|FILE PHOTO: President Paul Kagame delivers his inaugural speech August 18, 2017. PHOTO FLickr.com/paulkagame|
How and why Kagame’s enemies have been successful at branding him a tyrant
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | I asked a young friend to visit Rwanda and assess the state of the country. He returned last week completely mesmerised at how a poor country can have such excellent infrastructure, a well-organised and clean environment beyond his imagination. However, and like so many people who visit that country, he came with that hackneyed claim that Rwandans are not free. I asked him how he established this. He said he could feel it in the air. I asked him if he had asked any Rwandan how he/she felt. He said he had not because he didn’t have to. “They seemed too afraid for me to even ask”. It was clear to me that this is something he has always heard in some circles in Uganda and the international press.
Many Ugandans and foreigners tell me that Rwandans are afraid to criticise their government. I always tell them I talk to many Rwandans who criticise the government. I have attended Rwanda’s leadership retreat and been depressed by the savage attacks its officials make against their government. Ironically, the leading critic of Rwanda’s government is President Paul Kagame. In one popular video clip, there is a disagreement between me and him during a leadership retreat on this matter. Kagame had spent an hour criticising his government. I intervened to argue the contrary. Even traditional and social media in Rwanda are filled with criticisms.
In his meet-the-people tours around the country, ordinary citizens petition their president with many problems they are facing at the hands of local or central government officials. Every end of year Rwanda has umushyikirano; an assessment of its performance which is televised. During these sessions, ordinary people call in to raise various criticisms of government. I recently attended an RPF party event where many speakers, in the presence of Kagame, stood one after another to criticise the party and government, pointing out weaknesses and areas that need improvement.
There is one area where Rwandans are reluctant to speak freely – identity. But this has little to do with government. The genocide turned the Hutu-Tutsi identity into such a toxic subject that many Rwandans find extreme discomfort in this part of their history. If they express reservations about this subject, it is not because of fear of the state but due to the psychological trauma it ignites in them as citizens with a bad history.
To illustrate: I once got a problem with access to the internet at Serena Hotel, Kigali. Management sent me a young man to fix it. I asked him if he was Hutu or Tutsi. He was almost paralysed into silence. I was intrigued by his paralysis and pressed further with my question. He began to cry. When I asked the third time, he began to sob loudly. I got extremely terrified. What if someone in the corridor had the cries and came into my room to find a young man with me sobbing so loudly? What would they think? I was getting late for a lunch date with Kagame and the First Lady at State House, which is near Serena Hotel in Kiyovu. So, I rushed out of the room without having my internet fixed and left the boy there. When I narrated this story to Kagame, he was extremely cross with me.
“Mwenda,” he shouted visibly disturbed. Kagame calls me Mwenda when he is displeased with me. Otherwise, he calls me Andrew or Old Man. “What is this obsession you have with trying to know whether someone is Hutu or Tutsi?” Then he calmed down and became very introspective, speaking with a very soft yet painful expression. “For all you know, that boy’s father may have been Hutu, his mother, Tutsi. May he his father killed his mother during the genocide. Perhaps he has grown with his Tutsi side of the family. He may be having a conflict of identity: is he Hutu or Tutsi? You asking him such a question is opening deep and painful wounds.”
The first lady interjected saying that even if I have been going to Rwanda so often over many years, I have failed to penetrate the deep layers of the country’s social brain. If a regular visitor like me with so many contacts can fail to read such a simple issue, what would someone expect of foreigners who visit for a few days once in five years? Or even once in a year. I was almost getting upset with my young friend who was claiming, based on his intuition, that Rwandans seemed scared of speaking freely when I remembered this experience. I realised I need to learn to tolerate those who misread and misjudge Rwandans. Rather than get angry and dismiss them, I need to learn to explain Rwanda to them.
Freedom is a very context-specific notion. For instance, American law criminalises polygamy. Do American men who desire to marry several wives feel their freedom is constrained? I suspect they accept the law as a social norm. Do white Americans feel their country is a dictatorship because they cannot use the word nigger in reference to black people? I believe they accept this social norm as the right thing to do. So, when laws and social norms make us avoid expressing certain opinions or indulging in particular behavior, they do not necessarily mean we feel unfree. In this sense, the notion of freedom has to be understood within its cultural context.
I told my friend that freedom is not an objective notion with a universal standard as Freedom House presents it to the world. It is a subjective feeling. Therefore, we need to ask Rwandans about whether they feel free or not. I did a google search and found an opinion poll by Gallup, the highly regarded American polling firm. In it, 90% of Rwandans said they feel free. In fact, Rwanda was 21 in the world, ahead of USA, UK, Italy, Belgium etc. In Africa, it was second only to Mauritius. Now some will claim that Rwandans lie to pollsters because of fear. But if this were the case, then countries with dictatorships would rank highest in freedom compared to free nations because of this falsification of feelings. They don’t.
Kagame has been exceptionally successful in many things, including in branding Rwanda as a modernist state. However, his enemies have also been equally successful in branding him a tyrant. It is the one sticking issue he can never wriggle himself out of.