How knowing Rwanda well can be frustratingBy FREDERICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI | Wednesday, October 27 2010 at 11:22
In September, I attended three academic conferences, one after the other, in Addis Ababa, Oxford, and London. At St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, I was there to present, listen to and discuss a wide range of topics and papers on the broad rubric ‘African Studies’ at the annual conference of the African Studies Association of the UK.
In Addis Ababa, the theme of the conference was ‘Rooting Governance in African realities’, while in London, attention was on economic growth in a number of countries in Asia and Africa.
At all the three meetings, Rwanda featured in many formal and informal discussions. For those interested in Rwanda and its evolution since the genocide, this couldn’t possibly be surprising. The country has quite a bit of a reputation, as Rwandophiles and Rwandphobes alike know only too well.
There are two broad groups of commentators on Rwanda, and a small one in between. One broad group is of admirers of President Paul Kagame and his government. They tend to be complimentary, sometimes probably excessively so. The other one is of those who are stridently, almost hysterically, critical. Among them are those who probably even hate Rwanda and its proud and self-confident ruling elite.
And then there are those in between the two extremes. These, however, have tendencies, depending on which side of the extremes they are closer to. They generally tend to be measured in their comments.
The critical side
Nonetheless, those who are more inclined toward the critical side usually betray their biases when they make snide remarks here and there, some of them verging on exaggeration. Among those who are more inclined toward admiration, some betray their biases by indulging in excessive praise, some of it also underlain with a good dose of exaggeration.
In terms of identification, the strident critics or haters tend to be Rwandan exiles who have fled the country over the years since the genocide. Some were once members of Rwanda’s largest party in government, the Kagame-led Rwanda Patriotic Front, and even fought in the war that enabled it to seize power.
Over the last decade, each for their specific reasons, have fallen out with “the system” and left, and have become valuable to international media as sources of the usually scarce “insider information”. Others are students of Rwandan affairs of many years’ standing, who for one reason or other, have failed to “get on” with the current government, with some no longer able to visit the country.
Yet others are unapologetic former partisans of Juvenal Habyarimana’s MRND government, civilian or even uniformed officials, and could have played a role in planning or executing the genocide. Then there are employees of human rights groups in all their different guises. There are also media types, mainly non-Rwandan and with limited or no experience of the country, who depend on these three groups for much of what they know or think they know about post-genocide Rwanda. And then there are the armchair critics, ordinary citizens of East Africa and elsewhere, who know Rwanda or think they do, through newspaper, radio and television reports and commentary.
As a keen follower of developments inside Rwanda and frequent visitor over the last decade, I find conversations with many of these people deeply frustrating as I do the writings of those among them who are keen scribblers.
Let me tell you why. In Addis Ababa, I met an enthusiastic admirer of President Kagame who insisted that his government had “banned French because of the involvement by the French in the genocide”. I told him that he was wrong and pointed out that French is one of the three official languages in Rwanda, the others being English and Kinyarwanda. He wasn’t convinced.
In Oxford, I met a British academic who, while full of admiration for what Kagame has achieved in the economic sphere, was nonetheless “not happy about the violation of human rights and locking up of opposition politicians”.
When I said to her that I did not know of any political prisoner in Rwanda who had been locked up for no other reason than their political beliefs and without due process, she, with incredulity, retorted: “now, that is a very strong assertion!” Did she know of any? She did not. However, she insisted that given all the bad things the media had been reporting just before, during and immediately after the presidential elections, she was not prepared to believe that there were no political prisoners in the country.
In London, I met an American to whom “the most blatant aspect of Kagame’s dictatorship” was the constant presence of traffic cops at road junctions “waiting to pounce” on any motorist who might jump traffic lights. Did he really mean that? He did. I asked: “what would a traffic cop in America do if a motorist jumped a traffic light and what would it be a sign of?’ I quickly added that I believed the cop would book the culprit, and that he would not interpret that as a blatant sign of dictatorship.
“That’s different,” he retorted, most likely unaware of how silly he sounded. I decided it was time to end the conversation.
Not too long ago, I was listening to the BBC when I heard Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens claim that while Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, had been transformed since 1994, in the countryside life remained pretty much the same because all the good things happening in Rwanda happen in Kigali.
Over the last one year, I have been studying transformations in Rwanda’s health system. The nearly universal health insurance, mutuelle de santé, which entitles up to more than 90 per cent of rural Rwandans to subsidised health care, does not support Reyntjens’ assertion. Nor, beyond healthcare, does the one-cow-per-family (girinka munyarwanda) programme, under which many rural families have received free cows with many others in line to receive them. Nor even does the increased food production in areas such as former Gikongoro (now Southern) Province, which previously were famine prone.
Justified or not, my reaction to false stories about Rwanda, positive or negative, is to want to offer what, through indepth interviews and close observation, I know to be the truth or closer to it.
However, given the tenacity with which critics and admirers of Rwanda and President Kagame tend to hold on to their views, there are times when I wonder why I bother. Well, it is because letting falsehoods go unchallenged is just as frustrating.
The author is Senior Research Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research & Research Associate, Africa Power & Politics Programme, Overseas Development Institute, London.
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