It is puckish to canonise Obote and demonise Rwandans

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By Joseph Rwagatare

It is dishonest to selectively use history to launder the tainted record of an individual and by the same effort tarnish the image of a whole people by imputing base motives on them. Equally, it is utterly deceitful to attempt to absolve criminals from culpability by reassigning responsibility for their actions. It is also blatantly insincere to try to delegitimize a genuine national liberation struggle by questioning its justification.

There is a name for this sort of thing: revisionism and it is not a respectable undertaking. Yet this is what Mr Harold Acemah, described as a political scientist, consultant and retired diplomat, does in a number of articles in the Monitor newspaper.

In a story titled, “Some voices and lessons from down the memory lane” (Sunday Monitor, 12th May) he narrates former Ugandan President Apolo Milton Obote’s supposed defence of Rwandan refugees and the latter’s apparent betrayal of him.

The gist of the story is that in 1960 Obote, then a member of the colonial legislative council was a strong advocate of Rwandan refugees to be allowed asylum in Uganda against the wishes of the colonial government. But that the refugees subsequently showed extreme ingratitude when they participated in the liberation struggle that eventually removed Obote from power.

Acemah’s story thus tries to do two things; canonise Obote while demonise Rwandans. Judging from his other writings on Rwanda, the second aim seems to be his major preoccupation.

And in a hurry to do this, he picks two events, one at the beginning and the other at the end of Obote’s political career and then uses them to make a general assessment of Obote’s supposed good intentions and Rwandans’ alleged deplorable character.  What happened in the intervening twenty years that he has conveniently left out during which Obote was at the height of his power?

The facts are different from this simplistic selection of historical detail.

It is true that Milton Obote  showed pan-Africanist tendencies – at least in rhetoric – at some stage in his political career and may indeed have supported the right of Rwandans to seek refuge in Uganda. He may have done it out of conviction or perhaps from a desire to annoy the British colonial authorities and score political points or to raise his profile in pan-African circles. All this is possible.

But along the way, raw power and narrow political interests eroded his pan-African idealism and he allowed narrow nationalism to dictate his conduct. For instance in 1969 he famously threatened to expel all foreigners from Uganda, including his Luo cousins from Kenya who had given him refuge and from whom he acquired political skills (talk of ingratitude). Rwandans – both immigrants and refugees – were not to be spared either.

In 1982 Obote actually carried out the threat and expelled thousands of Rwandan refugees and Kinyarwanda –speaking Ugandans to Rwanda. He did not hesitate to burn and kill in order to force people out of the country. He knew the cruel fate that awaited  them in Rwanda, but that did not stop him. As expected the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda refused to accept them and as a result thousands perished in the no man’s land between the two countries. Even when the government of Rwanda relented under pressure and accepted some of its citizens as refugees, they were settled in uninhabitable areas where many more died.

Was this the action of a man who had reportedly argued that Ugandans and Rwandans were kin and none should suffer injustice when the other was there to help?

This insensitivity, brutality and injustice, more than anything else, drove many people to join the National Resistance Army. It was a matter of survival, not a question of ingratitude or betrayal.

It is a historical fact that the 1980 general election in Uganda was stolen by the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and Obote assumed power illegally. What followed was a genuine liberation struggle. Obote’s response was to unleash more brutality and violence on Ugandans. He showed a great deal of intolerance and incompetence that were slowly leading the country to a failed state status. Was this the action of a saint that Acemah would like to add to the list of holy people? And conversely, was resistance and struggle for survival actions of the devil?

In an earlier story, “Some reflections on the Rwandan genocide” (Sunday Monitor, 14th April 2013) Mr Acemah had sought to put the cause of the genocide to the downing of President Habyarimana’s plane. He then went on to say that he did not “believe that Hutu extremists shot down the plane”. Without presenting any evidence, he wants the world to believe that others, most likely the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), did it.

Again Acemah wants to achieve two things here. First, he is at pains to absolve Hutu extremists from all blame. Second, he is only too eager to transfer responsibility to others.

He should save himself the trouble because various investigations have concluded that the plane was shot down by extremists with the support of their foreign backers.

In any case there are serious flaws in Acemah’s plane crash argument as the origin of the genocide. There was a plan that was well-known and was immediately executed. There had been periodic pogroms before that point to a history of genocide.

Finally, Acemah mixes religion with revisionism perhaps to lend it credibility. He is quick to judge and condemn Rwandan refugees as ungrateful people who will answer to the Lord (presumably Jesus Christ). But I remember the same Jesus Christ cautioning against quick judgement of others because that is his prerogative.

It appears Mr Acemah has appropriated that divine right and the right to revise history. He is wrong on both counts.

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