Posts from — February 2012
Sharon Broussard, an associate editor of The Plain Dealer’s editorial pages, was one of 12 senior U.S. editors and producers who visited Rwanda in November as part of a Gatekeeper Editors fellowship organized by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Rwanda would rather be known for rising from the ashes of the horrific April 1994 genocide and as an African powerhouse than for the genocide that shocked the world and left nearly 800,000 people dead.
Both Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by their neighbors and local militias after local media exhorted people to kill “the cockroaches.”
But this poor East African country may be courting disaster instead.
Led mostly by the once-exiled Tutsis who vanquished the murderous Hutu militias in 1994, Rwanda’s efforts to craft a better life for its citizens have been marred by draconian limits on speech and by accusations that the government drives its critics into exile, imprisons or assassinates them.
As a group of U.S. editors learned during a recent visit sponsored by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University, Rwanda may be making great strides, but inequities and unresolved ethnic divisions — which Rwandans are not allowed to discuss — are holding it back.
The Tutsis that dominate Rwanda’s ruling class make up just 15 percent of the population, although a Tutsi monarchy long governed Rwanda and was propped up first by German and then by Belgian colonizers. Hutus form the majority at about 84 percent.
Still, ethnic conflict wasn’t apparent as we traveled through this green, mountainous, land-locked country of 11 million, whose main exports are coffee and tea and whose main employment is subsistence farming.
Delicious, tiny bananas — we ate them every morning — mangoes and beans grow on nearly every bit of land in the countryside, including the hillsides, which are carefully terraced. And though there were some cars and plenty of bicycles and motorcycles, most people walked to their destinations.
But this country is on the move in other ways, as well.
As Liliane Uwanziga Mupende, director of urban planning and construction for the Rwandan government, puts it, “You leave the country for two or three months and [when you return] there is always something new.”
From the first day of our visit to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, our translator, Fred Mwasa, pointed out all the new construction — a newly built shopping mall and the steady rise of new office buildings — and dozens of shacks slated to be torn down by the government to make way for more development.
Even Kigali’s simple but well-guarded international airport will be replaced by a new airport in Bugesera, a rural section outside of Kigali, in 2015, said Mwasa, who is also managing editor of The Chronicles, a new independent newspaper in Kigali.
It’s all part of Rwanda’s 2020 Vision plan to turn this nation of farmers into a communications and regional transportation hub in Africa with an educated, skilled work force.
The first nine years of school are free for youngsters. The country also has a mandated health insurance plan.
The thinking appears to be that, if all boats rise, Rwanda’s long-standing ethnic divisions won’t sink them.
But nearly every government official we met was an educated Tutsi who had fled to Uganda or some other safe harbor before the mass killings of 1994 and returned to cushy jobs afterward.
Can such a seemingly exclusive group create an inclusive, stable government and a country that can become the hub of prosperity in East Africa?
President Paul Kagame, the former Tutsi militia general who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front that booted Hutu militias from the country in 1994 and who has been in power ever since, believes so.
The nation is trying to “have a niche, if you will, in the East African community, where we can do certain things or provide certain things others may not be providing,” he told our group of journalists.
Kagame has cracked down on corruption and streamlined construction and business permits to entice foreign investors and wealthy expatriates to come to Rwanda.
He seems to be achieving those goals. Rwanda now ranks 45th out of 183 countries on the World Bank’s “Doing Business in 2012” report.
Entrepreneurs can start a business in just three days. And the country is clean — thanks to a brigade of workers on city streets as early as 7 a.m. — and safe. A stroll in Kigali, even at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., isn’t a risky endeavor — a major contrast with the unruly cities of Congo and Uganda, Rwanda’s neighbors.
Yet Rwanda’s orderliness can also be attributed to a scary, nearly omnipresent police and military force. Indeed, when our death-defying driver was waved over for trying to pass on a hill, a soldier sauntered over with a gun slung around his neck.
After a tense talk with our driver in Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language frequently spoken here although English is the official language, the soldier waved our driver along without giving him a ticket. The driver was careful after that.
But that isn’t the only frightening thing about Rwanda. Free speech is stifled, and the media, parts of which aided and abetted the killers by promoting the genocide in 1994, are still considered suspect. Hence the shackles on reporters, editors and ordinary Rwandans.
Rwandans risk time in jail if they talk about Hutus and Tutsis — everyone is supposed to be Rwandan now — and it’s against the law to criticize the president or government leaders.
The infamous genocide is called the Tutsi genocide by law, ignoring the thousands of Hutus, many of whom were married to Tutsis or just stood up for them, who were slaughtered as well.
Crossing those laws, or even the appearance of doing so, has led to long prison terms and even death for opposition figures, say human rights organizations, although the government has steadfastly denied such charges.
Even exiles aren’t safe. Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Kagame confidant, accused Kagame of corruption, then fled to South Africa in February 2010. An assassin tried to kill him four months later.
There is talk of reforming press laws, but that may not come in time to help Agnes Nkusi, editor of the Umurabyo newspaper, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison last February for printing articles that said that some Rwandans weren’t happy with the president and other government leaders. Prosecutors, who also imprisoned for seven years the young reporter who co-wrote the stories, charged the reporting would stir up hatred against the government.
Kagame, an avid Twitter user who sent our group a Tweet, told us in an interview that if it were up to him, no one would be punished for “even abusing” the president, but that he had to “let these things run their course.”
But it’s an atrocious course, considering that it means Nkusi could rot in prison.
Kagame gets an opportunity before the 2017 elections to show whether he’s really willing to do what’s best for Rwanda or whether it’s all bluster and Tweets.
The two-term president could step down — as he promises to do. Or, he could find party hacks willing to carve out a third term in the constitution so he can run again.
“I will not be around as president, come 2017,” he told us flatly.
But some journalists in our group were not convinced.
And it’s safe to say from what I saw during our 10-day stay in the country, neither are many Rwandans.
February 7, 2012 2 Comments