May 17, 2021

Wrong’s Book and Mwenda’s Response Remind Us Who Our Elites Trust

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In the past 27 years since the end of the Genocide against the Tutsi and the ascendance to power of the Rwandese Patriotic Front on July 19, 1994, I have not read a book about our country’s leadership that is as damaging, tantalizing and almost movie-like as Michela Wrong’s book.

Written in accessible language or what the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe of the “Things Fall Apart” fame would call “the language of is and was”, Wrong’s book is titled: “Don’t Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Wrong”.

Using Patrick Karegeya’s murder in South Africa as the point of departure, the book attempts to tell Rwanda’s post-genocide story through alleged crimes and assassinations committed by the country’s leadership and, in the process, seeks to change our understanding of “good” and “bad” guys in our nation’s recent tragedy.

A former head of our nation’s external intelligence, Karegeya was found strangled in a Michelangelo hotel room in Johannesburg on January 1, 2014.  

When I started reading the book, I almost gave up due to a racially wired generalization in the introduction asserting that all Rwandans and Africans are liars─with the former, labeled the “best” at this art! But as a committed student of our society, I read on.

The more I read down the lines and paragraphs, the more I didn’t want to put it down due to its captivating details of how this or that former official was murdered or was attempted to be done, why and who is allegedly responsible.

Now, there is a lot one can say about this book ─ranging from its methodology, sources, assumptions and conclusions.

Indeed, I made a draft of my musings about this book and as I was planning to publish, something happened: reviews from others started gracing pages of newspapers from without and within our borders. I found these reviews teachable in many ways. 

And so, today, instead of sharing my reflections on the book, I will share what these reviews teach us about our politics, national secrets, elites (both ruling and counter-elites) and how these, collectively, have affected the health of our nation.

I write well aware that, as a senior government official told me in 2005, “there are individuals who have made a career not from defending national interests, but reviewing whatever others write or say with the intention not of advancing public debate of important issues, but pulling people down”─or what is called “Pull Him Down” (PhD!)

So far, I have read almost every response to Wrong’s book. 

Broadly, these reviews can be divided into two categories: those that praise the book (exclusively written by foreigners and some exiled Rwandans) and those largely penned by Rwandans within the country─which, without exception, dismiss the book as the work of a racist bent on tarnishing the image of the ruling RPF and President Paul Kagame in particular.

What’s most interesting here isn’t merely that most foreign reviewers agree with Wrong and Rwandans who have written so far (about 6) dismiss her conclusions, but that all have used the same method: none has factored in the views of Rwandan officials Wrong excluded from her work. Instead, they all rely on personal opinion and gut-feelings about the book. 

Yet, clearly, the objective of Rwandans who have written dismissing Wrong’s work as a one-sided vitriol from a western supremacist forget that the main reason her book gained attention is less about her race and more about her sources that backup her claims.

In other words, to substantively and convincingly respond to Wrong’s allegations, the best approach would be to interview or rely on views of officials she edited out of her work─including President Kagame Paul himself.

Wrong’s sources include, among other: Rwanda’s former army chief of staff, former head of external intelligence, President Kagame’s former Chief of Staff and RPF Secretary-general; advisers, former Prosecutor-general, former Prime Minister and ministers; former RPA/RDF senior military officials, families of slain leaders, friends and families of those officers, et cetera.

Now, it’s easy to dismiss the messenger and there are legitimate reasons to do so. However, as a nation, we must, at some point, truthfully reflect on how we came to this─for, in the entire history of modern nation-states─starting from around 1648 after Europe’s 30 years’ war or over 1000 years since the founding of Rwanda, I’m unaware of any state that has, in peace time, lost this high number of senior officials─including former heads of the military and intelligence to exile─effectively landing in the hands of probable enemies; it is a genuinely national tragedy. 

And the reason views from these former officials are taken serious is because, as they say, they were “in position to know” and, of course, the counter argument is that they have an axe to grind since they have all fallen out with the President and his government and their claims should be doubted.

But there is an exception to those who have written defending the Rwandan leadership and President Kagame in particular but without including his views and recollection of events. This exception is Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda.

Unlike Rwandan reviewers, Mwenda, whatever your views of him might be (especially that he has since also fallen out with the powers that be), is the only journalist that has used his personal discussions with the country’s top leaders─ including his claimed discussions with President Kagame over lunches, to present contrary views from those promoted by Wrong.

The reason Mwenda’s method is more convincing is because the main reason Wrong’s accusations attracted widespread attention has more to do with her sources than her race.

In other words, both Wrong and Mwenda share a resource no Rwandan journalist or researcher has─ that’s personal access to and trust of our leaders and former leaders.

From their writings, it’s clear that they were both welcomed, given access and trusted with our nation’s secrets by our elites in power. That’s, Wrong was trusted by former officials and Mwenda, by current and former officials. Without such trust and access, neither would have written, seemingly authoritatively about our affairs as they did.

Tellingly, like Wrong, Mwenda is also a foreigner! 

Now, the problem isn’t that these journalists were trusted and given access nor that our leaders shouldn’t give interviews to foreigners, but that there is no Rwandan journalist, writer or researcher with the same kind of trust and access to our leaders─current or former and, due to that, no one can authoritatively write citing firsthand knowledge of, interaction with, discussion or interviews with the country’s top leaders. 

In the last more than 20 years I have spent in the media industry and research realm, I know no Rwandan journalist, researcher or writer who has the kind of access to our former officials that Wrong has or the trust and access Mwenda used to have with current and former officials. 

Reading how our people responded to Wrong’s accusations and Mwenda’s response, reminded me the mismatch between rhetoric and practice: while our leaders endlessly call on Rwandans to “Tell Our Own Story”, they trust foreigners with our nation’s secrets at our expense!

So why don’t our leaders and elites trust and give access to our journalists, researchers and writers as they do with their foreign colleagues? 

Next week we shall answer that question as well as the history of this mistrust and its effect on our body-politic.

Dr Christopher Kayumba is the Founding President of the Rwandese Platform for Democracy (RPD).

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