A 42 year-old mother of four children, Idamange Iryamugwiza Yvonne is in the custody of the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) awaiting prosecution and possible mental examination after she appeared in a series of YouTube videos criticising the ruling political establishment in Rwanda.
On Monday February 15, evening news emerged that Idamange had been arrested. Rwanda Police issued a statement at 9:41pm confirming the information. It said Idamange had been exhibiting behavior that “mixes politics, criminality and madness”.
Then, on Tuesday, the RIB spokesman Dr Murangira B. Thierry told local media that before Idamange faces courts, she will undergo a mental examination to ascertain her state of mind. The comments made in the YouTube videos “show she may be having mental illness,” said Murangira.
The case of Idamange is just one of a long list of Rwandan nationals and some foreigners who have been described as “mad” or mentally disturbed, including name-calling, in seeming choreographed social media campaigns, articles in news and “analysis” in some of the country’s mainstream media associated with government. It normally starts when individuals make comments or assessments that contradict any aspects of Rwanda’s official history, current affairs, policy choices and outcomes.
In the case of Idamange, a few weeks ago, she was unknown until she made her views public. She used her first YouTube video, with a Holy Bible on her side, to accuse the government of President Paul Kagame of ignoring survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. The government, she added, was deliberately impoverishing Rwandans to keep them under bondage and control.
Several other videos followed, in which she piles criticism. On Sunday, Idamange appeared in another video in which she calls on Rwandans to join her in a procession to Village Urugwiro, the President’s office, to “demand our country back”. She also alluded to other rumours on social media normally promoted by opposition groups in exile.
While the story of Idamange’s arrest offers an opportunity to evaluate the state of freedom of expression in the country and its limits, it also provides occasion to assess what can appropriately be referred to as the “politics of madness” that has, for some time graced our public discourse. It seems, every person that dares to criticize, whether objectively or otherwise, is branded “mad”, or given some unpalatable name or description.
Recent history also shows that even some journalists that write or air news and information deemed critical, have been referred to, casually, as Abasazi (mad). These range from journalists who used to write for the now defunct newspapers such as Umuseso, Ukuri, and Umuvugizi, to today’s YouTubers.
Therefore, an assessment of the politics of civic engagement and criticism in the past 15 or so years in the country, Idamange, who authorities have labelled “mad”, is only one, in a line of many others. There is also a recent case of Aimable Karasira, also a YouTuber. Until late last year, Karasira was a computer science lecturer at the University of Rwanda. The institution fired him citing indiscipline and comments made on his YouTube channel.
Like Idamange, Karasira also says he is a genocide survivor. He has been interrogated several times by RIB over his anti-government YouTube channel posts. State minister for culture Edouard Bamporiki and outspoken local genocide commentator Tom Ndahiro have both accused Karasira of denying and negating the genocide against the Tutsi, a view shared widely on social media.
The “First Lady”
Ironic as it sounds for a survivor to be accused of negating the genocide, the same accusation has been made on others. Such individuals have also been accused of ‘self hate’ and siding with those who killed their families in 1994. Karasira is called ‘wa musazi’ (the mad one) on Facebook by accounts that have targeted people who openly express views perceived to be critical of government.
Months before the case of Aimable Karasira emerged last year, another figure; Sekikubo Fred Barafinda was bundled into a RIB van on February 5, 2020, and taken to Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital, in eastern Rwanda, where people with mental illnesses are treated. Exactly a month later on March 4, RIB spokesperson at the time, Michelle Umuhoza, told local media that a medical examination by Ndera had established Barafinda has a serious mental illness. Barafinda denies the claim.
Barafinda came to public attention in 2017. Previously unknown, Barafinda submitted documents to Rwanda’s electoral commission seeking to challenge President Kagame in the August 2017 polls. Donning bizarre fashions, Barafinda’s comments against the President and his ruling establishment, came as shock to many in a dull political campaign and political space used to political correctness. He didn’t qualify to be on the ballot, but local Kinyarwanda news sites and YouTubers loved him and run away with his brand.
In all videos, Barafinda describes his village as a country separate from Rwanda, because, according to him, the country was being mismanaged and he and his family didn’t want to be part of it. He baptized his wife the “First Lady”. In some videos, Barafinda predicted that God would punish Rwanda’s government for the abuses against its people.
To the exiled opposition, Barafinda was repeating the exact narrative they have been advancing since 1994. The YouTube videos that carried Barafinda received tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments, an indication the viewership was coming from within and outside Rwanda.
The tagging of dissenting voices in Rwanda as “madness” did not start recently. It has been around for years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, journalists and editors of newspapers that reported critical happenings were vilified in official circles as not in the right state of mind. All of these journalists, have either left the trade, or are exiled. Such journalists include individuals like Charles Kabonero, Robert Sebufilira and McDowell Kalisa, who used to edit Umuseso newspaper, now defunct.
Outspoken political opponents of the ruling party have not been spared of the brand ‘umusazi’. One name, that of Dr David Himbara, a former senior aide to President Kagame, now exiled in Canada, has for years been subject of a sustained Facebook and other media campaign targeting his purported “madness” and “drug use”.
In one constantly republished image, a lit marijuana is graphically put on the lips of Dr Himbara. To an unsuspecting eye, the fake image looks very authentic. The image is a graphic representation of texts that have been published on obscure websites, claiming Dr Himbara uses drugs. The same has been used on Aimable Karasira, who is also a singer. This tag has been painted on many others.
For Dr Himbara’s case, he maintains a presence on the web, that seems to be a thorn for the authorities in Rwanda. There have been countless articles rebutting particular articles authored by the economics academic. A simple Google search of Dr Himbara brings out an endless list of these virulent articles.
The “madness” tag has not only been used on some Rwandans in an attempt to put a cloud of doubt over their criticism of government. In May 2010, an American law Professor, Peter Erlinder arrived in Rwanda as defense lawyer to then arrested opposition politician Ingabire Victoire. Within days, Erlinder was himself arrested and charged with genocide ideology.
On June 2 of the same year, Police released statement suggesting that Prof Erlinder may not have been mentally sound, as he had attempted to commit suicide in his cell. At the time, police spokesman Eric Kayiranga said in subsequent media interviews that Erlinder had swallowed a cocktail of drugs after realising the “gravity of the charges against him”.
The allegation that Erlinder was suicidal attracted dismissive reactions from his family back in the U.S. His daughter Sarah Erlinder told the BBC at the time: “My father was not the type of person who would consider committing suicide. We are now concerned that this is really laying the groundwork for something else to happen to him and for it to be blamed on suicide.”
Erlinder would later be freed in what may have been a government deal with the Americans. Erlinder, who had for all the previous years been the go-to expert on the Rwandan legal system, went quiet to this day.
Back to the case of Idamange, the one highlighted at beginning of this story. The Police explanation for her did not came as a surprise as the term “madness” had been used against her immediately after her videos first emerged and before the official statement. But considering the chronology of previous cases of people branded ‘mad’, Idamange will not be the last.
While mental illness is real, the politics and history of “madness”, and labeling those who dare to depart from sanctioned official narratives is long and well established. It was first documented many years ago by philosopher Michel Foucault in the book titled, “Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason“. It remains with us!