Ali Yusufu Mugenzi’s interview with Sheikh Harerimana Mussa Fazil, Rwandan Minister for Internal Security, and Sheikh Saleh Habimana, the head Mufti of the Islamic Community of Rwanda, was revealing. (The BBC Kinyarwanda programme, Imvo n’Imvano, last Saturday 13th).
I know that Rwandans are wowed by Mufti Habimana’s passionate but controlled sermons. They provide a sharp contrast to Minister Harerimana’s laid-back, almost reluctant, yet loaded, deliveries. But I’d never listened to the two men together and didn’t know how they strongly complemented each other.
With Mugenzi, the three gentlemen are Muslim Rwandans who lived in Rwanda before 1994. Pardon the categorisation, but the point is that they share the experience of having lived in the same circumstances, even if Mugenzi has lived out since. Thus the contrast in the perception of those circumstances of the two men, on one hand, and Mugenzi, on the other!
Consider Harerimana’s small anecdote: As a student in Nyamirambo, he was walking home one evening when he met soldiers on patrol. When the soldiers examined his ID and found he was Muslim, they asked: “Uri Agaswayili, sha?” (Small boy, you are Swahili?) We know what the soldiers meant: not that he was Mswahili but Muslim.
They went on: “Ni wowe ubyutsa abantu mw’ijoro, sha? Ngaho babyutse!” (So you are the one waking up people in the middle of nights? Ok, wake them up now!” Again, they meant ‘adhan’, the Islamic call to prayer, but the small boy did as he was bid even if he was not ‘muadhin’ (Muslim responsible for calling out prayer).
Mugenzi laughed and dismissed it: “Ariko urwo ni urugomo!” (But that is just a prank). In unison and all seriousness, Harerimana and Habimana asked why it was not possible in the Rwanda of today, since it was playful teasing.
And I got to thinking. Not of the trio of Harerimana, Habimana and Mugenzi but of grass. To any villager looking at the shrubs around the Kitabi Tea Plantation, tea leaves are just grass. If a plant does not give immediate food, it is weed.
No one knows that that grass, in the sitting room of the Queen of England, is a precious cup of tea. That grass represents the famous English tea where the country does not grow the plant, as the Zimbabwean Mugabe once quipped. Coffee beans represent dollars, mineral ores are priceless gems, et al.
Even today, Rwanda sells these primary products cheaply. However, at least it is making an effort to add value to them. The aim is to eventually consume or sell them as final products. The country must know their worth and give it to them.
So is it with humans. When you don’t know your rights, you can’t know when they are abused.
To Mugenzi, it was normal for Muslim kids to be teased by soldiers. In fact, it was a privilege for Muslims to be confined to camps in Rwanda. It must have been because they were wealthy, he says proudly, because some of them wore slippers!
Rwanda’s recent history is replete with examples. If you met a Mututsi outside Rwanda who was resident in Rwanda before 1994, he/she would assure you that late President Habyarimana was “a fond father” because he allowed Batutsi to do business. The business? Being a driver or selling second hand clothes!
Why did Batutsi not enjoy their right of going to school or even being in government? Like Mugenzi, such a Rwandan would exclaim: “Ha! Ariko ni Abatutsi!” (But they are Batutsi). In short, Batutsi could not “gukanga Rutenderi” (to deny themselves a right so generously offered them) by demanding to be in leadership. Rwandans equal? That was alien to Rwanda.
So, before 1994, Rwanda was a ‘tier-society’ of ‘donors’. ‘Father-figure-president’ Habyarimana donated his favours to ‘his people’ in Gisenyi, who donated to distant neighbours in the northern regions of Rwanda, who donated to the rest of the country. Batutsi picked the crumbs, as second-class citizens.
As Andrew Mwenda articulates in one of his articles on such politics, in such societies a good leader is a person who gives “gifts directly in form of money and goods”, who addresses “a vital existential need to gain political advantage”. Those who are given ‘eat’, and to hell with the voiceless, “the anonymous citizen”.
A system of Rwandans with equal rights was unknown. What was known and was taken for granted was a Rwanda of elites who carried the voice of the voiceless, the “anonymous”, to the ‘supremo’. In turn, the ‘supremo’ distributed favours, not rights, to the individual elites, not the citizens.
For reversing this trend, Rwandan leadership today has to face the fury of its national elites, who survived on this client-patron system. And, in this battle, the cannon must be double-barrelled, because the West cannot bear the nonsense of dealing with “people-centred” leaderships.
So, “prominent-opposition-leader” Ingabires must be defended. “Fierce-critic-general” Kayumbas must be cheered. If they are not allowed to be “untouchables” and links between the leader and the led, President Kagame must be denounced as an oppressor of his people.
What these cheerleaders don’t know is that the struggle has only begun. West or no West, elites or no elites, the “grass of Rwanda” will become the “priceless gem” of Rwanda. Equal as citizens of Rwanda, a country equal to other countries.
The world must get up and ‘smell the tea’ – recognise the dignity of Rwandans!