Last week, former President Clinton published a glowing essay that held up post-genocide Rwanda as an example for America and the world.
Here is an early quote: "But none of us have to win at someone else’s expense. The best example of this on earth that I have encountered is in Rwanda, where I do a lot of work. They’re the most amazing people I ever saw."
Days earlier, I had written something quite different.
Reacting to a tendentious essay by a Kigali-based American reporter, my annoyed rebuttal did upset many self-identified Rwandans.
First, I argued that Rwanda’s post-genocide leadership is getting away with murder. Among other misdeeds, it was strangling democracy, especially free speech, the rule of law and free and fair elections.
This is a sample: "[R]ight now Kagame’s regime is shutting down newspapers, is kidnapping the homeless and is demonizing and pronouncing Ms. Ingabire guilty--before her sham trial even begins. And hours ago in Rwanda, Kagame arrested eminent American law professor, Peter Erlinder, who is defending Ms. Ingabire."
Additionally, I pointed out that Rwanda’s strongman is being coddled by three groups of American enablers—-by government policy makers; by business leaders and other influential individuals outside the administration; and worse of all, by American reporters acting like praise-singers.
This was my bottom line: "All this reeks because it continues a tradition of Western elites telling Africans to be happy living under dictatorships that those elites would not tolerate in their own countries for a single day."
My opinion of what should be done remains unchanged: True friends of Rwanda and Africa must tell the American people the truth--Washington is in bed with a repressive regime in Kigali. Once truth confronts falsehood, American politicians and bureaucrats will quickly put pressure on Rwanda’s leaders to change course.
Washington has more than sufficient leverage to do this because each year it sends millions of American tax dollars to Kigali.
The gushing conduits that flood Rwanda with American military and development aid include: the Africa Command, AFRICOM; Africa Contingency Training and Assistance, ACOTA; the Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC; the Agency for International Development, USAID; the National Endowment for Democracy, NED; and the National Democratic Institute, NDI.
The State Department’s website states the truth succinctly, “Overall U.S. foreign assistance to Rwanda has increased four-fold over the past four years.” Specifically, the US has given Rwanda more than one billion dollars --$1,034,000,000 to be precise-- since 2000. And in the current fiscal year, President Obama proposes to give $240 million more.
Given the starkly different attitudes in our essays, some superficial readers have assumed that I must disagree vehemently with former President Bill Clinton. But I do not.
To the contrary, I agree 100% with Mr. Clinton. I am elated. Being an African immigrant long sick and tired of the media’s relentless negative stereotyping of Africa and Black people, I find it refreshing and wonderful that an American world leader of Mr. Clinton’s stature is holding up an African example for the world to emulate. It is about time.
Far from being unhappy, I gladly urge President Clinton to do more; to go further.
His essay praises a people, while mine lambastes a dictatorship. That is the simple explanation why my sharp criticism does not clash with Mr. Clinton’s praise.
The government I am unhappy with is President Paul Kagame’s. Its specific activities I condemn fall into three categories. There is its severe abuse of democratic principles and rights at home. I am terrified while Kigali has made commendable improvements, its iron-fisted rule is building an explosive time bomb--in a country whose leaders should know better because it has already been traumatized by a very recent genocide.
Next is Mr. Kagame’s invasions of the Congo and operation there of proxy militias. And then there is the plunder of the Congo’s resources, including conflict minerals.
President Kagame’s invasion, rent-seeking and plunder make him the leading figure among the many responsible for the Eastern Congo’s unspeakable catastrophe. We are talking about widespread, brutal rapes, mutilations, massive population displacement, and over 6 million deaths.
Lest we forget, these cross-border atrocities violate international law.
For us Africans, they are more--the singular, scary nightmare we have been desperately battling to prevent for over half a century since independence.
Reflect on why. With a few exceptions that prove the rule, every African country is a salad bowl of ethnicities, cultures, languages and other competing identities that are easily politicized and manipulated. Consequently friction and grievances abound. And our boundaries, carelessly drawn by rapacious, racist plunderers, are a mess. The only thing worse is violating or violently redrawing them.
Hence, Africans are very alarmed by Mr. Kagame’s invasions Congo and his manipulation of the Tutsi communities in both countries. His actions recall the late Siyaad Barre of Somalia, another US-backed dictator whose irredentist Ogaden wars bear much responsibility for today’s deadly situation in the Horn of Africa.
This is why even though Mr. Kagame may be loved and lionized in Washington, London and Paris, across Africa he worries us.
And it is why millions of Rwanda’s African sisters and brothers like me say: Yes, the Rwandan genocide did occur. It did kill over almost a million Africans—Rwandans to be precise. We share the pain and feel bottomless sympathy. However, that trauma can never justify violent predation that has already killed more than six million additional Africans—Congolese to be precise.
And Africans have a final question--for Mr. Kagame’s Western admirers and enablers: What do you say about his causal role in mass death and suffering in the Eastern Congo?
In contrast to my essay, Mr. Clinton’s focuses on regular people. It tells the amazing stories of four typical Rwandans, all but one of whom remain nameless in Mr. Clinton’s telling. Like Mr. Nelson Mandela, the two female and two male Rwandans are doing the impossible--forgiving, putting the nightmarish past behind them, and looking to and building the better future.
I too consider their example the best of Africa and want it lauded and copied. To repeat then: I completely agree with President Clinton’s praise of post-genocide Rwanda’s people. A people this forgiving, this resilient, this admirable deserve the very best governance—meaning democracy.
That is why President Clinton has a sacred obligation, in my opinion. He needs to use his incomparable influence to persuade Rwanda’s government to make big changes both domestically and externally. Domestically, Kigali must embark on real democracy, including adhering to universal standards in the rule of law, in free speech and in free and fair elections.
And Mr. Clinton must persuade Kigali to rein in its army and militias in the Congo, to end the plunder, to make amends, and to respect the full sovereignty of the Congo and other neighbors.
Admittedly, these are gigantic tasks and processes that will take years. But precisely because they are thousand-mile journeys, they must start immediately with a vital first step: American law professor and defense attorney Peter Erlinder must be freed.
So, over to you, Mr. President: Please repeat your uplifting North Korea rescue saga. Bring fellow attorney Peter Erlinder home from his Kigali dungeon.
Nii Akuetteh, former executive director of www.africaaction.org and adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, is a member of the Scholars’ Council at www.transafricaforum.org and founder of the Democracy and Conflict Research Institute in Accra, Ghana, and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa www.osiwa.org
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