On September 4, a U.S. newspaper; The New York Times published an article by Jeffrey Gettleman on President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, titled; The global elite’s favourite strongman’.
The article was illustrated with a black-and-white monochrome close-up head-photograph of an austere-looking Kagame in a dark jacket and grey shirt against a deep-black background.
I was first taken aback by the choice of image. As they say; a picture speaks a thousand words, and of all images of Kagame public and private, the choice of this one to fit the narrative said a lot.
The message was in the picture, only I didn’t quickly get it. At first I failed to connect the story title, the image portrayed of the subject, and the author’s view of Kagame and Rwanda.
Reading on, the author started by repeating what I already know about Rwanda; outlining the successes achieved under Kagame.
The true perception of what the author wanted to imprint on the minds of readers started showing further in the article. It was a desperate attempt to maintain a perception in international media, especially American, of an Africa the world has grown accustomed to.
Africa had to be a pitiful place where nothing innovative or well meaning can ever happen, and if it does, the world still should worry as a tragedy could follow.
The author attempts to manipulate the mindset, especially of those in the west who have come to view Kagame as a strong, visionary, and effective leader. He wants them instead to view him somehow as a psychopathic leader.
It was a tough sell because Kagame is a frequent guest at universities in the west such as Harvard, and Oxford where he delivers lectures.
He is also a friend of a number of CEO’s of global companies, renowned intellectuals, influential religious leaders such as Rick Warren, and former leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, some of whom serve on his Presidential Advisory Council.
My conclusion was that the article was written for the publics in their countries, to pressure them in not identifying with Kagame and Rwanda.
Rwanda has defied the odds of its history, and the reality of poverty to rebuild its successful present. But that is not a story people like Gettleman wish to see. What keeps them relevant is in telling a story of Africa never progressing beyond the aid consuming and conflict-riven and disease-prone continent.
By attempting to discredit Kagame whose government has been credited with most effective social development, and lifting over a million people out of poverty over the last five years, somehow Gettleman imagined he could achieve this goal.
Kagame’s unapologetic and almost uncompromising streak on Rwanda’s foreign policy interests is something some westerners find hard to stomach. It has, however, also won him admiration from influential quarters, some of whom form a strong buffer against the likes of Gettleman.
When I finally finished reading the article I thought that perhaps because of my own admiration of Kagame, I was allowing emotions to get in the way and perhaps getting it all wrong.
I asked for opinion from two friends known to be critical and analytical on such issues. They were as taken aback as I was at some of the references the writer made of the person of Kagame, and how he allowed his own prejudice to get the better of him.
As the President’s Communications Director, Yolande Makolo put it, the comments from others, especially non-Africans, showed some of them saw the article to be balanced. Therein is the danger and reason why the writer and his prejudice must not be allowed to pass off as fact.
It is dangerous when western journalists who occupy a privileged position of informing and influencing a critical global audience refuse to accept their own limitations in appreciating social and cultural dynamics of other societies.
These journalists are firm in their own value systems and use them as benchmarks in judging others, sometimes bordering on racism and bigotry.
Take, for example, how Gettleman questions the cost of accommodation for a president attending meetings at the United Nations in New York, USA. Given that we now know that America routinely spies on heads of state, we must question how Gettleman could have known about the decision-making around President Kagame’s choice of hotel.
Furthermore, for an American, Gettleman should know better of sensitivities referring to people’s physical features, as fat, thin, short or otherwise.
His constant reference of Kagame’s physique as “sickly looking” points to a certain bias. For citizens of Rwanda, where slender looking persons are a common feature, it betrays his ignorance and prejudice.
Can the New York Times refer to President Barack Obama in such a derogatory manner?
The reason we shouldn’t allow Gettleman to get away with the characterisation of President Kagame in the manner he did, is because it’s not just about Kagame.
It’s how Gettleman sees a people, Africans, and how western media’s negative perception of Africa continuously goes unchallenged. There has to be a language unacceptable for a media such as New York Times.
To have Gettleman as its East Africa Bureau Chief is unfortunate.
Awel Uwihanganye is the Founder & CEO LéO Africa Forum