Even Critics of Rwanda’s Government Are Helping Paul Kagame Stay in Power
For every problem highlighted by local journalists, Rwanda’s strongman can present himself as the solution.
GICUMBI, Rwanda — Jennifer Niyonsaba was hunched over a sound-mixing board in a small production room with bare, yellow walls. A volunteer journalist at Radio Ishingiro, a community radio station in rural northern Rwanda, she had been out all morning, interviewing villagers who were upset that the government had ignored their complaints about the lack of public toilets and sanitation at a local market. Now she was working on a final cut of the radio story.
“We go to the people in order to hear their problems, and then we go to the authorities to see if they can help,” Niyonsaba said, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.
Listeners to Radio Ishingiro, which broadcasts out of a modest building, have come to expect local muckraking of this sort. Virtually unheard of in this tightly controlled, authoritarian country, recent Radio Ishingiro investigations have focused on contentious issues like a new urban plan that would displace some villagers and angry government workers who say they were never paid for their labor. Local officials who at first bristled at the plucky radio reports have adjusted to calling into shows to answer questions and defend their actions.
In addition to covering local news with a critical eye, the staff of Radio Ishingiro holds bimonthly community debate meetings, where residents can question local officials directly about policies that affect their day-to-day lives. Every other month, they gather at a different sector of Gicumbi, a rural district of rutted roads and tea plantations about two hours by car from the capital, Kigali. At the first one, held in October 2016, nearly 1,500 people showed up, outraged by an ill-defined urban improvement plan that would have forced residents to buy expensive new toilets and kitchens.
“The population was very furious, they couldn’t even clap for the mayor,” recalled Ildephonse Sinabubariraga, the station’s managing director. But they applauded the Radio Ishingiro moderators, who pressed the mayor for specific details as he tried to squirm away. Ultimately, the mayor scaled back the plan and allowed people to use cheaper materials. “The people started getting solutions, responses,” Sinabubariraga said.
This type of media activism is no small feat in Rwanda, where the government has ruthlessly muzzled the press, to the point that almost all coverage of the government from inside the country amounts to propaganda. Rwanda has strict laws prohibiting “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” that in practice stifle speech. And in recent years, as Anjan Sundaram documents in his 2016 book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Rwandan journalists have been co-opted by campaigns of intimidation, run out of the country, and even killed. Political dissidents have likewise been jailed, tortured, and murdered — sometimes pursued and assassinated abroad.
In such a political climate, haranguing local officials and bringing injustices to light might seem like a death wish. But Radio Ishingiro has been digging up dirt since Sinabubariraga took over the station in 2013, and not one of its 16 journalists has been harassed or detained. “Whatever is in our community, we have the full power to investigate it, and then to run stories or radio programs,” he said.
On its face, the government’s tolerance of the station is puzzling. But upon closer inspection, there is a sinister logic to it that helps explain how President Paul Kagame has consolidated control over Rwanda in the 23 years since his rebel army helped bring the country’s brutal genocide to an end.
On Aug. 4, Rwandans will head to the polls to decide whether to grant Kagame another seven-year term. (They almost certainly will. Despite the popular hashtag #RwandaDecides, his two remaining challengers are little more than placeholders allowed to run in order to preserve the illusion of democracy.) Having already served two elected terms in office — and effectively controlled the government since 1994 — Kagame would have been constitutionally required to step down this year. But in a 2015 referendum, Rwandans voted to amend the constitution, paving the way for him to run again and potentially remain in office until 2034.
The president claims to have had nothing to do with organizing the referendum, which saw 98 percent of voters obediently cast a ballot for the change, according to the official tally. (Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch charge that many Rwandans voted for the measure out of fear.) Kagame, however, has portrayed himself as a selfless public servant reluctantly answering the call of duty.
“You requested me to lead the country again after 2017. Given the importance and consideration you attach to this, I can only accept,” he said after the constitutional referendum passed. “But I don’t think that what we need is an eternal leader.”
Kagame’s carefully cultivated savior identity has been key to his political success. Only he was capable of halting the genocide — an official narrative that conveniently ignores the subsequent mass killings carried out by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front — and only he can lead the country toward a peaceful and prosperous future.
“In front of the population, he is seen as someone who is caring about them, the person who is protecting them,” said Rene Claudel Mugenzi, a Rwandan human rights activist who lives in Britain and has faced death threats from the Rwandan government. “It’s one of the strategies he is using to get people behind him, to think that he is the person who is necessary — that without him they are finished.”
The savior has undoubtedly delivered for many Rwandans. A brief visit to Kigali leaves one with the impression that Kagame has figured out the secret to progress and reconciliation in a country that many saw as an ungovernable basket case just two decades ago. Rwanda’s political stability, coupled with its remarkable economic success in recent years, has led many Western investors and governments to give it a pass in the democracy department.
The stark contrast between Kigali’s clean, orderly streets and the chaos that engulfs most African capitals has become a kind of cliché parroted by visiting journalists. But there is no denying the impressive modern buildings sprouting up along the city’s lush, tree-lined roads or the national pride that many young Rwandans espouse. The country has framed itself as a leader of African progress — and indeed, when African Union heads of state elected Kagame to the rotating AU chairmanship for 2018 it was seen as a step toward institutional reform, inspiring predictions that the “Rwandan model” will soon be exported across Africa.
But there is a sort of Pleasantville quality to the country, which has eagerly taken on the moniker of the “Singapore of Africa.” Each morning, women in green uniforms descend to Kigali’s streets to sweep and weed. Everyone meticulously drives the speed limit, no one asks for bribes, and the city’s roundabouts are all perfectly manicured with little green hedges and colorful flowers. Everywhere you turn, positive news of Rwanda’s success and development abounds. A typical Sunday cover of New Times, Rwanda’s main English-language newspaper, was plastered with a photo of a thin, bespectacled Kagame sandwiched between Bill Gates and the prime minister of Norway at the Munich Security Conference, plugging Rwanda’s successful sustainability model.
But beneath this shiny veneer is a ruthless dark side of the Rwandan success story. The parliament may be lauded by Western governments and some nongovernmental organizations as a model for gender equality, with women holding 64 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, but it does little more than rubber-stamp Kagame’s edicts. The Rwandan president, meanwhile, is thought to have ordered the assassination and enforced disappearance of hundreds of critics, both inside and outside the country. A recent investigation by Human Rights Watch found that even petty criminals have been summarily executed by his security services.
David Himbara, a former economic aide to Kagame who fled to Canada and sought asylum, said Kagame “is a dictator who doesn’t simply see violence as a means to an end, but openly delights in it.”
Kagame often denies these allegations with a wink and a nod. At a prayer breakfast in Kigali in 2014, he dismissed accusations that he ordered the assassination of former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, who was found strangled in South Africa, but asked provocatively: “Shouldn’t we have done it?” Moments later, he implied it was honorable for Rwandans to use violence against those who divide the country. “For me, I signed up even for confrontation,” he said.
It was Kagame, the savior, volunteering to dirty his hands in the service of a more unified nation. And therein lies the likeliest explanation for why Radio Ishingiro is allowed to keep demanding accountability from local officials, even if it means airing embarrassing truths about the government.
For every problem blamed on local authorities, Kagame is the solution. This dovetails perfectly with his relentless push for efficiency, accountability, and consensus — a campaign he promotes at home on the stump and abroad in places like the World Economic Forum in Davos. Often, he responds to Rwandans’ questions and concerns directly. Last year, for example, a journalist tweeted a story to Kagame suggesting that Kigali’s downtown area should be turned into a pedestrian-only zone. Kagame tweeted back, “I agree with him. Will check with the Mayor!” The next week, cars were banned. Other times, Kagame makes a show of going to remote villages to hear complaints, dressing down officials who haven’t done their job properly on the spot.
“President Kagame is known for making time to go deep down in villages to meet ordinary citizens,” Kim Kamasa, the first secretary of the Rwanda High Commission in Nairobi, wrote on July 21 in the New Times, defending Kagame’s record. “These gatherings are known to cause fear among Government officials since citizens use this opportunity to raise issues that are of concern to their well-being and at times expose some officials who have not carried out their duties to the satisfaction of the people.”
But the buck always stops only at the local level, and journalists know better than to demand accountability from Kagame’s administration. “That kind of journalism is limited — Kagame is not touched, the top officials are not touched, just the lowest-level politicians,” said Mugenzi, the Rwandan human rights activist living in the U.K. “The government wants to control the low-level authorities to keep them afraid, so they can use that fear to control them.”
Journalists at Radio Ishingiro, which receives funding from partners such as USAID, the European Union, and international NGOs like the U.S.-based peace-building organization Search for Common Ground, are frank about the fact that they would never openly criticize Kagame’s administration or allow opposition figures outside the country to speak on air. Sinabubariraga, the radio’s managing director, even dismisses the accounts of journalists who have fled the country, saying they are just making excuses to claim asylum abroad.
But as one of four community radio stations not funded by the government, the staff at Radio Ishingiro have opened up a small but significant space for dissent for some of the poorest and most disenfranchised Rwandans. Sinabubariraga says that residents of Gicumbi, once wary of questioning authorities, have come to count on the station for local news and that they expect the journalists to advocate on their behalf.
“The people trust the radio station,” he said proudly.
But people also trust Kagame, by and large — which is why he will likely win this week’s vote by an overwhelming margin without having to even think about rigging ballot boxes. Sinabubariraga, like many Rwandans, struggled to imagine a future without the soft-spoken president at the helm. “If there’s no Kagame, what will happen?” he asked. It’s a question that could keep Rwanda’s president in office for many years to come.
Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images