Rwanda’s critics abroad are candles in the wind

Of Rwanda and her critics abroad, I’ve often mused that regardless what President Paul Kagame’s government does or doesn’t do, says or doesn’t say, thinks or doesn’t think, gets involved or doesn’t, they will always be criticized for it all. It’s a lucrative career to some.

And those career critics have been busy in the past couple days, following the court decision to acquit the wannabe opposition politician Diane Rwigara and her co-accused, of crimes related to abuse of electoral laws and inciting insurrection against a legitimate government. 

When they were in incarceration, Kigali’s career critics abroad, as expected, lashed out at the administration, accusing it of stifling dissent and lambasted the courts for lacking the independence to free the wannabe opposition politician and her co-accused. 

Then, boom! The same courts that had been accused of lacking independence, ruled in favour of the accused, acquitting them of all charges on grounds that the prosecution failed to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. 

But careers must thrive. So, a new argument had to be found, immediately. On Wednesday, I watched with amusement as Foreign Affairs State Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe, was asked a silly question relating to the court decision, by VOA’s Focus on Africa host Shaka Ssali.

Mr Ssali wanted Ambassador Nduhungirehe to comment on possibility that President Kagame had instructed the court to acquit the accused, in a clear attempt to ‘light the candle in the wind argument’ that Rwanda’s judiciary was not independent.

Speaking to VOA via Skype, one could tell that Ambassador Nduhungirehe was disappointed by the quality of questioning from a journalist many of us have grown up watching, hosting the Focus on Africa show; the poor question didn’t reflect his rich experience.

As expected, the Ambassador patiently explained how governments in democracies are structured, built on three pillars of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary and that the three arms are independent of each other as evidenced by the court decision in favour of a person that is publicly opposed to the executive administration of the country.

With his tactless question blown away like another candle in the wind, Mr Ssali reverted to the favourite attacking line of Kigali’s career critics abroad, the accusation of lack of freedom of expression in Rwanda. It was a timely jab that was welcomed by perfect defense.

With a chuckle, Ambassador Nduhungirehe informed the journalist that, the next morning (Thursday) Rwandans from around the country would be participating in the annual national public dialogue (Umushyikirano), an organised platform where the government accounts to the public and receives feedback (positive or negative) from the citizenry.

The moderator had also overlooked evidence on his own show, that the Minister was being co-hosted alongside the younger brother to the acquitted wannabe opposition politician, who, throughout the show, vented out harsh criticism including serious criminal allegations.

As I followed this year’s Umushyikirano from Thursday to Friday, I made the observation that Rwandans have freedom of expression only that they choose to use it, to express praise for their government, for things they believe, are success stories in their day to day lives.

You might have heard that old lady’s testimony as a widow who, after losing her husband in 1999, she has been liberated from extreme poverty thanks to government initiatives such as Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP) and the Girinka initiative, which she praised.

In a world dominated by corrupt and incompetent governments, Rwandans are lucky to have one that works and delivers on most of its responsibilities, hence the heartfelt praises it often receives from the citizenry, whenever given the opportunity, at platforms like Umushyikirano.

But to Rwanda’s career critics abroad, such praises to the government they love to hate, must be extremely frustrating because in their ideal world, freedom of expression should mean a situation where the citizenry uses social media and other available platforms to insult their leaders including through derogatory nicknames. That, apparently, is freedom of expression!

I remember a heated debate we had on this subject, while I was a student of International Communication at the prestigious Communication University of China, in Beijing. The University had invited President Jimmy Carter’s former speech writer and Author, James Fallows to engage in an intellectual debate with our class.

At some point in the exchange, Mr. Fallows tried to compare freedom of expression in USA with the situation in China. He pointed out that in USA, Americans have the freedom to criticize and say anything about their leaders and that, China should aim to achieve the same for Chinese.

In what I thought was a brilliant counter to Mr. Fallow’s jab at Chinese freedom of expression, a student whose name I don’t remember said; the Chinese have the freedom not to criticize and shame their leaders in public, just as you Americans have the freedom to do otherwise.

Because their government works and delivers on their needs, Rwandans should be allowed the right to use their freedom of expression to praise their leaders and the absence of public insults to leaders as is the case elsewhere, shouldn’t mean absence of rights and liberties in Rwanda.

To Rwandan leaders, the only feedback that should matter, most, is feedback from the Rwandan citizen for their satisfaction only renders, as candles in the wind, Rwanda’s critics abroad, whose rants are often ill-informed and out of context.


The views expressed in this article are of the author.