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.