Lies, machinations, and writing about Rwanda.

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists – no friend to the Kagame regime – issued its latest critique of the Rwandan government, this time taking aim at the sloppy attempt to link the recent grenade attacks to rogue elements in, of all places, the Rwandan press corps.

In a press conference last week, Kagame accused Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former ambassador to India and chief of staff, and another senior ex-military officer, Patrick Karegeya, of plotting the first grenade attack. The president went on to say that journalists had met with Karegeya in South Africa prior to the attacks, leaving a not-so-subtle implication of impropriety. “There are those [journalists] who found Karegeya in South Africa and spoke to him. There are even those who went there, but have not returned,” he said.

No journalists were named, but Charles Kabonero and Jean Bosco Gasasira, founders of two private vernacular weeklies, knew that the president’s message was aimed at them. Both papers had conducted interviews with Karegeya. For his part, Kabonero makes no apologies. “I believe that Kagame is educated enough to know that, as a journalist, if I had a chance to meet [Osama] bin Laden I would not hesitate to do it [in order to] to get news. It’s the job. So, yes, I met Karegeya for journalism-related purposes,” he told CPJ.

'I am a great friend of the press,' Kagame has never been quoted as saying.

His Excellency PK’s distrust of the press – which at times veers toward violent suspicion – is perhaps only fitting. A man who’s managed to fine-tune Rwanda’s only English-language daily into a series of government-issued press releases can be forgiven for doubting the integrity and independence of other media bodies. Kabonero, meanwhile, refused to comment on whether his “journalism-related purposes” for meeting with Karegeya included plotting more grenade attacks – a favorite pastime of nefarious Rwandan journalists.

Meanwhile, something ambiguously referred to as the “Rwandan media fraternity” took pains to distance itself from Godwin Agaba, a journalist who fled to Uganda after alleging persecution by the Rwandan government over his links to renegade Lt.-Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa.

“The self-exiled Agaba recently faked his disappearance and announced that he had gone missing because of allegedly writing about General [Nyamwasa],” reported The New Times this week.

“In the wake of so many lies being peddled through international media organisations and groups, the Rwanda media fraternity is compelled to reveal and chronicle the deeds of Godwin Agaba, better known for theft, extortion, blackmail, impersonation and lack of respect for the journalism profession,” reads a statement from the media fraternity.

“It is unfortunate that Agaba’s lies and machinations have caught the attention of regional and international media watchdogs who have taken them hook, line and sinker,” adds the statement.

Agaba, a correspondent for the Uganda-based online news source, has alleged that the Kagame government itself is behind the recent grenade attacks in Kigali. In an interview with the Berkeley-based KPFA Radio you can listen to here (starting at 1:12 mark), Agaba insists, “There is nobody from outside who is doing those bombings.”

This bears a little scrutiny. The suggestion that the government was behind the recent attacks and, in the words of KPFA correspondent Ann Garrison, “staging the bombings as an excuse to arrest its enemies,” is one that has been bandied around a bit in Kigali in recent weeks. But it seems less plausible than other likely scenarios – e.g., internal dissension in the RPA ranks – if simply for the fact that all eyes are on Rwanda right now, and the backlash from any government involvement in these attacks would be nothing short of disastrous for the Kagame regime. I refuse to believe that such a savvy government would take such a wild gamble – especially when it’s already proven it can get away with a continued crackdown on the press and opposition groups with little more than a firm slap on the wrist from the international community.

It discredits Agaba as a journalist to make such a bold accusation, without anything to back it up. (If anyone has seen any reports from Agaba which include evidence to support his claims, let me know.) Likewise, his insistence during the interview that the potential for election-year violence “could likely be more dangerous than what happened in 1994” seems entirely at odds with what every reasonable observer has to say about Rwanda.

Kagame on a previous visit to the CNN studios.

His Excellency PK, meanwhile, took his, ahem, charm offensive to the CNN airwaves this week to assure Christiane Amanpour and millions of viewers that he’s not the autocrat rights groups would make him out to be. (Download a podcast of the full interview here.)

“If you are talking about people in the human rights community from outside… I have an issue with [the criticism],” Kagame said, 16 years after he was hailed as a hero for ending a genocide that killed at least 800,000 people.

“You tend to make a judgment of a country, 11 million people, on what a couple of people have said and [they] don’t take into account what Rwandans say.”

Kagame added, “Nobody has asked the Rwandans…it’s as if they don’t matter in the eyes of the human rights people. It’s our own decisions in the end.”

This is a typical bit of sophistry by the president – a man whose sole defense against his foreign detractors remains the argument that it’s Us against Them. “You foreigners,” goes this line of reasoning, “can never understand what it means to be a Rwandan. You also, FYI, abandoned this country when we needed you most. Thus you should kindly keep your unsavory opinions to yourself, continue to invest in the Rwandan renaissance, and try not to poke around too much in issues that might affect this government’s sterling reputation/credit rating.” (For an example of the sort of hard-nosed reporting this government loves to see from the international press corps, click here.)

It’s a beautiful sleight-of-hand trick, both casting the president as the legitimate spokesman of the entire Rwandan population, and dismissing any niggling, ethnicity-related questions about how many of his countrymen would agree. And I think it plays upon, more subtly, the insecurities that many foreigners – journalists, diplomats, aid workers, scholars, et al. – have in this country: that we are always, despite our best intentions, on the outside looking in. (I base this both on my own personal experiences, and on countless conversations with the sort of people I would feel confident quoting as “experts” in my reporting.)

I bring this up now because I’ve spent quite a bit of time these past few weeks struggling to figure out just how to write about Rwanda. Since last fall, when I first proposed a story about Kigali to my travel editor at The Washington Post, I’ve written, scrapped, re-written and trashed a half-dozen well-meaning drafts that just didn’t seem to get to the heart of what it means to live in Rwanda today. This is a country of divisions, after all, Hutu-Tutsi (still, despite the government’s best intentions) and Before-After being the most obvious examples. But the reporting on this country is equally, and just as deeply, divided. If you’ve followed the news out of Rwanda for the past few months, or the past year, you’re likely to think that this is either a country of economic and technological marvels boldly striding into the 21st century, or an autocrat’s playground built on plundered wealth, where a silenced population cowers under the weight of a repressive regime. The reality – as with all countries, of course – lies somewhere in between. (Most Rwandans, I suspect, are more scared of hunger and disease than a lack of political representation in parliament.) But how to tell that story – how to tell any story?

It was heartening, then, as I wrung my hands in despair over another failed draft, to come to the final pages of Africa’s World War, by Gerard Prunier – a man who ranks among a very small handful of elite academics in the Great Lakes region. In the closing chapter, as he punctuates a magisterial account of how the Rwandan genocide and its immediate aftermath were the sparks that ignited an already combustible situation in the Congo, Prunier examines the difficulties that even he himself has struggled with in confronting the genocide and its legacy.

Intellectually the hegemonic position of the Rwandese genocide as a global frame of explanation was all the more tragic because it was almost impossible to achieve a reasonable modicum of objectivity on the topic. I have often asked myself why it was that there could be so many white Hutu and white Tutsi, so eager to prove the virtue of their adopted camp and the evil of the opposite one….

Why so much misguided passion? And especially by academics who could have been expected to be more objective on such a foreign topic?

I wouldn’t want to overestimate the value of what I write; but in looking at some of the heated debates I’ve had on this blog, or at my continued bumbling through what is, on the surface, just a travel story, I see strains of that same “misguided passion” – the need to justify and legitimize a point of view that, admittedly, shifts according to which way the wind is blowing my contrarian sails. Thus a fellatory forecast of Rwanda’s bright ICT future has me huffing about human rights, while a screed that makes Kigali sound like an African Pyongyang has me extolling the virtues of, yes, the Rwandan renaissance. In Rwanda, you feel compelled to take sides – so much so that, at times, I feel like I’m arguing less out of conviction than out of a need to have that conviction. But most days, everything is a bit muddled in my head. When writing about Rwanda, when talking about Rwanda, when living in Rwanda, we’re still grappling with the ghosts of a past we only dimly understand.

There is a tendency of the human mind to strive for coherence. Many writers routinely warn about “complexity” and “contradictions” and then immediately proceed to re-create a coherence that contradicts the wise warnings they have just uttered. And the situation in the Great Lakes is so horribly complex, so contradictory that one does not have to be American to fall victim to the syndrome of desperately wanting to find “good guys” and “bad guys” who could restore meaning and clarity to such moral gloom.

11 responses to “Lies, machinations, and writing about Rwanda.

  1. He Chris,

    thank you for your excellent blog, again. As I live in Rwanda I agree with the point, that you are forced here to take sides. This is complicated, because you can´t find all the information you need to take a side. You have to read official things, but also talk to people. It talkes a long tine until people trust you and tell you what they really think of things like democracy, freedom or politics in general.
    All the people that do not share the rwandan political mainstream are afraid of repression, so that they are quiet.
    To quote a friend of mine: “In that days in rwanda you should not talk. You should just eat, and eat and eat your anger.”…”If you are not good in that, one day you are going to blow up”

    I think it is important to give a space to people, that they are not “blowing up” in the future. That is what the current regime is not providing them.


  2. Pingback: rapha in ruanda » This is Africa: Lies, machinations, and writing about Rwanda. | rapha in ruanda

  3. Another interesting post Chris especially coming from a non Rwandan Westerner.
    To understand and write fairly about Rwanda,i suggest one has to put himself into the shoes of the Rwandan Government and the Rwandan citizens -(hutu and Tutsi) all at the same time.
    What many foreign writers have excelled in doing is analysing Rwanda from the perspective of the western environment…
    The press or Journalism is holly and always right and thus sacred.What they forget to know is that in Rwanda,the press can just be as dangerous as the same Government they vilify.

    A case in point is the Agaba Godwin so-called journalist who has since exiled himself and accused the Rwandan Government of being behind the grenades.
    A quick checkup on the character of his person will reveal a conman with no journalistic training ever but who joined the profession to make ends meet,just like so many “Journalists” in Rwanda today.And here we are,his version of events has been taken up by that Canadian Woman,Garrisson on a personal level i must say,including searching for him a visa out of Africa….if you read Paul Kenyons’IAM JUSTICE,Ajourney out of Africa,then this is it but a different method.
    Why is it that he fled while the more known umuseso Journalists stayed in Rwanda.

    Mind you they too, once dis-associated from M.r Agaba citing his fraudulent character….But of course the Rwandan Government is autocratic and is the one to blame,many in the west will rush to conclude as it has become fashionable to many.

  4. Dear Chris,

    This is an excellent posting, my friend. A personal reflection that is both honest and witty.

    I can’t help but identify with your dilemma. While I can’t fully comprehend the intricate dynamics of a foreign journalist in Rwanda, I can only talk about my personal situation.

    I have often wondered which should come first…my loyalty to my tribe or my loyalty to my country. Unfortunately, even with my best intentions, I have often found myself siding with people who look like me, live like me etc.

    Understanding the role of tribe/ ethnicity in Rwanda and Africa would perhaps help you overcome the confusion. However, gaining that understanding is a mammoth task. Ethnic rivalry is mostly subtle and impossible to pin down. In some cases even a well intentioned person cannot escape the bias. Can a Rwandan living in post-genocide Rwanda be objective?

    Prunier might well be right. Most westerners, I think, have to make a decision, at some point, to be either Hutu or Tutsi.

    In Prunier’s case, he says that he was more sympathetic toward Tutsi during his first book. This, he explains was due to the fact that his first contact to Rwanda were Tutsi refugees living in Uganda. However, his views on Rwanda changed once he started covering the Congo.

    Another extreme case is Howard French. He worked in the DRC covering the fate of Rwandan refugees and the destruction of the Congo. He was very much convinced that the RPF were the bad guys, committing atrocities against Hutu refugees.

    He was ultimately converted to Hutu. Others like Philip Gourevitch were converted to Tutsi.

    This is a complicated matter. However, one can point out that a foreigner’s view on Rwanda will be determined by:
    1. The Rwandans the individual socializes with i.e. Whether they are Hutu/Tutsi or Twa

    2. The geographic location–foreign folks who have contacts in the villages are most likely to be sympathetic to the poor/Hutu.

    Of course, there are other factors. I think it is as difficult for westerners to avoid taking sides as it is for Rwandans to transcend the tribe view/narrative.

    All in all, understanding the problem and acknowledging it is what makes a fine journalist. I think you’re on the right track.

  5. Kelly Toughill

    I just stumbled across this blog entry. My first reaction was excitement. Someone finally resisted the almost overwhelming drive to simplify the complexities of Rwanda! Someone finally admitted that the only way to write honestly about Rwanda is to make peace with confusion and resist the urge for coherence! Then I thought, “Why don’t I know this guy?” Then I realized that I do. Great post, Chris. Now I will go back and read your others.

  6. Here’s a superb review of Prunier’s “magisterial” book:

  7. Pingback: Unfinished business « a year in the life

  8. Pingback: rapha in ruanda » Genozid Remembrance Day – Gedanken und die Presse | rapha in ruanda

  9. Well-written…The solution lies in Rwandans not being blamed for being who they did not choose to be born as…Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. Foreigners have that choice, Rwandans do not, so for us what’s important is being allowed to look at ourselves disassociated from the horrors committed at a time strange from us. During the first and second republics’ years, it was the Tutsis being blamed for the horrors and injustices of ubuhake (serfdom). Now, it’s the Hutus for the horrors of the genocide. When Rwandans begin to look at themselves as Rwandans, first and foremost, without placing blame on ethnicities and fearing that should that ethnicity be in power, the past would repeat itself, then we would have made the first step in the right direction.
    Even though this latest hoopla involves journalism, the underlying issue is neither the profession nor those involved in it. The real issue is freedom, and the people will use this lack of freedom of speech as a vehicle to voice what they perceive to be treatment as second or third-rate citizenry. As their anger roils and, little by little, their cries evade the stifling means used to suppress them, then you will begin to hear their real concerns. Rwandan, especially those who don’t belong in the newly-repatriated class, suffer more than meets a foreign eye, and they are good at masking that hurt to avoid persecution. My uncle, when I began giving talks on Rwanda and the genocide, told me that looking at Rwanda is like looking at a brown pond. You see the surface and nothing else. What’s at the bottom, however, is known only by those who’ve ventured into the pond. What ails Rwanda is a mystery that many Rwandans, themselves, are unaware of. This, however, is not a discouragement or a pessimistic way of looking at our situation, but rather a realist view in an attempt to right the ship. If the main mast needs rigging, or the rudder needs to be replaced, the objective would be to focus on that and fix them rather than worrying whether the captain’s cabin is comfortable enough. So, in this case, the problem is the people’s fear, which leads to mistrust, which leads to injustice and oppression.
    Continue enjoying the beautiful land and I wish you the best in your endeavors.

  10. Rwanda has nothing to stand for as an accusations when it comes to defend itself. If you have anything please tell us I would wish to share that topic with you and someone else around the world.
    But if you have chosen to be led lies as a machine of winning the battle, please go ahead!!!

    Ntarugera François

  11. Pingback: Reporters without context – Kigali Wire

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