By: Morrison Rwakakamba
On Feb. 25, 2016, The Crimson published an Op-Ed by Harvard Business School student Sacha Yabili titled “How Harvard Abdicates Its Moral Responsibility.” In the piece, Yabili chides Harvard for “rolling out the red-carpet” for an African “dictator”— President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
Sacha is the latest addition to an organized bevy of Kagame’s critics who keep repeating similar and possibly rehearsed accusations even when truth is spoken to them or purported “evidence” of Kagame’s “crimes” is deflated by truth.
While Paul Kagame admittedly may not be the “ideal” paragon of democracy, there seems to be a well-oiled conveyor belt that sustains lies against him. This is why I consider it an act of justice and morality by Harvard to offer a platform for Kagame to tell his side of the story.
At the John F. Kennedy Forum, Kagame was put on the spot over a number of repeated allegations, and he offered his point of view. He was amiable, thoughtful, and respectful in his responses.
Quoting Belgian Rwanda scholar Filip Reyntjens, Sacha Yabili talks of “incontrovertible” facts that have emerged to corroborate Kagame’s alleged crimes. Reyntjens says Kagame is“probably the worst war criminal in office today.” Never mind that Reyntjens’ basis for such a sweeping conclusion has no incontrovertible basis and is mere conjecture, probably driven by sentiments related to his own past history. Reyntjens was a long-term senior advisor to former President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda. Habyarimana’s followers and lieutenants were accused by witnesses of plotting and executing an organized genocide that claimed over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in one hundred days in 1994. Many have since been convicted. Where is the morality of “scholar” Reyntjens in all this?
Most commentary on Rwanda and Kagame bypasses context. Rarely do folks step on to the balcony and engage with the complexity that Rwanda is. The kind of balancing, re-negotiation of historical loyalties and restraint Kagame and his team have had to master in order to hold the country is of legion. Other countries should perhaps be learning from and not ridiculing them.
Yabili writes that in 2008, 40 Rwandan officers were prosecuted by the Spanish judge Fernando Andreu Merelles for “genocide, crimes against humanity and terrorism.” It is important to note that prosecution is different from indictment.
Were 40 Rwandan officers prosecuted? No. The highly publicized accusations against 40 military officials were found to be baseless by Spanish courts. In fact, Yabili, in standing for Harvard’s “veritas” (truth) academic integrity should have shared that the Spanish case was in fact an attempt by genocide sponsors to accuse the very group that put an end to it while the world watched. Something akin to giving a platform to Nazis to accuse the Jews for planning the holocaust. Was this fact difficult for Yabili to present to the world or just too inconvenient for his set narrative? What’s going on here?
Moreover, the group that is popularly responsible for the killings in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” (FDLR)—the same group that executed the genocide before fleeing to the DRC.
Yabili is not finished. He writes that “Kagame—de-facto leader of Rwanda since 1994—has set an adverse precedent by pushing a constitutional reform that granted himself the opportunity to stay in power until 2034.”
Did Kagame hit campaign trail to mobilize for this constitutional reform? No. Debate on term limits is mostly emotive and has many faces. For example, what Yabili calls “adverse precedent,” millions of Rwandans call favorable precedent—in fact, 98.3% of Rwandans said yes to the constitutional amendment that would allow Kagame to run for another term.
In seeking to extend tenure for Kagame, Rwandans reflected on their own context and weighed the odds. They decided not to gamble their future on untested leaders — for now. Besides, what is moral about term limits when people have democratic rights to elect leaders they want?
What was the context and motivation of Americans when they allowed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to stay on a bit longer? Why would it be moral for Israel or United Kingdom not to have term limits and immoral for Rwanda to act in similar way?
Why are developmental states that are trying hard to uplift the lives of their people the very ones that are most viciously attacked? Are they being punished for defying “conventional wisdom” on how African countries are supposed to behave?
For example, Rwanda is one of the few countries that achieved all the MDGs and was just cited by the UN Human Development Index as having made the most progress worldwide in the last 25 years.
But most important is that Rwandans believe President Kagame is a revolutionary leader with a mission that needs to be fulfilled irrespective of how long it takes. Many continue to look at him not as a career politician but a guardian of Rwanda’s transformation and dignity.
Many continue to compare him with grand master Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore who reigned for 34 years. Just like it was moral for Harvard University to host Lee in 1967 and 2000, it was moral for Harvard to host Kagame in 2016.
Morrison Rwakakamba is a Ugandan HIID Merit Scholar & Mason Fellow in Public Policy Management at the Harvard Kennedy School.