" with senior Tutsis who exercise real power.  The military and security agencies are controlled by Tutsis, generally English speakers who grew up as refugees with President Kagame in Uganda.  The 28-member cabinet is evenly split among Tutsis and Hutus, but most key ministries are in the hands of Tutsis (Hutu ministers do head Health and Agriculture, ministries which affect the lives of most Rwandans).   
While the Rwandan government (GOR) presents itself as a champion of national unity and equal opportunity, de-emphasizing ethnic identity and ostensibly opening positions throughout society to those of skill and merit, political authority in the country does not yet reflect this ideal.  Ethnic identity is still keenly felt and lived, and ordinary Rwandans are well aware of who holds the levers of power.  The long-term stability of Rwanda depends upon a government and ruling party that eventually shares real authority with the majority population. 

Damned is any talk of reconciliation in a country that cannot tolerate ethnic diversity. Damned is any reconciliation conference in a country where freedom of speech remains severely restricted. Still, damned is any talk of forgiveness where crimes committed by RPF remain a forbidden subject; and where opposition leaders are imprisoned for stating this simple fact. As Rene Lemarchand has repeatedly warned, "there can't be reconciliation without truth." Officials in Kigali need to be reminded that Rwandans whom they imagine to be children are actually not that stupid. Enough with the contempt.

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