Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Reaction to the Reaction to 'Silent Sabotage'

A few weeks ago, I was invited by an editor at Nairobi's The East African newspaper to publish a short opinion piece based on my recently published article in the journal African Affairs, entitled 'Whispering Truth to Power: The Everyday Resistance of Peasant Rwandans to Post-Genocide Reconciliation'. I readily accepted for two reasons. First, I consider The East African the premier newspaper in the region, and was thrilled to have been asked to contribute to a newspaper I respect and consult on a regular basis. Second, as an academic, I can't reasonably turn down any opportunity to share my research findings. It is simply not in my DNA! You can find the original East African post here.

As I've said before, my work in Rwanda is directed at one broad goal, namely, no more violence by any party, ever. Full stop. Of course this is a lofty ideal, and one that is not easily operationalised. So, I have focused my research on understanding everyday life since the genocide to demonstrate that the 'new' Rwanda is largely being built on the backs of peasants who are not, by and large, sharing in the yearly average of eight percent average economic growth. Socio-economic inequality is a pressing issue, and one that spills into the political sphere that the ruling RPF so desperately seeks to control. This is the position that I write from. I know that academic articles are rarely consulted, and less rarely read, so well-placed opinion pieces are part and parcel of my academic work. Indeed, I moved to the US to work at Hampshire College in large part because of its commitment to social justice issues and its support of faculty who engage in activist-inspired research.

I also write opinion pieces to keep peasant perspectives on the radar screen of folks working in the country -- tourists, students, journalists, diplomats, etc. -- because Kigali is so impressive with its clean streets, low crime, internet cafes, high rises and other trappings of Western success. There is a story behind the carefully crafted and calibrated message of the 'new' Rwanda as one where the institutional structures that created the genocide have been undone (they have not), that Rwandans are reconciled (some are, many are not), and that the country is peaceful and secure (nationally secure, yes, locally peaceful not so much).

It is because there is some truth to the arguments I posit in my opinion pieces that I am subject to the often-vitriolic commentary of Rwandan journalists and other writers (including some working as advisors and/or speech writers in the Office of the Rwandan President). It is rare that my actual arguments are engaged, although this reaction from Jean-Paul Kimonyo on Paul Kagame's presidential website is the first sign of actual engagement of my ideas. Usually, the reaction is more insult than dialogue, like this example from Rwanda's The New Times.

I give these two examples to throw out this idea. If my analysis is as far-fetched as my critics and opponents contend, then why do they spend so much time trying to discredit my writing?

I think the answer lies in a legitimacy crisis. There is an alternate story about Rwanda behind the impressive accomplishments that are put on display, largely for a Western audience. Life for non-elite actors, nearly 90% of the population, is tough. It is a life of fear, harassment and grinding poverty while elites posture for proximity to political power. There is a growing disconnect between peasant realities and government rhetoric about those realities. And therein lies the lack of legitimacy to govern that RPF enjoys in some rural areas in Rwanda.

The acts of everyday resistance that my research identifies does not point to riot, revolt or rebellion. The local dynamics are simply not such to allow for such popular organisations. Instead, the minute and subtle actions that some peasants engage in vis-a-vis the demands of local officials to comply with central government policies reveal one of the most vexing insecurities faced by local and central government officials in postgenocide Rwanda. As individuals who exercise their authority through fear, government officials expect a certain measure of deference and compliance to their demands.

In much the same way, those writers charged with challenging my work also seem to expect my compliance to their spurious arguments. Sadly for them, these reactions are having the opposite effect -- the more they react, the more my work is read.

1 comment:

  1. Kudos for this masterly way of lacing the vitriol of critics with the Cartesian coolant of dispassionate analysis. (And sorry for piling this unsolicited bad metaphor upon your temperate indignation). Your line, "Kigali is so impressive with its clean streets, low crime, internet cafes, high rises and other trappings of Western success," made me think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was so scandalized by people who'd use the argument of peace and tranquility to justify despotic regimes that he exclaimed (and I'm quoting from memory): "Mais l'on est aussi tranquille dans un cachot!"

    That's the sad thing underneath the beautiful renaissance story of Rwanda.

    And by the way, I translated today a post by French Senator Joëlle Gariaud-Maylam who, unlike you, is fuming at the prospect of the upcoming state visit of Kagame in Paris. You can find the link to the original post in French at the very top of my post; granted you got the time to check it out... And keep the fires up!