Why large crowds instil a climate of fear

A story is told about Ahmed Sekou Toure. In the lead up to independence in West Africa, the countries under French colonial rule were placed under referendum to decide whether to stay semi-autonomous republics under the control of the French Government or to choose outright independence.

A story is told about Ahmed Sekou Toure. In the lead up to independence in West Africa, the countries under French colonial rule were placed under referendum to decide whether to stay semi-autonomous republics under the control of the French Government or to choose outright independence.

Except for Guinea Conakry, the rest chose to stay under French control, a decision that its first president Sekou Toure popularised in the phrase, Guineans “would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.”


In a show of vindictiveness, the French emptied the country. They unplugged phone cables, packed pens, pencils, and even toilet paper as they retreated to Paris. Sekou Toure, and the Guineans, had slapped them in the face by choosing to stand on their own. For that, Sekou Toure would be punished throughout his rule, only to be bailed out – materially and diplomatically – by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah by way of Pan-African solidarity.


The quest for the dignity of the African is always a referendum question. It is a decision whether to live on the feet or on the knees. Pick any country. It is under referendum. It has a choice to make. It must.


My own country Rwanda – one that prides itself with individual and collective dignity – is under this very referendum. Every once in a while the question whether it is on its feet or knees becomes much more pronounced, louder, especially during major events.

Systematic distraction

If you are old enough to have followed political events over the past decade and half or so you will recall vividly what I’m about to point to. In the lead up to the 2003 presidential elections, the stories on Rwanda in the international media were either about the stealing of minerals from the Congo or the exclusion of the Hutu in politics and their general marginalisation in society. An illegitimate Tutsi minority was marginalising the Hutu majority and using Congolese minerals for state reconstruction.

That story dominated that decade. By 2010, the argument had lost momentum and was replaced with another that said the, still illegitimate, Tutsi government was targeting the Tutsi! However, that it was outside the template of ethnic arithmetic complicated things and confused people (readers and donors).

It gained zero traction, as a result. And so, around the time of the 2010 presidential elections the story of the shooting down of the Habyarimana plane resurfaced in the media; it was accompanied by the Mapping Report that was “leaked” to international media outlets. This was yet another in a series of “leaked” reports, a pattern that seemed to “coincide” with either a major political event taking place in the country – a presidential election, for instance – or during the period of Genocide commemoration.

Because the timing was not coincidental, the reports were political. The tactical and strategic aims were – and are – twofold: to deny legitimacy to the process (elections) and the outcome (the leadership and government), respectively. The underlying logic is that if the process is deemed illegitimate so must its outcome be. It is a logic that considers legitimacy in zero-sum terms: that which is denied is gained.

However, this is not simply an abstract notion. It has practical implications. First, and broadly, the extent to which these organisations are able to show that things are bad serves as proof that their cause is worthy. Second, and more practically, it serves as a psychological shot-in-the-arm that helps to pull the heart strings needed in the fundraising drives in which their domestic constituencies are made to feel that they are “doing something” to confront oppression – as long as it doesn’t reconfigure the structural relationship of exploitation occasioned by their governments and in their interest.

Third, media organisations get to satisfy the exoticist urge of this domestic constituency – the readership – by reporting complex situations in the simplest and most superficial terms, something made possible through the lowering of editorial standards.

Crowds are a nightmare

There is no better time for this than during elections. This is how to understand the work – and the timing – of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and, now, The Economist. As if on cue, reports are being “leaked” that the Spanish will revive the cases against officers of the Rwandan military, the RDF.

Don’t be surprised if the investigations of the Habyarimana plane get revived as well. That is the pattern: cases are initiated, they collapse, and are revived. These are political pursuits that are disguised in humanitarian and legal tools – with the media as a conduit – whose real intention is to cause distraction.

But it is purposeful distraction. It is a pre-emptory tool in the struggle for control over who confers legitimacy on Rwanda’s political space. That is why the images of a hundred thousand people on the campaign trail showing excitement for their candidate is dangerous. A mammoth crowd brings nightmares because it instantly confers legitimacy to the process and, ultimately, to the outcome.

By contract, by releasing reports that create doubt about the process (a climate of fear, for instance), these organisations are able to not only pull the rug from underneath the people on the campaign trail, but to also immunise their readers and donors from what would otherwise be preposterous claims that the crowds are forced to attend the campaign rallies and that they are feigning excitement.

They are sophisticated enough to understand that it is either them or the people who must confer the legitimacy of process and outcome. This is their way of fighting for control over this prerogative, and fiercely so because their cause and livelihoods depend on it. And, by golly, they will win by hook or crook.

If we are not on our knees, why do we continue to indulge this charade?

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