Debating Rwanda under the RPF: gap between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ remains wide – By Magnus Taylor

MagnusOn Friday and Saturday I spent a strange couple of days attending a conference at SOAS (partially sponsored by the RAS). It was called ‘Rwanda under the RPF: assessing 20 years of post-conflict governance.’ I don’t normally have much time for write-ups of conferences like this, unless Paul Kagame was actually there. However, in this case I think the way in which debate was conducted reveals something quite interesting about the positioning of the particular groups involved.

The conference organizers were keen for the events to be off-the-record, in order to allow for a free and frank exchange of views and avoid the possibility of journalists half-reporting the contents of an academic paper and misrepresenting its contents. This was perhaps the first indication of how tense debates on Rwandan governance can be.  A selection of the papers presented will be compiled into a special edition of the Journal of Eastern African Studies, so you can read them at a later date.

Consequently, I won’t say much about the detail of the various papers. But generally speaking all contributions were of a high quality. Scholars of different backgrounds, visions and generations shared their thoughts and the results of empirical research. The different panels showcased speakers ranging from the very loyal to the very critical towards the RPF government and for most presenters, their position on this spectrum is clear due to earlier academic work.

The most high profile academic speaker was the Belgian Professor Fillip Reyntjens – a well-known critic of Rwanda’s tightly controlled political space. You can see him making what are fairly commonly heard arguments here on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story of September 15th 2013 with 2 other conference participants; Anastase Shyaka, CEO of the Rwanda Governance Board, and a regular contributor to African Arguments; Kris Berwouts.

Reyntjens’ contribution to the conference was a paper entitled ‘The Consolidation of Authoritarianism Under the Guise of Elections’. In it he argues that Rwandan elections are not really exercises in democracy; they are highly-managed affairs in which the result (overwhelming victory for the RPF) is assured.

This kind of argument invites debate. And to the credit of the conference organizers, Anastase Shyaka presented a paper on the same panel, in which he argued that what Rwanda has invented is a ‘consensual’ model of politics, a necessary product of its recent and explosive political history. So far, no surprises.

And perhaps I should have been surprised by the audience response to Reyntjens (who will have been well-aware of what was coming.) However, I did at least expect some engagement with his basic arguments, rather than a clumsy hatchet-job delivered by RPF stalwart and former Secretary General of the party, Tito Rutaremara, who was flown in for the conference. This rather set the tone for the rest of the day’s Q&A sessions.

Whilst, to some extent, Reyntjens, the ‘Antwerp radical’, is fair game, the same cannot be said to many of the other researchers presenting their work. And this is where I see a fundamental ‘gap’ between those who attended in order to defend Rwanda’s post-genocide system of governance and those who are seeking to study it. The majority of the latter are not seeking to attack the RPF regime, but are rather trying to understand it. They are overtly a-political and continually assert their lack of a position in this regard.

But Bert Ingelaere, for example, whose work ‘What’s on a peasant’s mind?’ tracks the kinds of things that occupy the thoughts of Rwanda’s rural population, without any particular value judgment placed on them, was reduced to defending his academic credentials and qualification to carry out this kind of work. Such poor attempts to play the man rather than the ball do no one any credit.

So, what does this reveal about the nature of debate on Rwanda? I’ll leave it to Kris Berwouts, who posted on Facebook:

“I was happy to be at the Rwanda Conference. But the international Rwanda debate has been sterile for many years between believers and non-believers. This conference couldn’t bring it beyond this point either. But some of the contributions were great. I learned a lot.”

However, only a handful of the conference presenters really fit in to either of these schools. They are mostly situated somewhere in the middle. But the polarization of ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ – evident not only in academia, but in journalism and policy circles too – means the moderates don’t get much of a look in.

The conference also illustrated just how vigilant the Rwandan government is regarding any attempts to complicate the country’s official narrative. Its reaction, even in the fairly controlled environment of an academic conference, can also be quite intimidating.

Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.

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16 thoughts on “Debating Rwanda under the RPF: gap between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ remains wide – By Magnus Taylor

  1. This is an amazingly insightful post. When covering Rwanda, one is constantly asked to ‘take a side’. This is done by both pro-governement AND opposition folks. Every body seems to feel that if you’re objective, you’re not with ‘us’. And if you’re not with us, you’re against ‘us’.

  2. This a very balanced post. I entirely agree with Steve’s comment, when you are talking about Rwanda one needs to take a side. I wish I could get a dvd or any Youtube source of the program. it must has been very interesting.
    thanks Magnus!!!

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  4. Thanks for these insightful reflections, Magnus. And in fact, as one of the presenters and the one questioned about credentials referred to in your report, I like to take this opportunity to stress the very insightful interactive dimension to this conference. I presented findings that revealed the deep penetration of RPF authority in the lives and minds of Rwandans and identified some of the origins of such a presence. The behaviour of the RPF delegation was a telling example of how power is performed and exercised in Rwanda. Multiply the intensity observed at the conference by – at least – 10, take into account the fact that there is no other option but to practice self-censorship in case you are inside Rwanda and you get a better picture of how it is on the ground. So, I hope it helped the participants to understand the nature of Rwandan consensual democacry and to qualify what so-called consultation and participation actually entails on Rwandan soil. It is, as I write somewhere – a rehearsed consensus. It seems to have been a rare occasion during which what I presented was actually also played out in practice (although I have experienced it before during presentations, as many of the non-politically motivated researchers have). So: I look at it from the bright side. It might have saved some of the participants an expensive field trip to Rwanda to verify findings. Everyone did some participant observation, in London.

  5. Very interesting snap shot of this ongoing debate. It’s a little worrying that the discussion seems trapped on the democracy-not democracy sliding scale. Approaches like Mr. Ingelaere’s on what peasants are thinking may be the kind that help us pull out of the stall. Is it fair to think that academe and the west give the democracy perspective a kind of free pass to the highest priority (and I do too as a liberally educated westerner). But my impressions of Africans’ perspectives is that the do “the trains run on time?” criteria could be an equal candidate for top rank. I note on Al Jezeera Tutu’s “Young African Leaders” calling Rwanda a Benevolent Dictatorship in a tone completely lacking the usual foreboding. In so many African countries there is a realization of opportunity being snuffed out by ineffectual leadership. Perhaps the debate should best start looking at this angle. It would seem that to whatever degree Africans may regret Rwandan democratic backsliding it is outweighed by their appreciation of Rwandan’s capacity to get things done.

  6. I was also at the conference too and was rather astonished and disappointed that ethnicity is still the default way of looking at Rwanda for many researchers. Rwanda has made great strides and deserves huge credit for what it has achieved. To constantly hark back to ethnicity is lazy research and potentially divisive.

  7. David Poole clearly outlines what came out of the conference for a lot of people i talked to. Almost all researchers based their arguments on the ethnic divide and insist that Rwanda is on the brink because of this. Also, to them all policies are designed to favor a certain ethnic group in Rwanda and subjugate another.
    Rwanda has clearly stated that it would like to do away with the ethnic divisions and move towards bettering the lives of the Rwandese. The government is trying to implement policies that better the lives and lead to a developed country. However most of the researchers attacked these policies that in some cases are 2 -3 years old and have not matured or rather given a chance to succeed. Granted there are some mistakes, however it is a process of development. No other country goes through this kind of scrutiny to be honest. However in my view this is why Rwanda will succeed and do so very quickly. The criticism will help Rwanda grow much faster. However it must be said that There seems to be a concerted campaign to demonise everything that the government of Rwanda is trying to accomplish.
    I am surprised that you say that the debates were mostly highbrow. I encourage you to go back and listen. In some cases there were outright lies, the sampling was absolutely minimal, there was a lot of biased opinion, etc. However like i said let the debates continue, with time people will understand that this is one of the ways that a country can develop at a faster pace than others.

  8. I always lough at people when it comes to positioning Rwanda on development track, it tells that Rwandan economy is “growing” but I want to know who assess this development? It all stems from the forged figures (numbers) starting from Agriculture and all other economic activities, and most outside people are shown the good image of Kigali where the towers are being constructed by the contributors of RPF on detriment of people who don’t agree with dictatorship in the country and who can’t even succeed with a small business because of being systematically harmed by RPF in anyway. Those who admit to development of Rwanda, I would recommend them to go to countryside and watch what is going on, I am sure the situation will tell the difference. There is another issue, if you really want to know the reality of the country you don’t speak with the people inside the country unless you guarantee a full security afterwards because nobody will dare risk his life to tell the truth, I am sure even the people in government know the truth but can’t tell as they fear to risk their life, so no Rwandan inside country will tell you the different story from what the government tells and that’s why Shyaka is exactly repeating the same sentences that Kagame always responds when he is asked the question of M23.

  9. Thanks for this article and the interesting comments. The divisions were all too apparent. Since these divided views are prevalent in the real world, they were unavoidably reflected in the conference. To call the divisions ethnic no longer makes sense; the disagreements over the present regime are political. And I saw from the speakers and themes that the conference organisers here made a particular effort to include a broad diversity of opinions, and a lot of younger as well as more established researchers. I noticed a distinct inter-generational shift, and felt that the middle ground seemed to more audible from the younger generation. It seems that most scholars are gradually moving beyond the simplistic and damaging habit of reducing analysis to ‘ethnic’ terms. I have my own naive proposition for peace in Rwanda scholarship and research. On condition that ‘race’ labels would be avoided, the Rwandan government could invite all its critics, whether Rwandan or not (and not including suspected genocidaires) that is to say journalists, human rights experts and academics, for an international conference in Kigali. The theme could be along the lines of: Revisioning 2020: Ways Forward in different fields: land, gender equality; reconciliation; social and economic development; governance, in Rwanda and the wider East African/Great Lakes region. Everyone could talk and see the changes in the city, and visit old friends. Unless they broke the law, nobody would be arrested. And the government would get credit for listening to its critics, as well as this being a boost for scholars working inside Rwanda, whose work would also become more visible internationally. Of course this is a dream, but for me it would be the first step towards a less polarised field of research and representation. The more complex and ambivalent research findings already emerging at this London conference from a new generation of researchers, would then be given more attention than outmoded and polarised views apparently still based on the pre-genocide realities of Rwanda.

  10. As a half Rwandan – half Ugandan, I always get perturbed by the pessimistic arguments that the West directs at African countries. To them, democracy seems to be all about “free and fair” elections and “irresponsible and reckless” press freedom. So PATHETIC!!! You should understand the cause of Rwanda’s dark history! How about you google about the pre-1994 newspaper (“Kangura”) and its role role in the castigation of the genocide ideology, alongside the national radio station then – all overseen by the Belgians and French! If the media isn’t checked, then Rwanda would risk sitting on a time bomb for the possible re-occurence of the horrible past events. The RPF government has registered great achievements in governance (free from ethnic biases) and development, which of course aren’t in the best interests of the West who think they’ll always patronize us! We’re saying enough is enough of sych futile, biased and non-progressive “research and observations”. Let Rwanda heal and transform into a middle-income state – and surely the sky is the limit! RWANDA N’AMAHORO.

    Richard,
    Kampala.

  11. Magnus is perfectly right : the point is not to “believe” or “disbelieve” (are perhaps some people seeing Paul Kagame as Jesus Christ ?) the point , for intellectuals , is to UNDERSTAND . And understanding starts by delineating ancestry . The RPF is a product of exile and of the Ugandan civil wars of 1978-1986 . Trying to understand it out of context gives rise to very simplified judgements . Magnus talks of Tito Rutaremara’s ” hatchet job . But how many people know that for years Tito was a member in good standing of the French Communist Party (PCF) , during its late Stalinist period , when Waldeck-Rochet and later Georges Marchais were Secretary Generals ( I remember he used to boast to me of his “grassroots contacts” with the French public during those years) ? And how many people know of Paul Kagame’s role during the transition in the fight against the Holy Spirit Mobile Battalion , before it became known as the LRA (i.e. around 1988) ? Paul was heading the Mobile Tribunal of the Ugandan Armed Forces . His judgement of the prisoners was rough and ready . In order to be able to display “clean” corpses without bruises or visible wounds , they were delicately tied to a chair , a plastic bag was put over their head and safely secured with a small cord . They were then cleanly suffocated . The bodies could be given back to the families in a very nice state . These were the days , and they left their mark . The RPF is not a neutral product put in power by the IMF in order to develop Rwanda along the neoconservative lines so dear to many of its US supporters . It is a brutal subproduct of many years of exile and violent politics (these men fought Alice Lakwena and some even fought Idi Amin , before being caught in the Rwandese genocide) . The RPF is hard and coherent and Paul Kagame is its leader , who got there by courage , murder and audacity . Ladies and Gentlemen , this is not the age of the ICC (even though Paul displayed good oratory talent in knocking it about on Saturday October 12th 2013 in Addis Ababa !) , this is the time of the battle of Agincourt or of the Thirty Years War if we look for European equivalents . Ever heard of Cesar Borgia ? He was pretty good at what he was doing .

  12. Good article. The event and now the comments thread are the Rwanda “debate” in microcosm ..

    What is interesting is that one finds the same dynamic for Rwanda viewed through the lens of eastern DR Congo. One sees fierce views that “foreign meddling” is at the root of quasi-anarchy in the Kivus; and equally fierce insistence that Rwanda is a peripheral actor protecting itself from contagion.

    More importantly for policy purposes we see oscillation between the two views without rhyme or reason. I find myself arguing the priority of domestic factors because of a total over-correction towards “regional solutions” with present special envoys etc, while the domestic factors stay stagnant.

    Apparently we are incapable of holding two ideas in our heads at the same time ..

  13. While many of us rightly feel it uncomfortable talking about the Hutu-Tutsi polarities, to pretend that ethnicity isn’t an important factor when discussing Rwanda is naive at best and destructive at worst. Naive because politics is organized along these identities and destructive in the sense that it denies (rather than challenges) a potentially explosive reality.

  14. an interesting but frustratingly incomplete account of the conference debates. i wish you could have written more. but one thing i want to add is that what is unusual about the Rwandan academic context is that politicians are invited along to these events alongside academic researchers. what kind of pseudo-liberal ideology is behind this? representatives from the Israeli state are not put sitting next to researchers of the Palestinian occupation in academic fora. politicians from the US not allowed the space to rant against academics working on topics which fall under US foreign or domestic policy. why do the organizers of this panel think this amounts to “listening to both sides”? that they do so precisely produces this dumbing down of the debate to a political exercise. Phil Clark has long been an apologist for the RPF. and though he has taken part in politics by declaring before the Rwandan parliament that gacaca was a success he is more an academic than an actual politician. he is the one whose academic position should be placed alongside scholars such as Reyntjens not Rwandan politicians and RPF party members. forcing academic researchers to engage with a regime which has shown such extreme intolerance for dissenting voices and alternative opinions is a worthwhile exercise. the Rwandan academic debate has to be deepened and pushing it into the arena of politics will only ensure that it continues to lag behind the scholarship on other geographical regions. it’s an incredibly depressing and uninspiring field for any scholar to enter.

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