Rwanda’s ‘demigod’ president and the quest for truth

Rwanda
Conflict
Politics
Paul Kagame

Rwanda's president Paul Kagame, considered a 'demigod' by his supporters. ITU Pictures under a Creative Commons Licence

In April this year, Rwandans all over the world gathered to mark 20 years since the start of the Rwandan genocide – the fastest genocide in history. In the capital Kigali, many flocked to the national stadium to be together and remember the departed. Ironically, this was the same stadium to which may fled for survival in April 1994.

President Paul Kagame spoke of the tragic events of two decades ago. He talked of how, rather than sit and despair, Rwanda and Rwandans have chosen to ‘think big’.

His message was convivial, measured and sometimes very solemn. It seemed like the majority of those inside the stadium felt and related to each one of his phrases.

There is no doubt that what happened in Rwanda was genocide and that this genocide was committed against the Tutsis. This, at least, was the consensus until the BBC broadcast Rwanda, the Untold Story – a documentary which detailed allegations that President Kagame was involved in shooting down a plane carrying one of his predecessors – an event which sparked the genocide. As expected, Rwanda was up in arms. And it is not hard to understand why.

Over the years, Kagame has become a demigod. This is a man who, despite polarizing the international scene, is loved and admired at home. His direct style of leadership has won him accolades, and he has got Rwanda out of the abyss.

Until last year, Rwanda’s GDP averaged 8 per cent, and GDP per capita, when adjusted for purchasing power, grew from $575 in 1995 to $1,170 in 2012. The statistics have been so impressive that many in the West have called upon other African leaders to emulate Rwanda’s approach.

But there is another side to this story. Under Kagame, Rwanda has become one of the most tightly controlled societies in Africa, where human rights and freedom of speech are severely curtailed.

Rwanda’s human rights record is so bad that it ranks alongside that of Syria and Eritrea. Yet it continues to be held up as a prime example of how donor support can work

In 2010, when Kagame won 93 per cent of the vote, the main opposition parties were excluded from the ballot. Dissent from journalists, political opponents or even his own lieutenants has been fiercely dealt with. Former comrades who fell out with him have been assassinated, most recently Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief, who was killed in January.

Rwanda’s human rights record is so bad that it ranks alongside that of Syria and Eritrea. Yet this is a country that continues to be held up as a prime example of how donor support can work, and Kagame is hailed as a visionary.

Through a prism of genocide

Everything in Rwanda is seen through the prism of the genocide and Kagame has become a master at exploiting this. He realized early on that to be immune from any criticism, he had to write and direct Rwanda’s story – a story in which he has since claimed centre stage.

With the international community dithering over its guilt and failure to intervene in Rwanda, Kagame and his Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) emerged to fill the void. They told and promoted a story – one of how they alone stopped the genocide against Tutsis. This was told so convincingly that, in the absence of any other believable narrative, it became the absolute truth.

The trouble with the genocide story in Rwanda is that very little is known about what exactly happened, save for the assertion that Hutus killed Tutsis and that Kagame and his forces stopped the killings.

Kagame realized early on that to be immune from any criticism, he had to write and direct Rwanda’s story – a story in which he has since claimed centre stage

President Kagame’s argument has always been that he saved Rwanda from oblivion when everyone else, including the international community, was hopelessly looking on. Granted, the genocide stopped after the RPF’s military victory, but the real question is whether putting an end to genocide was the RPF’s main objective. The memoirs of General Roméo Antonius Dallaire, the man in charge of the UN forces in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, for example, suggest that this was never the case.

Even where different stories have been shared, there has been a general lack of willingness to either investigate or follow up on them, because there are so many parties to the genocide story. And each of the parties is powerful in their own sense, with differing interests.

This was particularly visible following the documentary’s release. First, Ibuka, the genocide survivors association (which started as a genuine survivors’ body, but has since been co-opted by a government keen on exploiting it for its own interests) accused the BBC of giving genocide deniers a platform to reopen wounds.

Then, a group of scholars complained that the BBC had been ‘recklessly irresponsible’ in broadcasting the film which, according to them, has ‘fuelled genocide denial’ and ‘further emboldened the génocidaires’. Thousands of people killed and scholars think trying to establish the truth about their murder is reckless. What has happened to the world?

Kagame himself responded by telling the Rwandan parliament that the BBC had chosen to ‘tarnish Rwandans, and dehumanize them’. He accused the BBC of ‘genocide denial’ – a criminal offence in Rwanda, punishable by up to 25 years in jail.

His remarks were followed days later by a resolution by Rwandan MPs calling on the government to charge the documentary-makers with genocide denial and revoke the BBC’s licence to broadcast in the country – a request that the Rwandan government effected two days later.

Distorted truth

There is a problem, of course, with trying to rewrite history, especially if that history relates to a crime as heinous as genocide. However, part of the trouble can be that the truth has been distorted. It goes back to the problem of having single narratives. If we were to take the genocide story as it is officially known, there is something fundamentally wrong with the BBC’s broadcast of the documentary. But whereas one must condemn in the strongest terms possible any attempt to negate, deny or minimize the genocide, one must also be careful not to dismiss everything as genocide denial simply because it is different from the widely accepted narrative.

When the war began, many innocent Hutus were caught up in the violence. There are scores of accounts of people witnessing killings by RPF soldiers as they swept through the countryside. General Kayumba Nyamwasa, then an army chief, told the documentary makers: ‘There was this kind of anger from the soldiers and some of them took it upon themselves to start revenge killings. It is not a rumour, it is a fact.’

Then there was the Gersony Report, a detailed account of findings by experts contracted by the UN, who identified a pattern of massacres by the RPF rebels during and after their military victory.

According to the documentary, it was the British and the Americans who were instrumental in preventing the Gersony Report from being published, over fears its findings might rock the boat of a fragile new government. While there may have been genuine reasons for doing so, that doesn’t mean it should never be discussed.

The BBC has certainly rocked the boat. But rather than haranguing the broadcaster and threatening the documentary makers, the government and, indeed, all Rwandans, should use the opportunity to clarify a few murky incidents. It is the only way genuine reconciliation will be achieved.

There are many Rwandans who will watch the documentary and wonder what they should believe. The fear is not that the documentary is shocking, but that for so many years, the world has been fed with a story that is a possible untruth.

Is President Kagame a war criminal? Filip Reyntjens, one of the foremost analysts of the Great Lakes region, thinks so. The documentary makes a powerful case for the prosecution. It may not be exact, but angry denial is not a defence.

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