It’s been interesting to watch global opinion on Kagame shift over the course of the last year or so.
Was it only last year that Time ran a breathless Rick Warren tribute to Rwanda’s president?
That piece demonstrates quite a contrast with the international media’s view of Kagame today. News items question his democratic credentials and authoritarian style and wonder if the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had a role in several murders and assassination attempts. Media pieces debating the wisdom of unquestioning Western support for the regime are everywhere.
I’m not sure what prompted this shift. Quite a few observers have claimed that Kagame and the RPF seem to have gone off the rails, but that’s not really the right way to look at it. Very little has changed in the way Rwanda is ruled. Authoritarianism has been the modus operandi there since the genocide. Allegations of human rights abuses were widespread in the years immediately following the genocide. The Congolese have been complaining about Rwanda’s extracurricular activities in the Kivus for years.
The difference, it seems, is that the world has taken notice.
Maybe that’s because the United Nations identified Rwanda’s major role in recent conflicts in the Kivus. Or because a new generation of reporters was less likely to believe everything the RPF said. Or because Twitter and the blogosphere make the free and open exchange of information easier.
But more balanced coverage is a welcome change for those of us who’ve been watching the region for a long time.
Every time I write about Rwanda, I brace for a barrage of wild comments and hateful e-mails from various sides of the Rwanda debate. Some of these commenters are in Rwanda; others are in the Diaspora, mostly in London, Paris, Brussels and D.C. They allege all kinds of things: that Kagame is a sociopath, that he’s a saint, that I’m shilling for the RPF, that I’m shilling for the FDLR, that Kagame can do no wrong, that Kagame can do no good, that I’m a racist for calling out Kagame, that anyone who thinks anything good about Kagame is delusional.
Here’s the thing: Kagame is a politician. Like most politicians, he wants to stay in power. In a country with still-weak institutions, a traumatic past and a dangerous neighborhood, Kagame has taken steps to maintain his power that are well outside the norms of democratic governance. He has restored stability and grown the country’s economy at an astonishing rate while trying to move past a devastating genocide that was primarily directed against members of his own ethnic group.
He has also overseen the perpetration of major human rights abuses, both in Rwanda in the years immediately after the genocide, and, to a much greater extent, in Congo/Zaire.
Kagame is a brilliant military tactician and PR genius. He is incredibly skilled at telling influential people what they want to hear. He has a serious problem in that he’s lost control of the narrative about his country and his person. He has a more serious problem in that the RPF is beginning to fragment over his leadership and degree of control.
To me, these are facts. The specifics (how many people died, where and how exactly they died) are up for debate. But it’s hard to have discussions on these topics because even facts are up for debate, even among well-educated, well-informed commenters like the ones my blog is fortunate to draw.
Why do so many debates about Rwanda almost immediately descend into chaos, with two sides talking past one another?
I suspect it might have something to do with the trauma so many Rwandans, including those in the Diaspora, experienced over the course of the last 20 years. That’s not to say that “being Rwandan makes you irrational,” but rather to raise an important question about the limits of reconciliation when you’ve experienced horror beyond what most of us can imagine.
I don’t know how you get past that kind of trauma, or if it’s even possible. But I do know that Rwanda desperately needs an open and free arena in which all issues can be peacefully discussed. Labeling dissent as “genocide ideology” won’t solve this problem, and many other RPF initiatives don’t seem to be convincing most that ethnicity in Rwanda doesn’t exist.
Much of the debate over Rwanda’s future has been framed in terms of a choice between stability and development or freedom and anarchy. That’s exactly the way the RPF wants the discussion to proceed. Their claim that freedom will result in another genocide justifies repression in the name of maintaining stability and the regime’s impressive economic growth record. It would be a mistake to think that many, many Rwandans don’t see their choices in the same terms.
But the clock is running out on Kagame’s style of authoritarianism. The international community has been clued-in to his style. While I’m sure the lens of attention won’t be so sharply focused on Kigali after today, the tensions we’ve seen bubble up over the course of the last year aren’t going to go away. The likelihood of violence there is higher today than it has been at any time in the last decade. It would be an unspeakable tragedy if Kagame’s rule ultimately produced just the sort of violence he’s worked so hard to prevent.
Rwandans need the right – and the space – to determine their country’s destiny. I’m among those who believe that freedom and development are possible, side by side, and that allowing the one will make the other stronger.
Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column first appeared on her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.