About a year ago, I attended a conference about human rights in Africa. One of the keynote speakers was a PhD candidate in justice studies who spoke mostly about the Arizona state legislature’s divestment related to atrocities in Darfur. But she made an off-hand comment about Rwanda that made me double take. I’ll paraphrase it to something like “the streets are clean and the cities are safe, it’s come a long way since 1994!” It wasn’t the main point of her speech, so I shook it off, but not before writing a small post about my own thoughts on Rwanda. But it seems it might be time for another.
I attended an event last month where I saw Carl Wilkens speak. Wilkens is well known for being the only U.S. civilian to remain in Rwanda during the genocide, where he helped aid many Tutsis that were in hiding. He had a lot to say about his work at the time and his personal story, and it was very moving. I picked up a copy of his recently published memoir and hope to read it soon. Hearing him speak, I could tell he cared a lot for Rwanda’s well being – he continues to do work there and seems to have a deep connection with the country. Given what he went through, it’s hard to blame him. During the Q&A portion of the event, though, I was struck by his strong support for the current regime there.
First, someone asked how Rwanda had changed. Wilkens qualified that the government was somewhat overreaching and even used the word “autocratic,” but also argued that the streets were clean, crime was down, and people were safe. He ignored that petty criminals are whisked away and never seen again and that the civil society and press are severely choked by government restrictions (both of which I mentioned in the aforementioned post). Recently, the genocide survivors group Ibuka condemned Paul Rusesabagina’s Lantos prize. Ibuka is one of the biggest survivor groups, but it has been aligned with the government ever since its more outspoken leaders were purged by Kagame in 2000.
And then someone asked what African country could be seen as a model for the way forwards. I was expecting something like Botswana, but instead got accolades for Rwanda again. Wilkens explains that the Rwandan government was establishing infrastructure, citing efforts to lead an information-based economy in Kigali to lead the region. As some have mentioned, that can’t be the only solution. An authoritarian government that stifles opposition cannot grow much further than Rwanda has.
Once you clean up your streets (by banning plastic bags and arresting people for begging) and shore up your border (by invading your neighbors and stealing their resources) and win “popular” elections (by intimidating and threatening opposition groups), you can’t call your country a beautiful model for new African governance. I’ve spent years learning about Uganda, and I sure as hell love a lot of things about that country. But in learning to love that country, I’ve also learned to call a spade a spade. No matter how close you are to Rwanda, it’s important to take a step back and call an authoritarian government what it is, with no excuses or apologies.