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Time for a new narrative on Rwanda


Woman and child tilling the field
Woman and child tilling the field
Tom Paulson

For some, Rwanda is beautiful, a story of amazing recovery and rebuilding. For others, Rwanda is creepy, a story of ongoing Western-sanctioned political repression and murder.

In other words, Rwanda is complex. Incredibly complex, with some deep wounds that have not yet healed. And it’s perhaps time the humanitarian community moves beyond the simplistic depictions of the country, if only to make sure that what progress has been made can continue.

In 2011, I joined a dozen or so journalists with the International Report Project filing into a government building in Kigali, Rwanda. We were there to report on what many in the aid and development community were calling ‘Africa’s success story’ and given brief instructions on how we were to interview President Paul Kagame. One question per person and no video.

So, of course, I surreptitiously set up my SLR camera to take video. Kagame soon joined us and greeted each of us warmly, speaking softly like a genteel professor.

Paul Kagame
Paul Kagame

Kagame is an eloquent and charming man with penetrating eyes that hold you firmly in their grip. He was, after all, first a general, a man who led the military takeover of his country following the 1994 genocide in which ethnic Hutus mostly attacked his tribe, the Tutsis, killing about a million people in 100 days.

Today is the official anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, though some like Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager immortalized as the hero in the movie Hotel Rwanda, says (in our podcast) the genocide really began on April 6, 1994.

That’s when an airplane carrying then-President Juvénal Habyarimana as well as Cyprien Ntaryamira,  the president of neighboring Burundi, got shot down over Kigali. It’s never been definitely established who shot that surface-to-air missile that downed the plane. But it’s worth noting the genocide that followed their murders was just a re-eruption of fighting.

A civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis, in Burundi as well as in Rwanda and with spillover into DR Congo, had been going on for years. Habyarimana was on the cusp of arranging a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsis, something that made the hardliner Hutus unhappy. So it’s not inconceivable Habyarimana’s people were behind the assassination and used it to inflame the populus against the Tutsis.

Seen on Twitter, from Media24: "Kagame's critics have an odd habit of getting themselves assassinated."
Seen on Twitter, from Media24: “Kagame’s critics have an odd habit of getting themselves assassinated.”
Media24, Twitter

Just as it’s quite conceivable, if not by now indisputable, that Kagame’s government was behind the recent murder by strangulation of a former Kagame associate in South Africa,  and other attacks on top Rwandans who have fled the country.

See map at right for all of the assassinations and attempted assassinations attributed to Kagame’s government. As several observers of the current Rwandan leader have said: “Kagame’s critics have an odd habit of getting themselves assassinated.”

Nobody was assassinated, so far as I know, when that gang of journalists including me visited with Kagame in Kigali.

But I had been talking, mostly off the record, with locals while there who quietly expressed their fear of speaking out against the government. I noted that during our two-week visit to Rwanda, three journalists had been tossed in jail for writing articles some officials didn’t like.

Rwanda is a tiny country and tossing three journalists in jail there over a two-week period would be like jailing nearly 100 American journalists in the U.S.

When it was my turn to ask Kagame a question, I noted this tendency of Rwandan journalists to get jailed and that many human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have ranked Rwanda as one of the most authoritarian, least free countries on the planet.

I subtly hit the record button on my camera as Kagame sighed and looked at me like I was a freshman who somehow snuck into his graduate course on international politics. He took about ten minutes to answer me, some of which you can read about here. (I bumped my camera so it recorded his feet, with bad audio. Not worth showing.)

Children in rural village
Children in rural village
Tom Paulson

The gist of Kagame’s answer to me was: Look, you naive American, this is not Seattle. We live next door to crazy-ass Congo where a million or more people would love to rile things up and help bring about our collapse. You Westerners stood back and watched as we slaughtered each other. The tension points that caused that catastrophe are still here. We do what we have to do to survive.

That’s my summation of what he said in his 10 minute answer. Here’s a direct quote:

“For me, freedom and democratic governance are part and parcel of economic development,” Kagame said. “We are not yet where we want to be. But progress is being made … because the people of Rwanda are part of it.”

I admit I did feel a bit chastened, and naive. It’s impossible for most of us to imagine what happened in Rwanda and perhaps inappropriate for any Westerner to come in with our own prescription for progressive change. Rwanda has made stunning progress over the past 20 years, especially in matters of health, infrastructure, poverty reduction (to an extent) and, to name one really cool fact, being one of the world leaders in empowering women.

We should celebrate and support those positive changes. But we shouldn’t over-simplify the narrative. The difficulty for the media, for policy makers and for those in the humanitarian community who want to help foster more progress in Rwanda is that there is no simple way to describe what’s happening there.

You can read more about my take on the dilemma of Rwanda and in the Humanosphere series Re:Visiting Rwanda. One of my attempts to deal with my own cognitive dissonance is this listicle 10 Reasons Why Rwanda Can’t be Described in a Sound-Bite, accompanied by these happy kids:


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.