Monday, March 17, 2014

Rwanda's Twitter-Gate: The Disinformation Campaign of Africa’s Digital President

Today, I published a short opinion piece on the AfricanArguments.org website about Rwanda's recent Twitter-gate, linking it to broader patterns of disinformation in postgenocide Rwanda. The link is here.

The original text follows:

As Rwanda prepares to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide, it has found itself in an unprecedented diplomatic crisis. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front has all but claimed responsibility for the murder of its former spy chief Patrick Karegeya in Johannesburg in January. More recently, the South African government has accused Rwandan diplomats of a third bungled attempt on the life of the country’s former army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa. The State Department scolded the government of President Paul Kagame for the attempt. The South African government then expelled three Rwandan diplomats, and is considering ending formal diplomatic ties with Rwanda.

Foreign journalists reporting on the attack on Nyamwasa raised the ire of President Kagame. On March 7, Radio France International journalist Sonia Rolley was subject to misogynistic harassment from the account of @RichardGoldston. American freelancer Steve Terrill came to Rolley’s defense, resulting in a series of mocking tweets from the account of Rwanda president @PaulKagame himself, not the @RichardGoldston to which Terrill (@steveinafrica) had directed his Tweets. A week later, on March 15, Terrill was denied entry into Rwanda. The denial appears politically-motivated as Terrill broke the story that someone in the office of the Rwandan president also had access to the @RichardGoldston account. The @RichardGoldston account trolled Twitter for any sign of criticism of Kagame or the RPF, and regularly harassed and demeaned Twitter users that criticized the government.

On March 8, the official Twitter account of the Office of the Rwandan President (@UrugwiroVillage) tweeted that the @RichardGoldston account had been deleted and the staff member responsible for the account had been “reprimanded’. Rwanda’s Twitter-gate raise questions about the central role of RPF Twitter-trolls in calling out foreign journalists who seek it hold it to account for its excesses at home and abroad. President Kagame’s reactionary tweets provide insight into the political reality behind his government’s carefully crafted narrative that Rwanda is a nation rehabilitated from the ruin of the 1994 genocide. Twitter-gate is also illustrative of the harassment and intimidation that critics of the RPF regime regularly experience.

Twitter-gate is the first crack in the armor of the RPF’s longstanding disinformation campaign that has relied on exchange students, public relations firms, commemorative events, and a whole host of other techniques to craft an idealized and often invented version of what Rwanda was like before the onset of colonialism and what it has become since the 1994 genocide. Since 2009, the RPF has worked with American and British PR specialists whose primary task is to drown out the voices of foreign critics and bury evidence of the RPF’s human rights abuses under rosy language about political stability, economic growth, and the stated intention of helping the poor. In January, Rwanda launched the Kwibuka20 campaign, from inside Kagame’s office of course, for the same instrumental reason: to substitute the trope of genocide for the trope of authoritarianism in narratives about Rwanda.

The disinformation strategy is simple: ensure maximum international sympathy and donor dollars and a minimum of international inquiry into the government’s denial of liberties and human rights abuses. The Kagame-led regime has a penchant for U.S. visits and visitors, and until recently successive U.S. administrations turned a blind eye to massive human rights violations for which the Kagame-led regime, according to the United Nations, is responsible in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Americans in particular have been taken in by the rhetoric of reconstruction, development, and reconciliation that invariably accompanies most public events in the country.

The RPF frames itself for Western audiences as the political party best able to move Rwanda is moving towards a Western-style democracy because it has regularly held presidential and parliamentary elections. The RPF handily won the most recent round of parliamentary elections, in September 2013, with 76% of the vote. In theory, it was contending with nine other parties. In practice, Rwanda’s nearly six million voters had little choice on the ballot. A total of 98% of the votes went to the RPF and its four coalition parties. The continued dominance of the RPF in the electoral realm projects a semblance of political pluralism while masking the fact that all parties are expected to acquiesce to the ruling party. Two actual opposition parties have been banned and their leaders jailed.

Another pillar of Rwanda’s disinformation campaign is that the government promotes gender-equality. 64% percent of parliamentarians in Rwanda’s lower house are women, but this number masks reality. Although women are very visible in Rwanda politics, their ability to shape the future of women, ironically, is circumscribed. Rwanda's parliament has limited influence. Parliamentarians—be they male or female—actually have little power to legislate on behalf of their constituents. They have little room to develop policy or even to debate openly; space for free and open political expression is limited. Put differently, an assessment of political realities shows that women parliamentarians in Rwanda are mere accessories of power; they do not actually wield any of it.

Though the genocide has not repeated itself, growing socio-political and economic inequalities—notably the exclusion of youth—under an increasingly authoritarian and repressive government have meant that post-genocide Rwanda is still deeply entangled in its violent past. Rwandans deserve better from their American friends. Rwanda’s Twitter-gate also reminds us that, on this 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, we should not allow our generally rosy perception of Rwanda as a stable and free country under the visionary leadership of President Kagame to mask long-standing political tensions, unresolved resentments, and the rise of an authoritarian regime.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New and Valuable Resource: Rwanda Witness Website

For those of us that have researched and written on/in Rwanda for a while (in my case for the last 18 years or so), it is a rare delight to have a new cautioned, considered and independent voice on which to rely. This person, fellow Canadian and journalist Judi Rever, has recently come into my orbit. I am writing this blog post to let folks know about her writing and research, most of which is published on her blog, Rwanda Witness.

Two things stand out for me about Judi Rever's work. One, it seeks to centre, through oral and witness testimony, the experiences of ordinary Rwandans and Congolese. The daily hardships and victories of these lives are generally absent from what we think we know about Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, thanks to a carefully crafted whitewash of the successes of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Her writing foregrounds these experiences and for this reason is an invaluable resource.

Second, Judi Rever's work places socio-political realities in Rwanda in broader context, mostly notably through events in Zaire/DRC as well as the American failure to protect civilians lives in Rwanda, both during and since the 1994 genocide.

Given the recent assassination of Patrick Karegeya, and the gloating that some senior members of Rwanda's ruling RPF have engaged in on various social media platforms, Judi Rever's reporting on the role of the RPF/A in perpetrating mass violence is all the more urgent. It seems to me that the RPF is well aware that it can flaunt its human rights abuses with no fear of international repercussion or prosecution. This culture of impunity reigned pre-1994 and Karegeya's murder suggests it is alive and well as at the dawn of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. We'll likely never know what Karegeya knew about the mass violence of the early days of the RPF government, nor the violence that he likely oversaw or participated in to make sure the RPF took power in July 1994. What is clear that the mantra "never again" rings rather hollow for many Rwandans.

To get you started thinking about the pattern of human rights abuses perpetrated by the RPF/A, I recommend reading Rever's investigative reporting on the role of senior members of the Rwandan Patriotic Army in perpetrating mass murder, and the ways in which it has been able to whitewash its crimes for a largely uneducated Western audience. Happy reading.

Friday, January 3, 2014

On Karegeya's Assassination: Dying by the Sword

Quite a few people (activist bloggers, and journalists based in Nairobi and Kampala) have been asking for my opinion on Patrick Karegeya's assassination.

My position is quite straightforward. It is too early to accuse Kigali but it is also too early to think that Kigali is not involved. It is possible that folks within Karegeya's inner circle killed him; it is also possible that Kagame or someone close to him ordered the killing. At this stage, there is a sizeable lack of independently verified information. I look forward to learning more about the circumstances as well as the individuals involved in Karegeya's death in the coming days and weeks.

I also want to make this clear. I do not think Karegeya is a Rwandan hero. While is always a moment of sadness and reflection when a life is lost, particularly one lost to violence, it bears mentioning that Karegeya lived by the sword. He has blood on his hands from the early days of the (then rebel) RPF drive into Uganda in the late 1980s. Yes, he fell out with Kagame in 2007, but he was the head of military intelligence in Rwanda from 1994 to 2004. Karegeya oversaw the killings in Kibeho in April 1995 (which the UN tried to report in the Gersony Report but the US had its publication suppressed), among others including in a second report the US tried to suppress - the UN Group of Experts reports on DR Congo, published in 2010. Most recently, in 2013, the UN GOE published another report, which details the M23 rebellion and Rwanda's role in financing it. Many Rwandans, of all ethnicities, died at the hands of RPF/A soldiers. This is but one example of the brutality that those in the RPF ordered or directly perpetrated.

It is also important to keep in mind that men like Karegeya operate in service of other elites like him. The majority-- some 85% of the population are rural Rwandans who make their living as subsistence farmers-- are subject to the machinations of political and military elites.

Karegeya was a founding member of the Rwandan National Congress, along with other once-close allies of Rwandan president Paul Kagame. The political goals and aspirations of the RNC, for those who wish to carefully read its policy platform, is not significantly different from the current policy programs of Kagame's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front. My analysis suggests that many of the men like Karegeya, who have fallen out with Kagame and the RPF, did so because they questioned the ways in which Kagame began to hoard political and economic power, not because they had deeply held moral views about the heavy-handedness of the RPF leadership, but rather for economic reasons.

Rwandans who have lost their lives, or their loved ones to the violent machinations and/or complicity of Karegeya, deserve better than to have him lionised as a Rwandan hero.

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Reconciliation in Postgenocide Rwanda" Just Published

My latest book, Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Reconciliation in Postgenocide Rwanda published by the University of Wisconsin Press, is now available in both paperback and e-copy. The Press will consider reviews by prominent bloggers (I have no idea what they mean by 'prominent') so if you are interested in providing a review, please let me know and I'll try to get a copy to you. I am excited about this publication as it represents almost ten years of research and writing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ntganda's surrender: Let's not forget a few things....

My twitter feed is alive with speculation and opinion on Ntganda's pre-arrest/surrender in Kigali on Monday. I have been using twitter less and less as the rumour mill and reality are regularly divorced, making following those with claimed expertise on the conflict in DRC, politics in Rwanda, etc, etc hard to stomach, and even harder to interpret. Your number of followers or regularity of your tweets does not equate with accuracy or influence, people! My own take on Ntganda's surrender to the Americans in Kigali is to remind everyone that Rwanda is a master of grand strategy. Do not discount the notion that Kagame and other senior RDF officers knew well before we did what was going on. At the same time, don't overlook that Kagame is regularly and loudly critical of the ICC, calling it a form of neo-colonialism. (And he has a point there - ICC justice is pretty flawed for all kinds of reasons). Don't reify leadership and other state actors. Yes, it is important and useful to consider the motivations and interests of Kagame and Nkunda and Kabila and Museveni and so and so on. But so are local actors, local dynamics and local interests. Don't forget to drill down behind the headline, behind what you think you know. And don't forget that Kagame and his RPF as masters of grand strategy, whether military or public relations. Remember when Rudasingwa, Gahima, Karegeya and Nyamwasa defected/exiled and started their Rwandan National Congress Party? Same kind of speculation, and we learned little new expect that Rwandans elite political class remains disconnected from local realities. Only certain types of people matter in Rwanda, and the RNC has reinforced this in adopting a platform and rhetoric that is basically Arusha Accords redux. Indeed, Gahima just published a book that could have really illuminated and opened up discussion and debate on RPF crimes before, during and after the genocide (and more). But he didn't take the route, and Ntganda probably won't either. Don't overlook that legal standards of evidence and full disclosure for purposes of national reconciliation and individual healing are vastly difference. Even if Ntaganda sings, how much will we really learn? Remember Major General Rose Kabuye's arrest in Europe in December 2008? Kigali feigned outrage, forcing protests about the illegality and injustice of her arrest in Kigali (who is truly allowed to protest, with English signage in Rwanda?). Then we learned that Kagame and company, thanks to the rules of French legal procedure that they learned of the scope and nature of the charges against Kagame himself, and other senior members of the RPF? Kabuye was scapegoated, and so could be Ntaganda. All I am saying is that there is a broader trend of RPF manipulation and control embedded in Ntaganda's surrender. Don't forget that. And don't fail to pleasantly surprised if everything I just said turns out to be wrong. Maybe Ntaganda will share what he knows as part of a plea bargain and we will finally have enough to begin the indictment process for members of the RPF.

Friday, December 14, 2012

AWOL but not Absent

It has indeed been a while since I posted. This does not mean that I have failed to follow and react to current events. Instead, everything from Rwanda's alleged support for M23 rebels in neighboring Congo to Victoire Ingabire's politicized and dare I say sham legal trial and everything in between. I remain deeply concerned about peasant livelihoods as the government's drive to "modernize" results in increased physical and emotional insecurity for many rural residents. I have been writing a lot, and can now share that I have a book coming out next year on peasant resistance to the postgenocide policy of national unity and reconciliation, and have contracted for a second one to come out in late 2014/early 2015. This second book will assess the sustainability of Rwanda's postgenocide development, justice and reconciliation policies. I am excited for both works to emerge so we can continue the debate on why the RPF needs to open up Rwanda's political space. In the meantime, see this SSRN piece by Ciara Aucoin is one of the best I've seen in a while. Please read and share widely if you agree.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kinyarwanda-language Poetry Books

This morning, I received a message from Dr Froduald Harelimana asking me to publicize his new collections of Kinyarwanda-language poetry. Nkuzimanire (ISBN # 978-0-98597-781-8) and Bihige (ISBN # 978-0-98597-780-1) are available from the author directly here at 20$ each. You can reach the author, Dr. Harelimana, here.