The hypocrisy of Human Rights discourse of the West on Africa

A comment on President Kagame’s interview with France 24

After watching President Paul Kagame’s interview with France 24 English on June 24, 2019, I took a short moment for a prayer of grace. I wanted to thank God for the way the President stood for Rwanda and Africa on the issue of Human Rights, confronting the condescending attitude common in the West towards our continent.

It reminded me of Congo’s (DRC) Prime Minister, the late Patrice Emery Lumumba’s memorable Independence Speech of June 30, 1960. While still in Secondary School, some of us used to learn it by heart! Lumumba’s speech was not scheduled by the protocol. King Baudouin of Belgium had made an address full of paternalistic advices to the nascent State and glorifying colonialism.

“Belgium has sent to your land the best of his sons. […] When Leopold II started the great work that finds its crowning today, he did not come to you as a conqueror, but rather as a civilizer”, the King of the Belgians ironically stated.

Joseph Kasa-Vubu, then President of independent Congo made an unexciting and even self-humiliating acknowledgement, noting “your care for all these people that you have loved and protected. They are happy to be able to express today […] their gratitude for the benefits that you and your illustrious predecessors have provided to them”.

But then, Prime Minister Lumumba rose up to the greatness of the event and stood for Congo and Africa, denouncing the killings, pains, spoliations, humiliations and other gross violations of Congolese people’s rights during the 80 years of Belgian presence in their country.

Just like Lumumba did to impose a historical speech against the prevailing hypocrisy and a protocol that had ignored him, Kagame, in the same way succeeded to express strong observations with calm and dignity, against a journalist determined to humiliate and not let him talk. Among other things, Kagame denounced the cynicism of the West with regard to past tragedies of their making in Africa.

I would like to comment a bit on this, talking of colonialism and its ramifications in our recent history.

Africa and Colonialism

Unlike Kasa-Vubu and others who thank colonialism for its benefits, scholars, including the many erudite who authored the UnescoGeneral History of Africa, find that it rather caused stagnation to the continent, depriving it of freedom and sense of initiative to take part in human history.

Even what is perceived as positive outcome of colonization like roads, education and many modern amenities were accidental. Their initial intent was mainly to ease colonial exploitation.

Africa did not need colonialism to access to modernity. Its colonization became general and effective between 1880 and 1910. As early as 1827, a college opened and operated in Sierra Leone by missionaries. Primary and secondary schools were established in Nigeria and Ghana since 1870, and wealthy families in West Africa started sending their children to European universities since 1887.

Ethiopia, the only African country to escape colonialism alongside Liberia, opened its first modern school in 1908 but long before that, Emperor Menelik II had sent many Ethiopians to attend universities in Switzerland and Russia.

Between 1890 and 1911, the same country had initiated modern infrastructures including postal services, a printing house, a fiscal system, a national currency and a bank, a hospital, a hotel, a permanent army with paid soldiers, a railway, and a new capital city with bridges, roads and telegraph lines.

Before the “Scramble for Africa”, a number of kingdoms (or empires) on the continent had a well-established diplomatic experience.  In 1891, Ethiopia sent delegations to the Queen of England as well as to the Heads of State of Italy, Russia, Germany and France, protesting against the colonial ambitions of Italy.

King Prempeh of the Ashanti in Ghana sent a similar diplomatic delegation to the Queen of England in 1896; and King Lobengula of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe had done the same in 1889. Both of them were also protesting against British colonial ambitions. All of their countries and other African territories were nevertheless conquered except Liberia, and Ethiopia thanks to its military victory over Italy in 1896. 

Africa could have gained much better through cooperation instead of colonial subjugation.King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri of Rwanda had thought that way. In 1892-93, he sent two emissaries to his counterpart of Bujinja in Tanzania with a request. He wanted him to convince two white people present at his court to come to Rwanda, become servants of the King and receive fiefdoms. In return, he expected one service from them: manufacture clothes for him and his people!

However, Europeans chose colonization due to various motives, the most important being economic (natural resources for their new industries) and racism. White people took themselves to be superior to others, thus the mission to civilize and the right to govern the blacks.

Renowned scholars from reputable universities in Britain and USA established that European “colonialism has retarded development in Africa”. They note that, “Europeans also brought racism, discrimination, inequality and seriously warped many African political and economic institutions”.

This applies particularly to Rwanda, probably the most hit by colonial racism which culminated into the 1994 genocide. The colonization of Rwanda started officially in 1897 under King Yuhi V Musinga, though the first German official was received at King Rwabugiri’s court in 1894.

The Hamitic ideology

The first European explorers to report about Rwanda from Tanzania and Uganda are John Hanning Speke in 1861 and Henry Morton Stanley in 1876 and 1889.

In the different kingdoms of the Great Lakes region of Africa that they visited or gathered oral information about, these Europeans noticed complex political organizations and inhabitants with physical features that totally contrasted with the image of “primitive black Africans” prevalent in the West at the time.

They attempted therefore a theory from these unexpected realities. They could not accept that such positive things were a creation of Black Africans.

Consequently, they decided that a group of people coming from the North (Egypt, Ethiopia and even Caucasus) had brought whatever in their eyes had a higher value of culture and civilization. Speke identified those “bearers of civilization” as “Hamites”, and the related explanation would later be developed as “Hamitic theory”.  

Explorers, colonial officials (both military and civil) as well as missionaries produced many field reports on Rwanda since 1892, describing the country and its civilization positively, with a certain respect and admiration. They were impressed by its political organization with a king controlling more or less 2.5 subjects; huge herds of beautiful cows; well-kept farms with terraces and irrigation techniques; craftsmanship and other aspects of a refined culture.

The kingdom was more than 800 years old, but Europeans did not consider those characteristics as collective achievements of all its inhabitants. On the contrary, they attributed most of them to the Tutsi identified to the “Hamites” and described with many glorifying details. For them, Rwanda was, of all the Great lakes region kingdoms, the place where the Hamites had the most expressed their brilliance!

Europeans established equivalence between the ruling class and the Tutsi, considered as herdsmen and conquerors of recent arrival in the country. They described the Hutu as “ordinary negroes”, agriculturalists, previous occupants of the land who cleared the forests and gave names to the hills, before they were enslaved to the Tutsi newcomers who exerted oppression on them throughUbuhakeclientship! They finally described the Twa with more contempt; classifying them as marginal pygmies relying on hunting, food gathering and pottery to survive, though considered the first inhabitants of the land!

Yet, the reality on the ground contradicted these simplistic descriptions. The very Europeans who talked of Tutsi, Hutu and Twa as different “races” were the same who testified of the unity of the Rwandan nation. Writing on behalf of the White Fathers who evangelized the country since 1900, Canon Louis De Lacger stated that “Rwandans speak the same language; have a mixed habitat; share same clans; have same beliefs, rituals and other cultural traits; and are under same politico-administrative institutions that they respect and are committed to, especially the kingship”.

Archaeological findings in Gisagara (Rwanda) and Tongo (now in DRC but formerly in precolonial Rwanda) have established that cattle farming was practiced on the territory of precolonial Rwanda in the second century after Christ; which contradicts the theory of “Tutsi herdsmen newcomers”.

The Ubuhakeclientship was a voluntary contract between a servant (Umugaragu) looking for wealth (a cow) and protection in exchange of services rendered to the counterpart (shebuja). It involved Hutu as well as Tutsi. King Mutara III Rudahigwa requested its suppression in 1948 but the Belgian administration refused. He finally discarded it in 1954.

It was therefore anachronistic and inaccurate to describe Ubuhake in 1959 as serfdom imposed on Hutu by the Tutsi, thus justifying the persecution of Tutsi under Belgian colonial administration as a Hutu revolt against Tutsi oppression.

Anthropologist Jan Czekanowski who visited Rwanda in 1907 explained that political and administrative power was not distributed following “ethnic” lines as initial writings suggested, but rather according to lineages.

He and contemporary German colonial administrators Richard Kandt, Heinrich Bethe and others found in office Hutu and Twa chiefs and sub-chiefs, high ranking servants of the King. They also saw many ordinary Tutsi with no link to power and very poor. So, identifying the Tutsi to the ruling class was a gross misrepresentation.

The same Czekanowski established that Rwandan society was structured into four social classes based on wealth, not ethnicity. The upper class was Abagaragub’Umwami (the King’s Servants), those directly linked to the King through Ubuhakeclientship; the King was the only Rwandan who could not depend on someone else through such a contract. The second class was Ingabo(the ordinary citizens who generally were also members of the army), Hutu or Tutsi owning land inherited from their ancestors.

The third class was Ibiletwa, poor citizens without land, who had to offer two or three days out of five (duration of traditional week) as rent to property owners who gave them pieces of land. The last class was the Twa, generally living of hunting or pottery.

For reasons pertaining to colonial racism and for convenience to their respective objectives, colonial administrators and missionaries ignored those nuances and chose to stick to ethnicity. Germans administered through indirect rule until 1916 when Belgians, who kept the indirect rule both under the League of Nations’ mandate and under the United Nations’ trusteeship, replaced them.

The two colonial masters considered that Tutsi were the rulers in the traditional power structure. Yet the latter was very complex, with chiefs and sub chiefs commanding each scattered fiefdoms all over the country, and same fiefdoms commanded by three different chiefs all answerable to the King: a chief of the army, a chief for agricultural matters and a chief for cattle related affairs; all picked from different segments of the population.

Following an advice from the White Fathers, Belgians undertook an administrative reform between 1926 and 1931, fixing delineated fiefdoms and attributing each to one single chief instead of three. The advice also urged them to entrust the command to only Tutsi from great families, because “Tutsi were born for command” and were naturally the most suitable for the job. The missionaries gave the advice on request, as Belgians considered them more experienced and more acquainted to local realities.

Missionaries had also developed similar strategy of evangelization based on ethnicity. Between 1900 and 1907, they opted to “evangelize by the Hutu”. They considered the “Hutu as terribly oppressed” by the “ruling Tutsi” and expected the former to welcome them as liberators, hence massively adopting the new religion.

However, they realized after some time that followers of the new faith were not so many and worse still, they were the poor Rwandans of both Tutsi and Hutu origin, almost at an equal footing! They then changed the strategy, invoking an 1878 instruction of their founder Cardinal Charles Lavigerie stating that “the most important is to win the minds of the chiefs, […] because winning a single chief adds up to the advancement of the mission than winning hundreds of poor Blacks”.

For missionaries as well, Tutsi were the ruling class. Therefore, the new strategy was “evangelizing by the Tutsi”. From that time, they set up schools “for sons of Tutsi chiefs” near their parishes and later on, an administrative department in a famous school in Butare (GroupeScolaireAstrida) primarily open to the same “sons of Tutsi chiefs”.

The first of such schools was opened at the Royal court in Nyanza.  The White Fathers 1907-1908 annual report mentions it and states “in order to reach more surely the Batutsi, a special school for them has been opened in the capital of Rwanda”. Nevertheless, between 1909 and 19012, the school had only 45 registered pupils and the missionaries were not satisfied of their “quality”: “they were young cadets (Intore) and courtiers of the King, but among them, no son of great chief”!

The White Fathers then decided in 1913, to transfer the “school for the Batutsi” to their own stronghold of Kabgayi: “there, we shall really get children of the chiefs that we know, whereas at the capital, it is more or less a bunch of dubious origin, and most of them Bahutu”.

These schools served as incubators to future auxiliaries of the colonial administration. The result of this strategy was such that in 1959 when the so-called “social revolution” occurred, the configuration of the administrative personnel in the country was as follows: 43 Tutsi chiefs out of 45 and 549 sub-chiefs out of 559.

Many have wrongly interpreted this as a special treatment and favor done to the Tutsi by colonization. The truth is that it was rather a chance to both colonial rule and missionaries to find in place an organized and efficient traditional politico-administrative structure. They used it for their respective interests, and ethicized it unnecessarily. Needless to say that these local auxiliaries of colonization totaling less than 1000 individuals did not represent the Tutsi population, even if they could have been particularly favored.

This time, the strategy to focus on the leaders who progressively were almost exclusively Tutsi, yielded impressive results for the evangelization mission. Almost the entire Rwandan personnel of the colonial administration were composed of former trainees of the missionaries. King Musinga who was perceived as resistant to the new faith was dethroned in 1931 and banished. His son Rudahigwa succeeded him under the dynastic name Mutara III.

As a devotee, Mutara III Rudahigwa was baptized in 1943 and dedicated Rwanda to the Christ, King of the Universe in 1946. White Fathers could write in their magazine Grands Lacs the following headline: “Oùl’Espritsouffleentornade”! (Where the Holly Spirit blows like a tornado!) This meant the massive conversion to Catholicism induced by the new trend.

Hutu supremacy overrules Hamitic ideology

The triumph of the “hamitic ideology” was soon to be replaced by the “Hutu supremacy ideology”. The current of thought “favorable to the Hutu” that was abandoned in 1907 resurfaced among the missionaries with the death of Bishop Léon Classe, who had been very influential in championing the “pro Tutsi” hamitic ideology.

A White father wrote to the synod gathered in Nyakibanda in 1945, complaining “we, the parish priests favor the Batutsi against the Bahutu; help the Batutsi continue their centuries-old oppression over the Bahutu. […] Yet, it should be first their obligation to help the most vulnerable, the most oppressed (the Bahutu), […] the social class which is the most hard-working, the largest in numbers, the most healthy and the most interesting”

The hostility and even the hatred against the Tutsi identified as a whole to the ruling class had always been rampant among grassroots missionaries who in general perceived the Tutsi as “proud”! Their relationships with chiefs and sub chiefs in the hills were sometimes difficult.

Before the massive conversions to Catholicism, missionaries very often involved themselves in disputes opposing traditional leaders to their devotees and others pretending to be. They generally sided with their protégés in their verdicts, or threatened to ask for the destitution of the traditional leaders in case they opposed the missionaries’ rulings.

This resulted often into King Musinga’s letters of protest to the German colonial administrators. The latter also wrote numerous letters to the Catholic Church top leadership showing the lack of judgment of the missionaries. There were many Church instructions sent to the priests urging them not to interfere with secular administration but the incidents sill occurred. 

Rwandan scholar Jean Rumiya demonstrated how missionaries adopted the local clientship contract Ubuhake. Parishes appeared as new fiefdoms: catechumen were clients (abagaragu) looking for new sources of wealth and protection from European missionaries seen as patrons (shebuja).

Unlike colonial administrators whose European racial superiority complex was rarely challenged because they were generally obeyed, missionaries often felt their authority defied by chiefs and sub chiefs in the competition for clients! Thus their hostility to those traditional leaders, and their hatred against the Tutsi by extension!

Archbishop André Perraudinof Kabgayiwould become the torch bearer of the new pro-Hutu ideology in the powerful Catholic Church.  Belgian colonial administrators would also join, in another convergence of interests.

We are at the end of the fifties, and the independence movement is growing across the African continent. Press articles since 1945 and petitions to the UN since 1948 expressed the complaints of Rwandans about colonial oppression. King Mutara III Rudahigwa; the Country’s High Council (ConseilSupérieur du Pays) presided over by himself and regrouping other national leaders; and later the nationalist party UNAR (Union NationaleRwandaise) claimed politely but firmly internal autonomy for 1960 and independence for 1962.

Europeans were very angry. King Rudahigwa died in obscure circumstances in Bujumbura on July 25, 1959. Rwandans conclude to an assassination and pointed fingers to Bishop Perraudin and the Belgian colonial leaders.

At the burial of the King three days later, Rwandans gathered at Mwima in huge numbers, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa alike. All were sad and mourning but many were equipped with traditional weapons, ready to avenge the King. National leaders worked hard to calm the populace.

Jean Paul Harroy, who governed Ruanda-Urundi at the time, announced a Council of Regency that he intended to chair for the following six months. Nationalists bypassed his announcement and proclaimed a new King, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa. Harroy feared that the tense atmosphere could degenerate into violence, and accepted the new King.

Political parties would start operating officially two months later. PARMEHUTU (Parti de l’Emancipation du Peuple Hutu) came as an antidote to UNAR. Created in the offices of Kabgayi diocese by the protégés of Archbishop Perraudin, the party got also open support from the Belgian colonial administration. In a demonstration before a UN mission in 1960, members of PARMEHUTU held a placard reading, “Long Live the Belgian trusteeship”, “No! to a hasty independence”.

UNAR was perceived as a threat by both the colonialists and the missionaries. Only ten days after its creation, it gathered around 2000 members for its first rally in Nyamirambo on September 13, 1959. In 1961, another of UNAR rallies in Kigali was attended by 6000 people according to colonial reports, despite the killings and other violence that had earlier targeted its members and the Tutsi. The party was the most popular among all Rwandans.

PARMEHUTU was initially very marginal, circumscribed around Kabgayi and Rwaza catholic parishes. But very soon, it gained unexpected political influence due to violence targeting the Tutsi and UNAR members, threats to the Hutu members of UNAR, as well as other strategies conducted by the colonial administration in conjunction with activist missionaries.

The Catholic Church under the instigation of Archbishop Perraudin issued a statement accusing UNAR of “Islamic and communist tendencies”, urging Christians “to beware of it”.

In November 1959, the first wave of violence against the Tutsi, and members of UNAR, especially chiefs and sub chiefs started. PARMEHUTU activists, with the indirect support of the Belgian colonial administration and its security apparatus, conducted it. During four days, Parmehutu activists could kill, loot and burn houses in total indifference of Belgian colonial administration and its security forces.

King Ndahindurwa then decided to intervene to restore himself order, after notifying it to the King of the Belgians. Only at that moment colonial security forces intervened, to protect those who had started the violence, and persecute those who were trying to defend themselves. The King was notified that he could not intervene to restore order as a state of emergency was instated with a military colonial administration.

Recent researches reveal documents attesting that the colonial administration had planned the violence towards the end of October 1959 through what is known as “plan troubles généralisées” (Nationwide disturbances plan). It consisted of 5 phases and intended mainly to bring in Rwanda more than 1500 Congolese and Belgian soldiers of the Force Publique, the colonial army in Congo, under the lead of Colonel Guy Logiest who soon became the military Resident of Rwanda.

On November 17,1959, Logiest convened a meeting of all Belgian provincial governors (Administrateurs de territoire) in Kigali and instructed them “to take advantage of the opportunity given by the positions vacant due to many Tutsi leaders who fled the country or were killed, and from then on, fill those positions with Hutu chiefs and Sub- chiefs only”. One governor observed that this was illegal because they had to consult the Mwami (King) first. Logiest replied, “As military Resident, I have extraordinary powers to do so”. Asked by other governors “what to do of Tutsi leaders who managed to keep their positions”, Logiest said, he allowed them to “replace those Tutsi leaders by capable Hutu as soon as possible”.

Violence resumed in 1960 before communal elections, then again in 1961 before and after parliamentary elections and the referendum on the monarchy.

 King Ndahindurwa was sent into exile in June 1960 and never allowed by the colonial administration to come back.

PARMEHUTU was given all the advantages to win all the elections, and it became the recipient of the nominal independence on July 1, 1962.

Belgians continued to assist the new State under President GrégoireKayibanda in security and foreign affairs especially.

On December 23, 1963, the leaders of UNAR who had chosen to stay in the country were killed in Ruhengeri in a summary execution. Among them was Michel Rwagasana, the Secretary General of UNAR and ironically, the cousin (cousin germain) of GrégoireKayibanda, President of Rwanda and chairman of PARMEHUTU!

Three Belgian security officials had supervised this execution: Major Tulpin, Head of intelligence services of Rwanda at the time; J.H. Pilate, Commissioner General of Police of Rwanda; and IrénéDurieux, Assistant Commissioner of police and Head of the Police Academy of Ruhengeri.

The drive for liberation and why the RPF is a liberation movement

The Kayibanda regime was built on the colonial legacy of racism and hatred. Discrimination and violence based on ethnicity,cyclical killings of the Tutsi marked it up to its very end in 1973.

The Habyarimana regime which succeeded it continued the same ideological legacy. Rwandan refugees were condemned to perpetual exile, and other governance issues in internal politics were piling up. 

In 1976 before a public gathering upcountry, President Habyarimana declared, “Those Tutsi who provoke Hutu seem to ignore that if violence comes back, they will be the ones to bear the cost. Once again, the Hutu are the majority, the power belongs to them”.

In a statement to mark the 16th anniversary of independence in 1978, Habyarimana declared, “the greatest moment of the History of this country which touches and will never cease to touch the hearts of the daughters and sons of Rwanda is the 1959 Revolution”. He would decorate the mastermind of the so-called revolution, Colonel Guy Logiest, in 1982 as “the providential man”. In 1986, his ruling party stated there was no more space for Rwandan Refugees to return home, comparing the country to a glass full of water!

Before his arrest and subsequent conviction for genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ThéonesteBagosora, one of the most influential personalities under Habyarimana regime wrote in a pamphlet published in Cameroun in 1995, “… Tutsi have never had a country of their own to make up a people. There have never been a Tutsi people neither in Rwanda, nor in Burundi, or anywhere else. […]. Tutsi are and will remain Nilotic migrants naturalized either as Rwandans, Burundians, Zairians, Ugandans or Tanzanians”.

The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) was officially formed in 1987 and waged a liberation war in 1990. It defeated in July 1994 the Government Army, the Gendarmerie and militia that had just committed the genocide against the Tutsi.

Since then, a government of national unity took office. The country started to heal and rebuild, and 25 years after, majority of Rwandans are proud of their achievements and thankful to their leadership.

There are some gross misconceptions that have been circulated by so-called specialists on Rwanda including Filip Reyntjens, RénéLemarchand, Jan Vansina and others; misconceptions that have been taken for granted in subsequent literature, in the media and in the public opinion up to now.

The first one is the narrative according to which in 1959-1962, Hutu revolted against centuries-long oppression by the Tutsi, terming it a social revolution.

It was rather the beginning of the genocide against the Tutsi organized by the Belgian colonial administration to thwart independence aspirations of Rwandans, a genocide that was completed in 1994 by ideological hairs of PARMEHUTU assisted by French government.

The second misconception is the one that presents UNAR and RPF as Tutsi political organizations.

Whereas PARMEHUTU and its heir governments intently chose to be ethnic and discriminatory organizations, UNAR and RPF stood right from the beginning as national political organizations, carrying Rwandans’ aspirations without exclusion. Mason Seans, an American diplomat who led a UN mission to Rwanda in 1961 declared this before the international body: “the acts of violence that recently took place in Rwanda were not a revolt of the general population against oppression”. […] “The UNAR Political Party, which has many members among the Bahutu who were committed to the King, is simply and basically an African Nationalist Party similar to those in other parts of Africa”.

Unlike other African countries that were led to independence by their nationalists, Rwanda is the unique case on the continent where colonialists defeated nationalists and independence handed to a political party that was begging Belgium to maintain its colonial rule.

In nternational law, liberation movements are normally those that fought foreign occupation. Although it did not directly fight colonial presence in the sixties, the RPF is exceptionally considered a Liberation Movement because of that peculiarity of the decolonization of Rwanda.

Historical and contemporary responsibilities of the West are so huge and so evident when it comes to violation of Human Rights on the African continent. When carried out by people from the West, the discourse on Human Rights in Africa can hardly be dissociated from a racist and ironical attempt to deprive African leaders of their legitimacy, thus usurping it themselves. This does not mean there are no Human Rights issues on the continent. However,better-qualified people should raise them, advocating not only for individual rights, but also for peoples of the continent’s rights.

Scholars Czekanowsky and Rumiyanoted that in the case of Rwanda, “colonial administration has never protected the population, as had earlier done the traditional leaders. On the contrary, oppression increased with colonization despite the narrative of missionaries and colonial personnel trying to depict it positively”. The observation certainly applies, mutatis mutandis, to contemporary Rwanda and Africa.

Today is the time for the Western consciousness about Africa to change. Mainstream media, academia and global civil society organizations that determine, shape and express the most such a consciousness need to make a shift in mindset, attitude and narrative. Which is much to be desired for a better world anda dignified Africa.

The author is a Researcher