Tag Archives: kagame

You have to be courage to live here.

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 25 – April 14

Since arriving in Goma nearly two weeks ago, the Sake road has been like an artery – not only of traffic, of which there was plenty, but of the clatter and commotion and commerce that is the lifeblood of this city. The UN trucks and chukudus, the SUVs flying the flags of the Western aid agencies, the motorbikes, the pall of dust, the beggars and cripples, the street kids, the college kids, the women with their loaves of bread and baskets of tomatoes, the men with their polished shoes and briefcases stepping cautiously around puddles the size of Lake Kivu: if you wanted to grapple with and understand life in Goma today, there seemed to be no better place to start than this ash-gray, dust-choked road that continues on to a town called Sake, which I’m only now, on my last day in the Congo, setting out to see.

The minibus is crowded. Our feet are squeezed beside buckets and plastic bags, green leafy shoots poking from the tops. There are mostly women onboard, they have suitcases in their laps and wedged beneath their seats. Beside them, picking at the exposed seat stuffing, curled into their sides, strapped to their backs, nursing at their bosoms, are at least a dozen children – a small schoolroom’s worth of boys and girls in dirty shorts and torn tulle dresses with bare, dusty feet. Beside me a well-dressed man, knees hunched up to his chest, tells me he works with MSF, he is on his way upcountry to see his father. Another man in a threadbare jacket boards, holding four suits on wire hangers. “Sir!” he says, beaming, seeing me in the rear. He is selling the suits for $30 each.

The matatu to Sake

We barrel through town, past the place where last year I met 700 IDPs living in a ragged tent city behind a church. The IDPs are gone now – like those who were staying in UN-sponsored camps around Goma, they’ve returned to their homes in Walikale and Masisi and beyond – but along the road we pass vestiges of their presence, the ghosts of wars past that have left so many Congolese living their poor, transitory lives. There are houses made from sticks and banana leaves and mud; the roofs and windows are covered with UNHCR tarps, the doors are made from USAID scrap metal. In the fields we pass unfinished stone walls, like the relics of medieval villages; we pass concrete foundations for homes that were never built, pillars and corner stones laid with hope and uncertainty.

It is beautiful country here. Just minutes from the city everything is lush, there are rows of vegetables in the fields, the hills are cultivated with small, neat plots of beans and manioc. In the distance, the scalloped folds of a green mountain range skirt the lake’s shores; the water is flat and silver as a saucepan. A pair of military helicopters fly overhead. We stop at checkpoints, and more checkpoints. Someone has words with the driver, soldiers circle the matatu, staring into the windows. In nearly three years of traveling in Africa, I have never felt so vulnerable and conspicuous. We are waved through; the gears make terrible grinding noises. Further down the road we are stopped again. A young girl sits beside me in a gold party dress, the zipper is broken, it slips off her small shoulders. She smiles and swings her bare feet. An infant is bundled to her mother’s back, its eyes wide and alert. A soldier gets in, clutching a small blue suitcase in his slender hand.

We reach Sake, where the conductor shakes me down for 200 or 300 francs more than the going rate. It is the equivalent of 30 cents, but I take this in stride: I have other things on my mind. The unease I felt aboard the matatu – the hard bearing eyes of the soldiers at the checkpoints – hasn’t let up here in town. There are no friendly cries of “Mzungu!” as I step into the road; instead a man, another passenger, takes me gently by the elbow and says, “Be careful, there are many thieves here.” Suddenly the phone, the camera in my pockets feel like big, conspicuous bricks. A few youths, hangabouts, part-time bike mechanics and carwashers, crowd close to me, for what seems like no good reason. Two women braiding hair on the side of the road look up at me to stare.

I have felt this sort of discomfort before – in the frontier towns of northern Kenya, Uganda – and always it has passed once I’ve had a few minutes to walk around, get my bearings. It doesn’t pass here. As I walk down the main road – a row of spare shops on one side, a listless market on the other – I can feel wary eyes following me. I’m hoping to find some friendly, eager face to latch onto – a local aid worker, a school teacher – but I get only a few reluctant smiles. There is a lump in my throat about the size of a fist. I walk to the end of the road – the town is ringed by green hills, it is breathtaking. Two years ago Laurent Nkunda’s troops fought the ragtag Congolese army on these same hilltops. I can imagine how the sounds of gunfire and grenade blasts reverberated across the valley – it must have been terrifying when night fell.

Two men are chatting under a tree, they are in their 30s or 40s, it is impossible to predict what time and care do to these Congolese faces. They call out in my direction and I approach them, smiling, ever eager, like a real village idiot. We exchange a few greetings, and quickly a crowd gathers. There are the usual questions – about where I am from, and what I am doing here – and I can hear my responses dopplering across the crowd. “New York” pings out to an old man at the crowd’s edges; then “America,” moving quickly from mouth to mouth. I don’t tell them I am a journalist; I say simply that I’m traveling, a voyageur, as if this meant anything. I’m not entirely sure, after all, that “journalist” is the most accurate job description – would “travel blogger” translate easily into French or Kiswahili? Why exactly am I in Sake, after all? So I could see it. Why? There is no satisfactory answer to this. Their questions have a hard edge to them; while I don’t feel especially threatened, I can’t say I’ve heard all that many karibus, either. There is a sense of expectation, for lack of a better way to put it: that if a white man pitches up in Sake one afternoon, it is because he has some motive for coming. Judging from some of the hard looks in the crowd, I can assume such motives aren’t always good.

I feel ill at ease when the invariable requests come: for some small money, just enough to buy milk, or bread. The crowd is in the dozens now – for all my travels in rural Africa, I’ve never seen such a crowd materialize around me so quickly – and there’s no way I can give any amount of money that would appease them all. I apologize, I say I have nothing. There are nods – some sympathetic, others less so, as if they’d expected no less treachery. A small boy comes up to me, offering to sell his slingshot. I feel stupid being here. I apologize again, at elaborate length, shaking as many hands as I can, working the crowd like a politician, doing my best to extricate myself from a situation that’s growing more and more uncomfortable by the second.

I walk back down the market street, my steps a little bit quicker now, it almost feels like I’m walking in someone else’s shoes. Approaching the taxi rank I meet a smartly dressed man carrying a thick brown envelope under his arm. He is a former primary school teacher, his name is Anselme, he has been out of work for months now, he says, sighing, laughing, what can you do. It is not like the life in America. “You have come to be fat,” he says. “You take meat, you take beans, you take potatoes, you take milk.” A fraying belt is cinched tightly across his waist – it is clear that Anselme does not take these things. The life in Sake is bitter, it is hard. “We go to school, but we have not the job,” says Anselme, kicking the dirt from his shoes.

His wife owns a small shop beside the taxi rank; she rises when we enter, smoothes her dress, smiles and offers me a Fanta. We sit for a few minutes on a pair of oversized armchairs, talking, looking out into the street. A young girl takes a few brave, wobbly steps from behind the counter – it is their daughter, she wears a pretty white dress, she is barely five. Anselme smiles and lifts her into my lap. We all laugh, make gurgling noises, try to quell the trembling of her lower lip. I think of these small, generous acts by Anselme and his wife and feel embarrassed: what about Sake has gotten me so spooked? Thanking them for their time, rushing to catch a matatu that’s about to leave for Goma, I feel ashamed, as if I’m running away from something. For the twenty minutes it takes us to reach town, I try to figure out what it is.

Back in town I feel dejected, I was hoping to have a rousing send-off today but instead feel like a part of me was wrong, wrong about Congo and everything. The sky is low, a light rain is falling. I walk to the end of the Sake road, turn, the rain is steady, the clouds are flat and gray, it looks like they’re stretched across the whole of Congo. The cars rush by, their windows are fogged, the drivers stare grimly ahead. Across the road I hear music, loud and tinny and discordant notes carrying through the air. I wonder if there is some political rally, some public-health crusade, but no, there are two churches side by side, one is clapboard, the other is built from corrugated tin, and they both have gospel music blasting from their cheap Chinese speakers. Inside the benches are mostly empty – it is a Wednesday afternoon – but still there are some women and children clapping, singing, shuffling from side to side. I stand there watching, listening, trying to understand this faith and devotion and rapture. One of the women joyously wags her hands. Another has a tin can full of beans that she shakes in time to the music.

Out front are a dozen buses and lorries, a few men in soiled overalls circle, carrying wrenches and spanners. There are others sitting beside a giant Caterpillar bulldozer, they are drivers and mechanics, but they say they have not had work for weeks. Maybe I can give them something for bananas? “Pole sana,” I say. I’m sorry. “Pole sana,” he says, and then, as I’m walking away, “Pole Congolaise.”

The confusion, the sudden sadness and bitterness I feel, doesn’t lift on the way back to Cirezi, and it doesn’t pass until I’ve found a cheery watering hole close to the hotel. It is exactly what my sagging spirits need: music, laughter, brochettes, and bottles of Primus about the size of my forearm. There are dozens of tables and chairs arranged around a gravel courtyard, and a white-tile dancefloor with a disco ball twirling over it. It is hardly six, but a number of parties seem to be deep into their Wednesday-night drinking sessions already. The lighting is dim; I can barely make out the faces around me. The waitresses with their crowded serving trays bustling through the dark like shadows. The music is mellow, Congolese: an easy guitar rhythm, a lilting male voice riding the chords with some lovesick ode. A single couple gets up and sways side to side on the dancefloor. She is a husky girl in a pink tank-top and pink skirt; he, slender, in blue jeans and a shiny red shirt, clutches her like a live preserver. In the background, the clack-clacking of pool balls. Twice the power goes out as I labor through my brochettes. There is genial laughter as the Christmas lights and disco ball again flicker to life over the dancefloor. This is the Congo, after all. There are graver things to worry about on a night when, for now at least, the world is at peace.

An hour later I am on the back of a motorbike, puttering down the Sake road to meet Patrick. He is waiting for me in front of a small, fluorescent-lit bottle shop; outside, on the road’s shoulder, a few plastic tables and chairs are occupied by a boozy crowd. Two groups of men are drinking, conversing in loud tones, their eyes glazed over. Now and then a waitress will come out to get pawed and sweet-talked. Patrick watches all this sullenly; the waitress, it seems, is a former sweetheart. I suggest moving the party to Sun City, but he balks. “At Sun City, there is many violence,” he says. “They like to take the bottles, to fight.” The merry commotions I’d heard night after night through the wall, it seems, were not altogether merry.

We sit on the roadside, drinking lukewarm beers, watching the occasional lorry come barreling down the road. Many truck drivers prefer to travel at night, says Patrick, to avoid the bribes they have to pay during the day. It was something I witnessed that afternoon, when the conductor aboard my matatu hopped out at a light and exchanged a brief greeting with a policewoman. As we drove away, I could see her through the rear window, unfolding the 100-franc notes he had pressed into her palm.

This was nothing – this was Congolese life. You put up with these daily hassles, you kept your head down and you worked and you hoped for the best. Things are looking up, says Patrick. It’s not like it was in 2008, when Nkunda and his troops had threatened the city. Then the general’s Rwandan sponsors turned on him; today he awaits a war-crimes trial that many in the Great Lakes prefer not to see. Who knows what names will be named? Even now, says Patrick, you had the Rwandans poking their noses around near Walikale, looking to exploit the region’s great mineral wealth. He remembers the chaos a decade ago, after the Rwandans had chased out Mobutu and decided, on their way back to Kigali, that the Kivus weren’t such a bad place after all. Suddenly a tiny, mineral-less country was exporting diamonds and gold. “They invent a war when they want to make money,” says Patrick, shaking his head. War and profits are two things these Kivu Congolese know something about.

But now they are getting on with their lives. Patrick is making a good life for himself here, he says. “If you are intelligent, you are able to make money here,” he says. It’s not like the problems in South Kivu, where he was born. “In Bukavu, there is too much tribalism,” he says. “Here, they will give you a job because you are intelligent, because you are able.” Patrick, intelligent and able, has managed to find a place for himself here. And even if things sour, he says, with a shrug, he has learned more than a few things about survival. With five dollars, he says, he can last for two weeks – 200 francs for the bus to work, $1 for a sack of beans that can last for days. This knowledge, this grim arithmetic of survival, is another part of Congolese life.

“You have to be courage to live here,” he says.

We finish our beers and exchange promises to keep in touch, hoping our paths might cross again. I tell him to look me up if he ever makes it to Johannesburg – from here, an impossible journey – and he says why not, laughing, clapping my shoulder.

“If you tell me they have beer, they have girls, I like to travel there,” he says. And then I climb on the back of a motorbike to take me home.

Coda – April 15

The rain now seems endless, the same rain falling on me yesterday afternoon is falling on me again, it is turning the streets to mud, it is raining on all of Congo. Lying in bed last night, I had thought of taking one last valedictory tour around town this morning, looking for some message or prophecy from this place I hardly know. But the sky is a low gray canvas, the clouds are grumbling, it is time to go, I think, packing my bags, resting my duffel on one knee on the back of a moto, time to go as I buy samosas at Kivu Market for the trip to Kigali, as I press my last few dollars into my moto driver’s soggy palm at the border, it is time, I think, time to go home.

The Virunga Punctuel is musty, the windows are fogged – the rain has soured everybody’s moods. It is like being packed into a funeral hearse. Slowly we bump over the terrible Gisenyi roads, lurch over the rocks until we find the smooth pavement. People begin to stretch their legs, talk quietly into their cell phones. Just a mile from the border, and already life has returned to the strange sort of normalcy of today’s Rwanda. I had thought this bus ride would bring with it a rush of feelings, an emotional coda to the past month’s travels. But there’s none of that: my mind is washed blank. I tug at my soggy shorts, try to peel myself from the damp pant legs of the man sitting next to me. I rest my chin on my backpack, stare at the floor, and begin counting the hours until Kigali.

You feel tempted, at the end of a journey, to take stock, to square your mental accounts and make sure the emotional ledger is balanced. But after so many words, it feels like there’s nothing left to say. My back is to the Congo, and I wonder, now, if I’ll ever find my way there again, if I’ll get to know the country beyond its twin Kivu border posts. In Goma they had said it was a two-day journey to Kisangani – the roads were good, they did not say it was dangerous, it was impossible or crazy: just that it was two days’ time. For a few minutes I think about this on the Virunga bus, think about what I would do if I had the money and the weeks to spend. Probably I could get into a minibus in Goma, or climb on top of some transport truck with the husky singing women and beanpole men who live their brave, thrifty lives in the interior. It was two days to Kisangani; and surely there was some other place just a day from there, and another, and on and on, until you reached Kinshasa or New York or the ends of the earth.

That will be a trip for another time – today, just the thought exhausts me. I watch the hills of Rwanda out the window, hear the words forming in my head. (I watch the hills of Rwanda…) I think of what last words there are to say, and I decide that it’s simply a matter of reaching the end, of putting down your pen when you’ve decided there’s nothing left.

And then it’s done.

The week that was. The election that wasn’t.

These last days in Rwanda – a time I’d hoped to devote to cathartic reflections, soulful musings, and rampant promiscuity – have instead been gobbled up by the dreadful realities of packing up a life into two musty old suitcases and hoping it weighs less than 30 kilos. This isn’t how I expected to spend my last week in the Great Lakes, a region to which I’ve grown greatly attached in the past year. Already I’ve had to cancel my farewell dinner with His Excellency PK (“No prob. Keep up the good work,” read the presidential text); and most of the tender moments I’ve shared with friends around Chez Mzungu have been equally devoted to backing up my hard drive in the event of a carjacking outside of Jo’burg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

A shame, too, with these having been some of the more eventful weeks in what’s becoming an increasingly eventful country. (To the friend who once called Kigali “the Morgantown, West Virginia of Africa,” one can only say, “Take that!”) Caught up in a whirlwind of revisionism, divisionism, and pre-electoral hooliganism, Rwandan authorities shuttered two independent news weeklies; arrested two high-ranking military officers on charges of “misuse of office” and “immoral conduct”; and arrested opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire on charges including collaborating with a terrorist organization and denying the genocide, before releasing her the following day.

“Whew!” would be an appropriate response here.

Umuseso editor Didas Gasana, seen just days after the ruling.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, last seen on President Kagame’s Christmas list, criticized the ruling by Rwanda’s humorless – yet inadvertently hilarious – Media High Council for its six-month suspension of the vernacular weeklies Umuseso and Umuvugizi, on the grounds of “insulting the head of state, inciting the police and army to insubordination, and creating fear among the public.”

“By silencing these two local-language newspapers the Media High Council is robbing Rwanda voters of crucial alternative voices during the presidential election campaign,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said. “The ruling is a thinly disguised attempt at censorship. If the election is to be seen as free and fair, the council must reverse this ruling and ensure that all media are able to cover the campaign.”

Umuvugizi editor Jean Bosco Gasasira, in an interview with the Voice of America, criticized the Media High Council – which he described as a “political tool” of the government – for violating its own media law in dealing with the two maverick newspapers.

“When a newspaper in Rwanda, according to the new media law, writes anything inciting or anything bad, the Media High Council summons them and forces them to make correction of that. When they refused, they are at least suspended for two months. Then if they repeat that, you suspend them for six months. Neither Umuseso nor Umuvugizi have never been summoned by the Media High Council officially nor suspended for two months which shows that this was politically motivated. They just want to eliminate us before the election campaign,” Gasasira said.

The ever-reliable texas in africa, noting that Rwanda’s High Media Council had suspended the two papers on the grounds of “erroneous content,” observed that “if “erroneous content” is now grounds for shutting down Rwandan media outlets, [she] look[s] forward to the closure of the government daily, the New Times.” That august paper, meanwhile, in reporting on Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s recent comments that “journalism is an ultimate tool that strengthens democracy and helps establish a society that respects the rights of all,” took a self-congratulatory tone that mistakenly assumed she was referring to it.

Rwandan opposition figures turned out in Kigali to protest Ingabire's arrest.

Ms. Ingabire, meanwhile, who has been ruffling feathers in Kigali since she arrived in January, seems to have finally gotten what we all knew was coming. The public campaign against her has been on a rolling bubble these past three months; two weeks ago, her fate seemed sealed when the president publicly took her to task during the annual genocide commemoration week.

“Some people just come from nowhere … useless people,” said Mr. Kagame. “I see every time in pictures some lady who had her deputy – a genocide criminal, talking about ‘there is genocide, but there is another’… that is politics. To that we say a big ‘no.’ And if anybody wants a fight, then we will give them a fight.”

The charges against her, one judicial official told the AFP, include “collaborating with a terrorist organisation, dividing the population, denying and downplaying the genocide.” Chief prosecutor Martin Ngoga told the Christian Science Monitor that “the prosecution’s case against Ms Ingabire is based on facts and evidence.”

“The actions that led to these charges against Ms. Ingabire are extremely serious and cannot go unpunished,” he added.

Augustin Nkusi, Mr. Ngoga’s spokesman, recently told Radio Netherlands that Ingabire was collaborating with the FDLR in eastern Congo.

“There is also evidence that she is busy creating an irregular armed force parallel to the regular national forces to come destabilize the country,” Nkusi added. He also accused her of “throwing about statements of an ideology of genocide.”

On an unrelated note, Rwanda’s electoral commission announced this week that it was preemptively announcing the results of this August’s presidential election in May.

“We just thought we’d save Rwandans the trouble of waiting on long queues this election day,” an official told This Is Africa. “Go out, enjoy the weather – it’s always spring in Kigali.”

The official added, “Have you seen our gorillas?”

UPDATE: For an excellent unpacking of RPF baggage relating to the recent military arrests, My Name is Not Mzungu posts here and here.

Things to do while your body falls apart.

A few weeks ago, just days before leaving Bujumbura, I lost a crown during an otherwise innocuous meal of stewed bananas and rice. It seemed like a dire omen. You know you’ve been in Africa too long when your first thought, upon spitting what looks like a tooth into your napkin, is, “Whose tooth is that?”

It was remedied easily enough with a visit to the dentist here in Kigali – the same dentist, incidentally, who treats His Honorable PK himself. Sadly, I couldn’t get a comment on the state of the Presidential Chompers. I was assured, however, that the president is “a very good patient” – no surprise to those of us who have endeared ourselves to the man’s winning smile through the years.

This kicked off a surreal three-week stretch where, instead of preparing for my impending trip to DRC, I’ve been in and out of doctors’ offices and pharmacies, having electrodes suction-cupped to my chest, offering up my plump juicy veins to the nearest needle, and searching for strange cocktails of prescription meds. This was not the triumphant, valedictory tour of Kigali I had in mind.

'What do you mean, do I have my insurance card on me?'

Part of me feels like I’m atoning for some forgotten sins committed on a booze-filled night in Bujumbura. Yet today, finally, I’m in good enough, patched-together shape to get the Chris Vourlias Fun Train back on the road. The only difference, of course, is that instead of enjoying a few weeks of free-spirited adventure in the wilds of eastern Congo, my top priority is to find a local witchdoctor who can work his juju to reverse whatever curse has been cast upon me.

So it goes. T.I.A.

My last thought before trundling off to the bus station comes from C.P. Cavafy, that beloved Hellenic bard, who always inspires me, after a prolonged spell of foot-dragging, to hit the road in search of my own Ithacas. The bags have been packed; the Chris Vourlias Memorial Traveling Library will be entrusted to the capable hands of my Honorary Custodian in Kigali; the laptop will be shut down for a well-deserved, 3-4 week sleep; and I, with just a few pens and pads in my backpack and a bundle of American bills wadded against my genitals, will be off in search of adventure. Kigali, it’s been swell. See you in Gisenyi.

by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out on the journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the raging Poseidon do not fear:
you’ll never find the likes of these on your way,
if lofty be your thoughts, if rare emotion
touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the fierce Poseidon you’ll not encounter,
unless you carry them along within your soul,
unless your soul raises them before you.

Pray that the road be long;
that there be many a summer morning,
when with what delight, what joy,
you’ll enter into harbours yet unseen;
that you may stop at Phoenician emporia
and acquire all the fine wares,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
as many sensuous perfumes as you can;
that you may visit many an Egyptian city,
to learn and learn again from lettered men.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.

Ithaca gave you the wondrous voyage:
without her you’d never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more.

If then you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you’ve become, with such experience, by now
you will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.

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 256news.com, 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.

How free is free?

In the latest misstep by opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire – whose political blunderings I commented on last week – the UDF-INKINGI is apparently backing down from its protests over the arrest of her assistant, Joseph Ntawangundi. Ms. Ingabire issued a press release over the weekend in which she seemed to confirm some of the troubling accusations made about Ntawangundi in recent weeks.

Since the arrest of Joseph Ntawangundi on 05th February 2010 and the subsequent incommunicado detention, UDF-INKINGI is conducting its own investigations. At this stage, troubling details about his curriculum vitae raise a certain amount of questions on the information he volunteered before the arrest. This has resulted in regrettable errors in our press release dated 05th February 2010.

Therefore we dissociate ourselves explicitly from the earlier records of his occupational environment, and call on serious investigations.

The press release in question, from February 5, strongly disputes the accusations made in the New Times, about Ntawangundi’s alleged crimes committed during the genocide, which it dismisses as “sheer lies.” So has new evidence come to light about Ntawangundi, prompting Ingabire to severe her ties? Or is she simply calculating that her former assistant is political dead weight? And really, if you’re a Rwandan opposition candidate with alleged FDLR links who’s returning to your country after 16 years in exile, shouldn’t you do a better job of vetting your closest aides? Anyone ask Ntawangundi for references?

Is Ingabire as harmless as this gay-ass campaign poster would have us believe?

The more I hear about Ingabire around town, the less credible I find her as a viable opposition candidate. (At least one reporter who has interviewed her described her to me as an “idiot.”) Her persistent refusal to answer questions related to her alleged links to the FDLR – including just who’s bankrolling her campaign – seem like the sort of politically expedient obfuscations of someone with something to hide. On a knee-jerk, free-speech level, I agree that her harassment by the Kagame government has been a bit unfair. But if she turns out to be the monstrous, ethnically divisive figure Kigali makes her out to be, is this really someone we should be defending?

Likewise, this otherwise excellent piece about Ingabire in Canada’s Globe and Mail misses a very important point by making her out to be some heroic, embattled figure, without acknowledging how controversial her candidacy is within Rwanda itself. How can you breezily write a sentence like this – “Ms. Ingabire says she doesn’t know how many Tutsis died in 1994, how many Hutus died, or even whether the number of Tutsi victims was larger than the number of Hutu victims.” – without mentioning that such a revisionist opinion contradicts a very large body of genocide scholarship? Should a journalist accept a statement like that at face value?

Our last bit of news today comes from the Ugandan Observer, which takes a few pot-shots at renegade Lt.-Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, last seen with a hot hand at the craps table in Sun City. There’s little in this very one-sided piece to shed new light on the swirling conspiracy theories involving Kayumba, Col. Karegeya, the FDLR, the Elders of Zion, and the CIA, but at the very least (the very, very least), it offers a cogent reminder that you reap what you sow.

In desperation, Kayumba would turn to any ol' doofus for help.

Kayumba was one of the first architects of the RPF; according to a journalist I spoke to tonight, he continues to attract the loyalties of many in the Rwandan army, and is perceived as a definite threat to the Kigali regime. Yet for many years, he was as much a part of the Kagame junta as anyone in Rwanda. If the country has veered toward autocracy – “benevolent dictatorship,” if you prefer – under President Kagame, it was with Kayumba’s help. So whether he has indeed plotted against the state, or is simply being accused of the same by his former RPF buddies, it goes without saying that he’s had a hand in his eventual undoing. The state that he helped create is the state that now looks to devour him.

Q: How many masterminds does it take to plan a grenade attack?

The AFP reports that Rwandan authorities have “arrested a suspected mastermind of recent grenade attacks in the capital which injured 16 people this week and killed two others last month.”

Deo Mushayidi, a former member of the then rebel group Rwandan Patriotic Front that ended the 1994 genocide, was arrested in neighbouring Burundi.

“Deo Mushayidi, one of the main perpetrators of these acts, was arrested in Burundi and is currently in the hands if the police,” [Attorney General Martin] Ngoga told the state-run Radio Rwanda.

He said the police had “sufficient evidence” against the alleged mastermind, though he refused to speculate on what, exactly, qualified as “sufficient.”

In a disappointing twist, Mushayidi was not filmed by state TV in media plot, as with last month’s failed, er, “coup” in Bujumbura. But his arrest is a new wrinkle for those of us who have been following along with our grenade-attack scorecards at home.

February’s attacks, you’ll recall, were initially pinned on FDLR rebels, before the focus switched to two renegade RPF malcontents this week. Mushayidi now enters the picture as the latest arch-fiend who, as the government would have us believe, “belongs to a ‘network’ including fugitive Lt. Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa and exiled Col Patrick Karegeya which wants to cause ‘state insecurity,'” according to reports in the Rwanda News Agency.

Mushayidi: Is this egghead behind the recent Kigali attacks?

Though a late-comer to the recent unrest, Mushayidi is no stranger to the political scene here in Kigali. Allan Thompson, writing in The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, offers the following biographical snippet on Mushayidi, during his time as a journalist with the newspaper Imboni.

After Joseph Sebarenzi, the popular Tutsi speaker of Parliament, was forced to step down Imboni revealed the RPF’s behind-the-scenes role. The government then seized the journal and banned it. Following President Kagame’s attack on the paper, its two Tutsi journalists left the country: Deo Mushayidi (also president of the Rwandan Associations of Journalists) and Jason Muhayimana.

It was at that time, according to AFP, that Mushayidi “fled to Belgium in 2000 and joined several diaspora opposition groups and last year formed his own party.”

At this point the narrative splinters, depending on just who you want to believe. Mushayidi in exile was a vocal critic of the Kagame government, and became a frequent guest on both the BBC and the VOA. You can hear some of his criticisms of the Kagame regime here (in French, with half-assed English translations).

But the Rwanda News Agency reports that “Mr. Mushayidi allegedly fled with his partner Jason Muhayimana – who was publisher of the same newspaper, after members of the association management team started agitating for accountability of a yet-an unknown amount of funding from the UN agency UNESCO to support the Press House.” In effect, Mushayidi was said to be a crook. (President Kagame allegedly said of him at a press conference, “Don’t you know that Mushayidi ran away with money of his colleagues in the media”)

The report goes on to make more strenuous accusations.

In August 2007, Mr. Mushayidi took his campaign to another level. As regional Tripartite Plus army chiefs were mapping out strategies end the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels in D R Congo, Mr. Mushayidi and other political opposition parties in Europe announced a plan to cooperate with the rebels.

Mr. Mushayidi teamed up with exiled Defense Minister Gen. Ben Habyarimana, ex-Prime Minister Rwigema Celestin and other exiles – announcing that they were merging with the guerrillas to oust President Kagame from power by force.

And there you have it: a former Kagame stalwart, now teaming with FDLR rebels and RPF cast-offs, conspiring to disrupt the president’s cakewalk this August through a series of attacks – coordinated, it seems, from three separate countries.

Oddly, it seems no less plausible than any of the other theories I’ve heard lately.

The aftermath in Kigali.

The facts on the ground haven’t strayed too far from the rumors that spread after last night’s grenade blasts in Kigali. According to Reuters, “two synchronised grenade blasts injured 16 people in the Rwandan capital, and a third unrelated explosion killed one person in the west of the country.”

The explosions in Kigali happened within 10 minutes of each other in early evening on Thursday, a day after President Paul Kagame sought to quell fears of instability in the central African country, which has tight security after a genocide 16 years ago.

No suspects have been apprehended. Police spokesman Eric Kayiranga told Reuters that Rwandan authorities were still investigating possible links between last night’s attacks and similar grenade blasts last month.

“We are still investigating to know if they are coordinated or not and who are the real attackers. We are yet to know if it was the same (people),” said Kayiranga.

President Kagame: Cool as the underside of the pillow he doesn't sleep on, because the man never sleeps, and he wishes his lazy countrymen wouldn't sleep, either

Conversations I’ve had here in Kigali suggest there are a lot of puzzled people scratching their heads. Everyone seems to have been caught off-guard by the sudden escalation in violence – not least of all President Kagame himself, who, by all accounts, was unusually flustered at a Wednesday press conference I blogged about earlier this week. Effectively laying down the gauntlet with his insistence that Rwanda remains airtight in the wake of last month’s blasts and recent rumors of an attempted coup, His Excellency PK seems to have all but dared whoever was behind last night’s attacks to prove him wrong. Were last night’s attacks just an act of defiance? And if so, by whom?

The Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, weighs in on what the blasts might mean for the internal politics of the ruling party.

A Rwandan political analyst, speaking to the Monitor on condition of anonymity, says that in a tightly controlled environment like Rwanda, the grenade attacks are more likely to be expressions of problems within the ruling party, rather than attacks launched against the Rwandan state by rebel groups such as the banned Hutu militia – the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

Kayumba, during happier times as ambassador to India

Which brings us back to AWOL Lt.-Gen. Kayumba, who recently told the BBC that “the Rwandan authorities had staged grenade attacks and then accused him of being behind them.”

“The regime in Kigali is really descending into total dictatorship and you know absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Gen. Nyamwasa told Voice of America in an exclusive interview [quoted here in Uganda’s Daily Monitor]. “So, in this case you don’t have to have a different opinion, you are not supposed to debate and if you are perceived to have a different opinion on anything, then you are an enemy.”

So is Lieutenant-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa an enemy of the state, or just another scapegoat?