Friday, 23 July 2010

Kagame and the International Media: Another Viewpoint

Wth the recent media spotlight on the Rwandan elections and Paul Kagame here, here and in many other places, it’s interesting that few if any outlets have picked up on the reporting by Charles Onyango-Obbo of his recent trip to Rwanda to interview Kagame. And just before you ask the most likely question: Charles who? He is the Ugandan-born Executive Editor of the Nation Media Group in Kenya. The third installment of his 3 part piece comes out in The East African magazine next week, but there’s already a good mouthful to chew over in the 2 articles published already. Nothing earth shaking yet, but Obbo makes a couple of revealing points. From the get go however, he tries to establish his objective observer credentials and maybe avoid accusations of doing a puff-piece..

“On the evening of June 18, I ran into an old friend in the lobby of the Serena
Hotel in Kigali. Looking astonished, he asked; “My God, what are you doing here;
aren’t they going to arrest you?” It all started with my column in The
EastAfrican, which an editor who can squeeze wine out of rock gave the title “
something rotten in the state of Rwanda
” (April 26-May 2, 2010). It got the
attention of the Rwanda government, and it responded with several rebuttals and
an interview by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

My friend was surprised to see me there, because the common view is that President Paul Kagame eats critical journalists for breakfast. I had, so to speak, taken myself into
the lion’s den. Of course not. I have covered the ruling Rwanda Patriotic
Army/Front since late 1990 when they were in the bush fighting to return home.
And they have squabbled many times with me over my reporting of Rwanda while I
was still at The Monitor in Kampala. However, like the proverbial mangy dog, I
kept showing up at their doorstep with my notebook and tape recorder. It paid
off. It gave me valuable access during the war, and over the years offered me
glimpses into one of the most fascinating — as well as troubling — African
political stories. President Kagame’s take on reading my article was that I, of
all journalists, should know better.

So I was in Kigali, among other things, to check how much the landscape had changed since I was last there, and to hear his side of the story. I had been told in an advance of leaving Nairobi that President Kagame was not looking just to have an interview. He wanted a no-holds-barred debate on both my, and the international media’s view of Rwanda today.”

Still he doesn’t try to cover his subject in roses when introducing him like this:

“There are strong elements of former South African president Thabo Mbeki and
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (whose works the Rwanda president says he
admires) in Kagame. He has Mbeki’s distaste for platform politics and
campaigning, and loves policy wonking. And Zenawi’s no-drama approach,
sternness, and cocky self-assurance. And I think he is the president who has a
greater addiction to his Blackberry than US President Barack Obama. As the day
wears on, he can barely spend 10 minutes without laying his keyboard-happy
fingers on it and checking the flood of e-mails and alerts that come to it.”

But he does credit the Rwandan president for creating what he called – “a different world.” However, in doing that, he says “Kagame had broken too many eggs, and made himself many enemies. Kagame hating is a cottage industry. And in the very reasons of his success, lie the seeds of his downfall.”
He continues:

“Such things have made Kagame very assured of the rightness of his cause and his
ways. And a poor listener. When I put that to him, he agrees that he can be
hardheaded. That he will not listen to a different opinion just because it is
the right thing to do: “I hold my positions very strongly. And you must work
very hard to convince me that you are right. I cannot just let you win the
argument to make you feel good,” he says. Therefore if Kagame thinks you
are just a talker, a heckler in the market who has not done important things
that have made a difference to people’s lives, he is not likely to take you
seriously. And in press conferences, he will ooze contempt for such people from
every pore. Quite a few people find him insufferable when he digs in.”

The more critical comments came in
part 2, as seen here:

"Rwanda’s withdrawal from DRC, while improving Kagame’s international scorecard,
proved problematic domestically.
Because Kagame is overzealous in fighting
corruption — and is the kind of man who will chase down a chicken thief if need
be — the fortunes of war that crooked generals had got used to in DRC were not
available back in Rwanda. Foreign occupation is corrupting, and Kagame seems not
to have had a smart post-DRC-war settlement for his generals that took that
reality into account. This sowed the seeds that eventually led to the falling
out between Kagame and his close allies. Former army chief of staff Gen Kayumba
Nyamwasa, who escaped an assassination attempt in his South African exile last
month, represents one face of that post-Congo crisis.

Secondly, the
withdrawal from the DRC effectively ended the “Greater Rwanda” project, which
aimed to bring the Banyamulenge into an expanded Rwandan state where they would
be protected — and therefore envisaged an annexation of parts of the DRC. The
end of that dream proved very unpopular with RPF’s hardline nativists,
especially those Tutsi who were refugees in French-speaking Burundi and DRC.
They tend to form the raw edge of the RPF, and feel they are losing out in the
“de-Frenchification” of Rwanda, and its slow but sure conversion into an
Anglophone state by the Rwandans who lived their refugee life in Uganda, Kenya,
Tanzania and the West. They see this “de-Frenchification” in Rwanda’s joining of
the East African Community, an English-speaking trading bloc where
right-hand-drive cars are the norm (in Rwanda, they drive on the right), and the
Commonwealth, a relic of the British Empire.

This is a real
ideological divide, and even the self-assured President Kagame can only flip
flop when discussing the issue."

I eagerly await the final part of Mr Onyango-Obbo’s article before making my own comments. But I’m sure that won’t stop you guys from passing your verdict on the man and his politics right now. Please feel free, the comments section below is all yours!
Photo: Paul and Jeanette Kagame with their children (credit: The East African)

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