Sircus: Rwanda’s George Washington?

Hope Springs Eternal

This past Friday, Bernard Ntaganda was sentenced to four years in a Rwandan prison, marking the second time in the past year that a former presidential candidate has been sent to jail. The verdict underscores severe corruption problems within President Paul Kagame’s administration. Though revered by many, the former general who brought Rwanda out of her darkest hour has since ruled the central African nation with an iron fist. While the country has made great strides in reconciling the internecine strife between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples, the future for the country appears bleak if President Kagame is allowed to continue to bully his opposition into political irrelevancy. It’s high time for the Kagame administration to change course, and adopt a greater degree of political openness — indeed, an about face may be the only thing that can put Rwanda back on the right path.

Three summers ago, I spent a month traveling around Rwanda, volunteering at a number of different hospitals and health clinics. Thanks to the ubiquity of English across the country, I was able to connect with many Rwandans on a substantive level. Our conversations ran the gamut from food to family to football (their version). But there seemed to be a palpable aversion to discussing what was most directly on my mind — the genocide. Rwandans are, by and large, an astoundingly gregarious people. Yet, without fail, conversation became terse when the topic turned to 1994. It was almost as though, in an effort to expedite the reconciliation process, now 17 years in the making, it was nationally understood that the less one discussed the genocide, the greater the chance it would be forgotten. My travel companions and I noticed that the country had taken the phrase “never forget” and turned it on its head — in Rwanda, it was, more appropriately, “forget ASAP.”

Throughout the trip, two things continued to fascinate me — the speed and success of the genocide reconciliation process, and the reverence that so many citizens paid to President Paul Kagame. The admiration, bordering on idolatry, was appropriate; the man was the greatest war hero the country had ever known. I thought of him as a modern day George Washington. But unlike our founding father, Kagame did not forfeit the sword upon taking political office. He won the trust of his citizens, but has maintained and fortified said trust by thuggish intimidation, not political benevolence. Paul Kagame has spent the last decade fortifying his regime through strong-arming, violence and chicanery. Supposed political transparency and freedom of speech in Rwanda are both shams. Though I do actually believe that those who support Kagame do so for legitimate, laudable reasons, I cannot condone the practices that Kagame and his thugs employ to silence any semblance of opposition. Ntaganda and the others imprisoned are, if you can believe it, the lucky ones. This past July, Gakwe Rwisereka, the Vice President of the opposition Green Party, was found decapitated on the Rwandan-Burundi border.

Though one can argue that strong leadership was essential for bringing Rwandans out of the bloodshed that resulted in the death of some 850,000 victims, business as usual is not sustainable. One need only look to the northern coast of the African continent to see what can happen when scores of people become dissatisfied with years of authoritarian rule. If Paul Kagame wants to avoid the same fate of Hosni Mubarak, he would be prudent to welcome in dissenting voices, not send thugs to shut them up. It’s time for Paul Kagame to open up, unclench his fist and accept the voices and demands of political opposition. Only then will the country truly move past its horrific past.

Joel Sircus is a freshman in Trumbull College.


  • Ariane

    First of all if you really believe “forget ASAP” is the Rwandan trend, then you really didn’t understand the country at all. I don’t know if you wanted to come and see whining widows and orphans a decade after the genocide, the fact is that people know they have to survive, they have to live together and they have to have the same vision for that purpose. Saying that the Rwandan people want to forget ASAP is an insult to the country’s memory especially if you have been in Rwanda for more than a month, you must have probably noticed that all documents, official speeches mostly start whith “16 years after the genocide…” the tragedy is an indelible starting line for our society.

    Secondly, I don’t know if you are familiar with the expression “the benefit of the doubt”. What if Ntaganda is really guilty of what he’s being accused? What if he is counting on his being a public figure, in this case ex presidential candidate, to be untouchable because he would become a martyr if he was ever arrested for his crimes? Also… what if Gakwe Rwisereka was murdered for personal reasons like revenge? What if he was assassinated by those who want that people like you (who are unfortunately soon to be called specialists of the great Lakes region) write articles saying that Kagame is a sanguinary dictator so that when time comes the international community forces him to sit with some hooligans and negotiate on how to share the power.
    My point is, unless you have done a thorough investigation and have accurate facts, please try to be balanced and measure the consequences of your acts and in this case your writings.

  • Backbone

    The current Rwandan regime has made a tabou to have a free conversation about the tragedy and its genesis. People have a different opinion on what happened in Rwanda 1990-1994 and after. They have a different version other than that of the government. But they are afraid to be accused of revisionism or negationism.
    You rightly said it. The current President want to be portrayed as the hero who fought to stop the genocide. But in actual fact, he has capitalized on the genocide not only to seize power but also to remain on power by accusing every opponent of genocide or genocide ideology.
    Rwandan tragedy started in 1990 (or even earlier) and went on in 1994 and beyond (across the border in Congo) up until 2003. but the regime has managed to narrow it to 100 days (7 april – 14 july 1994) because it wants the rest of the story to be forgotten. Why?, because Kagame and his army has a big responsibility in the bloodshed, death and suffering of many Rwandans and foreigners. No one is allowed to talk about these moments unless it is to praise Kagame. it is very dangerous to challenge or even to slightly depart from the goverment version of our own history.
    What was meant to be a reconciliation process has been a one-sided justice. The victor’s justice. Every year we only mourn victims of the genocide at a nation level, we have memorials for them, and we have slogans, songs and signs around the genocide theme and every text start with the genocide. But we have forgotten the rest of the people (far big in numbers) who died before, during and after the genocide. To survive, relatives and children of the victims are supposed to pretend as if nothing happened to their own loved ones too. They endure this while they are called “genocidaires”. Decades later, they have now learnt to keep quiet and sing the goverment song religiously, praise Kagame robotically and vote for him in numbers. This is our reconciliation.
    The very few that dared to challenge Kagame have died or are now spending a piece of their lifetime in jail. Don’t expect Egypt-like revolution, cause the army and police won’t stand by.
    The goverment has long term plans to deal with this. As announced by the minister of health, it will sterilise these people little by little and in time, their numbers will one day be reduced.