Last Saturday, “Rwanda-Day” was held in the Germany City of Bonn. It was attended by more than 3500 people and, as usual, the Chief Speaker was President Paul Kagame.
It was the 10th time the event is held and has only been organized in Europe and North America─a story on its own to tell another time.
As was the case in previous events, the country’s achievements were enumerated and its development path hailed by speaker-after-speaker and space offered for attendees to ask questions and air their problems for the head of state to address.
But what necessitated this event and why does the government spend a lot of money and time on it?
According to government officials, the event offers an opportunity to mobilize Rwandans abroad to contribute to the country’s development.
To critics, the event is a waste of taxpayer’s money and a public relations exercise intended to muster political support for President Kagame and his government.
To his credit, Kagame doesn’t deny the political role of the diaspora and dismisses his critics as unschooled in the art and purposes of politics.
In his speech in Bonn, Kagame underlined this point thus: “I was reading somewhere that we organise this day to publicize and seek political support from Rwandans in the diaspora. I failed to see where the issue is. What is wrong with that”?
He added: “I thought that’s how it [politics] is done. You meet Rwandans [and] you inform them of what you expect from them and they also tell you what they expect from you. I thought that’s politics?”
Indeed, that’s politics! And there is nothing wrong in mobilizing the diaspora either for development purposes or political support.
And this politics of diaspora mobilization, reflectively, has a known origin; an origin rooted in RPF struggle and war of liberation of the 1990s.
For as is well known, the diaspora did not only provide financial and diplomatic support to the RPF during the war but also offered manpower that made it possible to win the war.
Beyond that, we should add that, historically, the effect of the diaspora on the country’s body-politic has been massive despite its relatively small numbers. And this role hasn’t been in how it votes, but how it influences dissident politics, armed rebellion and outcomes.
Right from the days of Inyenzi attacks in the 1960s to the 1990s’ RPF war to the current armed rebel groups based in the DR Congo – to the opposition based outside the country, the diaspora has been and remains a consequential factor on local politics and the country’s security.
What this reminds us then is that Rwanda Day, besides being a wise policy used to mobilize Rwandans abroad for development purposes, it can also be viewed as a strategy to deny the opposition outside the country a recruiting and financial mobilization ground.
At the moment, the Rwanda diaspora is estimated to total anywhere between 400,000 and 500,000 depending on which source one consults. Majority of these are in neighbouring countries and other African states with about 40,000 to 60,000 living in European and North American countries.
These individuals left the country for different reasons and at different times and have differing relations with the government.
It seems then that past experience taught the RPF leadership that if the diaspora can be used to destabilize the country, it can also be used for developmental ends if it were to be pro-actively engaged and incentivized to partake in the country’s development process.
The lesson Kagame seems to have learnt from past experiences then is this: the diaspora is a force to reckon with. It can be used for development as it can for subversive ends; never leave it unattended.
That’s the main point of the event; to dissuade the diaspora from dissident ventures and instead channel it to contribute to the country’s development within the prevailing political system.
Observed carefully though, and looking at who is invited to attend, issues highlighted in speeches, questions asked and problems raised, the event is also an exercise in sociological understanding of current and future Rwanda.
In view of issues emphasized, questions asked and who spoke, the exercise reveal five more “small” details about our politics and social structure. These are:
First, like President Kagame’s visits to the countryside, the event highlights the still prevalent injustice in our judicial system as well as structural violence to the extent that a judge, for example, can fear to rule against an individual in a case due to his or her status or rank or office.
We learnt this from queries raised at the event, with one of the individuals narrating how her land was taken by a military General on the basis of forged papers and when the case was brought before a judge he/she declined to rule against him on account of his rank!
Other cases of similar import and related to land and other properties were raised and solutions promised by the Head of State.
Second, the event also reveals who the rising stars in the world of business and politics are, and who favoured politicians of the moment are. For who gets to speak at the event isn’t determined haphazardly. It’s decided not only on the basis of what is important to communicate at that time but also on who is trusted enough to deliver the message.
Third, the event also tells us about the psychology of the top leadership and what they consider important at the moment. For example, this year we learnt that those who fight the government and those who criticize it for alleged human rights violations and lack of freedom of expression still exercise the mind of the president as does poor service delivery.
Fourth, for those interested in knowing who-is-who on the national-food-chain, you can easily determine that by perusing the lists of invitees from the world of business, tech, communications and politics.
Finally, looking at the diversity of attendees, their backgrounds and races, it could be argued that the event, like “Kwita Izina” of the gorilla fame, is the epitome of Kagame’s “Imagined Cosmopolitan future developed Rwanda” we have posited in the past.
For this event is attended not only by Rwandans of diverse backgrounds but also friends of Rwanda from elsewhere; individuals with mixed races and business executives from other nationalities and races looking for opportunities.
And, with the benefit of hindsight, we could add that Rwanda Day also helps Rwandans abroad to fight alienation that many Africans in the diaspora face.
Above all, we could say that the event illustrate that Kagame and the RPF he leads never forgot the probable power of the diaspora to shape political outcomes at home. That’s bad news for dissident politics.