Rwanda: Image versus reality

Rwanda President Paul Kagame
Rwanda President Paul Kagame

Paul Kagame has overwhelmingly won the election for the presidency of Rwanda. But is this win legitimate and what has it done to Kagame’s image around the world?

Even if this article had been written six months ago and kept ready for publication in this month of August, it would have gotten one fact right well in advance: the August 2010 Rwandan presidential election will be won overwhelmingly by the incumbent President Paul Kagame.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the ruling party or organization since 1994, will also retain parliamentary and local government power with no challenger. Such has been the one-sided dominance of Paul Kagame and the RPF over the past 16 years of the country’s history.

There have been two general ways of interpreting events in Rwanda. Those who view society as humanistic and whose primary pursuit is material things and progress argue that if economic growth can be sustained for long enough, with businesses booming, jobs being created and millions engaged in buying and selling. This would allow the populace to overcome their ethnic and religious prejudices and the common urge for self-advancement and gain will create an enlightened nation.

Then there are those who view society in atavistic terms, who regard groups of people as driven as much by such aspirations as religious conviction and ethnic identity, affected or influenced by long-unresolved historical questions as by a keen need to profit and prosper. They believe that even amid a prosperous economic and stable state, large groups of people can still harbour grudges which still hold the potential to one day erupt into civil war or ethnic clashes.

Since 1994, the first, humanistic, liberal view of material progress has been part of the thinking behind Kagame’s effort to emphasize Rwanda as one country with one national identity and to almost ban any reference to the terms Hutu and Tutsi.

He got the country to work, to concentrate on building infrastructure, to envision grand-sounding projections for the future. It is a future in which all Rwandans would work in computer labs, with hundreds of kilometres of high-speed fibre optic cables crisscrossing the country. They would be governed by a small, efficient state similar to the East Asian nation of Singapore right in the heart of Africa.

“The atmosphere of the government is about trade and investment, not about aid,” Peter Torrebiarte, director of coffee sustainability at Starbucks told Bloomberg News. “That’s very attractive because we believe in that model.”
Rwanda’s economy has seen rapid growth over the last 16 years, much of it made possible by a huge injection of western financial and material aid and by a relatively efficient and accountable government.

This element of reconstruction and economic advancement after genocide has had the effect of making the Rwanda story that much more touching and inspiring to many, especially in the West, who have heard it.

Kagame was building an island of democracy and peace from the ashes of the genocide. He was nurturing an economy based on liberal western ideals and by courting western investors and government officials. And it was working.

However, when that quite successful public relations drive is set aside, Kagame’s liberal façade starts to crumble as glimpses of this “forgotten” past start to re-emerge. The Rwanda after 1994 is the story of a mainly English-speaking Tutsi refugee group that grew up in Uganda, fought their way to power in a guerrilla war in 1990 from Uganda and overthrew the Hutu establishment that has ruled Rwanda since 1959. And this humanistic, progressive vision of Rwanda has been largely held and pursued by the RPF government and mostly by the Tutsi elite within the RPF.
Today if a Hutu disparages Kagame’s Rwanda, they are accused of denying the genocide and inflaming tribal differences.

And this would then disqualify them in the minds of world opinion from taking part in any discussion on Rwanda.
Even when they raised legitimate questions about repression, mysterious political murders and jailing, their reports were largely ignored by the western English-speaking media and political establishments.

The attempt on the life of the exiled former chief of the Rwandan army, Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in Johannesburg, South Africa on June 19 and the apparent discovery by South African police that the would-be assassins were Rwandan intelligence agents has also been largely swept under the media rug.

The media did take notice though when the RPF government arrested the American defence lawyer Peter Erlinder who had been a counsel to several Hutu officials on trial at the International Tribunal for Rwanda in the Northern Tanzanian town of Arusha.

Erlinder had flown into Kigali to defend the opposition leader, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza against charges of “genocide ideology” and supporting or being linked to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a mainly Hutu rebel group operating out of the DR Congo. He was later released.

Also, the country researcher for the US-based activist group Human Rights Watch, Carina Tertsakian, was expelled from Rwanda after publishing somewhat unflattering reports on the situation in the country.

“Rwanda’s presidential elections will take place on August 9, 2010, in a context marked by increasing political repression and a crackdown on free speech,” wrote the organization.

These two cases have forced western journalists and media to rethink their perceptions of Kagame. By inviting the wrath of western media, human rights groups and governments, it was only a matter of time before Kagame would start to lose all the goodwill he had enjoyed for nearly 20 years in the Anglo-Western nations. Therefore, among other things, it should have come as no surprise that suddenly the news from the West about Rwanda is almost entirely negative for most of 2010 and is set to remain this way for the indefinite future.

“Reformer or Tyrant? Rwanda’s Paul Kagame” was a recent TIME magazine headline. “Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Center of Controversial Election”, reported the Voice of America. “Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s redeemer or ruthless dictator?”asked London’s Daily Telegraph,followed by a similar headline from the Irish Times: “Visionary leader or African strongman?”

And in June, the Guardian of London published the headline“Paul Kagame: A tarnished African hero”.
Perhaps now that the bubble of western euphoria over RPF Rwanda has been pricked, the next few years will lead to a more balanced reporting of the tiny landlocked nation, with both sides of the story, the Hutu and the Tutsi, being given voice.

The question remains whether, Kagame, newly-reelected to a second seven-year term, will let them be heard.

By Timothy Kalyegira