By Andrew M. Mwenda
Last week, I was invited by Rwanda’s minister of foreign affairs, the pleasant Louise Mushikiwabo, to attend a public lecture by United States permanent representative to the United Nations, Susan Rice, at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. She gave a great speech, highlighting the tragedy of genocide Rwandans faced in 1994 and the courage and resilience with which they have reconstructed their lives, their public institutions, their economy and their international standing. Most of her speech – possibly 85 percent – was filled of praise of what Rwandans have achieved.
However, towards to the end of her speech, Ms Rice said that “friends should also speak frankly to friends” adding that “the political culture in Rwanda remains comparatively closed. Press restrictions persist. That civil society activists, journalists and political opponents of the government often fear to organise peacefully and speaking out. Some have been harassed. Some have been intimidated by late-night callers. Some have simply disappeared.” This part of the speech was out of sync with the first part where every achievement she mentioned was accompanied with real-life examples backed with facts and figures. Here, she made assertions without any effort to substantiate them.
First, I have a problem with western leaders when they come lecturing to their African counterparts on how to manage their countries as if our leaders are children. Indeed I had always wondered whether an African leader visiting the US would be allowed to speak like that to an American president until I had coffee with the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker in Washington DC.
Crocker told me of how he took Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to meet then President Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s. According to Crocker, Mugabe proceeded to lecture Reagan on the faults of American policy towards Nicaragua. The CIA was funding a terrorist organisation, The Contra rebels, to wreck havoc on the population in an effort to overthrow the Sandinista government. Mugabe told Reagan that policy was wrong for world peace. “It was the last time Mugabe met an American president,” Crocker told me, suggesting that Mugabe was discourteous. I told Crocker that most American and Western European diplomats do exactly that when dealing with African leaders. Mugabe may have learnt the behaviour from them. Croker looked a little unhinged at this unexpected rebut.
Rwanda has many problems – I can list a million without thinking. Yet as Ms Rice concluded her speech, I felt she was pandering to claims of international human rights organisations and a few dissidents without reference to facts or context. More importantly, the view by people in the West and their African-elite cheerleaders that our systems are primitive and theirs saintly is not only wrong but has also been the basis of many misdirected attempts to usurp our sovereignty – with disastrous results. Yet judged by US standards, Rwanda has demonstrated greater flexibility, tolerance, accommodation and understanding than America in the face of similar dangers.
On 9/11 2001, the US lost two and a half buildings, four planes and only 3,000 people in a country of 300m i.e. 0.001 percent of its population. In response to this, the US declared the “world had changed” and then proceeded to behave like a bull in a china shop. It imposed onerous rules and regulations on its own population and on all countries all over the world that make some of Stalin’s practices seem benign. It began wire-tapping everyone’s phone without court sanction, invaded and occupied two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) tens of thousands of miles away and is still there a decade later. It began bombing Pakistan and killing innocent civilians in what it calls collateral damage. It now carries out assassinations of alleged Al Qaeda leaders almost on a daily basis. It has imposed draconian rules in every airport around the world where people are finger-printed, photographed, X-rayed, undressed and indecently touched and humiliated.
The US also arrogated itself power to open everyone’s bank account anywhere in the world to its scrutiny. It officially began to run torture chambers at Abu Gren and Guantanamo Bay. It outsourced some of the torturing to its brutal allies in the Middle East, suspended many civil liberties at home and began jailing people, including US citizens, without trial. It bombed headquarters of media organisations that criticised its actions, jailed without trial and tortured journalists who reported such actions – all in the name of ensuring that not a single life is lost to terrorism again. The US has insisted that it cannot have any discussion with its enemies – it exports death to them.
In doing this, we must remember that America actually has strong institutional traditions, extraordinary intellectual resources, the best technology anyone can master, its defence budget is larger than the defence budgets of the rest of the world combined and its economy is the largest. These endowments should make America a more sober, calm, mature, confident and responsible player on the global scene as opposed to being paranoid. While some of its actions after 9/11 are justifiable in a free and democratic society, most are actually Stalinist and unjustifiable.
Yet in spite of all the above observations and criticisms regarding its response to 9/11, I still believe – by and large – in the greater moral good of America, the richness of its democratic process, the creativity of its institutional designs, the depth of its intellectual traditions and the profound goodness, generosity and humanity of its people. Indeed, I bring forth some of these criticism only to show that ensuring the security of a nation and its people is a very complex exercise that can make the actions of the most well intentioned state and leaders look draconian, unfair, brutal and unacceptable. Indeed, the first presidential order Barak Obama signed upon entering the Oval Office was to close Guantanamo Bay because he claimed George Bush was being wrong. His first term is nearing an end at this torture chamber is still running. Therefore Bush was not monster after all as Obama had tried to portray him. The issues must be more complex.
Let us now visit Rwanda, a poor country with very young, weak and fragile institutions, a poorly developed human resource base, limited technology, a poor economy amidst abject poverty of its people. Only 17 years ago, this country lost one million people (not 3,000) – almost 13 percent of the total population of the country (not 0.001 percent). Unlike America where the enemy was a foreigner from distant lands and could be controlled through border security, in Rwanda the enemy was the citizen where neighbour killed neighbour and a father killed his children and wife. It is a country where mass murder was organised by the state, mobilised by the mass media and executed by millions of ordinary citizens. And unlike America, Rwanda did not lose only four planes and two and a half buildings – it lost an entire country and 60 percent of its GDP.
As Rice concluded her speech with her carefully rehearsed qualifications about the need for economic reform to be in tandem with political reform, I was lost. I asked myself what a poor country like Rwanda would do to protect itself against the recurrence of such a catastrophe. If media mobilised for genocide, what restrictions are justifiable to limit future abuses? If political parties appealed to ethnic extremism and were willing to commit genocide to gain power, what should be done to avoid this behaviour in future? Given my own predilection to its values, my first country of reference was America. However, as pointed out above, America is an example of what any nation should NOT do when under threat. If Rwanda behaved like the US, it would have turned into a prison with roadblocks in every village and torture chambers in every locality. Neither could I turn to Britain because it has not been much different from America.
I know that the political system in Rwanda and the civic space and the mass media have many limitations upon them. Many of the limitations are products of lack of human resource capacity, a factor that Rice ignored. Some are self imposed by individuals and groups because of their experiences, something many commentators ignore. And others are imposed on society by the state justifiably and sometimes unjustifiably. I also know that for every limitation on political freedoms by the state in Rwanda, there are contestations over them. Rwanda is not a static society. It is fairly vibrant with different forces vying for increasing state control and others for greater freedoms. This is healthy as, to quote that ancient Greek philosopher, Heracleitus, strength is generated by the tension between opposites.
Kwame Nkrumah – that great hero of the African peoples – once said that “Those who would merely judge us by the heights we have achieved would do better to remember the depth from which we started.” Any judgement of Rwanda therefore has to begin from this basis. Celebrated American political scientist, Robert Dahl, once argued that democracy has two aspects; one is contestation, the other is participation. Contestation refers to how freely the political opposition contest for power from those holding it. Participation inquires into how many groups participate in politics and determine who the rulers should be.
Let us look a Rwanda on these two scores. According to the 2003 Rwandan constitution, no political party – regardless of how many votes it gets – can hold more than 50 percent of cabinet positions. The constitution also says that the president of the country and the speaker of parliament cannot come from the same party. Although the constitution does not require the president of the senate to come from a different political party from that of the president of the country, over the last seven years, the president of the senate has always come from outside of the president’s party. The current president of the senate, Damacen Ntarikuriryayo was President Paul Kagame’s leading challenger in the last election. And it is also until two months ago that for the first time since 1994 that the prime minister of Rwanda comes from the same political party as the president.
This constitutional innovation and the accompanying political practices were shaped by the experience of the early 1990s. The opening up of political space in 1990 generated a high level of political contestation in Rwanda and as a result stimulated the emergence of extremist political parties. These factors led genocide. Many Rwandans think that these extreme political positions were born of the winner-take-all system that existed then. Therefore, the 2003 constitution innovated ways to stop control of government by one group. This has reduced the appetite for extremist political contestation because every party knows that regardless of its majority, it will have to work with other parties in cabinet. So it is not good to antagonise your potential allies through extremely polarised positions.
More importantly, Rwanda has a Political Parties’ Forum whose chairmanship rotates among the different parties every month regardless of their electoral strength. Political parties meet regularly through this forum and discuss and harmonise major policy positions before going public. Because of this forum, political parties in Rwanda are less polarised and policy contestation is less heated compared to elsewhere.
Many observers of Rwanda, ignorant of these political innovations and armed with a set of prejudices about politics in Africa think that there is no significant political contestation in that country. Indeed, it is their prejudice about Africa that makes them prey to misinformation from Rwandan dissidents many of whom are either genocidaires running from justice or corrupt former officials who cannot find space in the new society that is being built. Thus, sections of the international press, human rights organisations and particular sections of the academia that lost intellectual control over Rwanda after 1994 have made themselves spokesperson of these groups.
Political contestation among the major political parties in Rwanda is less polarised because of the aforementioned constitutional innovations and political practices. Any casual visit to Netherlands or Belgium, where no single party can command a governing majority will reflect the kind of political accommodation we see in Rwanda. Because for any party to rule in Belgium it has to mobilise not less than four to six coalition partners, political parties in that country are reluctant to adopt extremely hostile political positions to other parties lest they alienate potential allies. This makes their politics less polarised and more reconciliatory in their rhetoric.
This practice is very different from the US (and until recently the UK) where you have two dominant parties able to govern without need for coalition partners. Today, American politics is so polarised, it is difficult to build a consensus on anything unless and until there is a major security threat like 9/11.
As Ms Rice spoke, I wondered whether she knows the existence of over 60 newspapers and eleven radio stations with talk shows literally discussing anything under the sun in Rwanda. In fact the unethical and often blatantly criminal practices Rwandan journalists indulge would make News of the World seem like a very responsible newspaper. Yet News of the World was closed down by its own owner because of indulging in criminal and unethical conduct, something no Rwandan newspaper can suffer. Therefore, the absence of the kinds of restraints from shareholders, society and journalist associations that we see in Europe is the biggest challenge facing the mass media in Rwanda.
Again as Ms Rice called for more political accommodation in Rwanda, I asked myself who briefs her about the countries she visits. Listening to her was the commissioner general for correctional services, Paul Rwarakabije, the former overall commander of the FDLR, Rwanda’s leading rebel group and Jerome Ngendahimana, currently deputy commander of the reserve forces who was chief of intelligence in FDLR. In fact Ngendahimana’s, wife is a MP representing RPF in parliament. RPF has found the courage to reconcile with its enemies and work with them. Where America has been belligerent and uncompromising in its assassinations, arrests, torture and prosecution of its enemies, Rwanda has sought reconciliation, accommodation and moderation.
Can America accommodate any members of Al Qaeda if they surrendered and instead of jailing them in pursuit of justice integrate them into its democratic power structure? These questions kept racing in my head as I tried to establish the source of American hubris when it comes to lecturing others about best political practices. Who should have lecturing the other: America to Rwanda or vice versa?