By Shyaka Kanuma
Recently when I made the decision to change professions, to move from journalism to become a political and social activist, I had little idea it would begin to cause commotion even before I had done anything.
Earlier this week, just a couple of weeks after making the decision that political and social activism has a place in Rwanda in view of our maturing democracy, I received a call from the office of Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita, the secretary general of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). I was told he wanted to see me.
Now, Brig. Gen. Nzabamwita is a gentleman I admire a lot: a lawyer by training, a sharp mind and a pleasure to engage with in an argument. I had no idea why this normally extremely busy head of our intelligence service would find time to see me, especially since I hadn’t made any requests for an appointment, and it being long since we last interacted. I consented to go to his office and found him his usual charming self. “So Shyaka, how have you been these days? I thought I would check on you!”
I told the officer things had been tough in the newspaper business (falling sales and advertisement revenues playing havoc on the industry and forcing many into bankruptcy worldwide, Rwanda being no exception). My newspaper The Rwanda Focus is one of the latest victims of the Internet-generated winds that are buffeting the industry; that of course coupled with the fact ours traditionally is a tiny media market, especially so the print media market.
I volunteered to Nzabamwita the activism course of action I was taking. He stared at me but didn’t seem to be taken aback. I was certain the head of the intelligence service hadn’t called me just for polite chit chat about how I was; I was certain he already knew about my activism before I told him (maybe one of the very few friends I had told of the idea had leaked it to intelligence, I was uncertain). In any case I thought this was as good a chance as any to inform him first hand what I was going to do rather than him getting the details from other sources.
And it is this:
My activism is in my capacity as a private citizen. I, Shyaka Kanuma, am not forming a political party. Rwanda already has good parties doing wonderful things for the country and I do not think a new one would not improve on the national political conversation. The RPF – which I have voted all my life – and its chairman, President Kagame, are the best leadership we’ve got, little doubt about that.
My activism will not be of the violent kind. It will be of the peaceful type. I have absolutely no agenda for violence. It goes without saying how terrible violence has been for our country, and the person espousing a violent agenda is not one to have as a friend.
The activism I want to do is not the kind where people are throwing stones in the streets and causing disruption to the lives of law-abiding citizens. If I feel there is a need to march, then it is a peaceful march whereby the police is informed in advance – like Rwandans have for instance done when they walked for gender equality and so on.
The activism I have in mind is one of petitions or letters to relevant authorities on any issue, keeping in mind that we have an elected government and parliament with a great track record of listening to the people.
But, I continued as Gen. Nzabamwita attentively listened, “I feel we are at the stage in our national life where a law-abiding Rwandan can have a principled disagreement with the leadership on issues where that citizen feels it (leadership may be mistaken; or where it may have omitted something and so on.
“And if that disagreement is expressed respectfully and in the best faith and if it is listened to then after a time we are all better off.” But, I continued, if what I am raising in my activism isn’t listened to, that too is alright – it is equally important that the issue was raised.
Naturally the intelligence head wanted to hear a few examples of the activism I have in mind.
For starters, I said, let’s talk about the issue of the imprisonment of Frank Rusagara and Tom Byabagamba.
“I am not saying these individuals are innocent of the charges that led to their imprisonment – but couldn’t the military court have given out a lesser sentence? I mean, two decades in prison usually is punishment for people suspected of committing acts of genocide or crimes against humanity, surely the fact Rusagara and Byabagamba were participants in the war of liberation would have been a mitigating factor in handing them far less sentences?”
I think a good, law-abiding activist can write a petition to the military court or other relevant authorities for mercy for these two, I added. “What I will not do with my activism,” I emphasized:
“is to defend people who come with a divisive political message; people espousing genocide ideologies, or those suspected of planning terrorist attacks – like the individuals with intentions to throw grenades at peaceful, innocent Rwandans. Those are the people with the aforementioned violent agenda for which I cannot be part of.”
Afande Nzabamwita was busy taking notes and interrupting very little as I told him that I would do everything from here, home in Kigali, within Rwanda.
I will not be like those Rwandans who leave the country and when they are out hurl all sorts of abuses and never offer solutions in the process. I outlined more of what I have in mind to the high-ranking official:
When street vendors for instance are swept up and driven away in Police vehicles (and let’s emphasize here, the police are only doing their job; they are only enforcing policy made elsewhere) to be taken away to the detention center. When the same happens to young men suspected of being vagrants (inzererezi) and those too are taken to the same detention, aren’t we in danger of criminalizing poverty in Rwanda?
I absolutely agree, our cities and towns have to be clean and tidy and that truly is wonderful for the image of the country. But at what expense for those unfortunate not to have decent jobs, or who cannot even afford a basic business facility like a market stall? Yet they too have to eat (think of a widow with a child). Isn’t the solution maybe to tolerate these people, to hold regular meetings with them to clean up after themselves, and so on? And then as development forges ahead and more jobs become available, or when the country can afford more social services than it can at the moment, the problem will go by itself? Actually this issue has particular resonance for me, I told Afande Nzabamwita. Growing up as a refugee child in Uganda, our parents in desperation did similar work, selling foodstuffs out of a basket or vending milk in an aluminum can.
Another example: when city authorities implement wonderful things, like the car free zone that then end up creating losses for the small shops that end up bankrupting them, who then is liable for the loss? This is a real issue. And after it was realized the policy wasn’t working as well as intended, why not reverse the decision until all the reasons it didn’t work swimmingly are identified and rectified?
We had a long chat and I left. A couple of days later I got another call from the NISS chief’s office. This time Brig. Gen. Nzabamwita looked considerably less happy. I can say he was positively seething with anger at me though he never used any threatening language, or shouted or anything like that. This is an educated intelligent man whose motto is: “I want to run an intelligence service that is intelligent.” His was controlled anger. I was surprised, but again not surprised. I had said I everything I did, I would do it within the confines of our laws, so I didn’t see the reason for his anger. But he is in charge of intelligence and perhaps in some way or other he thought I was making his work harder for him?
I reassured him again, as we parted company, of my utmost conviction of the necessity to our maturing democracy of the kind of activism I am intent on doing, and that where anything contravenes the law most definitely I will not be part of that.
p.s. when responding to this post, please avoid abusive, disrespectful language. We want to have a civil discussion please.