Sunday, June 27, 2010

Please help raise awareness about the political situation in Rwanda

As many of you likely already know, Rwanda is holding Presidential elections this August. In the run up to the elections, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, has done everything in its power to suppress the opposition. The situation is very tense. And is growing more tense by the day as dissent within the military increases, and the government opts for assassination as a viable option to control its opposition and critics. Of course, as the Swahili proverb goes, "When the elephants fight, it is the grass the suffers...", meaning of course that ordinary people are caught in the crossfire.

There are some very easy and powerful things you can do to raise awareness about the likelihood of election-related violence in Rwanda.

1. Call your Member of Parliament (Canada) or your Senator (America) to tell them you are concerned about reports of violent repression in Rwanda. Simply google your "Member of Parliament" and your city of residence in Canada and just the name of your state in the US. You'll get direct numbers and email addresses there. In Canada, call Paul Dewer's office, as he is the head of the All-Parliamentary Committee on the Prevention of Genocide (613-946-8682 or; or call the office of Senator Dallaire (613-995-4191 or 1-800-267-7362 or In the US, contact the office of Senator Russ Feingold, chairman of the Subcommittee on African Affairs (

2. Worried that you don't know enough about the political situation in Rwanda to call? If so, call anyway and ask your representative what the policy of her/her office on Rwandans upcoming elections is. If you think a simple phone call is not effective, public policy scholars have found that in Canada that politicians equate one phone call from a concerned citizen with the opinions of at least 250 constituents. In the US, similar studies show that elected officials consider one phone call to equate the viewpoint of as many as 750 constituents. So your phone call could indeed make a difference!

3. Get talking about politics in Rwanda. You can easily educate yourself with online resources like the Rwanda page on the BBC Africa homepage. Write letters to the editor, blog, repost this message on your facebook page. Watch Hotel Rwanda with your friends. Do something!

4. Share the idea of raising awareness with your networks and with journalists. We all know people who care about social justice issues both at home and abroad. Stand up and let folks in your network know that this is a pressing issue.

5. Still have questions? Get in touch with researchers like me (; 413.835.0156). I will share all my knowledge with you, and can put you in touch with other academics, human rights advocates, and other like-minded individuals who can share their thoughts and opinions on the current situation.

Please consider acting on this important issue. Studies have shown that one of the main reasons that the international community did not intervene early enough to stop the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the lack of alarm. The issues simply did not matter to enough Westerners for their governments to act....

Friday, June 25, 2010

Plus ca change: Advocating for Rwanda

Oh my, it has been an intense few weeks in Rwandan politics. The attempted assassination of Gen. Nyamwasa, the murder of Jean Leonard Rugambage (acting editor of Umuvugizi newspaper), the continued detention, harassment and intimidation of the political opposition and critics of the government, including dissent within the military. It is equally tense in the countryside as government policy has led to an increase of almost 30% in the cost of staple foods, the short rains were too short, and the government continues to deploy its security personnel to all corners of the country to ensure that peasants "vote for the right party".

There are parallels with the pre-genocide period -- the elimination of opposition and opponents, harassment and intimidation of elites and peasants alike, and the constant threat of loss of life. A key difference is that the violence of the pre-genocide period took place in the broader context of civil war. The key similarity is that the violence is driven by elites in pursuit of political power.

All this raises the question of what can we do to raise the alarm about what is going on in Rwanda right now. Some positives have emerged. For better or for worse, the assassination attempt of Gen. Nyamwasa in South Africa has not only focused attention on Rwanda right now. Prominent publications like the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Globe and Mail and the Guardian have begun to publish critical pieces on Rwanda. In addition, American attorney Peter Erlinder has been released from custody in Rwanda, and I hope that his story will slink into the background. His story is a perfect example of raising the wrong kind of attention about Rwanda. His is a story that feeds into Western assumptions about politics in African countries like Rwanda as ethnically motivated and grounded in atavistic hatreds rather than complex and nuanced calculations to gain, or maintain, political power (and all the spoils that go with it....)

So what can people like you and me, who care about Rwanda, and Rwandans from all walks of life? My position has always been, no more loss of life in Rwanda, and the GLR, by any party. One's ethnicity, social status or economic class must not determine the value of one's life. I want to push Rwandan society to a place where ethnic politics no longer determine one's lost in life....

First, consider all sides of the story. Get educated. Mis- and Dis-information has long characterised political life in Rwanda (as is the case in all authoritarian states...). It is easy to make emotional pleas that pass as analysis.

Second, talk to as many people as possible about what is going on in Rwanda. We need to make more people care about what goes on in a tiny central African country. There is more to Rwanda than the politics of Kagame and his crew. There are peasant people who live their lives in chronic adversity that should feature in our analysis and commentary, but rarely do. Bringing in their voices not only provides a human face to what is going on in Rwanda, it shifts the analysis away from power politics to human lives. Both narratives are important, but elite politics must not sublimate peasant realities.

Third, call your political representative and tell them about your concern about current events in Rwanda. Tell them to get involved and active at the level of policy. Lobby and educate as many decision-makers as you can.

Fourth, if you are so inclined, write. Open debate and dialogue. Share your concerns and analysis with a broader audience.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Erlinder case, con'td.

The case of detained American Peter Erlinder continues to muddle the real issues in Rwanda. (See this representative article). While Western supporters have come to his aid and succour, the remains the very real issue of what will become of the Rwandan opposition when his case is resolved and he leaves the country.

Does anyone have any information on Ingabire's decision to hire Erlinder to defend her? He is far from the best choice given the political dynamic in Rwanda. Surely she is more politically astute than this? Aligning herself with someone who believes that the RPF organised and implemented the genocide belittles her broader (and significant) argument that Rwandans of all ethnicities were killed in 1994.

Oh, and the argument of Erlinder's supporters that, as an American citizen, he should be released because of the amount American donor aid to Rwanda smacks of more than colonialism (something that feeds into the RPF government's narrative about sovereignty). It also suggests that Erlinder's life is worth more because he is American. Rwandans deserve better than that.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Erlinder detention

The recent arrest and detention of Peter Erlinder provides important insight on how the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front will run the August elections.

While I don't believe much of what Erlinder writes (his work is decontextualised and comes off as agenda-driven), it is a travesty of justice and democratic ideals to allow him to be imprisoned. It is also not a unique situation; Rwandans from all walks of life are treated in the same way on a regular basis. The message is the same: do not mess with the official narrative of the RPF as arbiters of peace, security and justice in Rwanda and the GLR.

THe US, the UN, the EU and others that care about peace for all must condemn the arrest. If someone of Erlinder's status and privilege can be arrested, imagine how it must be for regular people resident in Rwanda and subject on a daily basis to its oppressive policies and politics.

While I have never met Erlinder I also don't believe government allegations that he tried to commit suicide. This is a long-standing tradition within the RPF to discredit its opponents and silence dissent. It targets individuals (witness the recent HRW expulsion) then works to discredit them through various personal attacks. Mental illness, trauma, sexual immorality, etc. This is likely what they are doing in this case. It must stop; hopefully, Erlinder will be released soon and his arrest will highlight to international audiences the deep-rooted authoritarianism of the current Rwandan government.