Numbers (figures) do not lie, so it is said. That is a lie. They do. Well, in the hands of clever, cunning and malicious people.
Of course numbers are as close as you can get to being exact. They can also be unambiguous and should be emotionally neutral. Unfortunately, numbers are prone to manipulation and can carry a load of bias many times heavier than what the most evocative words can convey.
Last week the 2010 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance was published. It ranked Rwanda 31st out of 53 countries. The report was roundly rubbished by many Rwandans as not reflecting the true position of the country on governance. The first to point out its inaccuracies was Professor Anastase Shyaka of the Rwanda Governance Advisory Council. He should know something about governance, certainly about Rwanda.
It does not require an expert in statistics to see the bias in the report. There are countries in this region where governments do not control certain parts of the country, and where there are places in which no one can venture without armed escort. Surprisingly, these countries score higher than Rwanda on the national security and rule of law index. The same is also true with regard to human development.
Existing data from institutions, like the World Bank, paint a different picture. They place Rwanda higher than where the Mo Ibrahim Index has put the country. National data also exist and tell a different story.
So, why does the Mo Ibrahim index rate Rwanda than it actually is? Professor Shyaka provided part of the answer. They did not use all the data available to them.
The reason may be because they were either too lazy to go through it, did not trust it, or selected only that which would suit their purposes. Whatever the reason, the result is an inaccurate and distorted report that seeks to claim objectivity numbers normally give.
Another report that makes questionable use of numbers is the so-called UN Mapping report on Congo. There are incredibly exact numbers of Hutu refugees allegedly killed by AFDL/RPA in Congo.
There is an unusually clear recollection of the dates and times of the day, and circumstances when the alleged massacres were committed. This, more than ten years after the event!
This unusually detailed account of events would suggest that someone was keeping a record. By their own admission, the groups behind the report say that aid and relief workers and human rights groups did not have a presence in the refugee camps where the crimes were supposedly committed. Their members could not have kept any records.
If the accounts of the rights activists who influenced the report are to be believed, the refugees were too frightened to retain a coherent and exact memory of what was happening around them. They are reported to have been scattered in the dense forests of Congo, only too happy to be as far away as possible from the alleged scenes of murder.
Again we are constantly reminded that over five million people died in Eastern Congo alone during the period covered by the report. If this rate of death were true, there would be few people left to tell the tale.
Given all this, where do the exact numbers come from? It is obvious. They can only be cooked up figures done by groups eager to hang Rwandans who refuse to eat from their hands.
When it comes to Congolese and other people, other than Rwandan Hutu refugees, killed in the same period, the mapping report is incredibly vague on the numbers and circumstances of their death. There is even a plea that some places were inaccessible to the mapping team.
Need one ask for more proof of selection and use of numbers and victims for the validation of a thesis or other biases?
Statistical manipulation is also evident in the different numbers of those killed in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda reported in the foreign media. The number of people killed is often given as ranging between 500 and 800. They shy away from the actual figure of more than one million.
The downward revision of the number of the victims of genocide is a clever way of laying the ground for diminishing, and later denying, the genocide. Admission that more than one million people were killed would point to the enormity of the crime.
This clever, if diabolical, tactic becomes clear when viewed alongside events in Congo. The same people who are at pains to play down the number of people killed in Rwanda during the genocide are only too eager to inflate the number of those allegedly killed in Congo which they put upwards of five million.
The intention is clear: exaggerate the numbers, shock the world into believing there was genocide and get them to condemn the alleged perpetrators. By constantly reporting that five million people were killed, they are cleverly planting the idea of double genocide in the minds of people.
The mother of all manipulations of numbers is the so-called ethnic composition of Rwandans. This was nothing but a statistical invention designed, first by the colonial authorities and later by the two successive post-colonial governments, to legitimise the exclusion of a section of Rwandans from the enjoyment of their rights and full participation in the affairs of their country.
All the problems Rwanda has had have roots in this blatant use of numbers to tell a lie.
So, yes, numbers do tell a lie – the lie of their creator.