In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama says he has always been troubled by the gap between the magnitude of America’s challenges and the smallness of its politics. This makes even more sense in Africa. Nothing demonstrates it better than presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire and those inside and outside Rwanda who support her.
Africa’s biggest post independence pitfall has been a failure of leadership. It is troubling to see how petty and short-sighted our leaders – both in government and in the opposition – are. What structural incentives propel mediocre people into leadership positions?
During the last election campaigns in the US, Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Right, kicked off a storm with comments he had made years earlier on how America had committed mass murder when it nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki; how it supported state terrorism in Palestine and South Africa; how it was founded on racism and is still run on racism; etc. True? Yes, in many ways! But what were the issues at stake?
White America has deep seated fears of black people based on both prejudice and experience. For a black man to win the presidency, he needed to reassure white voters. Both tactically and strategically, Obama positioned himself as a centrist; a person who understood white fears and black aspirations. It is in balancing these two that he was able to bridge the racial divide and build the necessary political consensus to get elected.
Another leader, Nelson Mandela: in prison, he observed that white people were filled with fear that majority rule would lead to revenge for the injustices of apartheid. Mandela understood that blacks needed to reassure the minority whites that majority rule would not doom them. This was vital to create the necessary confidence among white South Africans to accept a democratic transition.
So now come to Rwanda: in 1994, the Tutsi confronted the possibility of their mass extermination. Although the genocide was organised through the state, it was executed by masses of ordinary citizens. Stressed by battles, bullets and mortars, Tutsi soldiers advanced, many losing their colleagues. Every village they captured, they found their mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, wives, sons and daughters – everyone – killed.
It is one of the biggest miracles of the 20th century that there was no counter genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It is a statement of extraordinary organisational discipline, coherence and leadership that RPF contained the rage of its own members. On many occasions, the RPF military court martial had to order the public execution of Tutsi soldiers in front of Tutsi soldiers for killing innocent Hutu civilians.
If Paul Kagame and his commanders had been European or North American, there would have been a million books written about the extraordinary levels of restraint they exercised in the moment of great military and psychological stress. Military experts and universities would be debating how RPF avoided the collapse of command and control in circumstances where its combatants – finding their own kith and kin dead – were controlled from revenge killings on a mass scale.
The ignorance and prejudice that informs most debate on Rwanda is baffling. In Africa, we look for extraordinary people and achievements elsewhere even when they are staring us in our eyes. What Kagame and RPF did in restraining themselves and their followers in the face of genocide in 1994 is a feat without precedent in human history.
I do recognise that individual RPF soldiers could have committed human rights violations and were not punished. But decisions at the level of a president have to be weighed against many other considerations. To ignore the extraordinary levels of restraint RPF exhibited is to undermine one of the most important things that can help Rwanda’s reconstruction and democratisation. It is naïve to expect that such a war could have been fought faultlessly; war is not a tea party.
Today, the most dominant influence in control of Rwanda is Tutsi. Put yourself in their shoes: what would be their major fears and temptations? Many would think that control of power is the only insurance against genocide. Therefore, any opposition politician who is Hutu needs to recognise this fear and craft a message that seeks to reassure them that loss of power will not lead to mass extermination.
To ignore such a fear is absurd. If I were a Tutsi, I would interpret Ingabire’s statements as a veiled appeal to the Hutu for genocide. This would tempt me to cling to power at all costs; it is better for me and my kin to be exterminated defending ourselves than hand ourselves over for mass murder in the name of democracy.
Ingabire’s claims are even more ridiculous because there are hundreds of thousands of Hutu who actively participated in the genocide and have not been punished for it. They live happily in Rwanda; some sit in cabinet, others in parliament, government agencies – everywhere. The RPF realised long, long ago that punishment through criminal prosecution cannot solve Rwanda’s problems. Political reconciliation will; and that is what it has been doing.
Are there problems and weaknesses with this process including Gacaca courts? You bet! If they were not there, that would not be a human process. However, Rwanda needs to begin a conversation about the future, not a quarrel over the past. There are one million claims and counter claims Rwandans on either side of the political/ethnic divide make against each other: some true, some false; some legitimate, others out of context.
However, finger pointing and digging up the last grievance will not help the country to heal. For Ingabire’s information, there are thousands of Tutsi bitter with Kagame and RPF for not punishing those who killed their relatives. If the debate in that country focused on these claims and counter claims, Rwanda would be bogged down in endless rancour. There is no solution that will please everyone.
The lesson is simple but powerful; decisions required to reconstruct Rwanda cannot be a simple dichotomy of what is morally right or wrong. Rather, they demand making extremely difficult tradeoffs. RPF has made many; the major opposition parties whom the media never covers have done their bit. Rwanda needs politicians who can appreciate its complexity. Sadly, Ingabire falls far short of this.