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, July 31, 2017

Hubris of The Economist

How this British newspaper ignores Rwanda’s context in its neocolonial desire to define that country

According to cc, a United Kingdom-based highly opinionated newsmagazine, President Paul runs a tight autocratic political system in Rwanda. The economist arrives at this conclusion entirely based on its reporter’s personal feelings spiced by anecdotal stories told him/her by some fringe of that country’s citizenry. It is always good to be rich and powerful because then you can comment on other people’s lives with the confidence of a priest.

Let us subject the claims of The Economist to some scientific method in order to avoid relying on our biases and prejudices to draw conclusions. How should we scientifically i.e. in a neutral or impartial way, establish whether Rwandans are oppressed or free? One way to do this is to establish an abstract universal standard of freedom. This standard would have boxes to tick. If any country’s experience does not tick most of the boxes, such a country is not free.

Another way to establish whether a country is free or not is to ask its citizens how they feel about their situation: do they feel free or oppressed? This can be done through a scientific survey with a representative sample. If both methods produce the same answer, then there is no conceptual problem. But when the subjective feelings of the concerned people are at variance with the abstract universal standard, then we have a conceptual problem. The question in such circumstances is: whom would we listen to the most?

This is the dilemma those who comment on Rwanda politics face. In many indexes by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, The Economist and other international organisations that rely on these abstract standards of freedom, Rwanda scores poorly. But whenever there are opinion surveys to gauge the feelings of Rwandans about their sense of freedom, the answers are always totally different.

For example, in 2015, IPSOS, a French International polling firm did a survey on political perceptions in Rwanda. In that survey, 76% of Rwandans said they are free to write and publish anything, 82% said their country is a full democracy. On specific questions like: Are you free to say what you think? A whole 91% said yes. To join a political organisation you feel close to:  92%. To vote for whom you want to: 96%. Talk about the problems affecting your country: 90%. Hold a public meeting: 87%.

Gallup Poll, the world’s largest and most credible polling agency has done similar surveys in Rwanda. In 2013, Gallup’s Global Press Freedom Survey ranked Rwanda 4th in press freedom in Africa, behind Senegal, Ghana and Niger, 30th in the world. Gallup found 78% of Rwandans saying there is press freedom while 18 per cent said there is no press freedom in Rwanda. Therefore, it is true as The Economist claims, that some Rwandans feel they cannot use the media to express their views freely. But why choose to focus on the 18% and ignore the 78%?

In their analysis, Gallup indicated that, “public opinion about press freedom serves as a useful barometer of residents’ perception of the media in their countries, while evaluations from Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders provide expert appraisals of media environments.
Gallup added this because of the consistent variance in their poll findings and the “expert appraisals.” The question is: whom should we listen to about whether Rwandans are free or oppressed, the experts or the citizens?

Even institutions like the Legatum Index have consistently encountered this dilemma. Indeed, in the 2012 report, Legatum say: Although Rwanda is an autocratic state its citizens feel free and rate their democracy and freedom higher than democratic and free nations. The World Values Survey also found Rwandan citizens to have among the highest citizen faith in public institutions. Rwanda is ranked alongside the world’s leading democracies –Norway, Ireland, Austria, Denmark and New Zeeland on this score.

One can argue that Rwandans are so oppressed they falsify their answers to polling agents. If this were true, then citizens of countries like Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea etc. that are considered autocratic would give answers like the ones of Rwandan citizens. Indeed Rwandans themselves would give positive answers about their government in every question.

In an survey, 63% said they lack faith in government efforts to fight poverty, 45% said if police arrested someone and the accused paid a bribe the accused would be released. How can people living under police terror and afraid to express themselves say this about the police? Indeed, most of these analysts ignore the fact that increasingly most Rwandans depend on online sources for news. And the Rwanda government does not sensor online content.

On the contrary, the government of Rwanda is at the forefront of extending internet-access to all citizens, thereby democratising mass communication. Today, Rwanda has the highest density of fiber optic cables of any country in the third world, including China. It has a one laptop per child program in its schools. And it has reduced internet-access costs to $3 per GB when its neighbors like Kenya charge $40, Uganda $150 and Tanzania $170. The fact that twice more Kenyans and slightly more Ugandans have access to the internet than Rwanda has nothing to do with government.

Here is my point: freedom does not exist in the abstract. It has a context. When people say they feel free or oppressed, it is because they are putting their feelings into their context. For example, since 9/11, the U.S. state has undermined many civil liberties of its citizens including eavesdropping on all electronic communications even without a court warrant. Those who go through airports encounter rigorous searches that even Joseph Stalin’s USSR did not impose on its citizens. Yet Americans do not feel that the country is under the rule of the Gestapo. They understand the circumstances that have necessitated these intrusions on their civil liberties.

The same applies to Rwanda. There are some restrictions on freedom in the country. For example, one cannot deny the genocide against the Tutsi or make ethnically loaded statements. However, most Rwandans feel such restrictions are absolutely necessary given their history where politicised ethnicity led to genocide. The Economist is blind to this reality because it really does not care about Rwanda’s context. It is telling us that what is important about Rwanda is not the feelings of its citizens but the fancies of this British newspaper. If this is not hubris, what is it?

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