About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, May 30, 2011

Rwanda and prejudices towards Africa.


Without placing allegations of human rights abuses in context, it is easy to call Obama or Cameron delusional despots.

Last week, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, while on twitter, got into a heated exchange with a British journalist, one Ian Birrell. The journalist was accusing him of human rights violations, insisting the Rwandan president should account to him (as who?)for these abuses. Then Birrell shifted from accusations to insults and called Kagame a “delusional despot.” Meanwhile, the Rwandan president remained calm and continued to explain to Birrell that he does not know much about Rwanda and has therefore no right to judge him.

Over the years, human rights activists, end-poverty evangelists, politicians, rock stars, journalists and diplomats from the western world have become extremely vocal in affairs that concern the people of Africa. They carry a near-cultural arrogance that makes them feel qualified to judge and dictate affairs on the continent. One wonders why this British journalist (like many of his ilk) feels he cares about the human rights of the people of Rwanda than its elected president and government. Why does he think he is more humane (or human) than Kagame?

Later in the week the police in London warned two Rwandan exiles – Rene Mugyenzi and Jonathan Musonera – that Kigali had sent a hit squad to kill them. The British media hyped it equating it to Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian ex-spy who was allegedly killed in London by Russian intelligence in 2007.

I do not put it past the Rwandan government to try to kill those it considers dangerous to its security. All governments, democratic or otherwise do. Bin Laden has just met his fate as many enemies of America including presidents of sovereign nations have. This is not to say such actions are morally right. Rather, it shows that states kill to promote their interests; if Kagame tried it, it would not be an aberration by a “delusional despot”.

My interest however is how western media cover these issues when it comes to Africa – and how Africans parrot it. Many western journalists begin from the assumption that African leaders are barbaric tyrants. Therefore, any negative story they hear about an African leader only confirms this prejudice. So they make little or no effort to crosscheck and confirm the authenticity of the accusations. Cognitive scientists call this “confirmation bias”; even ridiculous allegations are taken as ipso facto true.

For example, I believe there have been many instances when the government of Rwanda under Kagame has committed human rights abuses. This was true most especially immediately after the genocide. I do not share RPF’s self-image as a holy organisation. I take it that the state was still fragile. However, the intensity of such abuses has greatly diminished as the regime has consolidated.

Anyone with the most basic knowledge of post conflict political consolidation would not be surprised by this. RPF inherited a collapsed state, its own military and administrative structures were in infancy. Therefore, human rights abuses were inevitable results of state weakness, not blood-thirsty leadership. What is surprising is not that these abuses took place at all but rather the effectiveness and speed with which RPF has been able to consolidate power and establish a stable political order.

Just compare poverty-stricken Rwanda to Great Britain and the United States – nations that have existed for centuries and have developed enormous and rich intellectual, financial, technological and institutional resources and capabilities. When Al Qaeda, an external enemy, killed 3,000 people on 9/11, they began to detain suspects without trial, torture them and invade other countries. There, their armies have committed atrocities against ordinary civilians. Does this make President Barak Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron, “delusional despots”?

Post genocide Rwanda confronted mass murderers who had killed one million people. The killers were not foreigners from distant lands. They were resident citizens. Although the genocide had been planned by the state, it was executed by society – so RPF inherited a criminal population. A young and fragile army had to pacify a country where the enemy lurked everywhere. How anyone would expect zero human rights abuses in such context is beyond me.

Morally, Kagame shines far above George Bush and Tony Blair or Cameron and Obama. The leaders of these democracies have proceeded to jail, torture and kill suspected Al Qaeda sympathisers without any due process – including small people like taxi drivers, idlers and hawkers. In Rwanda, Kagame has promoted restorative justice where only the ringleaders of genocide were prosecuted while the masses who implemented it have been forgiven and re-integrated in society.

The scale of the challenge RPF faced was such that hardly anyone would have predicted success. One would have expected a counter genocide. There were only isolated human rights abuses. Within 17 years, RPF has been able to reconstruct the state and economy and institutionalise power so rapidly that human rights abuses are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. The speed and effectiveness of this achievement is a feat without precedent in human history.

Today, poor Rwanda has 98% of its people on medical insurance, 100% of its mothers give birth with the assistance of a medical professional, 97% of its pregnant mothers receive antenatal care, 100% of its malnourished kids get milk and cereal from government clinics daily etc. Kagame has been the driver of this, a factor that demonstrates his commitment to humanity, not a cruel, human rights-abusing delusional despot that Birrell presents. This journalist may wish to join a human rights campaign for Osama Bin Laden who has been killed “without trial by Obama.”

The issue of hired Rwandan hit-men is a joke except that the allegation is made by the British police. The influence of Western prejudices has penetrated our (African) social consciousness. So we also easily believe that we are as barbaric as western media and scholar have constructed us. We are more inclined to believe that when the British police say something, it is true. We forget that the British police are as prejudiced as its journalists.

This prejudice led western intelligence to believe wild stories by Iraqi exiles that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction even without pausing to question the credibility of their sources. I find it hard to believe that the government of Rwanda is so reckless as to jeopardise its relations with UK by attempting to kill Musonera and Mugyenzi – the two are too insignificant in the wider challenges Rwanda government faces to risk everything to kill them. These accusations are therefore bought because of deeply entrenched western prejudices about Africa.


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