Books & arts
Rwanda 17 years later: what is the truth?
2011-10-19, Issue 553
The editors of ‘Remaking Rwanda’ tell us they are presenting ‘a comprehensive account of post-genocide reconstruction…Debates on contemporary Rwanda are often polarized and polarizing,’ they understand, and promise to do better. ‘We have tried to offer a more nuanced appraisal, though one that is ultimately critical.’
Such a book would be welcome, even indispensable, to illuminate a country and especially a government that attract wildly different points of view. But this is not that book. Despite the promise of its editors, ‘Remaking Rwanda’ is another pure example of how utterly unbalanced the RPF’s critics can be, so blind to their own biases they apparently cannot even recognise them. Only such blinkers can explain how a book that is anti-Kagame from the first to the last page, that entirely fails to mention, let alone record, the miracle of reconstruction that has taken place in the country in the 17 years since the genocide, can be presented as comprehensive and nuanced.
Don’t get me wrong. It is only right and proper to recount, as a number of chapters do, the disappointing record of human rights violations and democratic abuse that has characterised much of the RPF’s period of governance as well as the notorious record of the Rwandan Defence Force in the Congo. Indeed, this book was completed prior to the squalid events of the past 18 months or so, more or less the period surrounding the 2010 presidential election, so that this period is not included. Throughout 2010, in what sometimes seemed like an unending torrent, story after story poured forth of beatings, killings, attempted killings, harassment, arrests, abuse and intimidation of politicians, journalists and former comrades who had in common their opposition to the RPF government.
Of course in a tragic sense, the RPF’s human rights record is just one more example of the way so many of Africa’s leaders have betrayed their people for the past half-century. But there are two reasons why the RPF so often comes under fire. First, if it is held to a higher standard than most of its peers, which it often is, that’s because their leaders have always presented themselves as operating at a higher standard than other governments. Second, while Rwanda has genuine security needs that might call for harsh measures, few of the human rights and democracy violations and few of the killings in the Congo can be justified by these needs.
So there has been no shortage of reasons to criticise Kagame and his government, and Straus and Waldorf had little difficulty pulling together the work of some 18 foreign scholars and eight human rights activists, supplemented by two Rwandans, all of whom share a deep loathing for Paul Kagame and his government. All have spent time in Rwanda, many of them (even some that go overboard) contain important information, and many of their criticisms seem to me justified. In the end, this makes the unrelenting negativism and the total lack of balance all the more disappointing.
For the volume contains not a single essay, and barely a single word, recounting the astonishing recovery the country has made since July 1994 and demonstrates little or no sympathy for the enormous, almost intractable, challenges the RPF government has confronted since then. When in history has a post-conflict government, taking over a devastated and traumatised nation, been faced with the spectacle of survivors resuming their lives in the very same community (or on the same hill) as those who tried to exterminate them?
This failure is a shame. It sets the book up for easy dismissal both by the Rwanda elite, in the contemptuous way they demonstrate for criticism of any kind from outsiders, and by the blindly adoring political, corporate and religious VIPs whom Kagame has attracted. But how can they take seriously a book that offers not a clue why so many African visitors to Rwanda envy Rwandans so deeply? They return home railing bitterly at the failure of their own governments to provide the services Rwandans take for granted like safe, clean, orderly cities, decent roads, and officials and cops who do their jobs without demanding bribes.
Readers would learn nothing about the modest health insurance available almost universally, the professional care that mothers get in giving birth, the milk that malnourished children receive, the all-but universal enrolment of all children in primary education, the vast expansion of higher education, all with no one asking about their ethnicity. They’d know nothing of the relative sophistication of its HIV/AIDS program, the efficiency of the public service, the professionalism of government ministers, the pleasure UN agencies and foreign embassies find in working with a government that actually works.
They’d have no idea Rwanda was one of the four countries in sub-Saharan Africa to meet the Millennium Development Goals on sanitation. They’d never know that most corruption has been eliminated, that women play a major role in all aspects of governance, that violence against girls and women is being combated, that attacks on gays, unlike in so many African countries, were quickly snuffed out by the government, that capital punishment has been abolished, that Rwandan soldiers and police officers play a significant role in UN and African Union peacekeeping operations.
These things matter when you’re judging a government. It doesn’t mean that they compensate for, or minimise, the abuses noted earlier. But they are integral to a genuine overview of a very complicated country that cannot be described in either the one-dimensional blackness of some of its critics or the purer-than-pure whiteness of its local partisans and foreign groupies.
One might also have thought that in 25 essays on post-conflict Rwanda, at least one could be devoted to the phenomenon of genocide denial. Yet in the entire volume there are fewer than two pages on the subject, tucked into an essay by Lars Waldorf. And might we not reasonably have expected a chapter or two on the real menace from unrepentant Hutu extremists in the west and the FDLR criminal militia in Congo whose leaders operate freely in Europe and the United States? And on the threats from those muzungu like Gerard Prunier and disaffected diaspora Rwandans who openly promote the bloody overthrow of the Kagame government. Rwanda remains vulnerable in real life, but not in the pages of ‘Remaking Rwanda’.
OPPOSITION POLITICS AND THE GACACA EXPERIMENT
Perhaps it is the passionate hostility to the RPF government on the part of so many of the contributors that leads them to so many distortions, oversimplifications, double standards, and such lack of perspective and context. Take, for example, Joseph Sebarenzi, one of the two Rwandans represented in the book, a Tutsi genocide survivor who later fell out with Kagame, fled, and wrote a damning book about his experience.
It is perverse of Sebarenzi to claim that presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire returned from Holland to Rwanda in 2010 intending to mount her campaign based on ‘constructive opposition’. It is only too evident that Ingabire, who was known to consort in Europe with some dubious allies, pitched up determined to provoke the government, as both her statements and her relationship with American lawyer Peter Erlinder did. Erlinder, a long-time active denier, surely was begging for trouble when he suddenly materialised in an already tense country to assist Ingabire. In my view, government officials were strategically foolish in both cases for taking the bait and for their wretched treatment of Ingabire, her assistant and Erlinder.
Indeed, ‘Remaking Rwanda’ co-editor Lars Waldorf, in his essay on how the RPF has exploited genocide (undoubtedly true at times), agrees. In choosing Erlinder as her lawyer, he observes, Ingabire ‘showed spectacularly poor judgment or perhaps something more sinister. Either way, it played straight into the government’s hands, seeing to confirm some of the charges against her.’ Far more of such empathy for the government’s perspective would have made this book considerably more convincing. But there is precious little.
Or take the chapter on the plight of the multitude of prisoners locked up after the genocide by Carina Tertsakian, a human rights activist. That they were held in abysmal conditions I’ve never heard anyone deny. Here’s Tertsakian’s conclusion: ‘Just as prisoners were at the bottom of the government’s list of priorities in the years following the genocide, so former prisoners remain at the bottom of the pile today…There is no recognition of the hardships they have suffered and, correspondingly, no support for them whatsoever. There are no counseling services, at least none that they feel able to use, as they tend to assume that these are reserved for genocide survivors…’
Frankly, this sounds like a delusional rant from someone from a galaxy far far away. Prisoners are at the bottom of the priority list in virtually every country in the world, rich and poor. No prize for guessing how many of them receive counseling services or help finding a job.
The gacaca experiment is duly covered in ‘Remaking Rwanda’, and the assessments are predictably negative. Personally I have been persuaded by Phil Clark’s latest study that these harsh judgments and those by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are largely unfair. (See my review of Clark’s ‘The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers’, in Pambazuka News,) Clark was a speaker at one of the conferences on which ‘Remaking Rwanda’ is based but he has no article in the book. I have no idea why.
Human Rights Watch’s show-no-mercy approach to Rwanda, which characterizes too many of the essays in ‘Remaking Rwanda’, was spectacularly demonstrated again as recently as June with HRW’s latest gacaca report, ‘Justice Compromised: The Legacy of Rwanda’s Community-Based Gacaca Courts’. Leslie Haskell, the author, introduced her report to an audience in Kigali. Despite the title, Haskell told the audience that she didn’t actually believe gacaca was a failure though she did think the courts had violated some rights. Asked what alternative to gacaca she would have recommended, she surprised her listeners by saying the gacaca courts were really the best solution to Rwanda’s challenges. Finally, the Dutch ambassador, Frans Makken, told Haskell that he considered the title of her report to be quite inappropriate and that he found the entire document to be ‘harsh, unfair and unbalanced’. That stands as a general indictment of a great many HRW reports on Rwanda over the past decade, and those of Amnesty International too for that matter, both of which are cited often by contributors to ‘Remaking Rwanda’.
In Rwanda in July, a well-connected friend and other officials insisted to me that the government was well aware of the bad press it had been receiving for its abuses of democracy and human rights and was taking active steps to address them. For example, prompted by Cabinet, parliament is about to pass a Freedom of Information Bill, described by the organisation ARTICLE 19, which campaigns for free expression, as ‘one of the hallmarks of government accountability to its people because it facilitates citizen participation in decision-making processes’. The group is cautious, going no further than stating that the bill offers ‘a glimmer of hope’ for more free expression in Rwanda.
Welcome developments are also afoot in the field of media, at least officially. Rwanda TV and Rwanda Radio are to become public broadcasters instead of state broadcasters, in theory a world of difference to be enthusiastically embraced. But even in countries where the public broadcaster is a key component of the broadcasting system, such as Canada, no government ever appreciates being criticised by the broadcaster that the same government funds. Of course the funds belong to the country, not the government, but it’s a distinction many governments tend to forget. Some Rwandans themselves wonder whether their government will end up allowing anything like the independence that the BBC and CBC have. We will know soon enough.
The government is also moving to introduce self-regulation for the media in place of state regulation. Ending government interference in media content should be a huge step forward. But if self-regulation merely means self-censorship, with wary journalists censoring themselves when it comes to criticising the government and the president, it will be dismissed as merely a propaganda stunt by a government that still can’t abide criticism by a free press.
There is also an initiative to modify the much-criticised genocide ideology law, used too often to silence any criticism of the government and to disqualify opposition politicians who can’t possibly be considered promoters of genocidal ideology. But the balance is a fine one - the right to free expression but not the right to incitement. This is a real issue, not to be scoffed at. Freeing the Rwandan press in the early 1990s by then-President Habyarimana led directly to the emergence of flagrantly anti-Tutsi hate media, which played a central role in the subsequent genocide. No one in government forgets this, nor should they be expected to. While the government must learn that not all disagreement is subversive, good-faith critics of the government (and many critics show little good faith) must recognise that not all criticism is legitimate dissent, especially in Rwanda.
Whether these related initiatives are anything more than an elaborate public relations exercise designed to counter the negative attention Rwanda has attracted in the past year is too early to say. We can simply hope.
A repeated theme of ‘Remaking Rwanda’ focuses on the ongoing economic problems that Rwanda faces and I applaud the essays that make this point.
‘Rwanda’s high growth rates are deceptive in that they hide large and growing inequalities between social classes, geographic regions and gender…Wealth is concentrated disproportionately in the hands of a small group, primarily anglophone returnees from Uganda…That trend appears only to be getting worse…Economic progress has been particularly limited in rural areas; the benefits of economic growth remains concentrated in the hands of a small class of agricultural entrepreneurs while the majority of Rwandan peasants confront worsening living conditions.’
An Ansoms, a specialist on poverty and inequality in the Great Lakes region, is appropriately trenchant here as she brings together two areas that have received inadequate attention from outsiders, agriculture and ideology:
‘The new elite portray the solution to rural poverty as a matter of adopting “a good mentality”. The president frequently states that each citizen has a responsibility to overcome her own poverty…The Strategic Plan for Agricultural Transformation refers to the peasant’s ignorance and resistance to productivity-enhancing measures that go beyond traditional subsistence farming. This elite view disregards the institutional barriers that small-scale peasants face such as land scarcity, climactic change, crop diseases, limited options to diversify incomes, no cash reserves, and the lack of safety nets…There is a profound mismatch between the Rwanda elite’s ambitions and the rural realities on the ground.’
These are important points well worth making. But again a larger perspective would have been useful. Increased inequality has become a characteristic that defines our era. (I write as the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon spreads around the globe.) What’s true of Rwanda could be said about most of the world. This is no singular misdeed of the Kagame government, as these essays almost imply. Yes, growing inequality is largely a function of the free market dogmas the Rwandan government so zealously embraces and which ‘Remaking Rwanda’ resolutely fails to explore. But the analysis applies equally to all those governments around the world that have succumbed to the false promise of neoliberalism as peddled by much of the economics profession and the IMF and World Bank.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
There is great self-satisfaction among RPF officials and supporters about the remarkable strides their country has made in the past 17 years. In July 1994, or even when I first visited the country five years later, today’s progress would have seemed literally unimaginable. From that point of view, the self-congratulations that characterises any gathering of the elite is quite understandable. But the line between a realistic sense of accomplishment and hubris, or excessive, distorting pride, is a thin one, as some of the leadership have begun to understand. There may even be an internal struggle within the government between hard-liners who will hear no criticism of any kind and those who know the government has made serious mistakes that must be faced up to. The need to find the right balance between legitimate security needs and acceptable dissent is not a simple one, but it is urgent.
Of course other immense challenges still flow directly from the genocide. As both Armenians and Jews can testify, even after 96 and 66 years the burdens of such a catastrophe do not disappear. Seventeen years is just a beginning. Issues of justice and reconciliation, of security, of survivors’ needs both material and psychological, all are still urgent and difficult.
But there are other hard trials yet to face. For all its post-1994 progress in so many areas, Rwanda has a long way to go. If it’s UN Human Development Index is trending up, it’s because it was so far down; even now, it stands only at 155th of 172 countries measured. If steady advances in health care and rudimentary social services have occurred, two studies released in 2009 reported that half of Rwandan children suffered from malnutrition and 51 per cent of those under five suffered from moderate or severe stunting. If Rwanda is doing better than other African countries in approaching some of the Millennium Development goals, these data on hunger and malnutrition place it among the 10 most affected countries globally, even worse off, unbelievably enough, than DR Congo. While campaigns to stop violence against women are to be applauded, their need was great; as of 2008 figures, 31 per cent of females were experiencing violence, most often from a partner or husband. A Gallup Poll last year found that 79 per cent of Rwandans see rape as a major problem.
Rwandans proudly trumpet their determination to be self-reliant and dependent on no outsiders, yet half of the country’s budget comes from foreign aid. For 2009-10 that budget was under $1.5 billion for a country of over 10 million people (and a birth rate growing far too fast), with GDP at about $12 billion. Singapore, the government’s avowed role model, equally resource-poor, has a population of under 5 million, a budget of around $30 billion and a GDP at $290 billion. Rwanda remains one of many very poor undeveloped African countries.
Earlier this year, writing in the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer, author of ‘A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It’, summed up a view held by many foreigners of good will who have Rwanda’s best interests at heart:
‘When President Paul Kagame of Rwanda won re-election in August , he could look back with pride on his accomplishments. Rwanda has emerged from the devastation of genocide and become more secure and prosperous than anyone had a right to expect. The central task of his second seven-year term, which by law must be his last, is to add broader democracy to this security and prosperity.’
Anyone who has read Kinzer’s book knows of his admiration and respect - though not blind respect - for Kagame. Yet here he pleads with Kagame to forfeit the authoritarianism that was perhaps once justifiable, to end the ‘paranoia and ruthlessness’ that a guerilla war may have necessitated, and to embrace instead ‘tolerance, compromise and humility’. What Rwanda needs, he too agrees, is much more political space.
‘[Kagame] still has the chance to enter history as one of the greatest modern African leaders. There is also the chance, however, that he will be remembered as another failed African big-man, a tragic figure who built the foundations of a spectacular future for his country, but saw his achievements collapse because he could not take his country from one-man rule toward democracy.’
Just as it was the absence of political will that led the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council in 1994 to abandon Rwanda, so it is now the political will of the RPF government that will decide the future of the country. The leadership speaks eloquently about Rwandans determining their own destiny, shaping their own fate. In terms of creating a genuinely democratic culture constrained only by legitimate security issues, it has a reasonable opportunity now. For worse and for better, Rwanda has made history repeatedly in the past 17 years. For better or for worse, it is bound to make history again.
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