Thursday, April 08, 2004

Time for Some Balance on Rwandan Reporting

I've argued for a long time that the simple-minded take on the Rwandan situation that seems prevalent amongst the commentariat, in which the Tutsis are universally regarded as guiltless victims of historical Hutu prejudice, is way off the mark, and likely extremely damaging in the long run. As it turns out, via Prometheus 6, I've just discovered a Slate article that also touches upon the need for a little more balance and objectivity:

Today, state-run Television Rwanda has been playing gruesome images of the genocide all day long. Machetes, spears, guns, rapes. It's meant to remind Rwandans of exactly what went on 10 years ago. But such images—though important—also serve to create an emotional blur that becomes impossible to see through.

The RPF uses the genocide in much the same way that the Bush administration wields the emotional power of 9/11 to justify its actions and paint its critics as unpatriotic. In Rwanda, if you question political oppression, if you criticize the widely disputed elections of August 2003, or if you inquire about the massacres the RPF itself carried out in western Rwanda and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the genocide, you are labeled a génocidaire. Consequently, Rwandans are afraid to speak their minds.

And that's also true for the international community. When they should be criticizing Rwanda—for the outlawing of opposition during the elections, for example, or for the recent exiling of two editors from the country's most independent newspaper—world leaders instead continue to say mea culpa. And the RPF government—whose political savvy is remarkable—takes every chance it can to exploit this guilt. To some extent, today's commemoration—which cost the impoverished country a whopping $7.4 million—is not just a memorial service for the dead, it's also about shaming donor nations into increasing their giving.


Two weeks ago, a perfect example of the deep cleavages that continue to divide Rwanda emerged after France released a report linking current President Paul Kagame to the downing of the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994. (Who brought down the plane will always be the "who shot JFK" question of the genocide.) The RPF denounced the report and called for an inquiry into the French role in the genocide. My Hutu driver, on the other hand, declared, "Kagame shot down the plane? Yeah. Everybody knows that."

But even if "everybody knows that" (in other words, that's what most Hutus think), you'll never hear them say it in public. For the most part, they're keeping their version of the story to themselves.

And for many Hutus, the feeling that pervades the country today is one of exclusion—the national month of mourning is for Tutsis. The memorial sites are for Tutsis. The businesses are for Tutsis. The government is for Tutsis. Between 500,000 and 1 million people died in Rwanda 10 years ago. Most were Tutsis who were killed in a vicious act of genocide, and that cannot be forgotten. But the innocent Hutus who died cannot be forgotten, either.

And no matter how enlightened the government's rhetoric, it seems unlikely that there can be a real, lasting conversation about "unity and reconciliation" when 80 percent of the population feels they are not part of the discussion.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - Paul Kagame is no hero, but a brutal murderer in his own right, and the remarkable tendency amongst so many otherwise thoughtful people to give his regime a pass is incredibly misguided. Not only have the Tutsis committed many a bout of mass murder of their own, particularly in neighboring Burundi, but Kagame's men have done more than their share of burning, killing and looting in the DRC, after the events of 1994 that Kagame repeatedly turns to his own advantage when dealing with foreign governments. Genocide is always wrong, but the Tutsis weren't Jews and the Hutus weren't Germans; a sense of shame over past inaction shouldn't blind us to the ugly realities of our time. Anyone who imagines that Tutsi monopolization of power in Rwanda will lead to anything other than yet another murderous explosion down the line is being incredibly naïve.

UPDATE: Here's an old BBC article from 2000 that has Mandela making much the same point as I have about the necessity of power sharing between Hutu and Tutsi, though his remarks were made with reference to Burundi.

Eight Tutsi-dominated political parties in Burundi have accused the new peace mediator, Nelson Mandela, of bias in favour of Burundi's Hutu majority.

In a statement issued in the Tanzanian town of Arusha after high-level peace talks earlier this week, the parties rejected Mr Mandela's statement that peace and stability could not be achieved while the Tutsi minority retained a monopoly on power.

"These conclusions tend to imply that the basis of the Burundi conflict is the political, economic and military domination of the minority Tutsi group over the majority Hutu one," the statement said.

"This theory could generate tension and the risk of confrontation in the country, which might jeopardise the chances of success for the peace process."

Note just how similar the logic (if one can call it that) employed by the Tutsi leaders in Burundi is to that employed by Kagame today. I don't believe in arguments from authority, and as such I'm not going to present Mandela's statements as solid evidence in favor of my stance, but it ought at least to make some people think a bit more about their positioning of Kagame's government as some sort of positive blessing for Rwanda, when someone whose opinions they respect in other contexts is willing to point out that Tutsi political domination isn't healthy in the long term, whatever its benefits in keeping the peace in the present.

Put yourselves in the shoes of the Hutu: if a small minority were to perpetuate its domination over you by playing on the guilt of outsiders who failed to halt one round of bloodshed (which did not occur in isolation, and happened to take a good number of your own people's lives as well), and if that minority was also guilty of acts of genocide against your people sheltering in the Congo or living in Burundi, a fact routinely ignored by those who are loudly advocating on behalf of said minority on various international fora, wouldn't you start to fill up with hate too? Would you really feel like saying "forgive and forget", content to live as a helot in a land in which you and those like you constitute the majority? But this sort of nonsensical thinking is just what every apologist for Kagame's regime is pushing.

UPDATE 2: Here's a link to an old Guardian editorial by James Asthill that also points at the some of the negatives of Kagame's regime. Is this really the sort of repressive setup people want to be making excuses for? Or are we to accept that freedom counts for nothing as long as it's being abolished in the name of "peace" and "stability"?